Regeneration through provocation: Detroit, hope, and a new world order

Heidelberg ProjectWe drove down the street on a blustery day in East Detroit, pulling off to the side of the road to step out into the drizzle and the grey. As we emerged from the shelter of the vehicle, what I could describe seeing are the same tropes many people talk about, when they talk about Detroit. The boarded up and burned out and abandoned homes. The razed lots, the empty streets.

But then we turned a corner, entering a stretch of blocks which was the reason we came to Detroit in the first place: an art installation called the Heidelberg Project. Blending art and street, the Heidelberg Project reclaims abandoned homes and lots, creating an open conversation between discarded objects, the streets of Detroit, and the people who come to visit the place.

Let me be clear: this is not a neighborhood beautification project. Some of the homes are splashed with bright polka dots that spill out from the front porch to the sidewalk to the street, bringing whimsy and childishness into an area which for years has been characterized by redlined blight and poverty. Others are covered with oversized stuffed animals, stapled, misshapen, and weathered by time and rain – a grotesque nod to those who once inhabited the space, to the passage of time, to abandonment.

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People tell stories about Detroit. We like to think we know what happened in the city’s history: the rise of the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s promise that each worker ought to be able to buy his own car, and even for a brief moment, the promise of Detroit as a beacon for racial equality. Then, the closure of various factories led to sweeping unemployment, highlighting racial divides across the city. Wages depressed. The interstate plowed through the city, destroying vital areas of town, particularly the neighborhoods where black folks lived. The 1967 riots ensued. Vast white flight, paired with the devaluation of homes, meant that many houses were simply abandoned by their white owners as they streamed out of the city. Much of this time, the cheerful music of Motown was touted for bringing people together, even as the city, in many places, literally burned to the ground.

In some ways, Detroit reminds me of ancient Jerusalem, the Israelite capitol that was razed again and again by its empire neighbors, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans. Of course, the repeated destruction of Jerusalem was not necessarily within Israel’s control. Instead, it had much more to do with power to control resources. Because it held the trade routes that ran from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the narrow passage that made up Israel was especially coveted by whatever up-and-coming Empire was next in line.

More recently, the way we within the United States struggle for resources has become somewhat more “civilized”, shielding ourselves from direct contact of violence. Instead, with our silver sword of capitalism we defend any action that turns a profit, cannibalistically ravaging our own cities and our own people through the powers of the pure market run awry.

Walking through the art in the blocks of Detroit, I felt at once hopeful for the resurgence of the city and deflated for this place that some once called home. I felt provoked: Provoked to ask questions about who once lived here and what their lives were like; about who still lives here and what their lives are like. I wanted to know the various iterations this neighborhood took on over the last century, what external forces and structures created a system that turned its back from this place – and who made the decisions resulting in that system. More than anything, I felt an uncomfortable disturbance dwelling deep inside me.

Because it is not only wars and empires that raze and ravage the cities of God. Often, we tear one another down more indirectly – through the suppression of wages, through unjust financial practices, through the disinvestment of our government from certain people and certain places, through looking the other way when our neighbors are in economic pain.

Wages deflate beneath a living wage, and the standard response is to ask why the poor don’t just work harder. But a person should be able to work full time and support her family above the poverty rate.

People go hungry, and the standard response is to ask if they are really budgeting correctly. But when there is enough food to feed the world’s population, no one should have to go hungry.

A woman is bought for sex, and the standard response is to ask why she chose that profession. But the real question should be: how is it that we came to live in a world where a price tag is put on a human body?

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These arguments are so pervasive that it is easy to read texts like today’s in 2 Thessalonians and hear the standard response ringing through our minds. Ah, we read: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.” Yes–such true and vast wisdom!

But a closer reading of the text reveals that the people to whom Paul is referring aren’t just refusing to work. Instead, they are active – but they are putting their energy to ill use, what Paul calls “mere busybodies,” stirring up discord in the community. This passage has nothing to do with whether or not a basic safety net should be in place in society. But it is about how to solve problems and be in community with one another – especially when the gossip of a few can destabilize the whole.

Paul isn’t talking about the work ethic of a few – he’s talking about work ethics of the whole.

And in a very real way, the prophet Isaiah addresses work ethics, as well.

At the time when this particular text in Isaiah was written, most scholars believe Israel was under the thumb of Persia – a period of time marked by the contractual agreement Israel had with Persia, promising extra labor and taxes siphoned from Israel – like the cream skimmed from a brimming pail of fresh milk. Or, rather: like half the milk poured out onto dry ground, nutritious nectar wasting away, nourishing instead the thing that oppresses.

The standard response at that time might have been that Persia had the power – that this was what Israel had to do to keep the peace, to maintain status quo, merely to survive. But Isaiah is very clear about the Jerusalem that God will make new again: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.

God’s new world cuts against the standard interpretation of the economics of power and resources. God’s vision of a new world is material – but it is a world in which a body’s daily work means also its replenishment at mealtimes and at night. God’s world both boggles our understanding of the way things are, and restores our vision of the way things ought to be.

Earlier this week, one of the houses in the Heidelberg Project was burned down – arson was suspected. It was the second time in six months the Project has experienced this type of vandalism, and when I was there two weeks ago, I walked amidst the remains of a different house, the ashes still fresh, but wet and cold from the rain.

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I felt despair when I saw the remains of that house, and when I read this week that another had been set to flame, I felt it again. A loss of hope: that the beautiful, creative things in this world are more often set to flame than they are celebrated.

But even in death we are promised new life. I noticed, walking in amongst the ashes, bright pops of color and new discarded objects that someone had placed within the rubble. Even in its destruction the house took on a new form, not ceasing to exist, but becoming different, confounding, troubling; provoking even more questions of anyone who chooses to engage with it. This, too, is how Detroit will rebuild: in the destruction and provocation and regeneration of all that it is.

Isaiah offers up hope when the world feels beyond despair once more. When the standard responses crowd the mind, when it feels impossible to know how to continue on, God promises the hope of a world made new. Like a ravaged city that provokes and disturbs us, the way of God generates in us the will to rebuild, to start afresh, to make our world anew. Like a bright green dot unabashedly painted on an abandoned home, the way of God jars the senses awake, bringing the head and the heart into a new understanding of this world order,

so that we may train the wolf to lay down with the lamb;

so that we may tame the lion to eat straw;

so that together, we may bring the fierce things of this world to be made new.

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One Comment on “Regeneration through provocation: Detroit, hope, and a new world order”

  1. John says:

    As a native Michigander and from the southeast area, I am all too aware of the problems this city faces. Detroit is one of many reasons my wife and I left Michigan. The entire state is in a state of declination, I had had enough of watching my home state self destruct because of the ignorance and greed at virtually all levels of government in the state. I feel so sorry for the people of Detroit – the flip side is that they get what they continually vote for.


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