Buried in the back of the Sunday Post behind Sudanese child soldiers and Syrian refugees is this story. In a part of Detroit well on its way to eroding into yet another ghost suburb in the strange narrative of post-industrial suburban decay, residents are re-claiming the place as their own.
They say that action is the antidote to despair.
The problems seem far too big. Arson, illegal dumping, sex work, drugs. Houses are gutted and razed, whole blocks turned into weed-choked lots. How could anything resembling vitality ever return to this place? Maybe the natural laws of decomposition and succession could redeem the story, but only after the place has lain fallow for a few generations. It’s a distant and sorrowful kind of hope, but it’s the best we can do.
Except that a few neighbors, apparently, are doing far better.
This neighborhood is too broken to re-animate in the here-and-now. The notion is folly. Absurd, really. Because when you sweep your gaze across the whole panorama — absence of stores and services, distance from economic opportunity, prevalence of crime, abandonment by residents — you throw up your hands and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”
Except that a few neighbors, apparently, just begin.
They begin with confronting one truck dumping one load of building debris. Or they begin with one piece of plywood over one burnt-out window. Or with one garden bed on one abandoned lot.
The tenacity of these neighbors is gritty inspiration. They remind us that “getting” what we want in our lives and communities really means making it from scratch. Steady, courageous, intentional effort and unwavering focus are required. So is using every spare moment — even those that have to be stolen from elsewhere — and every tool at hand to hack through the brambles and lay the groundwork.
Intensity of focus, however, is just one critical element, and insufficient at that.
These neighbors show us that we need each other.
Even though many of the Brightmoor pioneers have all the demands pulling at them the rest of us do — jobs, kids, aging parents, school, commitments pressing against the clock — they find each other. They cultivate the kind of we’re-in-this-together relationships necessary for building the future they want to inhabit.
They are hope in action.
They somehow got over the myth that first beguiles and then cripples so many of us in this increasingly commodified and solipsistic nation: that the neighborhoods, schools, and relationships we want might be out there somewhere. If only we could find them, if only we could crack the code! The folks of Brightmoor recognize that a dream is something you have to cobble together. . . together.
Their future is an uncertain and often unwieldy work in progress. These neighbors have to improvise. They have to trust in the messy process of winding up half-formed notions and setting them loose on rough, living ground.
With this courageous, dedicated, and wholly foolish commitment, they come a little closer to getting what they want for themselves and their children. Closer, perhaps, than most of us ever will.
They also heal one small corner of the world.
It’s more than a pipe dream. It’s happening right now, right up the road, at the hands of people just like you and me.
Photo credit: Digging Detroit