Jul 20. 2012

Detroit, love it or leave it… not!

by Hélène

Translation by Evelyne. Original article in French by Anne-Sophie Novel (Blog Alternatives @LeMonde), July 12, 2012

Detroit, you love it or you leave it… not!

Imagine a place where urban farms, bicycle workshops, Wi-Fi networks, fund raising, music or skate parks, even, are totally conceived and managed by the residents. A city where all the inhabitants are building a sharing society by become the kings and queens of resourcefulness and DIY.

You are in Detroit, State of Michigan, on location for the filming of a web-documentary on the transition of this symbol of factory work towards a new collaborative economy. Far from the clichés, this two lively journalists; Nora Mandray and Hélène Bienvenu, have been following for the past year a group of mechanics, an urban farmer and a hacker. All are trying to change their city at their level by setting up projects with their own means, inspired by the ideal for a sustainable society.

A utopia comes true

In 20120, just after graduating from Sciences-Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies) the two friends decide to make a film on utopia around the world. A vast subject… but, at that time urban agriculture is “taking roots”, and this angle imposes itself, in Detroit: “the phenomenon fascinated us since it appeared to be a solution for many problems in times of crisis. Above all, it was at last an authentic way of life”, Hélène explains.

 “After a few weeks of filming on location, talking with the people of Detroit, we realized that Detroit was the epicentre of a far bigger movement: a DIY revolution”, Nora said. What started as a survival issue has become a way of life, thus making Detroit the Avant-garde City of the “back to the land: movement of the 2000s. Over there they have outgrown the Do It Yourself to live, for the “Do It Ourselves” and a “collaborative consumption” on a daily basis!

Apocalypse now?

But before that, the omnipresent ruins strike you. “The Central Station, this gigantic abandoned train station, is fascinating, hypnotic… as is the Packard Plant, a phantom factory in decay”, says Hélène, fascinated by this marks of the economic trauma the city went through and the way the Detroiters have overcome it with pride, they have learned to cope when the public services’ decline.

What is also disturbing is the segregation between the Whites and the Blacks. “The demarcation lines have shifted but they haven’t disappear”, testifies Nora, “the contrast is more visible between the inner city and the surrounding suburbs – where a majority of Whites live”. Amidst this chaos, nature reclaims its rights: “The urban landscape garbs you by the throat, there is a full-on clash between the post-apocalyptic and the poetic in Detroit…”, she adds.

A foretaste of the future?

To better understand the situation, our two reporters immerse themselves totally in Detroit. They start by helping a community group in charge of providing insulation for the residents who need it the most in winter. “This was a good slap in my face. This is when we realized the great distress most of the residents live in”, confides Hélène.

For them, it is clear: the culprits are many, but the productivist 20th century, born and dead in Detroit, is partially responsible for this downfall. “The Detroiters were the first victims of the mirage of an exponential growth. Today they are drawing their lessons: they are building tomorrow’s society with the remains of yesterday’s society… this is not an easy and painless process, it starts slowly but we have to speak about it now!”, adds the journalist

Hélène and Nora have also helped on urban farms, bicycle repair workshops, or soup kitchens, they took part in “community meetings” and conferences, with and without camera. “It was a two-way dialogue, sometimes the Detroiters us on our own policies in France!”, they explained.

Just ‘D” It

The city affects you as much as it haunts you, so they say. The residents are so proud to take part in this urban revival that they often speak about it as it were a person. Some have even gone as far as getting a tattoo of the Downtown map, or the Letter ‘D” on their body, which refers to the spirit of (re-) invention driving the “makers”, these men and women with an activist inclination who stayed because they have no other option or by choice to turn their city into a place where everything is possible!

‘What is great about the Detroiters, is that they take the lead. They don’t wait for the supermarkets to return (most of them have left!), they choose a vacant space to create a community garden without any consultation”, Hélène explains.

Detroit I love you

Today, Nora combines the skills she acquired at the UCLA cinema school, with her multi-lingual co-producer’s journalistic know-how (Hélène speaks 7 languages fluently) to create a web-documentary, the ideal medium to combine their respective talents. “As for me, I compile infos, and Nora transforms them into stories. Today it is the best format to exchange DIY “things and tricks“, says an enthusiastic Hélène.

The actions of the three main characters in “Détroit je t’aime” (Detroit I Love You) don’t consist of just planting, making, or recycling, but they also imagine tomorrow’s society as not-wasteful and placing human life at its rightful place. For Nora, “Their individual stories tell a universal story of a shared life conceived as the heart of the post-industrial civilisation. They are forever asking themselves this simple question: what does it mean to be part of a community today?”

With “Détroit je t’aime”, the idea is to create a community, to create bridges between cities faced with the same challenges of urban renewall”, Hélène adds.

If it is possible in Detroit, shouldn’t it be possible somewhere else?