Detroit, Community Resilience and the American Dream

Detroit, Community Resilience and the American Dream

Detroit, in a lot of ways, parallels the track we are on as a nation. After an industrial boom in the late 19th century, Detroit became a hub of commerce and a place where people could come to find opportunity. At the beginning of the 20th century Detroit became synonymous with the automobile industry. As the industry branched out to become an influence in city planning around car dependency, suburbanization and sprawl became a way of life. Suburban isolation and dependence on industry are legacies we tend not to talk about in this country, but as the economy collapses they become hard to ignore.

Unresolved racial tensions and the abandonment of cities are facts of life here in the States. Let's be clear, Detroit is not alone in this. It may be more pronounced here, but if we stay on the current track of trying to house ourselves in single-family homes, consuming without regard for practicality or sustainability and looking to a single source for our well-being — in our case, straight-up consumer-driven capitalism — there is no need to look into a crystal ball: the snapshot of our future is staring us in the face in the stereotypical shots of Detroit.

The Key to the Future: A More Sustainable Way of Living

But I believe Detroit also holds the key to the future of this great nation. We must evolve to a more sustainable way of living if we are to survive, and I think we all innately sense it. We know that two-income-dependent housing prices do not add up while unemployment and underemployment approach the double digits. We know that a growing world population is not going to be able to support a group of people that consumes three times as many resources as the rest of the world.

Within our lifetimes, many of us will have to find new ways to meet our needs and will pioneer a new meaning of what "the good life" really is. Those who have stayed in Detroit are pioneers. It's like what happens to a forest after a great fire. At first glance, it looks like everything is dead. But, if you look closer you'll find that the rich soil is fertile and ready for planting. Detroit's ground is fertile and being seeded as you read this.

During my time there, I met with people in their twenties and thirties who had bought storefronts, started art collectives, founded their own nonprofits and, frankly, were living the dream... The whole city is filled with locally grown, frequently organic, or locally made things to eat, see and enjoy. And the best part is that everyone is really into supporting these businesses. There is a dual pride that comes from supporting your friends and neighbors and also supporting the people who, like you, want to see Detroit thrive. The local pride is as palpable as it is at a Red Sox game, but it lasts much longer than a season.

Building Healthier, More Connected, Community, One Seed At A Time

Detroit, Community Resilience and the American Dream On one of my last days in the city I met Mark Covington, founder of the Georgia Street Community Collective, who, after being laid off from as an environmental engineer and moving back into his family's home, noticed that people were dumping garbage in the empty lots across from his house.

"I knew no one else was going to clean those lots, so I decided I would," he said with a shrug, as if it were simply the logical thing to do. After cleaning the lots only to have them dumped on again, he decided to plant a garden to prevent more dumping. Not only did it work, but community members began to come out of their houses to see what he was up to. Neighborhood kids began to help with the planting and became interested in gardening. People who sensed a connectedness with Mark began to share their difficulties with affording food while paying for heating and electricity.

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This spurred Mark to begin to grow more and involve the community. In time he developed an outdoor movie night, a "read to your kids" night and community celebration nights.

He bought the building next to his grandmother's house for next to nothing, and he and his brother are doing all the renovations. They hope to have a space to hold more community dinners and celebrations, a computer lab for the kids, a clothing and food donation drop-off space and an emergency fund for community members experiencing tough times. The whole collective now consists of five lots on Georgia Street, including a fruit orchard. Talk about community resilience. Detroit is the embodiment of the DIY movement.

Giving Students A Chance To Design The Future

The institutions of Detroit — the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and Wayne State University — as well as both community and global foundations are taking notice and picking up a shovel as well. Amazing strides are taking place with university/foundation partnerships that are funding business incubators, light-rail development projects, partnership development and grants that allow entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, tech industry folks and artists to live in the city while connecting them to communities in need.

"I really think it's a blessing that we've been deconstructed," said Mike Han, community development director of I Am Young Detroit!. "We just have to build it right this time. If we do, we can show the world how to live in a sustainable way, with a city that can move quickly to adapt to whatever changes comes its way." I couldn't agree more.

So, here's my final confession: I want to move to Detroit. Never have I experienced a place thriving with talent, energy, passion and determination to make their city, and by association, the world, a better place. If you are looking for a place to develop your dream, whatever it may be, consider trying to do so in Detroit, in the place I am now dubbing the birthplace of our collective new American destiny. See you there.

This article was originally published (in its entirety) on

©2012 CommonSource.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers.

This article was adapted with permission from the book:

Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis
edited by Malcolm Harris, Neal Gorenflo.

Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis edited by Malcolm Harris, Neal Gorenflo.As a call-to-action, "share or die" refers to finding the common sense ideas and practices needed to not only merely survive, but to build a place where it's worth living. From urban Detroit to central Amsterdam, and from worker co-operatives to nomadic communities, an astonishing variety of recent graduates and twenty-something experimenters are finding (and sharing) their own answers to negotiating the new economic order. Their visions of a shared future include: * Collaborative consumption networks instead of private ownership * Replacing the corporate ladder with a "lattice lifestyle" * Do-it-yourself higher education.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book.

About the Author

Milicent JohnsonMilicent Johnson is an idealistic realist with a passion for learning, laughing, and building community. Her passion for empowering communities to find meaningful solutions and resilience led her to work on asset building and economic development through education, policy, research, and community organizing with a focus on low income communities and communities of color. She is thankful that the Shareable community has confirmed her belief that all we could possibly want or need is actually within ourselves, our communities, and the people around us. Feel free to contact her at @milicentjohnson on Twitter.


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