With spring just inches away, the wildflowers are about to return to Detroit.
People don’t often associate wildflowers with the Motor City, but I can assure you they grace the landscape in my neighborhood, Poletown, every spring: spiderwort, primrose, chicory, fleabane, rosinweed. You also may not associate “radical neighborliness” with Detroit either. This too, I can also assure you, calls Detroit home.
Ten years ago I bought a decrepit house in Poletown, a house abandoned for ten years with no windows, no plumbing, and no electricity on a crumbling foundation filled with 10,000 pounds of trash. With the help of my neighbors, I built it into my home.
The fine people at TED brought me to New York last November to talk about it, and this is the result. I was very nervous.
It’s difficult to stand up in front of your peers and the world and say what you believe— give the truth as you see it— and I tried to use my position to talk about things happening in this city that are plain wrong, yet some very powerful people are making a lot of money doing or ignoring.
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There has always been something special about Detroit, and although here I call it radical neighborliness, it goes by other names as well. There is a powerful sense of community here, but it’s being threatened— the latest in a long line of threats started 15 years ago with evictions and foreclosures, and again in 2014 with the mass water shut offs.
I’ll say it again: one-third of Detroit homes have been foreclosed in the past 12 years, representing a diaspora the size of Buffalo, New York. More than 100,000 homes, one-seventh of the city, have had their water shut off in what United Nations experts called a “violation of international human rights.”
These are massive crimes, and there is no true “renaissance” or “resurgence” while our neighbors don’t have shelter and water.
I sincerely I hope I’ve made my neighbors, maybe even you, proud. I hope I’ve done the subject just a small bit of justice. I did my best, and I hope, as a society, as a people, we do better.
I also hope this new Detroit we’re creating still includes the wildflowers: Both the kind that you can place in a vase for your partner when they’re having a bad day, and the other kind, the metaphorical kind, that find home in our imaginings of what the future of Detroit can hold.