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This text is by Shoshanna Utchenik in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Beneath the Bodhi Tree of Blight, Detroit’s “Rurban” Dream Takes Root

Shoshanna Utchenik

Detroit is the country’s whore on the floor right now; America has finished with her (and all the lost industries and ugly histories she represents) and anxiously sits on the edge of the bed watching, waiting, wishing Detroit away.  We wish she would come-to and skulk off into the night before she returns the gaze and reflects back the truth about us, the mortal failure of a project before her, with our stained undershirt and flabby paunch, our wallet stuffed with I.O.U.s and still ridiculously spewing dollar bills at our most hemorrhaging problems and derelict vices (our Wall Street gambling problems, war addiction, international and domestic peeping, school-to-prison pipeline, oil dependency, corporate welfare, etcetera etcetera). We wish she would look away and leave before dawn breaks and lays bare the rotting worm-eaten face of Dorian Gray that is America now.

Among the truths Detroit sees clearest are these: America is a nation of users, of rhetoric without substance, without the mechanisms to hold up, support and sustain that which is best among us. We fail to feed and protect let alone nurture, challenge and push forward our most vulnerable: our children, our elderly, and ill. And we come up short despite every possible resource available and abundant to us, choosing comfort and convenience over quality and justice every time a mere hint of compromise is warranted.  As a nation, we choose the suffering of others over our own mild discomfort 10 to 1. The uncomfortable, slow, and messy dialogue of true democracy fails to the “like/dislike” binary of post-Facebook free market capitalism in every instance.
Our free press is not quite that.
And we have been and remain racist as fuck.

“Yes, but should I invest in Detroit?” you ask from your tepid market, your speculator’s armchair, your ivory tower or your grinding nine-to-five cubicle, where so many American dreams were born before yours.

The Dream is dead! Long live the Dream!

The money is the message in Detroit’s legally bankrupt, crippled-by-history, land-rich rurban (rural+urban) cultural economy. Your mighty dollar is your voice, your call-in-vote, and Detroiters want you to vote for Detroit, we do, please-oh-please Fix This! she screamed in your ear all night, but still, it is morning now, and things look different. She may have been your whore last night, your unwitting minstrel show, but the linoleum is cold and hard, the sun outside beckons as it burns, and life pumps within.  Despite shame’s bitter aftertaste, she is thinking of breakfast.

Detroit is awake.  She is hittin’ the streets hard. She wants to do different.
But how?
How, when she still wants what everyone else wants, and still resents that she’s never had it, or that she had it on false pretense, lured and cajoled into subprime adjustable rate deals-with-the-devil, and now that it’s gone, getting it back is an all-obliterating obsession. As placating a daydream as ever.

Or is it?

Detroit may be royally stuck in this codependent relationship and her role as victim in it. She may hate and still not know how to escape it, consumed by the daily realities of survival, the unbreakable cycles of poverty: the dance that may only end by cutting the dancing shoes off her feet.

That may be true.

But I can’t stress enough that it’s not Detroit in and of herself that’s not working, it’s everything else to which Detroit is subject. How do you “pull yourself up” when surrounded by dysfunction and emergency, and the only ones rooting for you merely root against their own failure and the likelihood it will follow close on the heels of your demise?

What are you pulling yourself up to if the dream is a false one and the party has ended before your invitation has even arrived?

The Dream is Dead! Long Live the Dream!

The opportunity here is to look within and begin the painful and liberating process of re-imagining a whole new American Dream, one less about dreaming and more about being. After all, we are all we’ve got. Deep within ourselves, we need to get comfortable with discomfort – not to accept the status quo or take our lashes, but to embrace the reality that life is suffering. There is no way around this simple truth. The more we deny, hurl blame, gloss-over and self-medicate, the more festering and toxic our suffering becomes. The good news: suffering is workable. There may be no way around suffering but there is a path straight through it for the brave ones willing to walk on coals, cry tears and bleed blood.

And for the artists who just don’t know any better.

The best of Detroit is turning to each other, to reflect and heal individuals and relationships, and re-imagine life as we know it. We face the pain of institutionalized racism, the betrayals of corrupt officials, the shame of our own ineptitudes, blind spots and hubris. We grieve and let go what we thought we were to make room for what we may become. Together we are writing the next chapter of the self-help book entitled “How to live in America now”. While economics play a role, it is a subheading of the greater instruction to stop selling each other short, and for that matter, stop selling that which cannot be bought.

The truth is, we have everything we need.

The re-imagining I propose doesn’t always innovate and invent so much as repurpose everything our great-grandparents already knew about living in more direct connection with each other and laboring with love, joy, and sacrifice to meet each other’s basic needs. Innovation enters into the process of assimilating such practices into our daily lives. How do we use the spoils, technologies and tools of recent history to forge a livable present that largely rejects the methods that got us here?

We, as artists, educators and activists, are doing a fairly impressive job of proposing answers to this question through our work. We are repurposing the materials and spaces laid to waste by Detroit’s cumulative disaster landscape, but we are also recognizing our power to make visible and useable the rich resources teeming within it.

Life-long activist/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs tells the camera, in the documentary American Revolutionary, “I feel sorry for anyone not living in Detroit.” She’s standing against a backdrop of ruin porn, the half-collapsed Packard Plant infamous for the dumped bodies found there, and she has the balls to proclaim there is no place in the world she’d rather be. Having spent most of her 98 years here in Detroit and at the center of our most major social movements, Grace Lee Boggs can damn well say whatever she wants. She’s earned our ear. She points to Detroit as the inevitable outcome of the “bigger = better” thinking that defined the industrial age. Look how hard giants fall, she says. But if you listen closely, you will hear no platitudes or laments. You will hear Grace Lee Boggs singing a love song to Detroit; she will sing it with her dying breath when it comes to that, and she wants you to keep singing it when she’s gone. Because Detroit is beautiful, and it is full of beautiful people.

Half-full of beautiful people, that is.

Detroit’s staggering 67% population loss over the auto industry’s half-century yawn of decline has left us with an unmaintained infrastructure of outdated scale, one that we can’t afford to replace nor remove. In the meantime, a mind-blowing proportion of green space is emerging within and on top of it. Blight gives way to natural beauty not only in the perfectly maintained single lawn among a dozen overgrown lots and abandoned homes that demands a double-take, but in the whole prairie and marsh ecosystems layering themselves on top of charred stumps of structures long erased by arson. Across Detroit’s neighborhoods, hundreds of piles of tires and other detritus enjoy the languor of inattention. One summer day I found myself compelled to relocate one of these piles. As I lifted tires I discovered that the acid-green liquid caught in them was not toxic auto-related waste as I first thought, but rather collected rainwater, grown into algae-rich micro-habitats for slugs and other small creatures.

Across Detroit’s neighborhoods, children play hide and seek in tall prairie grasses, stories of grandmothers hunting rabbits emerge like folktales, and impromptu block parties in makeshift parks happen, with people grilling food and warming themselves around trash cans.

Wild pheasants occasionally cross traffic.

Throughout the city, community gardens and urban farms have asserted themselves between the ruins and office buildings and become multi-generational hubs where knowledge and culture is exchanged and something reminiscent of a public square re-emerges.

This surreal/idyllic vision is Detroit’s rurban landscape. It is not urban, but it is not not urban. Certainly Detroit could be rural, but only if one squints past ornate historic downtown skyscrapers and institutions, churches and theaters built for hundreds, 5 lane highways, neighborhoods full of Great Gatsby mansions, post-war immigrant-built two flats, storefront-lined mainstreets, cookie-cutter bungalows and one Whole Foods. The point is that Detroit is neither rural nor urban fully, nor could it be, yet offers the challenges and benefits of both. Incompatibilities between two distinct lifestyles bring tension and possibility. Creating desired walkability and population density would eliminate the space needed for farming, and the potential profits of farming are too low-volume to support city services needed for a thriving residential area.

Many of us already enjoy and suffer these contradictions, and the prospect of bringing in more bodies, a robust tax base and job creators, may just threaten all that is romantic about our struggles. For everything that’s gone wrong and been left to rot, there is a lot of empty space that is ripe with possibility. While artists negotiate the 21st century pressure to assert our individual genius above all others as “fundable,” we remain more equipped than most to set all that aside and redefine “success” as achieving something more akin to Dr. King’s beloved community than individually “winning” the art-world contest of the day.

While art fair exposure, biennales, and museum retrospectives win a seat at the table of worthwhile conversations in the public sphere, the price remains high and rarefied, and for most the seat is temporary and the door hits hard on the way out.

As artists throw up our hands to waiting in the art-world soup line, we find more meaningful ways to starve and alienate our families (pardon my snark) as loosely-defined cultural workers. We become urban planners, developers, entrepreneurs, youth workers, education reformers, gardeners and development directors, in addition to the roles we’ve already been serving as curators, gallerists, arts administrators, art handlers, adjunct professors, socialites, stylists, party planners, djs, fashionistas, web designers, graphic designers, crafters, bloggers and social sculptors.

Don’t forget the day jobs.

And we microfinance each other’s projects, we attract interest from abroad, we build our utopian experiments lot by lot and our collective productivity/viability gets compared to Berlin and, somewhat inexplicably, to Brooklyn.

Which makes less sense when one understands Brooklyn as a borough of New York City, feeding off and into the densely populated, thriving, cultural and financial capital of the world.  Conversely, Detroit is not a borough or offshoot of anything– she is The City. She is what you mean when you are anywhere in Southeast Michigan and go “downtown.”
However there is a globally-scaled interpretation of “Detroit is the new Brooklyn” with a sci-fi ring: Detroit may be a viable up-and-coming borough of Brooklyn itself. In our globalized economy, if the jobs are in New York but the livability is in Detroit, why not commute? The empty space and low cost of living is a wet dream for a claustrophobic, cash-strapped Brooklyn-ite, and any artist, for that matter, who can abstractly see how a city in decline equals creative freedom.

Artists hear about Detroit’s emergency response times being criminally slow and what we infer is ‘no enforcement’ on a litany of costly and burdensome regulations, building codes, zoning laws, permits and so forth. Not because we are criminals but because laws made for the lowest common denominator force us to spend time administrating, explaining, and defending that which we could quickly create, build, share, and enjoy. The nature of our varied crafts is that you won’t believe what we can do for you until we have already done it, and you can see and experience it for yourself. We tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and rock bottom is a place where that strategy works really well.

The low cost of living, possibility of acquiring and developing large properties along with this itch against authority is why artists recognize and claim underserved areas.

The lower cost of living affords more time spent on creative process, which is so hard to fund as it is not an “it.” Generally, only after artists arrive do social concerns creep in, of necessity, and because so many artists are sensitive, thinking, idealistic people, most starving artists become significantly more engaged with neighbors and neighborhood issues than your average poor person.  Here is the artist-led gentrification formula: the intentions are good, or at least neutral, but positive developments quickly shift from benefitting the people to benefitting the place itself. The original inhabitants of the blighted area, and typically the artists, are removed with the blight, while the value they’ve all helped build stays behind. Residents are priced out of their homes or chased out by the cultural shift that cannot incorporate them.

We might call this process “placemaking” and focus more on the stabilizing impact of creative community development, but it remains to be seen who gets cut out from long-term benefits. My hunch is that, with some exceptions, placemaking by outsiders is equal to gentrification, while placemaking by local residents as primary actors sounds more promising.

This is why we want you but we don’t want you. Once one extends a hand for help, one must be prepared to accept the helper’s definition and style of help, even when it proves degrading, or worse, utterly unhelpful.

The horrifyingly reductive thing about a Detroit make-over by outsiders in their image is how narrowly that defines us by our past abandonments, betrayals and defeats, rather than the rich history and culture we have given the country, continue to generate, and how heroic the endurance, creativity, and work ethic of life-long Detroiters has been.

While warm, tax-paying bodies are needed, tax abatements and incentives seem to undermine the financial benefit the influx of creative class has in the short-term while simultaneously kicking lifelong residents while they’re down. Detroiters see outsiders being given breaks while they pay the highest property taxes in the area for the worst services, are subject to racial profiling and sometimes humiliation and violence by police.

There is a War of The Little Red Hen brewing in Detroit. Who will bake the bread and who will eat it? Those who worked so tirelessly for so many frustrating and frequently devastating years, or those who just arrived with big plans and more resources to manifest them so quickly while greasing wheels previously stalled,  free of the exhaustion, distrust and malice that has grown over the years? This is further problematized by the fact that more than 80% of Detroit’s current population is black and a disproportionate number of the creative class is everything but, with many of them too young to take the Civil Rights Movement personally, with its triumphs, violence, failures and lack of closure. Who will benefit from a ‘saved’ Detroit? Who will take credit and profit? And what if all of the beautiful things Detroiters came up with out of desperation and necessity over the years– the gardens, alternative schools, the Heidelberg project, the community networks– get drowned out, displaced, or razed by what usually is called ‘progress’ by someone with a laser focus on profit$?

Fact remains: there is room for you, a million of you. Every kooky, fanatical, and ambitious plan, every conservative, redundant entrepreneurial scheme, we will take you. We will shut up and like you. The only future we are able to re-imagine will be shaped explicitly by the collaborations and clashes between disparate factions. Like any great city, Detroit was and will again be defined by its (im)migrants as much as by the native people who both suspect and welcome them. Those weathered by this town’s storms can only warn and hope that those who just arrive can recognize the impending privatizations of public services and institutions for what they are: the most trendy of the endless ways to redline, suppress and segregate a people from their own resources under the cloud of fear, emergency, and ambivalence.

The prevailing messages I am learning from Detroit is that nature persists and love prevails.

The pervasive gardening metaphor holds true: that which you tend and nurture grows while that which you starve or otherwise abuse either dies or grows out of control to strangle what’s good.  Any gardener, or parent for that matter, will tell you the same. Ours is an art of attention. It’s not always an intensive focus so much as consistent consciousness, a vigilance that develops into intuition and wisdom about when to summon compassionate patience and when to intervene. 

This is a walking meditation. These thoughts and this city. This is not a directive to shut up and calm down, or get out of the way so people who have it together can take care of this. This is a call to action that looks like doing nothing, and, though stillness has an un-American quality, this inner attention and discipline will be more supportive to democratic society than the frenetic type of constant movement more typical of our times. We can heal through engaging with our pain and interacting with each other. There is no time-out– the world won’t stop– but we can create space for engaged rest, engaged reflection as we go. We must. Likewise the action born of this rest and reflection will be aware and compassionate. The quality of conscious action is uniquely functional; that is what is needed.

That is also what makes a great gardener.

As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Peace is Every Step, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

What if Detroit is not the country’s whore on the floor, but its shining city on the hill? The city that looks one way from a distance and entirely different from street view, endlessly unfolding one secret after another, including the ones you carried within you all along? I invite you to see for yourself, from right where you are, or if you have courage enough,
walk with us.

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