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Nothing Stops Detroit

In this week's blog, our Communications Director Jake tells us what he learned about how to build a resilient community, on a recent trip to the USA.

Detroit is not many people's idea of a holiday destination. The name alone tends to conjure images of poverty, decay and gun crime. For Americans, it’s a name often found at the punch line of a joke: one comedy sketch suggests that nearby Cleveland (another much-maligned post-industrial city) should adopt the motto, "At least we're not Detroit".

To visit Detroit in winter is an even more improbable holiday idea. It gets cold. Bitterly cold. A typical January day can get well below freezing. And when it snows, you might need a shovel to make a path from your front door to the road.

But last winter, this was the holiday I chose.

My reason was certainly not the weather, nor was it the urban decay that holds an allure to photographers and artists all over the world. Rather, it was because two of my favourite things in life are basketball and underdogs. And when these two passions combine, there aren't many better places to go than Detroit, home to the Detroit Pistons.

I began to support the team after seeing them play in London in 2013. At the time, they were one of the weakest teams in the league. Expectations were low – and they lived up to them. But the worse they played, the more I rooted for them. And after the game they flew back to Detroit, and I began to follow them from the UK.

So it was in January this year – 3 years after that game – that I made my first pilgrimage to Detroit. Fortunately, the intervening years have seen an upturn in their fortunes. With a new coach, a new crop of talented young players, and a renewed sense of purpose, there is now cause for optimism among the team – something that hasn't been the case for some time.

This basic premise makes for a familiar and popular story: of rising from the ashes, of triumphing over adversity. We all seem to love these tales, myself included. And so on my visit to Detroit it was exciting to find that it isn’t just the team that is living this story – it was the city itself. But the city is doing so in a more dramatic and meaningful way than any sports team ever could. And as I explored, I began to see why both the team and the town share an unofficial motto: 'Nothing Stops Detroit'.

To explain, a brief history lesson is needed.

Detroit was once one of the richest cities in the world. In 1903 a man called Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company there. His factory not only pioneered the famous Model T motor car, but also the assembly line technique which enabled the car to be produced both quickly and cheaply. As the USA and the rest of the world fell in love with the motor car, Detroit boomed. With the likes of Chrysler and General Motors also calling the city home, people flocked to the ‘Motor City’ for work.

But this prosperity didn’t last. And when things changed, they changed spectacularly. The city’s reliance on a single industry meant that when Detroit’s motor industry declined, the economy collapsed. And as jobs disappeared, people fled the city too.

Now, the population is less than half what it was. Household income is around half the national level. And poverty is more than double the national rate. All this has meant that many who wished to leave the city simply couldn’t sell their homes – and so they abandoned them. As recently as 2011, a quarter of the city’s houses stood empty. Many still do, and many more have been destroyed. In 2013, this desperate situation came to a head when the city filed for bankruptcy.

And so the city I visited last year was unlike any other city I’ve ever been to. The residential area I stayed in – a few miles west of the centre – certainly seemed to typify this sorry story. It looked as though about three of every four homes were now gone. Of those that remained, many were now surrounded by an acre or two of vacant land. And I was told that, up until recently, these houses could be bought for as little as $500.

But crucially, this is not the whole story. Far from it.

That’s because the people I met had responded to this extraordinary situation by doing extraordinary things. For a start, cheap housing gave the opportunity for some to buy their first home. I met many young people who had done just this, and were now using the land surrounding their homes to learn to farm. I was invited to a party in one such home, which was full of people in their 20s and 30s. But they weren’t discussing any of the things I’m used to discussing at a house party. Rather, they talked to me about the many challenges and benefits of community farming, and shared tips with each other on soil cultivation and crop rotation.

The family I stayed with were doing even more. They had made their home not only into an urban farm, but also a kind of community centre. They gave classes on farming to local school children, they employed local youth to help facilitate this work, and they hosted college students who volunteered their time to assist with this community development.

I was in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in one of the poorest cities in the USA, but I kept finding hope that a more fair and sustainable future was possible, because there were people everywhere who were absolutely dedicated to creating it.

And as I explored the city, I found that this situation was not an exception. Community urban farms were everywhere - a large area of the city centre is comprised entirely of farmer’s markets, acting as a hub for this activity. As I meandered round the stalls I kept getting into conversations with friendly people from across the city, who shared stories that were entirely about creating food, community and hope, all out of the ashes of the city’s apparent demise.

Elsewhere, I found creativity of a different kind, with artists using the city as both canvas and medium: like a grey concrete multi-story car park where each floor is now a series of colourful murals by different artists; and city streets where residents transformed trash into public art. And as I left the city, it occurred to me that these artists provide the perfect metaphor for the people I met in Detroit: they take what most people discard or ignore, they see its inherent potential, and they transform it into something beautiful.

I once read that it takes “a demanding common task” in order to build community. The people of Detroit proved to me that this is true. The tasks they continue to face seem overwhelming – indeed the poverty, crime and decay were plain to see, and left a gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach. But the people I met are facing up these tasks by forging beautiful and powerful communities whose potential is unfolding all across the city. I have no idea what the limitations of this potential are, but I do know one thing – that what they say is true: Nothing Stops Detroit.

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