Detroit is a sci-fi city, always at odds with itself. A city of stunning polarities and strange ironies. A place where technology, innovation, wealth and modernization clash with poverty, history, and the archaic. It’s a place that constantly surprises me, because it seems to exist on multiple planes. Its broad landscapes can be deceivingly empty, but on closer inspection the city is full of a presence. A presence of life, of history, of the past and future colliding. A presence of nature, wilderness, wildlife. A presence of its people, sometimes hidden away, all of them real people with stories & experience.
I’ve been exploring some of these beautiful areas of the city, where nature has been reclaiming neighborhoods on a large scale. One area, along the Hamtramck-Detroit border, has concrete barriers blocking the streets, allowing the weeds & trees to take over the sidewalks and roads as well as the homes & lots.
Nearby, a desolate playground is all that remains of Cooper Elementary School.
Other areas are still sparsely inhabited, bucolic horizontal landscapes colored with the saturated hues of fall. This is where the resilient have stayed and where the new pioneers have planted their flags in the form of urban gardens & farms. Don’t mistake these areas as being empty or abandoned, because often they hold the most surprising evidence of Detroit’s pulsing life.
Other areas are abandoned, but also inhabited. On a quiet abandoned railway viaduct in a forgotten warehouse district, high above the Detroit River, Tom has built himself a little home. This home is tucked away in a teeming pocket of wilderness, isolated on a concrete pedestal 20 feet in the air and no larger than 25 feet wide by 75 feet long. Trees grow through the rail ties and tall grasses and bushes fill the grounds.
His home is impressive. Built over a several-year period, Tom has constructed an insulated and shingled weatherproof capsule. Big enough to lay down in, Tom surrounds himself with what he needs. On small shelves in the shelter… Deoderant, a little radio, a flashlight, bandaids, a little Jack Daniels, barely nipped on, some oatmeal. His home is surrounded by handmade birdhouses, gardens, and pathways. Tom is resilient in so many ways. He weathers the elements without complaint. He wears only smiles & confidence. He lives in an “optimistic state of mind”, and will tell you that this is a “northern district, you know, norther-en. And its a state first, and then a state of mind.” In the winter, he uses a few candles to warm his home, and it can get quite warm with just a few candles. He patches his clothes, keeps clean & will shave every once-in-a-while. He never goes to a shelter or soup kitchen. He never asks for handouts, though many people in the community bring him what they think might make him comfortable. But he could easily live without it. He is totally at ease with his situation, and he embraces it. He is also uniquely urban. He usually buys his food from the store, purchasing cheap, long-lasting items. He fills up milk cartons with water from a nearby business; a gallon lasts him a week or more.
Tom is perplexing in a way that is uniquely Detroit. Here we have an area of the city that was largely abandoned because industry left, jobs left, rail traffic dropped, rail lines were abandoned, the warehouses were demolished, etc. In many ways, this part of the city died. And we also have a man who has taken advantage of that emptiness, claimed it for himself, and is able to survive off it because it is abandoned. Tom has said he wouldn’t live in a ‘normal’ house if you gave it to him. He can really only live here. This is his comfort zone. This is where thing are simple, quiet, right. He can work on odd projects, keep himself busy.
This scenario seems a bit like something out of a sci-fi apocalypse film. But look closer. Detroit’s glittering art deco skyline looms behind Tom’s shelter. Just through the woods, thousand-foot lake freighters swim by on the blue waters of the strait. And on the streets just behind the alley, the glow of a party store, the noise of the bar. It’s a city, after all, with people and life.
Detroit is a horizon city, existing on the edge of light and dark. But this is not sunset. It’s dawn, and the light is about to shine very bright.