10: ALWAYS BET ON THE TORTOISE
Michigan Central Station is an impressive piece of architecture. Eighteen storeys of French-inspired neoclassical design, created by the same people who imagined New York’s iconic Grand Central Station. It’s a huge monument to Detroit’s former life as the biggest boom town in America. As we get closer, however, the splendour pales. It’s derelict. The last train left in 1988. Detroit has become a mecca for photographers of ruins and filmmakers looking for a backdrop that says ‘urban apocalypse’, something many Detroiters I speak to find distasteful. You don’t have to have a PhD in empathy to realise that outsiders making money from Hollywood movies and coffee-table books trading on the fact your home looks (to them) like a war zone offers up a special kind of irritation, especially when you’re trying to get the city back on its feet.
Perhaps appropriately for a city dubbed ‘Motor Town’, the bulk of my morning is to be spent on a parking lot. This however, is unlike any car park I’ve ever visited. ere are no spaces marked out, no barriers or ticket machines. In fact, you’re not allowed to park your vehicle here, not that there’s much space to, because in place of rows of parked cars there is, instead, a farm. Right in the heart of the city, in what should be the dominion of the resting automobile, I’m looking at two huge greenhouses, surrounded by nearly two acres of tomatoes, winter squash, melons, raised beds full of herbs, a cabbage patch and a commercial flower garden
The Plum Street Garden
‘I never had a job like it!’ says Willie Spivey (right) It took me till 60 years old but I don’t call this work, I call it life! I feel good. It’s a just beautiful thing.’
Born in the centre of Detroit (‘Right in the 48206’, he says, quoting the downtown zipcode of his birth), Willie spent most of his working life in the construction industry, but as the city declined, the work dried up. Today they’re bulldozing the homes and office blocks he helped build.
‘So what’s your job title?’ I ask.
‘I don’t do titles!’ he says. ‘Titles lock you in. You got to stay humble, and sometimes titles don’t allow you to do that. One morning God may say, “I have a different thing for you today”.’
It takes me a while, but when I do find out what takes up most of Willie’s time, I conclude that if there is a God they’re probably pretty happy with him.
Ashley Atkinson explaining her vision for Detroit at TEDMED 2013.
‘It was a horrible experience, a horrible experience,’ she tells me as we drop our tomatoes into plastic pallets. ‘I was listening to the guy before me and I was about to lose my lunch and tell them I couldn’t do it. I was full of fear.’ You’ll never convince her, but Ashley’s talk at the TEDMED conference was compelling stuff. She didn’t need to be super- slick because she walked on stage with authenticity in bucket loads.