Valerie Vande Panne


Life without money in Detroit’s survival economy

When her car broke down, Halima Cassells didn’t have $400 to fix it. But she had logged hours in her Detroit neighborhood time bank by babysitting, and that time yielded a repair.

When she was pregnant in 2012, she couldn’t afford baby clothes, a stroller, or a car seat. But she could throw a potluck barbecue, and her friends could afford to bring their old baby supplies.

“When people come together to share, it’s not transactional,” says Cassells. “Everyone assumes an amount of responsibility with everybody. It’s a different way of knowing your needs are being met.”

Detroiters like Cassells, after years of privation, have turned to what experts call a gift economy to survive. Theirs is an alternative economy based on time banking, skill-sharing, and giveaways—home-grown vegetables, a roof repair, spare keys to a shared car—in which neighbors give as they can and take as they need.

It’s a currency of community that has helped Detroit’s poor survive without ready cash. And those who rely on it say it has helped strengthen communities throughout America’s poorest big city, where nearly 40 percent of people live in poverty and about 11 percent officially are out of work.

“There is significant progress being made, but we recognize we have a long way to go,” says city spokesman John Roach.

The city’s much-touted renaissance is reviving just seven of its 139 square miles. In the rest, all that many people feel they have are community-based networks of their own making.

“These systems and networks take root because historically Detroit has been abandoned,” says Peter Hammer, who heads the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. “The neglect and abandonment are turned into a source of power and opportunity.”

Erik Howard, co-founder of the Southwest Detroit youth-development organization Young Nation, agrees. “When the city didn’t have the capacity to provide, alternative systems were created,” he says.

What Cassells began with her barbecue four years ago has since ballooned into a regular, roving exchange called the Free Market of Detroit. Hundreds attend its swaps. She likens them to the communal feasts where precolonial Native Americans in what is now Detroit gave neighbors such things as food and blankets.

“There are ancient ways of always having needs met,” she says. “We’re reclaiming a traditional practice of this land.”

It’s hard to judge just how many Detroiters are living this way—after all, they’re conducting trade in their homes, often informally. It’s invisible, and it’s born of “necessity and the motivation for survival,” says Jenny Lendrum, a Ph.D. candidate studying Detroit’s informal economies at Wayne State.

“You look to the people around you—who do you know, what do your social networks looks like?—and you look for opportunities,” she says. “So they’re cooking, selling food, rolling cigarettes, whatever they can do. The revitalization efforts are not going into the neighborhoods. What are the alternatives?”

“Everybody has needs and has something to offer,” says Alice Bagley, who is a part-time staffer at Unity in Our Community Time Bank in southwest Detroit. A member can bank, for instance, one hour of child care, then spend the hour she’s earned on whatever she needs from another member—in Cassells’s case, an auto mechanic.

Jane Slaughter, who’s on the time bank’s volunteer-run steering committee, offers writing and fruit-drying services; in exchange, she’s gotten rides to the airport, shiatsu bodywork, and a garbage disposal installed.

“If you’ve got no money, it’s not an answer,” she says. “But there is food and meals for work.”

Time banks like theirs partner with other organizations, too. Seniors in an elder-care program that participates can offer their skills in exchange for rides, helping them to live independently. (“It shifts the power structure,” Bagley says. “Maybe you can’t drive because you’re elderly. But you can read to children, or teach me how to knit.”) And after patients are discharged from a Pontiac hospital, the Michigan Alliance of Time Banks offers them at-home support—“a more pay-it-forward model,” says Kim Hodge, its executive director.

“The money economy doesn’t value checking in on someone like that and making them a sandwich,” Bagley says. “But in that moment, it’s important.”

Many of these sharing practices aren’t new, but when the broader economy collapsed, they became a vital safety net, says Jerry Hebron, executive director of the Northend Christian Community Development Corp.

“More people had to come together and ask, ‘How do we survive?’” she says. “We can all band together and grow our own food.”

Hebron’s organization runs the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End. That four-acre farm, which targets 8,000 families, grows more than 30 kinds of fruits and vegetables—including “culturally appropriate” ones such as peas and collard greens—in its community garden and greenhouse, hosts cooking and canning workshops, and provides neighbors with gardening supplies.

“We reward people for volunteer hours that they give to us. They can help us plant seeds, water, weed, participate in canning classes, cooking demonstrations,” Hebron says. “In exchange for that participation, we offer food. We don’t place a value on it. It’s just, ‘What do you need?’”

“We put a lot of faith in big business and had the idea that industry would take care of you,” says Howard, the Young Nation co-founder.

For a time, it did. But the auto industry, which for the first half of the 20th century made Detroit a middle-class mecca, gradually helped spur suburban migration and deepen the divides that would hollow out the city and its prosperity.

At its peak in 1950, more than 1.8 million people lived in Detroit. Today, fewer than 680,000 do. Tens of thousands of homes are vacant, and a program to demolish them is under federal investigation. Public transit is scarce; in its absence, whole neighborhoods rely on community-based ridesharing.

City officials point to job growth—15,000 more Detroiters are working today than in 2014, says Alexis Wiley, the mayor’s chief of staff—and to infrastructure improvements, including the installation of 65,000 new streetlights citywide.

“We’re improving neighborhood services and improving public transit,” says Charlie Beckham, the city’s group executive for its neighborhoods.

Still, two years after the city left bankruptcy, much of it remains dilapidated.

Basic services, including the police and fire departments, are scaled back. The city for years was widely regarded as the nation’s arson capital and still sees thousands of suspicious fires each year.

Last year, one ravaged the three-bedroom home where Musid Ali’s family of 12 lives. Ali had no insurance and just $2,000 from the Red Cross to rebuild, but his older sons had spent the previous summer doing yard work for neighbors with the southwest Detroit time bank. He says he was surprised when strangers—“white, black, young, old”—came through the time bank to help repair their house and replace what they’d lost.

“They bring me wood, they bring me insulation, tools, clothes for the kids, shoes, gift cards,” Ali says. “People made me proud. I love them.”

Across the neighborhood, Jessica Ramirez sorts donated clothes, appliances, and furniture in a small storefront akin to a thrift store, except that everything inside is free. She and seven others co-founded this store, Detroiters Helping Each Other, in 2013, and it’s been a crucial local support since.

Stoves, refrigerators, microwaves, and beds are in the highest demand, largely because of fire. “We have a waiting list on those,” Ramirez says. If anybody needs something the store doesn’t have, she asks around and posts requests to the store’s Facebook page.

One morning this fall, families trickled in and out seeking help, including an old woman who said, voice trembling, that she was trying to round up a car seat, clothes, and food so she could get custody of her grandchildren. Ramirez asked her for a list of what she needed, of clothing and shoe sizes. She promised she’d gather everything that weekend.

This sort of neighborly safety net, says Detroit native Kevin Reynolds, is now all many Detroiters have to replace services they can’t count on from the city.

“If one of my neighbors needs a ride to work or to dialysis, it’s gonna happen. It’s an economy based on trust. If someone gets hurt, shot, slips and falls, whatever, you jump in. You fulfill those services that were promised to you, that you pay for through taxes, that you don’t receive,” he says. “I will drive that person to the hospital, because I’m not waiting 45 minutes to an hour or never for the ambulance to come.”

Officials defend Detroit’s police and emergency services and say they’ve improved, pointing to city data that show EMS and police response times cut roughly in half in the past two years. “The fact is that our response times have changed across the city, down to the national average,” says Wiley.

By now, though, some Detroiters are used to fending for themselves. When Reynolds suffered third-degree burns recently, his wife drove him to the hospital. “Why call an ambulance?” he wondered.

“What I’ve learned,” he says, “is to be self-reliant.”

The sharing economy has its limits, which Yakini hopes can be overcome. “You can’t barter for gas, water, or lights, so we still find ourselves stuck having to get cash for the most essential needs,” he says.

Yet as development ramps up downtown, what it might mean for locals’ sharing economy is unclear.

Neither Cassells nor Lendrum is worried about their economy’s future. It has become their way of life.

But Howard, in the community room of Grace in Action Church in Southwest Detroit, says he’s frustrated by the city’s focus on economic development, at communities’ expense. He says people fear the development touted as key to the city’s future could threaten what they’ve built in their communities.

It’s happened before, as Hammer, the law professor, notes. Like historically black neighborhoods in other cities, Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were razed in the 1950s to make way for expressways. Today, Interstate 75 runs through where they once were, and Beckham says the city has acquired some of what’s left so as to “recreate the the entertainment” once offered there.

“When these new systems come in and the old ones are in the way,” Howard says, “you tear the fabric that held up these communities in the first place.”

A local woman carrying a baby into the room overhears as Howard explains, and she chimes in: “People have restaurants and businesses out of their homes. You’re gonna put Buffalo Wild Wings on top of that?”

There is a lesson to be learned from community-based sharing economies like Detroit’s, Howard says. And cities and their schools would do well to study and work to bolster them, especially by integrating them into city services.

“What if you could pay your city taxes with community benefits? What if neighbors helping neighbors could offset taxes? ‘Well, that doesn’t work,’ they’ll say,” he says. “Well, traditional economics isn’t working here, either.”