Written by James F. Dator
This post is about what I see happening in Detroit. But to make sense of it, I have to take my readers east. Not east like Windsor Ontario east, but east like Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand east.
Witnessing the Feedum Freedom garden in East Detroit, I immediately thought about Zomia, the vast, mountainous “Appalachia” that rises between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin. Pulled on all sides by six different nation-states, the diverse people of Zomia have learned to practice what James C. Scott has called the “arts of not being governed”—a collection of alternative political-economies and cultural traditions that run counter to the coercive, hierarchical, and surplus-oriented states that dominate the rice-producing lowlands. Using the geography to their advantage, the renegades and castaways of the valley states turned the mountains of Zomia into a place of refuge, into a non-state space. In turn, Zomia not only became a region where communities could imagine new ways of organizing outside of the purview of the state, but also a homeland where people could turn these dreams into lived alternatives to the patterns of war, enslavement, and enclosure that gobbled up life down below.
Unlike Zomia, however, Detroit has few hills and no mountains. Instead, the zones of refuge like the Feedum Freedom gardens emerge because of a different kind of impenetrability, albeit a similar human desire to rethink and redefine property in the face of inequality and need. Deindustrialization, divestment, and the bursting of the real-estate bubble have, in addition to political obstacles, hobbled the state-apparatus to such a degree that enclosure itself has become too capital intensive. The only thing the government can do to mark its turf right now is to claim the empty houses and lots on paper and maybe bulldoze properties. What this says to me is that like the majority of the citizens of Detroit, the state, too, is wrestling with its own imagination and vision. In the meantime, those who believe that revitalization=recapitalization must desperately hope their version of progress wins out; they must pray that land one day becomes scarce again inside the city boundaries.
For Detroiters its possible to simply ignore or circumvent the grasp of the state, because its more like a boogeyman rather than a panopticon. Of course, this raises parallel issues of lack of public services like garbage collection, transportation, fire & police, and health care. But in the urban gardens of Detroit, cast as many are over empty lots and abandoned lands, tilling the soil is not only about providing food and healthy eating options, its about new ways of organizing and providing for neighbors. The urban gardens offer materialized evidence of the power of imagination in the face of state withdrawal. Not only do they call into question the definitions of private and public property, they also speak to the very ways Detroiters can begin to rethink their connections with each other and the ways they define their community. If bulldozed houses and reclaimed lots serve to symbolize post-industrial state power in Detroit, then the image of leafy kale and green jalepeños growing from the soil of a once abandoned lot point to a new, dramatically local, and potentially organic definition of true democracy.
The question, of course, is how to secure and defend these new spaces for the future.
From the vistas of Detroit, the future appears all but certain.