In 2009, I bought a house in Detroit for 500 dollars. It had no windows, no plumbing, no electricity and it was filled with trash. The first floor held nearly 10,000 pounds of garbage, and that included the better part of a Dodge Caravan, cut into chunks with a reciprocating saw.
I lived nearly two years without heat, woke up out of a dead sleep multiple times to gunshots, was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and ripped my kitchen cabinets from an abandoned school as they were actively tearing that school down.
This, of course, is the Detroit that your hear about. Make no mistake, it's real. But there's another Detroit, too. Another Detroit that's more hopeful, more innovative, and may just provide some of the answers to cities struggling to reinvent themselves everywhere. These answers, however, do not necessarily adhere to conventional wisdom about good development. I think Detroit's real strength boils down to two words: radical neighborliness. And I wasn't able to see it myself until I lived there.
About a decade ago, I moved to Detroit with no friends, no job and no money, at a time when it seemed like everyone else was moving out. Between 2000 and 2010, 25 percent of the city's population left. This included about half of the elementary-aged children. This was after six decades of decline. A city built for almost two million was down to less than 800,000.
What you usually don't hear is that people didn't go very far. The population of the Detroit metro area itself has largely remained steady since the '70s. Most people who left Detroit just went to the suburbs, while the 139 square miles of the city deteriorated, leaving some estimates as high as 40 square miles of abandoned land—about the size of San Francisco.
Aside from platitudes such as the vague and agentless "deindustrialization," Detroit's exodus can be summed up with two structures: freeways and walls. The freeways, coupled with massive governmental subsidies for the suburbs via infrastructure and home loans, allowed people to leave the city at will, taking with it tax base, jobs and education dollars. The walls made sure only certain people could leave. In multiple places, brick and concrete walls separate city and suburbs, white and black, running directly across municipal streets and through neighborhoods. They're mere physical manifestations of racist housing practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants and outright terror. In 1971, the Ku Klux Klan bombed 10 school buses rather than have them transport integrated students. All these have made Detroit the most racially segregated metro area in the United States.
I grew up in a small town in Michigan, the son of a relatively blue-collar family. And after university, I wanted to do something—probably naively—to help. I didn't want to be one of the almost 50 percent of college graduates leaving the state at the time, and I thought I might use my fancy college education at home for something positive. I'd been reading this great American philosopher named Grace Lee Boggs who happened to live in Detroit, and she said something I can't forget. "The most radical thing that I ever did was to stay put."
I thought buying a house might indelibly tie me to the city while acting as a physical protest to these walls and freeways. Because grants and loans weren't available to everyone, I decided I was going to do this without them and that I would wage my personal fight against the city that had loomed over my childhood with power tools.
I eventually found an abandoned house in a neighborhood called Poletown. It looked like the apocalypse had descended. The neighborhood was prairie land. A huge, open expanse of waist-high grass cluttered only by a handful of crippled, abandoned structures and a few brave holdouts with well-kept homes. Just a 15-minute bike ride from the baseball stadium downtown, the neighborhood was positively rural. What houses were left looked like cardboard boxes left in the rain; two-story monstrosities with wide-open shells and melted porches. One of the most striking things I remember were the rosebushes, forgotten and running wild over tumbled-down fences, no longer cared for by anyone.
This was my house on the day I boarded it up to protect it from the elements and further decay. I eventually purchased it from the county in a live auction. I'd assumed the neighborhood was dead. That I was some kind of pioneer.
Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. I was in no way a pioneer, and would come to understand how offensive that is. One of the first things I learned was to add my voice to the chorus, not overwrite what was already happening. Because the neighborhood hadn't died. It had just transformed in a way that was difficult to see if you didn't live there. Poletown was home to an incredibly resourceful, incredibly intelligent and incredibly resilient community. It was there I first experienced the power of radical neighborliness.
During the year I worked on my house before moving in, I lived in a microcommunity inside Poletown, founded by a wild and virtuous farmer named Paul Weertz. Paul was a teacher in a Detroit public school for pregnant and parenting mothers, and his idea was to teach the young women to raise their children by first raising plants and animals. While the national average graduation rate for pregnant teens is about 40 percent, at Catherine Ferguson Academy it was often above 90, in part due to Paul's ingenuity.
Paul brought much of this innovation to his block in Poletown, which he'd stewarded for more than 30 years, purchasing houses when they were abandoned, convincing his friends to move in and neighbors to stay and helping those who wanted to buy their own and fix them up. In a neighborhood where many blocks now only hold one or two houses, all the homes on Paul's block stand. It's an incredible testament to the power of community, to staying in one place and to taking ownership of one's own surroundings—of simply doing it yourself.
It's the kind of place where black doctors live next to white hipsters next to immigrant mothers from Hungary or talented writers from the jungles of Belize, showing me Detroit wasn't just black and white, and diversity could flourish when it's encouraged. Each year, neighbors assemble to bale hay for the farm animals on the block, teaching me just how much a small group of people can get donewhen they work together, and the magnetism of fantastical yet practical ideas.
Radical neighborliness is every house behind Paul's block burning down, and instead of letting it fill up with trash and despair, Paul and the surrounding community creating a giant circular garden ringed with dozens of fruit trees, beehives and garden plots for anyone that wants one, helping me see that our challenges can often be assets. It's where residents are experimenting with renewable energy and urban farming and offering their skills and discoveries to others, illustrating we don't necessarily have to beg the government to provide solutions. We can start ourselves. It's where, for months, one of my neighbors left her front door unlocked in one of the most violent and dangerous cities in America so I could have a shower whenever I needed to go to work, as I didn't yet have one. It was when it came time to raise the beam on my own house that holds the structure aloft—a beam that I cut out of an abandoned recycling factory down the street when not a single wall was left standing—a dozen residents of Poletown showed up to help lift it, Amish style.
Radical neighborliness is a zygote that grows into a worldview that ends up in homes and communities rebuilt in ways that respect humanity and the environment. It's realizing we have the power to create the world anew together and to do it ourselves when our governments refuse.
This is the Detroit that you don't hear much about. The Detroit between the ruin porn on one hand and the hipster coffee shops and billionaires saving the city on the other. There's a third way to rebuild, and it declines to make the same mistakes of the past.
While building my house, I found something I didn't know I was looking for—what a lot of millennials and people who are moving back to cities are looking for. Radical neighborliness is just another word for true community, the kind bound my memory and history, mutual trust and familiarity built over years and irreplaceable.
And now, as you may have heard, Detroit is having a renaissance and pulling itself up from the ashes of despair, and the children and grandchildren of those who fled are returning, which is true. What isn't true is that this renaissance is reaching most Detroiters, or even more than a small fraction of them that don't live in the central areas of the city. These are the kind of people that have been in Detroit for generations and are mostly black.
In 2016 alone, just last year, one in six houses in Detroit had their water shut off. Excuse me. The United Nations has called this a violation of human rights. And since 2005, one in three houses—think about this, please—one in every three houses has been foreclosed in the city, representing a population about the size of Buffalo, New York.
One in three houses foreclosed is not a crisis of personal responsibility; it is systemic.
Many Detroiters, myself included, are worried segregation is now returning to the city itself on the coattails of this renaissance. Ten years ago, it was not possible to go anywhere in Detroit and be in a crowd completely made of white people. Now, troublingly, that is possible. This is the price that we're paying for conventional economic resurgence. We're creating two Detroits, two classes of citizens, cracking the community apart.
For all the money and subsidies, for all the streetlights installed, the dollars for new stadiums and slick advertisements and positive buzz, we're shutting off water to tens of thousands of people living right on the Great Lakes, the world's largest source of it.
Separate has always meant unequal. This is a grave mistake for all of us. When economic development comes at the cost of community, it's not just those who have lost their homes or access to water who are harmed, but it breaks little pieces of our own humanity as well.
None of us can truly be free, none of us can truly be comfortable, until our neighbors are, too. For those of us coming in, it means we must make sure we aren't inadvertently contributing to the destruction of community again, and to follow the lead of those who have been working on these problems for years. In Detroit, that means average citizens deputizing themselves to create water stations and deliveries for those who have lost access to it. Or clergy and teachers engaging in civil disobedience to block water shutoff trucks. It's organizations buying back foreclosed homes for their inhabitants or fighting misinformation on forced sales through social media and volunteer-run hotlines.
For me, it means helping others to raise the beams on their own formerly abandoned houses, or helping to educate those with privilege, now increasingly moving into cities, how we might come in and support rather than stress existing communities. It's chipping in when a small group of neighbors decides to buy back a foreclosed home and return the deeds to the occupants.
And for you, for all of us, it means finding a role to play in our own communities. It means living your life as a reflection of the world that you want to live in. It means trusting those who know the problems best—the people who live them—with solutions.
I know a third way is possible because I have lived it. I live it right now in a neighborhood called Poletown in one of the most maligned cities in the world. If we can do it in Detroit, you can do it wherever you're from, too.
What I've learned over the last decade, building my house, wasn't so much about wiring or plumbing or carpentry—although I did learn these things—is that true change, real change, starts first with community, with a radical sense of what it means to be a neighbor. It turned at least one abandoned house into a home.