Pure Steynamite !
Every night at the MGM Grand Detroit, the Greektown Casino and the Motorcity Casino, cars from all over the state of Michigan fill up the parking lots. But as soon as you leave behind the excessive light and noise of the casinos, what is striking is the emptiness of this city.
A ghost town
Detroit's wide streets feature thousands of numbers but only a few houses. Most were burned to the ground; you can still see the ashes. Others were torn down by the city council's demolition teams. Fresh grass is slowly taking over what used to be America's most booming city -- in the 1930s.
Dark figures can be seen wandering around in the cold, pushing carts, the only thing that still belongs to them. Gigantic hospitals are empty, as if patients and staff had been evacuated after a chemical attack.
In 1950, nearly two million people lived in Detroit. Today, its population is only 720,000. After decades of an economic crisis that struck down the automobile industry and after the 1967 race riots, most people have relocated to the suburbs.
Those who could afford to move away from the threat of riots and the soaring crime rates relocated elsewhere. They left the city to those who had no choice but to stay. In the past few days, in the few remaining bars in town, people have been watching the presidential debates on TV. Everyone waited for either candidate to mention the city of Detroit. Every time Romney did, he was booed. People support Obama around here.
What can be done for a city that is so big that it could fit two or three other U.S. metropolises within its limits? "When I moved here 10 years ago, I warned my wife I would start smoking again. Everything was so apocalyptic that I felt the urge to get back to my old habits," says Patrick Crouch. Crouch is part of a fast-growing movement in Detroit: urban farming. He grows spinach, carrots and lettuce on empty lots only a few miles from the General Motors Renaissance Center. He has also started a soup kitchen.
His organization is called Earthworks Urban Farm. "There is no church, no community center and no school in the area any more. People not only need help, they need dignity. Detroit is a test-lab for the future. People have realized that the government is not going to help. So they decided to act. They grow their own vegetables. They are launching their own private initiatives together." These community gardens are sprouting all over town. Civil libertarians from around the country are coming to settle on this land, which is almost worthless. Crouch and the others have just learned that a Whole Foods (a supermarket chain for yuppies) will soon open in the area.
"We won't supply them with our vegetables. People from the neighborhood, who are mostly old people with low incomes, will be forced out of the area. We don't want gentrification in Detroit. We want a city that is open to all kinds of people." Even punks. There is a nice residential neighborhood not far from there. Streets are full of two-story red brick houses. Some of them have bars on the windows. In the basement of a typical middle-class house, there is even a rock venue, the Bear Cave.
For a handful of dollars
Nate, in his late twenties, moved here a few months ago. The house he is living in is up for auction by the city council for $500. Nate is realistic. He knows he will have to spend $10,000 to buy it. "People were forced to abandon their homes because they couldn't pay their mortgages. It spread like a disease, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. There was nothing we could do but to witness this tragedy. But it has also created new opportunities for many people who have launched their own projects and started building a new world. Where else in America can you buy a house for a handful of dollars?" Guitars are screaming. The neighbors do not complain. In Detroit, it is silence that is unbearable, not noise.
Detroit is the perfect place for those who enjoy a DIY lifestyle, who have new ideas but cannot always afford to carry them out. It is a space where nature's victory over concrete has created new opportunities.
Over the past few years, people have started to notice that wild animals, such as raccoons, have come back to the city. Glemi Dean Beasley, a bearded 72-year-old, owns a rifle and two dogs. The former truck driver moved to Detroit from Arkansas in the 1950s. He is now retired and earns a tiny pension that does not allow him to live well. He goes out every night to hunt for raccoons. He makes $12 per animal and sells the meat. With the help of his dogs and a headlamp, he stalks the neighborhood at night, tracking down raccoons in the trees.