Sunday morning I had planned a bike ride with an old friend. This is one of my favorite past times in Detroit. We moved away about three years ago and things have changed. The city has filled in with feral hipsters and aging millennials who’ve adopted the David Beckham hairstyle as the last do they will ever have. As a result, my rides have moved further into the fringe. Downtown is simply over run with cars. Gone are the days of the Campus Criterium, a race with friends to see who could be the first to circle Campus Martius (Detroit’s interpretation of a roundabout…… not sure why there are traffic lights) 100 times. For a little extra challenge, grab a beer or three at the Grand Trunk before trying this.
It began to downpour an hour before we were supposed to meet. I tried to call the ride off, but Filipe was already on his way. By the time he arrived the rain had stopped and we went out with no direction in mind. Over the bridge to Midtown (R.I.P. Cass Corridor), down Second, through Cass Park, Grand River to Washington, and cut to the river through Hart Plaza after a detour around Cobo. As always, I notice old buildings razed and and new ones under construction. The rain kept folks from the burbs out of downtown though and it felt like the city I moved to in 2011. Contrast that with this morning’s run; I stood in front of the Fox Theater getting lost in the ornate crown molding for a moment when I noticed that I could feel the reverberation of traffic and construction through the pavement. It almost felt like I was standing on a guitar string with just the slightest of waves passing through from a finger pluck.
This is all exciting, but a quiet Sunday is a special treat. Wet streets, smell of worms and dirt, steam rising from cracks in the road and bubbling up through rain puddles. The uninitiated and unquestioning suburbanite assumes these clouds are disgusting sewer gasses. It is a widely held practice to associate Detroit with excremet and they can’t help it. They’re almost disappointed to find out that it is actually from the city’s steam system which, when constructed in 1903, was a sign of wealth held only by places like New York. In modern times, the provisional vents are often utilized by the homeless as a warm place to sleep in the winter. Just a few years ago you might see them making a bed on top of one in the middle of the road. At that time there wasn’t much of a chance of a car driving through. Still, Detroit Thermal provides steam to heat more than 12 million square feet of buildings in downtown.
We worked our way along to the far west side. I saw a small dirt road on our left and decided to check it out. Along a massive concrete wall was a brightly colored shack with a round daylighting window at the top. Door open and guy reading in bed. The place was maybe 10’ x 8’. Noticing another structure on top of the wall, Filipe speculated that it was some kind of trustafarian compound and I posited the workings of squatters. He argued that it was too nice and I thought he might have a good argument.
We turned around and asked the guy in the little shack if we could take a peak up top. He seemed confused and maybe a bit paranoid. He looked nothing like a Californian roughing it in the Midwest in order to cultivate empathy with the common man. He looked like a drifter. Nevertheless he said it was fine. We dropped our bikes on the ground near his little hut.
Up a small staircase with red and white pinstripes next to a sunshine and wavey ocean mural. There was a ledge above the stairs and from there a step ladder took us to the top of the concrete wall. What I thought was part of a building was actually part of a retaining wall. We were standing on top of an old railroad track.
Directly in front of us was a beautiful tiny home. Grey walls angled in like a pyramid with white trim and green cap on top garnished with cedar shake. We poked around for about 30 seconds before feeling that we were invading somebody’s space and decided to leave. A rustling came frome the hut. A voice called from inside and we apologized and began to work our way down the ladder.
“I was just taking a shower, let me get my shoes.”
A man popped out from the door and greeted us with the kind of smile and bright eyes that you get from a friend you haven’t seen in years. Somebody once told me that my wardrobe reminded him of a well dressed homeless man. This was the first time that I understood that. Yellow collared shirt, blue dress pants, and belt; a bit wrinkled but clean. Honestly he was probably better dressed than me. Growing up in middle class America you learn a number of things about poverty. What you don’t learn is that it does not necessitate a loss of self worth or pride. A person can walk tall and straight in shined shoes whether or not they know where their next meal is coming from.
“The name’s Tom, pleasure to meet you.”
He was fit. His handshake was firm, but only due to his strength, not because he had something to prove. We explained that we were just leaving and were sorry to invade his space. He said it was no trouble and invited us to look around. I asked if we should lock our bikes and he responded unconvincingly that they should be safe.
We probably spent close to an hour up there. Tom had been squatting that spot for more than 15 years. He grew up in Detroit, moved away for a more than a decade, and came back in the mid 90’s. I didn’t catch how he ended up homeless. He said that he had moved around a bunch of times and may have gotten into a bit of trouble. Ultimately he decided that he could accept homelessness, but not laziness.
When he initially found this little nook there was somebody else staying there. Due to the transient nature of the lifestyle this person moved on and Tom has had the place to himself ever since. He has never had any issues with theft or violence. He says he doesn’t have anything worth stealing. The police even check on him every now and then to make sure he is alright.
There is no electricity, gas, or running water. He uses candles for heat in the winter and says that with enough blankets it is not so bad. This weekend’s rain offered a nice opportunity for an outdoor shower. I didn’t ask what he does for a bathroom, but there was no sign of him using the property.
Tucked away in some trees about forty feet from the little pyramid building was a much larger house that appeared to be under construction. As I looked closer I was amazed to see that it was wrapped in Tyvek and had some elaborate masonry. He has been working on this building for two years and plans to move into it once it is finished. It is probably close to 400 square feet, has a fireplace, sliding wooden entry doors, is partially subterraneous for thermal mass and to make it easier to work on the roof, and has unbelieveable day-lighting features. Tom has done all of this work without power tools. Before he built the stairs, he had a flimsy ladder, before that he was hauling materials up a tree.
Old railroad ties had been repurposed to make a fence. Some of the old nails had been integrated into various art projects. The property is owned by the State of Michigan. Tom knows that he could be kicked out any time and doesn’t seem to mind. He would just rebuild somewhere else he says. Although for now he is building as if it will be home forever.
“I’m not worried about moving on. I have to take care of this place, I have to take care of me….. If you keep moving on, you can’t find anywhere to be.” This is strangely different from the typical language of Detroit which imparts and a certain acceptance of the impermanent. Nobody “lives” anywhere, they “stay”. Ask somebody where they live and they might say, “Oh I stay on the East side, near Chandler Park.”
He says that he gets everything he needs from the dumpsters. He used to go to the landfill, but he found that by the time things get there they are usually in pretty bad shape. He has an incredible eye for useful materials. Industrial grade wallpaper is used to wrap every other board of a small fence to give it an alternating texture. A dome window on the side of his house is encircled by whitewashed bricks. Artistic colored glass, green shingles cut into the shape of leaves (organic logo), raised bed with steel mesh all around it to keep the squirrels out.
He said that some days he just likes to sit and watch all the animals up there. He built a birdhouse, although the squirrels tend to occupy it. Still there is no shortage of robins in the trees. “The squirrels are more domesticated than the cats. They will sit and eat right in front of you. If you watch them long enough, they all have their own personality. As soon as the cats know that you’ve seen them they hide.”
Although he has a guiding vision of what he wants his home to become, things don’t always go as planned and he is constantly learning from his mistakes. He points at a pile of scraps from projects that didn’t pan out. “I get to where I pile all my mistakes up, which is what I did. I don’t have to blame somebody else’s mistake for the same thing you have to do to make your own mistakes. That’s a hundred years old that stuff there. I ain’t just gonna let it rot away. You don’t give up on your work.” Eventually he might come up with an idea of how to make something work or completely take a project apart and turn it into something new. He seems to find a way to use everything. I guess if you take all that time to find it and drag it up there, you’re invested in it.
He keeps himself busy with building, but is fortunate to have plenty of time to think. Comparing these found relics to wisdom he says, “The thing about the past is that things get left behind. And if you don’t know how to use it, it will be sitting there for a couple more hundred years.” On wondering about how things got this way he says, “If you got enough smarts for questions, then you have enough smarts for answers.”
Tom’s situation is common in that he is a person who for various reasons has ended up living on the streets. He doesn’t make any excuses. What is unique is his ability to turn his vision into reality. Most of us would be envious of this. If you’re a capitalist, his story is the failure of socialism. If you’re a socialist, it’s the other way around. Regardless of your stance on ‘isms’, you have to respect this place and this man. Had he been dealt a different hand he could have easily been a rich man. But maybe something in his past had to occur in order for him to be as driven as he has become.
I find myself doing this from time to time. I find meeting a person like Tom inspiring and this creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance as in America we are taught to associate poverty with drugs, violence, and desperation. Not once did he ask for so much as a penny. On our way out he thanked us for dropping by and told us we were welcome to visit any time. I’m hoping that I can make time to check in on him before we go. Perhaps stop by with a bit of food and supplies. Even though he didn’t ask for it, I will probably give him a few dollars as I know this is helpful for somebody in his place. If you’re as inspired by Tom as I am and would like to help him continue to construct his home, I’ve added a Paypal button below. Felipe will act as courier for the money while Soph and I are away. If people end up contributing we will post updates as we stay in touch with him.