Detroit, from ghost town to laboratory town

Like a third of the houses in the city, this building is deteriorating in general indifference, in the heart of one of the most damaged districts around the factories. Photo credits: Eric Bouvet / Eric Bouvet

In an almost religious silence, the circle closed. Between the shed which shelters the gardening tools and the truck which brought back the bulk of the vegetables harvested in the morning, the little dozen volunteers gathered around its leader. Accustomed to places or high school students officiating as part of their school curriculum, they all got up early and braved the first cold to come and pick the last green beans of the season, on the large hectare cultivated by Earthworks, one of Detroit’s main urban farms.

“What you did this morning is nothing anecdotal,” advises Patrick Crouch, breaking the silence but not the meditation of his troop. I don’t know how many pounds of vegetables we picked up, but with the frost to come, they probably would have been lost. ” With the charisma of a spiritual leader, the director of Earthworks then tickles the activist spirit among his volunteers. “When they collect vegetables, I would like them to perceive our relationship with food, not only physically but also mentally. It happens with our hands but also with our head and our heart ”, explains this former sculptor, who abandoned his art without regret to settle in Detroit ten years ago. He could not have found a better place to flourish than Earthworks, whose main vocation is to provide the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a popular Catholic soup never short of diners, in this underprivileged district located a few kilometers east downtown.

Founded in 1997, Earthworks is a pioneer in a crisis of urban farms and community gardens accelerated by the crisis and of which Detroit is the national leader, with an estimate of 1,500 farms. All are part of a tradition before American independence. From the 18th century, the farms, called “ribbons” because of their elongated shape, stretched from the river. “When the French arrived here, they found the land to be incredibly rich and they planted grapes in the first year,” says Patrick Crouch. Before becoming Detroit, then Motortown – as it is called today – the city was called “Detroit” with an acute accent on the “e”, because it was a Gascon explorer, Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac , who founded it in 1701. And if this representative of the Sun King much later gave his name and coat of arms to a brand of luxury vehicles, it is indeed to the Gascon that we owe this sprawling city which covers 350 square kilometers. Henry Ford, like General Motors and Chrysler, the other two iconic manufacturers, contented themselves with ensuring its prosperity two centuries later, until making it the fifth American city in the early 1950s.

But after the stigma of racial riots at the end of the following decade, the invasion of Japanese vehicles in the 1980s shattered Detroit’s prosperity. Between 1950 – where it had nearly 1.9 million inhabitants – and 2010, the city lost half of its population. The 2008 financial crisis took the Detroiters hostage, between ruined local communities unable to cope with the most basic needs and the historic bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, saved by the Obama Administration plan in 2009 One of the subjects of controversy during the second debate of the presidential election, last October 16.

If Detroit dreams of one day regaining its splendor, its face has been lacerated. From the deserted center to the most posh suburbs, it is impossible to escape the abandoned houses, degraded by time, the squatters or the flames # 8230; Symbols of a city whose functioning is now mainly based on individual initiatives, the ruins are sometimes demolished at the expense of neighbors, anxious to eradicate these warts to give their neighborhood a semblance of life and dignity. “We can’t afford to rehabilitate it,” says Keltie, while the villa next to the one she lives in Cadillac Street with her husband, pastor Eric Nielsen, is being razed. Rare white couple in this African-American district, the Nielsen tried to tighten the neighborhood around a community vegetable garden.

Night and day, the empty streets of Detroit accentuate the feeling of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere that sometimes goes as far as oppression. Photo credits: Eric Bouvet / Eric Bouvet

Supported by associations such as Greening of Detroit – which sell seeds for small amounts – urban agriculture is at the heart of the daily survival of a city deserted by mass distribution and which has three times less food shops than some of the neighboring towns. Yet even in 2010, in the darkest moments of the ghost town, one of the few spots of color and prosperity was in the historic Eastern Market. An open place, on the stalls from which one can find, every Saturday, a wide and inexpensive choice of food offered by the producers of the surroundings. In prosperity as in poverty, the Detroiters do not joke with the contents of their plate. And Phil Cooley understood it before everyone else.

In 2005, this former model abandoned fashion shows in Paris, Milan or Tokyo to return home, to Detroit, where his first job was to clean the toilets at PJ’s Lager House bar. Borrowing the $ 40,000 he needed to own an abandoned warehouse, he spruced it up to start an “ultra-hype” restaurant in Corktown, one of the city’s most deserted neighborhoods. “When he opened Slows, says PJ Ryder, current owner of PJ’s Lager House, everyone thought: but who is going to come to this neighborhood?” “He didn’t make any ads,” adds his wife Donna Terek, “but it went off quickly, simply by word of mouth.” Around Slows, other establishments have grown. “I don’t think I would have bought a bar here if it weren’t for Slows,” says PJ.

The emblem of the forfeiture of Detroit

Corktown comes back to life, but there remains the district where its majesty of darkness thrones: the famous Michigan central station, disused since 1988 and which is slowly rotting. With its hall covered with tags and eighteen imposing floors now protected from the curious by rolls of barbed wire, the building has become the emblem of the downfall of Detroit. Its restoration is a major issue, but its owner, Matty Moroun, an octogenarian billionaire, clings to it because of the railroad to Canada which is attached to it. Owner of the toll bridge that leads to Ontario, he has little desire to see it competed by the return to service of the rail. With a few other speculators clinging to decaying land and buildings, while waiting for prices to rise, Matty Moroun forms a sinister skewer of scorched earth lords. “When you restore a building, you instantly find tenants,” says Phil Cooley, who has become the symbol of the Detroit renaissance. Also in Corktown, this son of real estate agents recently opened Ponyride, in an old printing house which he has renovated with his quirky decorator’s eye: around bare walls and an atmosphere of urban legends, intertwine humanitarian projects like that of Veronica Scott, who pays single mothers to sew sleeping bags for the homeless. There is also a local jeans manufacturer, a recording studio, cabinetmakers and an artisanal printing house. The whole is reminiscent of a medieval village.

In the middle of the rubble of the Packard Automotive Plant, one of the rare industrial ruins still accessible to the public, the Pegasus Warning group is shooting a clip. Photo credits: Eric Bouvet / Eric Bouvet

Now famous, Phil Cooley is only the tip of the iceberg. In Detroit, artist-entrepreneurs seem to sprout from the ashes of burned houses. Co-founder of Omnicorp – a collaborative hacker workshop – Bethany Shorb, a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, has lived in Detroit for thirteen years. Her online store of printed ties has been thriving since she left a stable job to devote herself to it. Risk that would be insane elsewhere: “Some artists who, in New York, would be forced to combine jobs, can here be content with a part-time and devote their energy to their art,” she explains. Life here is not very expensive. ” An asset for the city and for young people teeming with ideas and desires. “I saw Detroit decaying,” says Keenan Nielbock. But it comes back to life. The young generation is artistic, does not worry about the automobile crisis and takes care of itself. ” Like Keenan. He learned the art of wrought iron and was inspired by the creative genius of his father Carl – a child of war, born of a GI and a German – who deceived the waiting for orders during the dark years , making wind turbines with local materials and car parts recovered from landfills.

Son of a GI and a German, Carl Nielbock lives with his son Keenan, to whom he teaches the art of wrought iron, while innovating. Photo credits: Eric Bouvet / Eric Bouvet

Between green energies, hackers and canvas cracks, start-ups proliferate. Thanks to its association with Dan Gilbert and its company Quicken Loans – which renovates the abandoned skyscrapers of the downtown area and attracts companies there -, Detroit Venture Partners settled in the famous Madison Building, with a space whose eccentricity recalls a search engine with planetary influence. DVP and its creator, Josh Linkner, have been the incubator of thirteen start-ups since 2010. Between Sarah Brithinee, attractive young woman who edits your wedding video for a bite of bread, and Ryan Landau, who decided to return the supplies a glamorous office worker, emerges a certain Sawyer Altman: when he is not yet entitled to vote for Mitt Romney, whom he nevertheless supports, and even less to order a whiskey in one of the few bars in the center -ville, this 17-year-old high school student is the co-founder of 313 Energy, an energy drink that wanted to be resolutely local, using the city’s telephone code. “There are two ways of looking at things in Detroit,” says Sawyer. Either we tell ourselves that we took it up and we give up, or we decide to see that there is a chance to seize in this context. ”

In a recent poll in The Detroit News, 40% of Motortown residents plan to leave within five years. Others think like Sawyer Altman. Whether they grew up here or elsewhere, whether they came from the affluent or beaten up suburbs, this hurt pride and this desire to put their city back on the map of success is bubbling in the oral, written or graphic expression of the Detroiters. Because to the suffering was added the shame of having become the symbol of the decline of the American Empire. This is why Brendan Blumentritt and Joseph O’Grady market T-shirts on which we can read: “Detroit trime harder”, and which are displayed by thousands on local chests. “When one of us succeeds, the whole city wins,” insists Sawyer, who gives the municipality 10 cents for each can of 313 Energy sold. Teenagers are supposed to be selfish. But those in Detroit grew faster, while their city – thought in XXL – shrank to the economic spin.