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To witness Obama's green dream:

A year in Detroit with goats in a $1 home?

My husband is ready to move to Detroit… to witness how hope and change, the Obama way, transform this phantom city. Or that was roughly how he put it the other day in an email where he excitedly described the documentary idea he had for me. He mentioned something about “green hope from the green new deal” and even went so far as to declare, “if there’s hope and future in Detroit, America will lead again.”

This is from a guy who has spent most of the past decade enamored by Jeremy Rifkin and his book “European Dream” in which Rifkin explains: “The American Dream, once so coveted, has increasingly become an object of derision. Our way of life no longer inspires; rather, it is now looked on as outmoded and, worse yet, as something to fear, or abhor.”

I’m naturally suspicious of any documentary idea. Everyone seems to have one, except for me. I tend to be the anti-idea kind-of documentarian. A few years ago I went to Darfur refugee camps in Chad to shoot a special for MTV without much of a plan and came back with a “pleasantly facile” (according to the New York Times) show about genocide.

“Beautiful, horrible decline”

My husband does seem to have a case in focusing on the Motor City as the backdrop for any image-based project. I’m currently haunted by photos from Time Magazine’s slideshow documenting the city’s “beautiful, horrible decline“.

With a quick look online, it’s obvious there are plenty of others obsessed with this city’s decay (a youtube video of abandoned skyscrapers and an artist who’s dedicated his photography and a website to ruin here).

There’s plenty of shooting opportunities to portray the city as a “wasteland”. “Murder City“- it’s been the murder capital of the country- once had the highest rate of home ownership in the country, but now that it’s lost half it’s population in the last half century (down to 900,000), it now has an estimated 60,000 vacant dwellings and it’s vacant downtown skyscrapers have been dubbed “Skyscraper Graveyard”.

Like a “Third World country”

Vacant homes have become such a problem on the east side- which Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash compares to a “Third World country”- that they’re now the location for 90% of fires attended by the local firemen.

We, in the First World, don’t hear about a lot of this because, as firefighter seargent Mike Nevin explained to Labash,: “It’s like a forgotten secret. It’s like a lost city. And they never really talk about the f–ing truth about what is going on with this town.”

Local politician Sam Riddle told Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff that the only difference between Detroit and the Third World (corruption-wise) is that “there are no goats in the streets in Detroit.”

Can goats save Detroit?

And this is where the story starts to have a bit of “green hope”… with the goats.

As writer Labash found, there are goats on Detroits’ Streets… well, not literally, but as he puts it “with so much empty space these days in Detroit, “urban farming” has taken off–vegetable patches right in the middle of the city. And I’m told someone keeps goats a few blocks away from my hotel”.

He didn’t find the goats, but looking online I found a few and a lot of activity by urban farmers. One Detroit agriculturalist answered someone’s query regarding finding goats in the city: “I’m an urban farmer in Detroit. There is more then one herd of goats here and quite a few flocks of chickens.” (They may be simple farmers, but they’re wired. She offered a myspace page address for those interested in a cybervisit to one of the city’s farms and her facebook page- perma detroit– for those who want to join a permaculture study group and workshop.)

There’s also a public school with its student-made solar and wind-powered farm that has not just goats, but sheep, horses, bunnies, chickens, ducks, turkeys, bees and worms.

And there are a lot of groups helping residents turn the vacant lots around them- the city alone owns 28,000 abandoned parcels- into gardens:

  • Farm-A-Lot offers seeds and tilling free-of-charge to residents.
  • Detroit Garden Network has pooled gardeners by geographic cluster to “share advice, inspiration, ideas and pep talks. We’re building a citywide network within neighborhoods, and that’s a big change.”

Buying a home for the price of a soda

Last summer Detroit’s $1 house made national news. From the photo (still up on this blog), it looks rather stately or it was before being boarded up. Just 2 years earlier it sold for $65,000 and was the nicest home on the block.

It seems it’s not just a one-off story and houses are still going for the price of a soda. And this is why there may be hope for some type of green turn-around, at least for some neighborhoods… if the artists have anything to say about it.

I just read an NPR story about an artist couple who bought a foreclosed home in their neighborhood as a “Power House Project“. Since scrappers had trashed the home’s connection to the grid, Mitch and Gina Cope have decided to leave it that way.

They think they can power their off grid house with solar and wind for about $60,000 and turn it into a neighborhood art center and guest room for visiting artists (the Copes live down the street).

Reading this, got me imagining buying my own 1, or 100, dollar home and undertaking my own green renovation… until I read that Power House has been broken into a few times, that Mitch has been “threatened” and that one neighbor says you need an alarm, a dog and a gun to live here.

Detroit residents must be heartier than I. Mitch Cope just sees any conflict as a reason to act. “People who have been in the neighborhood for a long time talk about how great the neighborhood used to be; you didn’t have to lock your doors. OK, so it’s gotten worse. … But now what? Let’s do something. Let’s have fun.”

There are creative types willing to rise to that challenge. Cope has convinced about a dozen working artist friends- from “the Netherlands, Germany, Brooklyn”- to move into his ‘hood (one of whom just bought for $100).

Urban forestry and opening up old riverbeds

Detroit is far from any type of massive gentrification, if that will ever happen. But, perhaps because it’s become such a desolate place, there is plenty of talk these days about reclaiming the city.

“What do you do with more than a third of the rest of the city that’s no longer being used?” is how Robin Boyle, chairman of planning and urban studies at Wayne State University, poses the question. He talks about urban planning, forestry, opening up old creeks and riverbeds that were covered up during the last century.

He admits there is no clear solution for how the city can renew itself, but, as a 17 year resident, he’s optimistic enough to stick around to find out how.

Hunting coons in Motown

I’m still on the fence about whether I’m up for a year or so in Detroit.

Of course, it would take a lot longer than a year to document real change, but perhaps I could capture the beginnings of something: not just where is that Green New Deal money going, but can environmentalism be used to raise all ships?

Can critics charging elitism with organics-only-dieters be silenced by more widespread growth of urban agriculture in Motown? Michelle Obama may be planting an organic White House garden, but will this trickle down?

Perhaps abandoned Detroit is more of a blank canvas for change than many other urban areas. There’s definitely a creative, and even survivalist, spirit in this town.

There’s one man who probably doesn’t define himself as an urban farmer, but he hunts wild raccoons at night with his dogs– shooting them down from trees with a .22- and has begun selling their meat from his freezer at $15 a piece or two for $25.

Though 69-year-old Glemie Dell Beasley was born in the Depression Era Arkansas where raccoon meat is a Southern country dish, he’s gotten plenty of interest in his wild game up north.

“It’s not dead yet”

I have to admit a bit of fear at moving to a city dubbed Murder City, perhaps heightened by a fellow Harvard classmate’s murder in post-Katrina New Orleans (her death inspired articles like “Did New Orleans kill Helen?“).

I don’t want to imply that crime needs to define the city. As firefighter Mike Nevin explains it: “The city is full of good people, living next to s–.”

Perhaps it’s just these dichotomies of good and evil, change and decay co-existing next door to each other here that make Detroit so ripe for study, or a doc?

Writer Labash calls the city “dying” in one sentence, but in the next clarifies “But it’s not dead yet”.

In keeping with my pessimism regarding documentary ideas, I email my husband- seated across the apartment- about my doubts of anything real happening in just one year in Detroit and how I’d just read what the city really needs is a 20-year plan.

Somehow this just made him more optimistic. He emailed me back: “Yeah, but that is also what needs to be done: to think beyond quarterly results. America needs that philosophical change to get the green industry of the future going.” (He referred me to tech guru Tim O’Reilly’s recent comment that we need to learn to take the long view: “you set things in motion, and then you go to meet up with them 20 or 30 years later.”)

It seems a bit ironic that the European half of our relationship is the one with the American dream (though they are still selling Obama t-shirts in cafes here), but there is reason for optimism from a city whose motto is: “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

If hope- Obama style- can rescue Detroit, it certainly would make a great documentary.