Detroit Remodeled

January 23, 2019

A makers’ commons strives for openness, egalitarianism, and catalytic impact.  The local environs has to reckon with it first.

This piece was originally published by Bittersweet Monthly in January of 2019, in collaboration with photographer Stephen Smith and videographers Steve Andres and Brandon Lapierre. A year and a half later, in May of 2020, Anne caught up with Bittersweet for a podcast reflection on how this story was created.

A Tale of Two Cities

It looked like London Heathrow. Duty-free shops sparkled with Chanel and vintage Scotch. Departure and Arrival screens boasted nonstop flights to cosmopolitan destinations like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Sydney. The bathrooms gleamed, the stalls spacious and smelling like potpourri. This was the Detroit airport?

I got to the Enterprise car rental and confessed that this was my first visit to the storied city. The customer service agent, a tall black gentleman, was unphased, and expressed a gracious enthusiasm about what I would find. “You like pizza?” Yes. “Check out Buddy’s.” “Music?” Yes. “Cliff Bell’s your jam.”

Ten miles later, and the scene grew dappled. Dilapidation seemed a fancy word for the sheer gutting of house after house, block after block.

An example of the advanced level of decay that plagues approximately 25 square miles of Detroit. With about 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots, Detroit has become notorious for its urban blight. / Credit: Stephen Smith

Occasionally there’d be a reviving commercial street that resembled Waco in its early Fixer Upper phase—artisanal delis playing K-Love and host to white customers catching up on family pleasantries and “what the Lord was doing in Nairobi.”

That same Lord was invoked verbally in many of the black neighborhoods, though His fulfilling of promise seemed long in coming. “For we walk by faith, and not by sight,” read one church sign. I wondered how long faith could carry this city, if hope for a more visible equalizing would keep returning void. “How long, O Lord?” is what I would have found a more compelling sermon advertisement.

Since Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy and ensuing rollercoaster, lore has it that the automotive has-been survives as a two-city dichotomy – 7.2 square miles of a redeveloped downtown, and 133 square miles of negligence.

But that oversimplifies. Detroit is at least two cities. But where the dichotomy holds is in the area of race: White lenses still wield disproportionate influence on seeing and thus initiating what’s needed inside Detroit. And this presumption, however well-intentioned, often only pours more salt on a long-festering wound of black distrust and disempowerment, repelling whites and blacks from a more productive solidarity.

One organization trying to overcome this dam is Life Remodeled. Founded in 2011 by Chris Lambert, its mission is to break down barriers and provide three distinct vehicles for bridge-building:

(1) Identify the key community asset in a given neighborhood and remodel it

(2) Repair owner-occupied homes throughout the neighborhood

(3) Mobilize 10,000 volunteers in an annual clean-up project that spans six days and 300 city blocks

Every phase targets the transformation of people, those served and those who are serving.

“This is not about saving Detroit,” Chris says firmly. “It’s about your life being remodeled no matter who you are and where you live. We all need to change in order to create a better community and world. No one should see themselves as the answer, but everyone should see themselves as a learner and with something to offer.”

Here’s how that mission is working itself out, one neighborhood dynamic – and historic dichotomy – at a time.

An Open Ecosystem

When Chris founded Life Remodeled, he didn’t anticipate getting into the real estate business. This was a mission about people, about mind and heart transformation, with the renewal of infrastructures simply the frame. But seven years and dozens of projects in, it’s become clear that the marriage of people and place is indissoluble. Perhaps nowhere more than in Detroit.

“It’s very hard to earn the respect of Detroiters,” says Chris, “even if you’re a Detroit-based organization.” The city is heavy with memory. Geographic coordinates speak volumes in a city riven by freeways and federal policies. “If you’re a white guy like me, who grew up in the suburbs…” he trails off. “This particular project has been the most complicated in terms of relationships and community engagement.”

Credit: Stephen Smith

The project he’s referring to is the repurposing of Durfee Elementary and Middle School, smack-dab in the middle of where Detroit’s 1967 race riots began. An impressive structure built in what was once the city’s preeminent Jewish neighborhood, legend has it that when combined with the high school next-door, Durfee became the first K-12 campus in the United States. But where the high school once housed 4,000 teenagers, last year only 400 attended.

So two shrunken bodies merged, and, instead of letting the emptied elementary & middle school lay fallow, the district leased it to Life Remodeled for $1 a year for up to 50 years.

“Which sounds like a really good idea,” says Chris, “until you look at the fact that it costs about a million dollars a year to operate it. And five million to renovate it.”

Life Remodeled is now knee-deep in the overhaul. The vision is to create a community innovation center for artists, social entrepreneurs, faith-based organizations, youth training programs, culinary teams and more, all while revitalizing a neighborhood that has historic significance for Detroit, and, from his vantage point, a need for an outside catalyst.

“We’re not a community development corporation,” Chris says firmly, “though those are great organizations. We’re not going to stay in the neighborhood for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and plant roots and start programs. Instead, we’re more like a community quarterback, where we’re going to execute high caliber projects that are the vision of the community. And in the process, help people play well with each other, together, from all the eight major sectors: business, faith-based organizations, government, human services, education, philanthropy, arts and entertainment, media … Moving the needle educationally and economically will be through a collective effort.”

Credit: Stephen Smith

Fifteen youth who went to school in this very building have renamed the facility The Durfee Innovation Society. Each tenant that hopes for shelter at this Society has to be committed to revitalizing the community through their work. So far, the organization has landed Orion’s Quest, a non-profit bringing space study into the classroom; Toarmina’s pizza, a local business that will hire high school students and teach and mentor them about running a business; Beyond Basics, a child-focused literacy program that offers tutoring and enrichment programs for kids; New Electric, an electrical company that offers pre-apprenticeships for youth interested in becoming licensed electricians; Think Detroit, an incubator for local social entrepreneurs; and Shift-Up, a local startup that offers affordable digital skills training. The building will also house community resources like a hip hop studio, movie theater, WeWork space, and library operating on an honor code of lending and return.

“We’re not creating programs,” Chris says. “Instead, what we’re recruiting are the best and brightest non-profits and for-profits to move in. And to move in here, you either have to create real-world educational opportunities for kids, or you’re creating jobs for Detroiters, or you’re a non-profit.” He vets by ethos and personality, understanding that when all is said and done, the community will be the content. “The vision is to turn this building into an opportunity center for kids and for adults. Talent is evenly distributed around the world, but opportunity is not. We need to be in the business of creating opportunity.”

However, it’s been harder than he thought. There’s a trend nationwide of repurposing many a warehouse and even dying church these last few years, reflecting a renewed appreciation for localism and the middle ring social net that makers commons can spark. But Detroit is a unique animal. Its fraught history of urban revival see-sawing with human displacement makes something like the Durfee Innovation Society immediately suspect to long-time Detroiters: Will this be yet one more gentrification lab?

“Out of all the neighborhoods we’ve ever worked in,” says Chris, “this by far has the most potential for development to happen in the very near future, which is really exciting for developers, but scary as hell for African-American residents.”

What’s in tension is that in building an ecosystem, one that will eventually defer to the character and creativity of its tenants, there is inherently an ethos of openness, of keeping a loose hold on the reins. Chris doesn’t even think of himself as the owner of this space – simply the gardener, sowing the conditions for other owners to take root. But when push comes to shove, how open can this kind of ecosystem really be? How straightforward is community ownership when the catalyst for reviving the soil is coming from a representative of historic powers on the outside?

Not very straightforward, it turns out.

A Reckoning

“Superficially, Detroit had all the tools to re-issue the urban blueprint: urban farms, activist citizenry, repurposed buildings, chastened political leadership, and even culinary entrepreneurs—all potential building blocks for what a re-imagined city could look like. Except the most important element for a truly transformative epoch was missing: a real reckoning regarding race.”

So wrote Tunde Wey in the Pacific Standard in November of last year. It’s a powerful insight, one that’s haunted and propelled the Durfee Innovation Society’s development from nuanced intentions to a much tougher school of character.

Garland Hardeman is a black Detroiter who grew up a mile from Durfee. A retired police officer who served with the Los Angeles Police Department before returning to Detroit as a community college professor and real estate agent, he’s no stranger to political machinery, maneuvering, and machismo.

“We’ve been ripped off so bad here in Detroit that you can’t even really talk about it without passion,” Garland says. He references decades of federal policies that segregated the city by way of freeways, walls, and deed restrictions and the months after the 2013 bankruptcy when river front properties, Cobo Center, and other Detroit jewels were handed over to public control. This is the history that Garland and so many other Detroiters have seen: a consistent pattern of outsiders coming in and repurposing fragile territory at the cost of its inhabitants. “There’s a long and ugly history in Detroit of white people – and outsiders – thinking that it’s black people’s fault that Detroit has been mismanaged,” says Garland. “We’ve heard for years that ‘Well, you guys had the city for 40 years. You did nothing with it. You don’t seem to care, neither as residents of Detroit, nor as parents of the children in Detroit school districts.’”

“Let me tell you,” Garland says, voice laced with fury, “That’s a damn lie. We had depleting resources. We had people that were leaving the city, leaving Michigan. The state lost over one million people from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, so we lost a seat in Congress. And over 40 years, Detroit itself lost a million people.”

Credit: Stephen Smith

Into this spiral of losses stepped Chris, and even with the bridge-building reputation of Life Remodeled gaining respect throughout the city, he couldn’t – still can’t – easily dismiss what his face has come to mean. “We had some blacks early on who did not like the fact that there was a white guy that was running this organization,” says Garland. “They didn’t trust Chris.”

“Life Remodeled is about bringing people together, helping them learn about one another, breaking down barriers and restructuring the social fabric,” explains Chris. An inspirational ideal. Messy to execute.

Garland first paid Durfee a visit on the advertisement of an elderly lady in the community who’d told him, “He [Chris] has come on over and taken Durfee for a dollar. This white guy is going to subject us to more slavery.”

Garland recalls entering the library with a desire to hear what this endeavor was all about. Instead, he found himself watching as two individuals took over the meeting, one shouting and creating an outburst, refusing to let anyone else speak. After watching from the grand stands, Garland finally stood up, seething. “These two women were just totally performing… And I listened to them, I listened…and finally, I was fed up. The law enforcement side of me came out, and I said, ‘Hold on, wait a minute!’ I didn’t come here to hear the two of you commandeer this meeting. I came here to find out what was going on, but meanwhile you’re spouting your complaints, and you’re saying it over and over. We heard it. And now, the other 50 people in this room want to move forward with what their agenda is for Life Remodeled in this community, and you should not continue to obstruct that. You should allow us to hear what they have to say.”

Not long after that smaller group meeting that introduced Garland to Life Remodeled and the tension the organization would have to navigate, Chris invited the entire surrounding community to come hear about the project, to get their input and to begin the process of making this a community-owned endeavor. This meeting drew 225 attendees from the neighborhood.

“I’d decided to stay in the back of the room,” says Chris, “and not talk until I was invited until the end, to let Dominique and Dwan [my colleagues] lead the meeting.” But as he recalls, “Man, I got my teeth knocked in.”

“The most angry woman got up on stage: ‘Where’s the white guy at?’ I’d known her for two years, and she was about to say things I’d never heard from her directly before. ‘Well, where’s he at?’ And she’s looking all around the room. ‘Yeah, he’s in the back of the room. You’re all being hoodwinked here. He is a colonizer. He is going to come in here, take over this building and raise the rates. You’re all going to be priced out. The white people are going to come after him and move into the community. They’re going to take your houses. They’re going to kick you out and take over our neighborhood.’ People were clapping and Amen-ing.”

“Then they called my colleagues Dwan and Dominique ‘Oreos.’ Let me tell you, they are the furthest thing from that. They were born and raised in Detroit, have lived in Detroit their whole lives. They’re anything but ‘Oreos.’”

The two women eventually quieted, but the damage had been done. By the time the next meeting came around, the negative take had traveled faster than the all-in hope Chris had envisioned sparking. “Before I got even halfway through sharing our vision the second time, these same women started screaming,” Chris remembers. “Professional activists who’d been planted started interrupting. And then this one woman came up and tried to take the mic out of my hand. And I just didn’t move it. I just held it right there. And then someone yelled out, ‘You’re abusing her. You didn’t give the mic to her. You’re abusive.’ And then some woman started crying.”

He sucks in his breath, remembering the spin-out of generations of self-preservation. “I think I turned white as a ghost. I had my first doubt where I thought to myself, ‘This might fail. How are we possibly going to recover from this?’”

Thankfully, Chris had a true brother in Dwan Dandridge, who’d already taken a bullet from his own. Dwan took Chris aside afterward and told him, “Chris, this is a hazing process. Everybody has to go through this at some point.” Chris thought, “Well, that’s good news. I’ve been in a fraternity. I can do hazing. At least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

And then Dwan shared something profound, “What you felt tonight is just a glimpse of what many people feel every day of their lives. Their voices don’t get heard. Their plans get interrupted all the time. Their dreams get shot down daily.” Chris still marvels remembering this new level of felt solidarity.

“So I got to experience for a night what it was like to not have my voice heard,” Chris says. “Dwan helped me realize that people were testing us, and testing me to see what I would do: Would I become defensive? Would I become angry? Would I start throwing stones?”

An Open Hand

That first meeting was a harsh awakening, but also a jolt into letting the neighborhood become teacher, Chris the student. Only in this case, it was a neighborhood that had long been politically torn. How to inject a collaborative work and play space into a community that itself was divided, that had no clear pulse of authority?

“Some of us from the neighborhood started meeting on an informal basis,” says Garland. “First at the traffic jam, then maybe one or two other places, with a group of people that had either graduated from the middle school or Central high. We’re all black, and we were discussing how Chris could be successful in getting past this issue of not being able to take possession of the building. We knew he needed our help.”

Retired law enforcement officer Garland Hardeman is the Community Advisory Council member for Area 2 / Credit: Stephen Smith

So this small group started helping negotiate past various obstacles, one of which was securing the building key from a squirrelly superintendent. It was a big win, and Garland advised Chris to formalize his allies into an advisory group that could bring a holistic community perspective to Life Remodeled.

At first, Chris was hesitant. “He wasn’t for that,” says Garland. “At that point, he hadn’t identified, totally, ideologically with us. He was like ‘Father knows best’ [a television show from the 1950s] – a posture that felt in control, and simply needed community members’ help to get past a few hurdles.”

“We Christians – especially white Christians – are good at sharing resources,” explains Dwan, “but not so good at sharing power. And unfortunately, we don’t have a blueprint to follow.” Eventually, Chris agreed to adopt his core helpers as a more formal advisory group, 14-strong. But it’s been a long school of humbling, and according to Garland, it’s a continued journey of learning.

“I spent 15 hours drafting bylaws for this advisory group,” says Garland, “to bring it to the people at the meeting informally for over a year. Chris found out about [my local diplomacy], and was not in favor of what I’d done. In his mind, he has an attorney that he talks to. I did this as a volunteer.”

This moment was one of many watershed occasions, where the hard question has to be asked, “who do you trust?” Garland’s conversation with Chris was not an easy one. “If you really wanted an advisory group, and you wanted it formally structured,” says Garland, “you could call your attorney and say, draft some bylaws. But look, I’ve been on lots of boards. I come to an organization like this where I see there’s mistrust, and I see that you are reluctant to receive us in a way that shows a level of respect and admiration for who we are as a people. But I know that you do have love in your heart for what you do, but you’ve not seen the total light. And I want to help share that with you. If the light comes on, we’re good. If the light doesn’t come on, we have an issue.”

Garland wants Life Remodeled to not just use the assets that various people in the community have to share, but to respect them, defer to them.

“We blacks know Detroit’s whole history,” says Garland. He points out that wanting to do good things with large amounts of resources in a neighborhood is not always enough. “You could run into problems with people like me who understand that you’re an asset, and you make one heck of a contribution to communities like ours, but you can’t do it independent of your own ideology. You can’t seem to see with the people’s ideology in the community that you want to serve.”

Chris and the organization have learned a lot about what it really means to empower a community. Well beyond giving resources, it means actually handing over power. This requires a deep amount of trust on both sides, and a willingness to step into uncomfortable spaces.

A Human Bridge

There’s a lot of talk today of refurbishing places and spaces, but ultimately for a city to flourish, it must be peopled. And as soon as you start talking about people, you’re talking about relationships. And as soon as you’re talking about relationships, at least on this earth, you’re talking about power.

“Black and whites could work together, but could never live together,” said many Detroiters during my visit. Might the Durfee Innovation Society prove a new day?

Partners like Dwan Dandridge may be the unheralded key to Durfee succeeding. A natural bridge-builder, he sees deeply yet can speak the language of most factions. He defends Chris even as he educates the go-getter about the vantage point that has defined his own life. And he can rib Garland – and many of the other local constituents trying to figure Chris and Life Remodeled’s most ambitious effort yet – with cousin humor and vested trust. He’s a peacemaker, a translator, the quiet saint who is ambassador to all and beholden to God.

Dwan explains a central component to the vision that he believes could make it work elsewhere too. “When I think of Chris going and trying to start this in another place,” says Dwan, “I think that he’s learned some valuable lessons that it’s rare to find in a white man. And I often find that [even] when somebody learns those lessons they think that they understand a lot more than they do. Chris is not that way.”

Chris Lambert / Credit: Stephen Smith

“I’m really thankful to have gotten this far,” says Chris, “and I really do enjoy learning all these things. Because it gives me a much better understanding of what we want to be in and what we don’t want to be in, and how it gets done. And this has convinced me that this is the model today at this time I still want to continue to build with, where we are managing real estate. Because again, it causes us to go much deeper than anything we’ve done.”

That depth may be the realization that you can’t necessarily scale human virtue like this, or, rather, the process of virtue formation – virtue honed specifically in the friction between people with pasts. You can provide the space, and some guiding principles for relating to those unlike you, to those who have deep ownership in places of pain and neglect. But beyond that, Life Remodeled’s goal of human transformation is like any other: it’s personalist. Each human ultimately gets humbled and changed by relating to another infinitely unique human being – however encased in structural histories and demographic realities they may be. Each person has to have a reckoning. Garland with Chris, Dwan with his accusers. With each one’s limitations. With one’s pride. With one’s blind spots. With one’s desire for control.

The question is, can catalysts prompt covenants? Can an ecosystem create a new narrative for those needing to atone for and forgive old ones?

Nature has reclaimed dormant alleyways, and coyotes have taken up residence. Cutting back foliage and boarding up abandoned properties reduces squatting, drug use, and other criminal activity. Credit: Stephen Smith

What began as a one-year project template has evolved to reflect the collective concerns and desires of the community. Durfee has already expanded from a one-year to a two-year to a three-year and now four-year commitment. Why? Because this is what the community wants, and needs. And it may be that what’s actually best for this ecosystem-making, neighborhood-revitalizing, character-transforming effort is to perfect a playbook for the model.

Each year, Life Remodeled mobilizes 10,000 volunteers for its six-day neighborhood clean-up project. Volunteers and long-time residents work side by side, learning from one another and exchanging histories. Massive amounts of resources are pooled to create safe community spaces and foster economic opportunity. But renovating physical structures is only the outer layer of the work being done. Meeting the tangible need is important, but not the solution.

At its heart, Life Remodeled is about more than remodeling a building or cleaning up a neighborhood – it is about social transformation. The truly unique work happening in the Durfee neighborhood is something far more messy than construction or clean-up, but with great potential for healing and meaningful change. What happens when people with resources and other gifts willing to relinquish their hold on the reins? When long-time residents like Garland are given a voice, bridge-builders like Dwan are given leadership, and the local community is given power? Life Remodeled is trying to find out.

This piece was originally published by Bittersweet Monthly, in collaboration with photographer Stephen Smith and videographers Steve Andres and Brandon Lapierre. In May of 2020, in the third month of the U.S. shut-down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anne caught up with Bittersweet for a podcast reflection on how this story was created.

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