A recent Atlantic Cities article, “Hysteria and Racist Screeds over HUD Plans to Map Neighborhood Diversity,” reminded people that racism and classism is very much alive in the U.S. Growing up in the “rich white suburbs” north of Detroit, I was taught to be afraid of the city; it was an inherent part of life and culture where I grew up. So when I joined members of USGBC Detroit Regional Chapter at the Better Block Detroit event a few weeks ago, I made sure to keep an eye on my personal assumptions, biases and fears.
Better Blocks is all about place-making, community engagement and sustainability. It is a demonstration tool that acts as a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the build-out process and provide feedback in real time. The Detroit event looked like a gathering of the United Nations. There was a deep sense of hope for a better future, despite images we see so often about this iconic American city in the media. People's pride was awe-inspiring. Frank discussions circulated around the city's history and the causes behind why there are blighted blocks, like the one at the corner of Livernois & the Lodge. The site chosen for Better Block Detroit was once a wind-powered community market that fell into oblivion 40 years ago. After preparing the site, the community gathered for the weekend to exhibit hand-made products and local sustainability initiatives. As a nod to the market’s historic clean energy source, the event was run through a photovoltaic demonstration supplied by local non-profit, WARM Training Center.
Later that night as I walked alone to see a mural painted on an adjacent building as part of the project, a man approached me. He was a bit rough around the edges. A voice in the back of my head told me to stay on my own course. Based on nothing he had done, I made the assumption that he would ask me for money. I stopped myself and recognized this as an opportunity to confront my city biases. I'm glad I did, as I quickly learned that we actually had similar interests, concerns and observations.
This man excitedly asked about the event taking place in the long-abandoned lot. I told him about Better Blocks and he told me how this building with the mural had recently been donated to a local church and was being revitalized for worship and recreational space. He was there to help clean it out. In that process, they were reclaiming and reusing treasures in the renovation of the new facility. "Did you know that old market was run by windmills?" He asked me. I hadn’t known this before, but pointed to the solar array that was now powering the event. I told him about a program that allows you to put solar panels on your home for no cost, and that after four years your electricity bill would go away. He was baffled, “What? No bills? Wow! I have to check that out. You know, people here are really trying. I think they’re going to bring this city back…”