On Saturday, I participated in Detroit Partnership’s annual Detroit Partnership Day for the second year in a row. This time, thankfully, there was no self-congratulatory rhetoric or encouragement to “fix Detroit.” We were there to learn about the community, do what we could in the few hours we had and leave with the understanding that we hadn’t even made a dent in the process. Residents thanked us, but no one praised us for being decent, as they had in years past. Because of this, I was afforded the clarity to connect with residents of the city, and in doing so, I realized the extent of their resilience in the face of extreme adversity.
My group was sent to Brightmoor, a four-square-mile residential district on the city’s northwest side, characterized by abandoned homes, mounds of garbage and a savannah’s worth of overgrown grass. It’s an area so presumably rough that people who attempt to be clever and edgy have nicknamed it “Blightmoor.” A little online digging revealed it was once a stable community for working-class families to purchase affordable housing, but it took a hit after population decline and institutional racism worked their ways through Detroit like tornadoes. Now it’s a ghost town, a reminder of the city’s devastating decline. At least, that’s what the dominant narrative dictates — but it’s far from the truth.
Our first stop in Brightmoor was a park with wooden benches wrapped around a large tree in an amphitheater-type fashion. A neighborhood organizer spoke to us about the residents’ accomplishments: They built a greenhouse, they grow their own food, they run their own leadership academy for the neighborhood’s ambitious children. Following her speech, we broke off into our groups and received our assignments.
My group was paired with a guy around his mid-30s named Andrew, who pulled the 10 or so of us to his house in a makeshift flatbed trailer. When we arrived, he explained our tasks (turn over the dirt in the gardens, remove the tree stump near the beehive, etc.) and distributed some tools. Soon, we were joined by his three children, the eldest of whom was only four, digging and chatting excitedly alongside us.
I was bursting at the seams with questions, but Andrew was preoccupied with making maple syrup over the fire, so I waited until his wife emerged from the house to begin my inquiry.
With a cautious eye on her daughters, his wife told me she had lived in Brightmoor her whole life and that the area had actually improved significantly in recent years, contrary to what people believe about it. Because city services are scarce, residents of the neighborhood have been developing innovative alternatives. For example, instead of waiting hours for police to arrive to the scene of a crime, they created a texting system that sends a crime alert to neighbors, who can organize and chase away the perpetrator.
One of the biggest problems, she explained, was people commuting from the suburbs to dump trash into empty lots around the neighborhood, rather than paying to have it dumped in a landfill. She told me her husband had chased these invaders out of the neighborhood on numerous occasions and even took their information to the police, but nothing had come of it. The city is slow to demolish abandoned properties, too, and residents often have to personally board up the houses, which seem to inevitably catch fire and burn down.
Despite the local government’s complete disregard for the area, she spoke highly of the neighborhood’s sense of solidarity and strength. She described the various gardens and farms — honey, vegetables and even something called a “pizza farm,” which grows tomatoes for an annual pizza picnic — and gushed about the park down the road, which had new equipment, winding trails and nearby Little Free Libraries. Though she said she worried about the local elementary school closing because of population decline, she seemed confident in the abilities of both the charter schools and the resident-run educational programs to pick up the slack.
At the end of the day, my group waved goodbye to the family, boarded the bus and headed back to Ann Arbor in the detached manner that spontaneous community service dictates. But something must have stuck, because I haven’t stopped thinking about the neighborhood since. How can a community so egregiously neglected by the people designated to serve it manage to essentially govern itself? What will happen to Brightmoor in the next five years? Ten?
I didn’t tell this story to push the age-old “bootstraps” narrative that everyone can be successful if they just work hard enough. No one deserves the kind of gross callousness and disregard for human life that permits heaps of trash to be dumped on their property, near their homes, around the areas where their children play. No one should have to wait hours for police to respond to their requests for help. No one should have to grow their own food out of necessity, because they cannot afford or access a marketplace.
No, my mixture of astonishment and anger comes from watching people serve themselves when they can no longer rely on others to serve them. Detroit may be bouncing back, but it’s not because of gentrification in Midtown or expensive downtown and riverfront developments — it’s because its residents are sick and tired of being treated like shit by their own government, and they’re doing something about it. When all is said and done, Detroit doesn’t need University of Michigan students to save it; it’s saving itself from the inside.
Lauren Schandevel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.