In the previous two articles in the “Democratized Economy” series (read part I and part II here) I described how to build a successful urban center as the centerpiece of a community. Those articles assumed that the neighborhoods around the urban center are relatively stable, and that no major interventions besides the development of the urban center itself are needed. This article deals with a different problem. Here, we will explore some proactive steps community members can take when entire neighborhoods have fallen into a state of decline — as is the case in many working class communities across the country. 

To begin with, a couple definitions:

The Modernist Economy is an economy in which there are a few, powerful owners of the means of production with national influence. The ideology of the Modernist Economy applies dogma such as “the one best way” and “form follows function” to mass produce standardized goods and services that adequately serve consumers irrespective of geography.

The Democratized Economy is an economy in which there are many small-scale owners of the means of production with local or regional influence. The ideology of the Democratized Economy promotes an inclusive culture of entrepreneurship that encourages broad, diverse swaths of the public to produce goods and services that are contextually responsive to local and regional needs.

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The past two Presidential elections have brought to light the plight of the American working class. All too often ignored by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, these people have been crushed by the decades long decline in American manufacturing, and the recent collapse in the national housing market. The most glaring example of these dual maladies is Detroit, Michigan. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, Detroit was rife with vacant homes, vastly overextended civil services, and a bankrupt municipal government.

Yet today, Detroit is experiencing a revival of sorts, and not only in its downtown area where wealthy financiers have funded the resurgence.  The more interesting revival is occurring in those working class Detroit neighborhoods that have hit rock bottom. While tragic, the vacant lots and the city’s inability to regulate the activities that occur in these neighborhoods present a unique opportunity for these communities to begin themselves anew.

I.  GROWN COMMUNITY

The largely unprecedented breadth of Detroit’s neighborhood crisis has nurtured a massive community gardening movement that fills in vacant lots and cultivates an optimistic spirit. The gardens demonstrate that these communities are cared for. Keep Growing Detroit is an organization that works directly with communities to develop and maintain urban gardens across the city. According to Keep Growing’s 2016 Annual Report, the organization links together “432 community, 92 market, 76 school, and 834 family gardens.”

From an economic development perspective, the primary purpose of these gardens is to act as a sort of catalyst from which other economic activities may spring. While a garden may not be much of a boon in a monetary sense, community gardens do generate positive externalities that lay the groundwork for economic prosperity. Well tended community gardens have three main positive effects:

(1)   Community gardens reestablish a sense of general security by encouraging people to get out, meet one another, and put their “eyes on the street.” In a neighborhood perforated with vacant lots, knowing who lives where and who you can count on increases comfort, imbues a sense of ownership, and encourages people to stay in the community instead of moving out.

(2)   Gardens serve as a makeshift town square where members of the community can naturally gather. Town squares give a neighborhood a sense of place that is invaluable in a revitalization effort. Putting the focal point on the garden also conveys to visitors that the community is cared for by its residents.

(3)   The act of tending and maintaining a garden teaches a community about what it takes to improve itself, and defines everyone’s social role in the community. The process of developing the community garden allows the residents to go through the “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” stages of group development in a low-risk scenario.

By fulfilling these roles for the community, gardening programs can serve as a platform to support targeted investments of incrementally greater complexity and cost. Once residents feel secure in their neighborhoods, have a place to gather, and know what their roles are in the social landscape, the community is ready to nurture the local entrepreneurs that will lay the foundation for a new local economy.

II.   MAKER CULTURE

A growing movement called “maker culture” and “maker spaces” have taken root in various cities across the country as a way to support budding entrepreneurs. Maker culture encourages a sort of DIY craftsmanship where individuals or small teams fabricate unique products in limited quantities. Maker spaces are simply the workshops where “makers” craft their products.

Perhaps the best example of a maker space are the Tech Shops, which offer access to state of the art fabrication tools, design software and training for a $150 monthly membership fee. (This is the base individual membership fee. Other fees are lower, especially for students and active duty military.) Members use Tech Shop communally, like a gym. Equipment is shared among the thousands of makers whose membership fees collectively pay for equipment that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.  Maker spaces like Tech Shop can be a prime vehicle to usher in a Democratized Economy by lowering the barrier of entry into consumer product markets.

On the other hand, Tech Shop is a fairly high-end operation that requires a massive investment to finance. So far, Tech Shop’s locations seem to favor large, big box structures in wealthier areas. To work within recovering working class neighborhoods like those in Detroit, the Tech Shop model would have to scale down to an appropriate footprint.

III.   TEST A SPACE, THEN MAKE A SPACE

A temporary facility to test the feasibility of smaller maker spaces could be initiated with donated equipment, volunteer shop teachers, and a donated space like someone’s garage or a church multipurpose room. Personally, I have fond memories of crafting a pinewood derby car from a block of wood through sawing, whittling, sanding, and painting in a friend’s garage as a Boy Scout.

If the temporary maker space is successful, then the community might decide to establish a permanent facility to house a more fully furnished maker space. This intermediate-sized maker space should be no larger than a corner retail store like a Family Dollar or CVS, and would ideally be constructed inside an existing vacant structure. However, establishing a permanent maker space still requires quality equipment, software, skilled people qualified to operate that equipment, and a building to house it all.

All of these requirements cost a significant amount of money. Funds will be needed both for the initial capital investment to acquire the equipment and building, as well as ongoing funds for maintenance and personnel compensation. Such expenses would require financial support from a nonprofit, private donations from citizens or municipal government. The community would also have to determine how it will manage the property on a day to day basis. The complexity involved with establishing a permanent maker space means that the community in question would have to be substantially organized to deal with all of the moving parts.

The community garden phase is what prepares the community for this moment. Gardening gets neighbors outside mingling with one another where the community’s social landscape can be established. A unified, cohesive community that cares for itself like a grower cares for their garden tends to be an attractive prospect that people want to support. And that support can come in the form of grants, support from a city council, or investment from new developers.

So if your community is down on its luck and your leaders don’t know what to do, grab some gardening supplies, a vacant lot, seeds and some elbow grease and start turning some dirt. What’s the worst that can happen? Tomatoes?

FURTHER READING:

(All photos courtesy of Keep Growing Detroit)