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.”
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