In many ways, Detroit is one of the most free cities in the United States. Due to the bankrupt government, the citizens are used to living in near anarchy, left to handle problems on their own. This has caused an extremely interesting dynamic in the now nearly empty crumbed Detroit. While it's been through a lot, Detroit is actually on the comeup in many ways. The people live their lives without government, using the golden rule to govern their lives, as the government is too broke and useless to do so. It's possible to live with no income very easily there, as I found out in my few months there. I feel Detroit is probably one of the best prepared cities in the States for a financial or governmental collapse, as they've already experienced it. There's also a growing anarchist, albeit somewhat slightly communist leaning at times, population that exists there, working to rebuild it to a different kind of greatness.
There's a term called "freegan" or someone who subsists off of things that are free, generally from food banks and other sources. These people take part in all sorts of activities, including dumpster diving to get their sustinence. These people thrive on finding useful things that they don't have to pay or steal for. For building materials, these types of people go in crumbling or burnt up houses and harvest what's left. For gardening materials, they search the trash, looking for old grow room surprises. I was raised somewhat "freegan" by my parents. My first computer was garbage picked, although it was ancient and barely functioned. I dumpster dove for my school supplies every year.
The first step to living for free in Detroit is to take over a house, like one of the one's pictured above. You'd have the best luck on W Goldengate or W Robinwood St off of Woodward, as it's the most publicly known and accepted community. It's the type of place where you can pull up, express interests and get a tour of the nearby abandoned houses in decent condition from existing community members. I know that's how things were handled when we came to visit and check the place out. All it takes is finding a place that fits your needs, that happens to be in condition you can handle. If it's a big project, make some friends and take it over together. There's almost always a room at one of the various nearly public houses, like the slide house or 159 on Goldengate, for those wanting to dip their toes in but not commit totally.
If you take over a house, the steps necessary to making it yours is to announce your intention to the community and take action to secure it. Many people employ the ghetto lock for this purpose, as photoed above. Despite it's simplicity it's extremely effective, you can't just kick through that door. There's generally a lot of cleaning up and landscaping in this process, as the houses picked are always abandoned and unmaintained. The idea is not to steal someone's house, it's to reclaim a property that's unmaintained and unused, the kind of property that generally ends up in the tax auction within 5 years, giving you the option to buy it, often for a steal. Once you've done that, you keep improving the property and live your life. This is a way to live rent free, and I've only ever been able to do so in that way in Detroit.
The next step is to acquire building materials, or other resources from the damaged and decrepid houses around. We had a house we went to for fire bricks and nails, as it was mostly burnt down and that's all that was left. There were houses known for good plywood or other cuts of wood. Almost every house had something interesting for anyone. I've found some pretty amazing, surprising and useful things in abandoned houses. That topic alone is an article in itself.
For food, there are several ways to provide that, the most obvious being to start a garden. There are empty unmaintained lots everywhere waiting to be turned into gardens. We chose the house we did because it had 3-4 vacant lots directly next to it. If you don't have the time or know how, befriend someone with a garden and work out some sort of deal for produce. The other common way, especially in Fireweed, was to hit the local food banks. These generally provided several days of food, and when you combine that with food out of the garden, food costs are mostly covered. During the summer, a lot of this food was locally grown and extremely high quality, leaving our community well fed.
If you find yourself in need of more food, or anything else, the dumpsters are a great option. Down the road from fireweed, there is a Little Ceasars known for their cold and ready, or dumpster-dived pizza. They disposed of their pizza in a way generally that made it easy and somewhat clean for homeless and general dumpster divers to come and get them. They were forced to throw out pizzas after so much time so it was their way of providing a service while also getting rid of waste. I've heard crazy stories of friends showing up to the dumpster full to the top with pizza in boxes. I've not had that experience, but I have gotten a lot of pizza out of that dumpster.
The other best dumpsters to hit were the ones 10-20 minutes out of the city, in suburbia Michigan. Trader joes and places of that nature were known for fresh produce and high quality finds in general. John and I loved to hit Aldi as we found lots of fresh produce and occasionally things like waffle makers. There are also private dumpsters as well that can be lucrative. When things got bad in Detroit, many people left their houses full of their things, to sit for years and years. Eventually the property is sold and the new property owner cleans it out, throwing the contents in a giant dumpster in the driveway. We encountered a few of these there, including one at a house with olive trees, cherry trees and huge grape vines. The picture above is from that house. We found everything from food to cast iron frying pans in that dumpster that day.
Garbage picking is common in Detroit. I've had many experiences driving around with friends, only to have them stop to throw something in their car or truck. The people in the fireweed neighborhood are always interested in something free and useful. They even drove a decent distance to clean out a farm for a friend, to receive farm tools and all other sorts of useful things in payment. That was my favorite thing about that neighborhood, the fact that the people there can see the value in someone else's trash. Not only that, they were actually using these things.
There's a unique kind of garbage picking in Detroit, somewhat due to the grey area marijuana market that exists there. Growers of cannabis end up with a lot of trash, generally being used dirt and pots and ducting. When they finish their harvest, many throw out all of the old to start over with their new harvest. This trash generally ends up on the streets, with our neighborhood as a target area. The community instantly started making use of the free stuff, using the soil and pots in their own gardens. After awhile, many community members started coordinating dump spots with growers. Generally, they just throw the bags in the street. It's a funny sight to see in the morning, a street full of giant black trash bags with a bunch of skinny white hippy kids running towards them to see whats inside. I've participated in this myself, it's actually how I got all the high quality potting soil I used in my garden there. I've also found weed and trim in these drops, so once they hit people generally flock to them hoping for something like that. You almost always find trim trash, which includes rubber gloves covered in hash from trimming.
If you're out of gas, weed, beer or money in general, you can always fly a sign, especially in suburbia. I never had any experience in doing this before Detroit, and it was actually some west coast hippies that encouraged us to do it. They cited how much money was possible to be made and to test their claims, we tried it out. I did decent, making about 75 dollars an hour at my best. All I did was hold a sign, "Out of Gas, Full of Faith" and it worked. Most didn't talk to me, but some did. All I did was show them my plates and say I needed to get home and that was generally all they needed. It was an interesting experience, but a generally positive one. I wouldn't suggest trying it in California at this point, you won't make money and you'll probably be arrested. I sadly had to do so to get over the border, but I'll share more about that another day.
If you're more of the work for your money type, there are so many ways to do that. In just our community, there were several little work co-op organizations, young people getting together to do work, finish projects and make some cash. I had a lot of personal experience with this, being involved with Goldengate Repair. They offered young eager labor skilled in everything from cleaning to roof work. There was a minimum pay for most jobs and getting the job generally consisted of a visit from your friend the day before, with details like pay. You'd agree or say no and show up if you wanted to work. It was no big deal if you said no. I've gained experience in fields like carpentry and roofing work through my involvement in this group. Even without these co-ops, it's extremely easy to get cash based work. A friend told me once "You will find work if you even try to look" and he was right. I never had difficulty finding any sort of work to pay my way in Detroit. My panhandling I did when I lived there was for experimental purposes more than anything, at that point.
The culture that has been brewing in Detroit for the last 10 years has led to an interesting dynamic with the people and their relation to the city. Those that move to Fireweed and wholeheartedly jump into the lifestyle end up depending on the city for everything, which it provides in a very organic way. At the same time, the city and it's residents begin to depend on them for stability and a source of good motivation. Crime, drug use and prostitution within the fireweed neighborhood is being drastically reduced at a constant rate by the growing presence of this community. It's because of this that the cops generally have respect for the people there and leave them alone. Occasionally they take offense to a particular house and harass the people there, but those people are generally not the one's getting things done.
Having grown up with many of these practices, and having gained much more experience in off-grid living in Cleveland, I have a great appreciation to the culture of Detroit. In Cleveland, we were renegades and we got a lot of shit for it. There was already a group of people living in Fireweed that had been there for years, working hard and changing the situation in their own neighborhoods day by day. The climate in that neighborhood now is very different than the one that existed there when Doctor Bob, the neighborhood chiropractor and in many ways the catalyst for that neighborhood, moved in many years ago.
Again I must compare Detroit to Mexico, as there's a huge culture of finding value in trash. The last police chase I was in happened because our poor carpenter neighbor was given a huge stack of broken pallets to take from Sam's Club, so he could use to build his furniture he sells. Half the packaging in the grocery store is designed for re-use. You see people, including us, stopping to pick things up off the side of the road. This is how I got my giant pottery cooking pot that I use for all sorts of things. Half the time, if a mexican notices you picking up building debree or something else you deem useful from in front of their property, they will try and charge you a few pesos for it. This is the type of place where you can pull up to a backhoe with a bucket full of concrete road hunks, tell them to put it in your truck, and they actually do it. Many people in my neighborhood use plastic jugs for planters and old mattress springs for fences. It may not be pretty, but it gets the job done. Just like in Detroit, people can see value in what other's would consider to be trash.