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September 29, 2011 / Helene Bienvenu, travel-writer

Move to Detroit / Détroit, j’y suis, j’y reste (ou presque) !

My last post announced it, I’m now in Detroit, Michigan (USA). I moved there two months ago to work on a transmedia documentary project about “The D”, better known as Motor City. If everything goes well, I’m going to be here for a year altogether – in and out. I will take a short break from planeteregards as I started to write on, the blog of 2 French filmmakers in and on the D. You’re all welcome to have a look and participate!

“Détroit”, a former French city founded 310 years ago by Cadillac is highly emblematic of the American industrial revolution. It is the birthplace of the automobile manufacturing. But its heyday are way behind. The D now belongs to the “shrinking metropolis” category. The city is going through a breathtaking decline since the 1970s (Detroit had 1,8 million inhabitants in 1950 and counts about 720,000 dwellers today), with people moving out everyday.

From the outside, Detroit bears all the symptoms of a city in deep crisis: high unemployment (with an real estimated rate of 1 person out of 2 being actually jobless), abandoned houses by the thousands, ramping crime, residual segregation (Detroit inner city population is African American up to 85% whereas the suburbs are predominantly white)… But Detroit is not what you think. It’s not just the city of Robocop, Eminem (and Madonna- a suburbanite), the craddle of Motown, the White Stripes, Techno music… it’s much more than that. So much more…

Detroit productive recyling on 4th street community garden

It’s hard to make one’s mind about Detroit (and do we have to?) not living there. The image conveyed of Detroit are either overwhelmingly positive (“young Brooklyn artists are moving in, Detroit is so sexy!”) or blatantly negative (“with all those ruins, crackhouses and disappearing industries, this city has no future”!). It took me weeks to have a clearer view of what the city stands for, I now feel I can sanely talk about it.

I had the chance to live, work, pass by different places in the world and believe me, I’ve never seen such a place as Detroit. People here are highly committed to make things happen, to transform the place they live in (by choice or forcefully). Challenges are huge, they really are. But the energy is there. Detroit is reinventing itself in front of our very own eyes…

Entrepreneurial Detroit is blooming, important companies such as Compuware, Quicken Loans or Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan repatriated their employees downtown after years of headquarters in the nearby suburbs. A significant move. But the 8 Mile boundary is still standing. It has eased up but to some extent only. Detroit stigmas are anchored deep in the mind of those who left the city after the 1967 riots (or rebellion depending on whom you talk to…) – to join the comfort of the reassuring middle-class suburbs.

Mark Covington decided to become an urban farmer, after getting laid off 3 years ago. He has changed the face of Georgia street with his community garden

Beyond that, in Detroit, there is a clear awareness that the current world economic system is leading to failure, that the global recession can only be countered with local resources. Detroiters don’t believe in miracles anymore. Deceived by after-effects of mono-industry, they believe in micro-projects. They know how to speak up for their rights and get things done. In Motor city, there is a need to treat the problems at their deepest roots. Food and community-empowerment are the pillars of this new Detroit I see everyday. The D is going back to the land. Motor city gave birth to urban farmers. Again, this is certainly not a cure-all, growing food within the city limit has however changed Detroit for good, no doubt about it.

A trend that is more than a mere coincidence to the prevalent Detroit “Do it Yourself” culture (DIY). This city has been left aside for decades now by both public services and businesses. Most supermarkets and retail and grocery stores shut their doors close long ago. Detroit knows the answer: strength lies within ourselves. In the D, you can learn how to build your own means of transportation (such as a bike), recycle every single item you have home, buy second (rather third!) hand, compost and grow your own food… All that is done collectively, with the help of housemates, neighbors, family, local organisations. These things aren’t just cool attractions for hipsters, it’s simply the only choice left. Community leaders and “good-doers” are doing their best to reach out to those who are in need. There’s still a long way to go. But the fight for food, social and environmental justice has clearly started. And it’s great to feel part of it.

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