Monday, June 22, 2009

Detroit ugly, Detroit beauty

My sister and I share a fascination with Detroit. The city's woes have exposed the rundown and the wrong, laying bare a failure of the industrial organization of life. On the other hand, holes and problems necessitate solutions. Necessity is the mother of invention. Many real people still live in Detroit, persevering in spite of citywide setbacks.

Two interesting articles last week:

The WSJ printed "Retailers Head for Exits in Detroit" - another doom and gloom story, reporting among other facts that Detroit hosts not even one big-chain grocery store. But wait! It's ALDI to the rescue. ALDI continues to open stores in Detroit and a spokeswoman for the chain says ALDI is "very bullish" on Detroit. The last ALDI I went into stocked only canned, frozen, and boxed goods, i.e. Dry Goods, and no fresh produce. This article claims Detroit residents will go to farmers markets for fruits and vegetables.

Make sure to look at the companion photo slideshow, titled Detroit's Retail Exodus, featuring some great photos, some of which are reminiscent of the work of Detroit Blog, more on which below. See photo 7 for a glimpse of the indie grocer Family Fair Food Center. I imagine this store carries three different brands of three-ounce tins of Potted Meat. For a hilarious product review of a can of Potted Meat Food Product, see Steve Don't Eat It Vol. 1 at The Sneeze.

CNN printed "Got $100? Welcome to your new Detroit home" - This is an exciting piece about poor artists who get houses almost for free and then renovate them according to greener standards. The photo at the top of this post is a house some artists got for a hundred dollars, before they began renovations.

My sister and I became fascinated with Detroit a few years ago while discussing play-money houses. We had a little "contest" to see who could go on and find the cheapest house. Detroit was the winner. You could get a house for a dollar there. What house do you get for a dollar, or a hundred dollars? Probably a house with back taxes or liens owed; a house whose entire plumbing and electrical utilities have been stripped by looters for recycling money; a house likely infested with generations of insects, mold and mammals; and likely a house in a neighborhood that doesn't exactly feel safe, even for those used to being urban pioneers in other cities.

But just think. If enough reasonable people renovated these abandoned houses, the city could flourish in a GM and Ford-free future. In a parallel universe, my sister is living in a renovated solar-paneled bungalow in Detroit. (But it would have to be a distant parallel: for one thing, I don't think she could live any place where the temperature regularly hovers around 10 degrees F. at night for several months out of the winter.)

And finally, a note about the continued vitality of Detroit Blog. In its current state, the blog is a champion of grassroots community and dogged determination, showcasing the barely-noticeable-from-the-street little businesses that continue to serve their neighborhoods. These people do what they do for real good reasons, day in and day out, regardless of what interlopers and jackasses like me write on the internets.

I kind of miss the old, grumpier, alcoholic, abandoned-skyscraper-exploring Detroit Blog. Once the (anonymous) guy began writing his articles for the Detroit Metro Times, he reined things in a bit, and toned down the bitterness. The change in perspective was good, though, as he became a more involved community reporter. The focus is now outward and optimistic, instead of inward and suspicious, and I can only imagine the struggling city is a little bit better for his work. Righteous!

Detroit Blog once did a great run of articles on one of my favorite topics: what happens to the greatest works of mankind when they are abandoned and left to nature. How long does it take for nature to reclaim "civilization"? Of course this question is now answered in a CGI wank-fest on the History channel's Life After Humans series. But Detroit Blog was there first, reporting on trees growing in and on skyscrapers, "urban prairies" where tony neighborhoods once stood, and wild animals living in and around downtown.

For a succinct description of the phenomenon, with some great photos, see Detroit Blog's "Wild Kingdom".

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