Two years ago, residents of Goldengate Street in Detroit MI were scratching their heads as people with strange names like Coconut and Mars started moving into the street’s abandoned homes, decorating them in wild colors and planting vegetable gardens in empty lots.
It was a culture clash from the beginning. Establishing a utopian community in a rough area proved harder than expected.
There’s about a dozen or so of them now, along with waves of couch surfers who pass through. They live in houses with no electricity or water or heat. They warm themselves with wood-burning stoves and wash themselves outside with buckets of water on warmer days. Their toilets are outhouses.
Each wound up here for different personal reasons but with a shared goal of creating a self-sustaining, eco-friendly community. They thought that Detroit, with so much abandonment, would be the perfect place to create it. And they figured if nobody wanted all these abandoned houses, they’d gladly take them over — with or without permission.
But it has not gone to plan.
Some residents saw the newcomers as easy targets for robbery. Hangers-on showed up and took advantage of the group’s friendliness. Mostly, neighbors complained about suddenly having a circus on their street.
“That’s what I keep telling them — how is it that you’re part of this ‘peaceful community’ when the people who actually belong here, you’re actually screwing over to have your dream?” said Larry Lions, 43, who bought a home here five years ago.
But the newcomers say they came to improve the neighborhood — not take it over or cause a disruption. They give free bicycles to kids, mow lawns on empty lots and hand out vegetables from the garden.
“Everybody’s here because they want to be here, because they see the possibility of creating change,” said Mars, otherwise known as 31-year-old Marshall Symons. “We’re not here to gentrify, we’re not here to turn it into something where poor people can’t afford to live here. We’re here to invest in this community.”
A different world
The neighborhood began changing 13 years ago when chiropractor Robert Pizzimenti opened the Innate Healing Center at the corner of the street at Woodward. He didn’t know much about the area at the time.
“It’s a whole different world here,” he said. “I never realized how bad it is here.”
The State Fair neighborhood — bounded by Woodward, John R, 8 Mile and McNichols — is in collapse. It lost 51% of its population in just a decade, according to the last census. It’s home to Robinwood Street, which gained notoriety a few years back because 60 of its 66 houses were abandoned. Prostitutes roam the area by the dozen at all hours and in all weather, and drug houses are everywhere.
“There’s more crack around here than tobacco,” said Pizzimenti, 51. “I’m amazed at the amount of crack and heroin around here.”
Pizzimenti painted his new building sunshine yellow, held weekly drum circles featuring music and meditation, and grew the clinic from a simple chiropractic office to a vegetarian restaurant to an herbs store to a community center.
It couldn’t have been more out of place in this impoverished, violent area.
Pizzimenti has been robbed twice at gunpoint, his center has been burglarized and he was once jumped by a pack of pre-teens. He’d been giving them money now and then. They wanted more.
“I was more sad about it than angry,” he said, pointing to a bite-size scar on his arm.
But he’s almost apologetic about these kinds of incidents.
“I know a lot of the bad guys, and they’re not really bad guys,” he said. “I’m amazed at how they survive. They’re just desperate. But if they have money in their pocket they become beautiful.”
Though things still get stolen now and then, his presence has become accepted by the area’s residents, who all know the eccentric doctor on the corner.
“One time my violin was stolen, a $7,000 beautiful violin,” he said. “I go into one of the crack houses looking for it and they’re all like, ‘Hey Dr. Bob!’ I’m like, oh my God I’ve been here too long.”
One house, one garden
Down the street, clusters of abandoned homes have stood empty for years. Pizzimenti bought one of them and moved in.
One day, someone calling himself Mars showed up.
He was living in San Francisco when he came across a website touting a burgeoning eco-village called Fireweed Universe City, founded near the healing center by someone who’d hung out there.
The idea sounded so good, he biked from California to Detroit. The trip took two months.
He was greeted with a letdown.
“I thought I was moving into something established,” he said. “I thought I would get here and there would be, like, all these households with all these community gardens. And it was one house, one person, one garden.”
And that one person moved away. But he was inspired by the original concept and stayed to carry out its goals.
He moved into the abandoned house next door to Pizzimenti and founded a community bike shop. He’d post on couch-surfing websites inviting travelers to come stay on the block. And when Occupy Detroit took place two years ago, the vacant houses filled up.
“We went down there and said, ‘Hey, there’s all these empty houses by us. Come occupy these.’ So some of them did,” he said.
Not everyone who accepted the invitation shared the community’s ideals.
People showed up drunk or high, started fights, stole things. Not long ago, a young woman living in one of the houses was nearly raped in a driveway by a stranger who’d spent a month here doing chores, fixing houses and claiming the same ideals as the community.
It became hard to tell who was sincere and who was there for a free thrill ride — or worse. Few wanted to contribute to the hard work that community members asked of people.
“We’ve had a few of these vacationing squatters,” Pizzimenti said. “They’re not bad kids, but they’re not really doing anything, either.”
A chicken walked into the open door of Sarah O’Conner’s house. She picked him up and pet his feathers.
He was a stray from the days when there ducks, chickens, goats and pigs next door, until fed-up neighbors called police and had them hauled away. Now he’s the house pet.
O’Conner has been here since spring. The 24-year-old grew up in Macomb County, went to college Up North, and then came home. She found living in her car was preferable to staying with her parents, and staying with friends in this area was better than that. She’s been living in this abandoned house with two other young women ever since.
Her roommate, 20-year-old Taylor Dall, had been part of the Occupy movement in Traverse City, came across Innate Healing Center’s website, found the community and moved in. She works at the healing center, as do neighbors like Cookie and Artyst, who live across the street in a house whose windows are filled with colorful bottles cemented in rows, creating a stained-glass effect inside.
The light was dim inside the women’s house except for the warm glow from the wood-burning stove. Its smoke escaped through a pipe funneled through the fireplace and up the chimney.
Drums were stacked in a corner; an acoustic guitar rested on a wall. A gaudy portrait of Jesus and Mary was propped atop the fireplace mantle. So was a hand-scrawled cardboard sign announcing that “God is love.” A sign in the doorway listed community chores to be done.
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