I have been very fortunate this year. My hard work with Ektoplazm has resonated far and wide. As a result, I have been invited to visit many different communities all across North America, from the far west coast of Canada to the heartland of America. And I am not simply DJing; I take it upon myself to document the events I play at, to pitch in and help out where feasible, and, whenever appropriate, make an effort to host or attend a workshop or two. I like to be involved–it’s better than standing on the sidelines–so I often spend a lot of time shooting photos and compiling information about the places I visit. I aim to share some of the beauty of these intentional community gatherings with the outside world.
This brings me to my latest adventure: a mission of mercy to the once-mighty motor city, Detroit. As with several major American cities–New York, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans among them–Detroit looms large in our collective consciousness. It is the mythological birthplace of the American automotive industry, a technological powerhouse nearly unmatched in its pervasive influence on modern living. Detroit is also revered for its cultural importance, having made vital contributions to music history from jazz to techno.
Fast forward to 2009. The world eyes Detroit with considerable disbelief and astonishment, finding the former boomtown in an appalling state of ruin and decay. What happened here? Although the roots of the present situation extend deep into the past, Detroit’s decline has been greatly exacerbated by the recent subprime mortgage crisis and general economic downturn. Skyrocketing unemployment (as high as 30% according to some) and rampant foreclosures have accelerated a demographic shift away from the downtown core and inner city neighbourhoods to the suburban outskirts and beyond. In its wake, homes have been foreclosed or firebombed–to collect a paltry insurance pay-out. This mass exodus has left much of the city empty and abandoned; an urban infrastructure built for millions is now the lost playground for those few souls who remain within Detroit’s sprawling borders.
My involvement begins with an invitation to spin in Detroit alongside fellow Toronto DJs Mandelbrot and Davey Boom on October 3rd, 2009. We were brought down by Fireweed Universe-City, a grassroots organization dedicated to an improbable urban renewal in one of the most run-down areas of Detroit: the unnamed residential neighbourhood just south of Chaldean Town and east of Palmer Park in the enclave of Highland Park. The concept of the event was simple: Toronto is a thriving Great Lakes city–why not export some of that positive energy to Detroit?
Mandelbrot and I travelled down on Friday night so that we would be on hand for everything leading up to Saturday night’s festivities. Prior to arrival I had this vague notion of a tame little trash pick-up in a nearby park. Nothing had prepared me for the grim and haunting reality of the Robinwood block, a long stretch of broken down homes and overgrown lawns inundated with garbage. After a delicious vegan breakfast at the Innate Healing Arts Center we set out to tackle the immense task of beautifying the ruins of Detroit…
The clean-up drive lasted into the early evening. Intermittent rain gave way to clear skies by the very end–a promising sign. Dozens of volunteers took to the streets and collected rubbish from the yards and insides of the abandoned houses on West Robinwood. Broken glass, rotting wood, stained furniture, glass and plastic bottles, fast food packages, and many unidentifiable objects were gathered and sorted into trash, recycling, and salvage. Driveways were raked clean, backyards emptied, porches swept, and interiors tidied. One could spend an entire day on any single home on the block–the general idea was to get at the worst of it and come back another time for the rest. By the end of the day there was a tangible sense of accomplishment in the air. Much had been done, and the entire team was feeling good. There was reason to celebrate. (And we did.)
Cleaning up a burnt-out block is a feel-good initiative, but what is the bigger picture? Since I have shared this story some have asked, to put it succinctly, “why bother?” Why not just rip these homes down and start over? Well, the city isn’t going to do it–Detroit is on the verge of bankruptcy. Developers don’t want to move in–and, at any rate, the market conditions are not at all favourable right now. Local residents are effectively on their own. And so many of them–those that are able to, anyway–simply move away. I was able to speak with a few people who still lived in the area during the clean-up drive. Nearly everyone was extremely impressed that we had gone to such an effort. There was a faint glimmer of hope commingling with justifiable scepticism in many of the comments I heard.
Against this backdrop of urban ruin the determined team of visionaries at Fireweed Universe-City plan to implement a wide variety of sustainable environmental policies on the Robinwood block. The properties are cheap, after all, and while many of the abandoned homes will have to be torn down, some can be saved and restored with recycled materials available on site. The empty lots will be converted to community gardens and urban farms, alternative energy projects will take root, tire dumps will be converted into useful structures, and perhaps even living spaces. There are, to be sure, considerable challenges to face up to, not the least of which are sure to be social in nature. Still, you have to appreciate the scope of their vision–they are intent on converting a post-apocalyptic neighbourhood into something that lives and breathes again.
I encourage you to check out the complete gallery of photos from my trip on Flickr. Many of these can also be found on Facebook if you wish to comment and connect with anyone on the clean-up crew. Fireweed Universe-City would welcome your input; email email@example.com to subscribe to their announcement list or join their Facebook group or social network on Ning.