Everyone told us not to go to Detroit.
It’s too dangerous, they said. Too hostile, they claimed. Too rough, they warned. So we stuck out our thumbs and hitched our way there.
We were picked up by three guys in a pickup truck, and told them we were heading for 1 E Montana, Detroit. They looked up the location with stony faces. “You can’t be going there…We’re not dropping you off and letting you hitch or walk the rest of the way – we’ll take you to the door”. Fine by us.
When we arrived the place seemed deserted. What was once an old warehouse had been painted and decorated and made into a home, but grass sprouted up through the concrete and the courtyard held an old metal oil drum, sides carved out to allow flames to escape. Cautiously and accompanied by our three pickup truck friends we climbed the rickety wooden stairs outside up to the first floor, where a door of metal bars hung crooked from makeshift hinges. We chatted nervously, but there was no noise from inside. Calling our contact from Couchsurfing, we found that “most people were out for the day at a Techno festival, and would be back…some time in the night…or morning? Unsure yet. But someone should be in?” We called out again.
Suddenly from down in the courtyard a voice, then two, rang up – asking who we were and what we wanted…
The UIO is an abandoned building in Detroit, just off from the famous 8 Mile, adopted and adored by a transient, ever-changing group of artists and musicians. It’s a squat, but the city allow it whilst they have bigger problems to deal with.
The first residents we met were Rafiki and Owl, two Detroit kids who’d been living in the UIO (Universal Intentional Organication) for a few months by the time we arrived. Rafiki was 21, bare-chested beyond a lose coloured waistcoat, made jewellery and other art, and had a new looking tattoo on the cheek bone beneath his right eye. Owl was just 18, a native American boy wearing a permanent otherworldly grin and a huge feathered headdress. We met their friend Marie too, who didn’t live in the UIO but in a similar project a few streets over: dreadlocks bundled up on top of her head and intricate tattoos adorning her thighs, a lovely infectious laugh like a chipmunk chattering. Once we’d introduced ourselves, out of the woodwork came a few more people, quickly befriending our pickup truck friends and inviting them on to their Rainbow Family bus (a school bus parked on the street outside, painted white and kitted out with tables and sofa chairs). The three men who had warned us so completely against coming to Detroit, who wore ‘normal’ clothes and did ‘normal’ jobs and considered themselves to be ‘normal’, were laughing and chatting excitedly with kids in rainbow coloured garments and beads, making plans to hang out later in the week. Amazing how a little marijuana can bring people together! Lilly and I don’t smoke, so we hung back off the bus and toured the rest of the building with Rafiki.
The semi-darkness of the UIO paired with my apparent inability to take a photo in poor light means we don’t have pictures of the inside, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s a good thing to use imagination with a place where part of it’s magic and charm comes not from what work has been completed, but from what is planned. Rafiki lead us through the corridors, up uneven stairs with the enthusiasm of a lost boy describing his home to Wendy. Every darkened doorway was a bedroom or a tea room or a ‘shamanistic drum circle space’. The main space on the ground floor was ‘the venue’, with huge amplifiers and a permanent disco light, cracked psychedelic floor tiles surrounded by well worn sofas pressed up to the walls. You could feel the love in the place, and it was good.
There were currently between 6 and 8 Couchsurfers staying at the UIO in various places, so we were to stay in Rafiki’s bedroom where there was a spare bed tucked in the corner of his living room space. His was the only room with a lock on the door (or a door at all).
That night we went with Owl, Rafiki and Marie to a place on 8 Mile called the ‘Holistic House’. What this turned out to be was an abandoned superstore in a huge retail parking lot, cleared out and spray painted into a private members’ club. At the very back, performing to a semi-circle of sofas, a ‘The Doors’ cover band sung their greatest hits.
The next afternoon, after an exploratory walk down the main streets around UIO, we gathered our things and moved on to our next stop: The Blue House.
On a hammock on the porch of the house lay Marie, sketching in the dying daylight as Owl and our new host Elie jammed together on piano and guitar. We had walked down their street with some caution, over-grown yards beginning to swallow the burnt out remains of family homes. For anyone who watches The Walking Dead, you have a good impression of what this might look like.
The Blue House was just one in a street of many houses squatted in since they were abandoned when the city went bankrupt. Slowly but surely, whilst most houses are taken by collapse or crime, these adopted homes are blooming with life: community farms set up in vacant lots, peeling paint re-vamped in bright colours and hand built stalls offering free soup and vegetables to passers by. In a city so well-known for violence, it was incredible to see this secret sanctuary of peace and community.
All the electricity for The Blue House comes from a solar panel rigged to the back balcony, and the toilet is a composting creation in the cool of the basement. Food is supplied by the chickens and the gardens, and through their reputation for hosting soup kitchen ‘potluck’ cook-outs they have a huge collection of canned foods and long life products donated by various people living in the city and the food bank. They ensure the local community doesn’t go hungry, so in turn other people make sure they don’t either.
Elie (pictured) and Hunter live in this particular house, but there are others all the way up the street referred to collectively as Fireweed Universe City, and they all regularly meet up at the UIO.
For a city we were told not to go to, Detroit turned out to be an incredible lesson in generosity, resourcefulness, and choosing to live your life with freedom. Sure it’s still a dangerous town, but with pockets of love and life like these springing up there’s definitely hope.
Elie and Hunter are currently trying to buy The Blue House from the city (as well as find a new room mate) but the city is refusing, choosing instead to demolish their home and sell off the land as a block.