My first visit to Detroit, in 1994, was also the first time I caught a glimpse of my future father-in-law John Meyer. He was out behind his church, which was across the street from the now-defunct Tiger Stadium in Corktown. A strong, stern but joyous-looking man in a clerical collar, he directed sports fans’ cars into parking spots before a twilight game. The wind blew dust everywhere in the sunset, and his hand signals made it look like he was invoking the earth to rise.
People from the suburbs tailgated in back of St. Peter’s Episcopal; their small change kept afloat the soup kitchen, the home for young mothers, and even the congregation. Some years, parking for games was one of the top sources of income for the church; a little creative fix for an entrenched and impossible problem.
At a time in which most “solutions” to Detroit’s entrenched problems are punitive and racially biased, three things have remained positive in the nearly 20 years I’ve been visiting: culture, religion and activism. This is the home of Grace Lee Boggs, of Allied Media Projects. It’s the home of St. Peter’s new pastor and longtime activist Bill Wylie-Kellerman, who rebuilds park benches the city tears down, because he wants to make sure the newly minted “historic district” of Corktown still offers somewhere for its many indigent to sleep.
Politics has failed the city. The democratic process, writ large, has failed. The city, economically, has failed. So people make up their own solutions – temporary, imperfect and small-scale. I hope these solutions don’t get lost in the reshuffling of the Detroit’s larger structure and finances.
As Boggs told me when I met her a couple years ago, “Detroit is a city of dual economies.” There is the economy that is in the newspapers, and that continues to deteriorate and oppress. And then there are micro-economies that pop up in a neighborhood, on a block, or even in a single building, where residents take on the basic services a city normally provides, like policing and mediation, water, education, and garbage. Some of these micro-economies serve entire neighborhoods; some exist without knowing others like them are out there.
What Do Artists Know?
In addition to my family visits, I’ve been making a trip every year for the last five, to teach professional skills workshops to Detroit artists who’ve received a Kresge Fellowship. Every time I’ve taught there, there’s been a discussion about whether Detroit’s new cultural visibility, weighed against the continued dysfunction on governmental and economic levels, will propel it forward or set it back yet again. Cultural renewal takes a long time on its own. It does not equal civic engagement, and can easily become instrumentalized (witness many other major metropolitan areas).
This year the questions were especially poignant. The workshop started on July 19, the day after the city declared bankruptcy. There weren’t any hotel rooms within 8-Mile Road because so many officials and business owners with a vested interest in what happens had filled them all. We were all in the city at the same time, which made the divide especially poignant to me. I wanted the financiers all to take a break from the numbers, and stop by our workshop, because I was amazed, as I always am, by the adaptability and generosity with which artists I meet in Detroit deal with so many entrenched and massive problems.
Some of them were relatively recent arrivals who felt the call to be there, wanted to live off the grid in an urban setting; maybe they romanticized the metaphor and then fell in love with the actual place. One started a farm, lives on $6,000 a year and feels like she has enough. Another has a bookshop that’s been open since 1982, and also formed some legendary and rambunctious creative collectives in the meantime. Another made paintings in secret while working a regular job for 30 years, and then opened up his garage studio to the world one day. Yet another has a day job in restorative justice and started writing speculative fiction because, “So much of that writing is about apocalypses, and we’ve already been through our own.”
Now, I know that on a bad week artists can be as dysfunctional as anyone; I know we can be corrupt and scheming, competitive, even cruel. I know many of us can’t do a budget to save our lives. I know that there has to be an official component to any renewal that happens – a restoration of services, of deliberative democracy, of streetlights and ambulances, schools and cops.
I also know that artists make something out of nothing, and, generally, they know when they have enough. Maybe the extreme circumstances of Detroit make that kind of skillset even more necessary to hone than other places.
The way Detroit’s problems have been addressed on an official level has largely been about impositions of policy over people who have already lost their civic voices, the vast majority of them people of color. Even the notion that what will save Detroit is to lure “creatives” there so that they can start up new businesses misses the point. The creativity is already here. It’s so far advanced and so far removed you just might not recognize it as such. This is a post-market city. This is the city we can both help to re-emerge and from which we can learn.
I don’t think Detroit can be “fixed” by a single overarching solution that is seen as the lesser of two evils – I don’t think the neo-liberal consensus-based approach will work here. In part because it’s not working well most of the time anyway, and in part because it doesn’t allow us to do the deeper work of examining why this place has fallen apart so thoroughly, what ingenuity has arisen within the gap, and what we could do differently, maybe in other places, too, moving forward.
As everyone converges to figure out how to cut the losses (which, put another way, means figure out which lives matter least enough to forsake), or how to cut up potential spoils, how to twist the arm of a place already hobbled from bending to the latest slow disaster, maybe people should stop and hear from activists, artists and priests. They’ve been there the whole time.
What will happen if we both start to address structural problems, and also understand the value of daily miracles, even if some of them just work for a single block, and others might be viable for miles? Here’s how you change the tone of capitalism, they could say to us, here’s how create a beautiful light in the dust. Here’s how you use your eyes, your ears, and your mouth. Here is how you make a new city. People are doing that right now, and have been for years. We just may have overlooked it because it doesn’t look like what we are used to calling America, or what we are used to calling progress.