House by house, do-it-yourself residents transform Detroit

I first met Camille on a warm summer morning in front of the modest bungalow where she has lived for 32 years in northwest Detroit. Dressed in gardening gloves and a broad, pink sun-hat, she was ready for work. Not at the daycare center where she tends young children or at the food pantry where she regularly volunteers, but in the children’s garden down the street, the garden Camille built to replace trash and blight with nurturance and hope.

At the time, I was doing research for a book on how residents in this cash-poor city are banding together to clean up their neighborhoods. Tired of waiting for the garbage trucks and housing inspectors who never seemed to come, Camille decided to take action and rebuild her neighborhood herself.

Camille had lived for more than two decades in an area troubled by drug dealing, vandalism, and violence. Then, in the mid-2000s, Camille and her neighbors rolled up their sleeves and took control. These DIY residents adopted vacant lots and empty buildings. They built informal parks and playgrounds, cleaned trash from public streets, and organized against crime. These do-it-yourselfers were also neighborhood publicists, sharing inspiring stories and photos of creative, resilient Detroit with friends, colleagues, elected officials, and media reporters.

Inspired, Camille, not her real name, converted two overgrown, trash-filled lots into a lush children’s garden and playground. She submitted grant applications to philanthropic organizations, but her funding requests were denied. So she hustled and built it herself. Camille hosted fish fries to raise money for soil and plants. She cleared the illegally dumped trash from the land and badgered the mayor on live TV until sanitation workers finally hauled it away. She recruited volunteers from a suburban church to help with the planting. They filled the lots with strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, plum trees, pear trees, and apple trees. Camille planted a clump of tea leaves in the shape of a turtle, and another to look like a volcano. She built a hay jumper, sand box, splashing pool, and picnic area.

These lots became Camille’s regenerative oasis. What was once demoralizing and dangerous, became beautiful, convivial, and engaging.

Camille’s garden changed the social dynamic on her street. Camille does not own the lots. She has no legal authority over what people do there. But the berries, footpaths, and furniture she built transformed the street, physically and socially. The garden signals the land is no longer available for illegal dumping and vandalism. Instead, the play space embodies an ethos of healthy eating and controlled land management.

Camille’s DIY activism brings resources to her community. Sanitation workers, for instance, initially drove past the illegally dumped trash on the lots. It was only after Camille gave on-the-air interviews and showed news reporters the piles of trash she cleared from the land that the mayor’s office responded and the trash was removed. But only for her. The illegally dumped piles on adjacent streets remained. Officials would help, but only those residents who had already done most of the work themselves. Now, with the garden complete, City Council members visit Camille’s garden playground to get ideas about how to make Detroit stronger.

Philanthropic foundations operate in much the same way, giving money to people with proven track records. Camille, new to the DIY scene, had no choice but to hustle for cash and volunteers. But now, when Camille’s neighbors embark on similar work, they lead donors on show-and-tell tours of her garden playground. The garden becomes evidence of resident engagement, demonstrating the community’s merit as a potential grant recipient.

Camille’s garden thrives because, along with her do-it-yourself spirit, she also finds ways to do-it-together. Camille designed the garden drawing inspiration from her neighbors. She cleared trash with help from the city. She planted fruit with help from volunteers. She maintains it mostly on her own, and sometimes with help from neighborhood teens who get paid by a nonprofit to do occasional heavy lifting. Camille – a dedicated do-it-yourselfer – has been an active steward of her street for decades. Now, by connecting her DIY energy with others, she made an even larger, more robust improvement.

Given the benefits of doing-it-together, why is doing-it-yourself unlikely to fade? Some residents dislike messy community entanglements. Some are too vulnerable to share time and money with others. Some worry about attracting unwanted attention, especially when an effective solution may also be also technically illegal. Most often, residents simply have limited options. DIY residents often live in areas organizations do not serve or have needs governments do not meet. For all these reasons, DIY tactics remain popular and are likely here to stay.

DIY residents taking smart, small-scale, tactical steps to replace landscapes of blight with spaces of hope. The work is hard and the benefits fleeting, a reminder of the need for organized political change. But DIY activism does make a difference.

House-by-house and lot-by-lot, resilient residents improve city spaces, encourage positive social interactions, and bring resources to communities, especially when working together.

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Tue, 05/03/2016 - 10:20am
Kimberley Kinder's new book, DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City without Services, is an impressive example of very competent contemporary urban anthropology. As local governments greatly downsize, the residents who stay will, in some situations, adapt. But there is the questions of what basic services should a local government provide in a modern city. And how will those services be supported. Anyway, this is a very interesting and informative book.
Tue, 05/03/2016 - 1:34pm
Urban agriculture in Detroit is nothing new. There is plenty of flat, fertile land and a lack of grocery stores, so mostly low-income residents farming the land or raising animals isn't anything new and doesn't replace any other city hall function other than removing blight.
Tue, 05/03/2016 - 10:50pm
I'm curious to know why "Camille" didn't want her name used, or even the location of her new park.