Life Without Money In Detroit’s Survival Economy

Jerry Hebron harvests Swiss chard at the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End, where locals can volunteer in exchange for fresh produce.
Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg
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.”

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Photo: Selden Standard 

Move over, Milan. Get a taste for some surprising food destinations with this neighborhood guide to the best eats on (almost) every continent.


Wait, Detroit? Yes. The city better known as a center for automakers and manufacturing is revving its culinary motors.

Best Neighborhood for a Food Frenzy

The city’s oldest surviving neighborhood, Corktown (early immigrants were from County Cork, Ireland), is also one of its most vibrant. There are all types of eateries here, from breakfast joints to fine dining. Try the breakfast poutine on the patio at Brooklyn Street Local or the duck bop hash at Dime Store. For lunch, hit up Onassis Coney Island for Detroit’s classic Coney dog, a hot dog with chili sauce, onions, and mustard, or Slows Bar BQ for beef brisket and pulled pork. Once you’re hungry again, head to Katoi, a newish and trendy Southeast Asian spot. Try the khao soi kai curry noodle soup.

Best Neighborhoods for Ethnic Eats

Detroit has some of the best neighborhoods in the country when it comes to authentic ethnic eats. Greektown’s many tavernas serve up stuffed grape leaves, souvlaki, and moussaka with bracing pours of ouzo. New Parthenon is a staple, and has been in business for more than 40 years. Hamtramck, just north of the city center, is a Polish enclave. Try Polish Village Café or Krakus for classic dishes like golabki (stuffed cabbage) and pierogi. The suburb of Dearborn has one of the largest proportions of Arab-Americans in the country, reflected in its restaurants. Al Ameer is popular for its shawarma, falafel, and hummus. (Sheeba and Hamido are worth checking out as well.)

Best Neighborhood for a Night Out

Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood has many bars and restaurants perfect for a nice night out. Grey Ghost (named after a local Prohibition rumrunner) offers unusual bites, like fried bologna on a waffle, and more traditional items, like dry-aged rib eye. La Feria is a popular tapas bar (don’t miss the fried squid), and Selden Standard is a farm-to-table favorite (salt cod fritters with sweet peppers are the standout).

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Photo: Matthew Naimi 
Photo: Freep

Vice President Joe Biden joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan today at ceremonies where 15 Detroit entrepreneurs earned Motor City Match grants to open or expand their business in the city.

Since the program was launched nearly two years ago, Motor City Match has distributed nearly $3 million in grant funds to more than 60 local businesses and assisted more than 570 entrepreneurs.  This sixth round of grant awards, totaling $600,000, is the largest amount ever offered in a single round since the program’s inception.

Every three months, Motor City Match connects new and expanding businesses with Detroit real estate opportunities and provides them with the funding and technical support needed to help them succeed.

 “Vice President Biden and the Obama administration have been tremendous friends and supporters of the city of Detroit, so it’s great to have the Vice President in our city one more time to participate in this great event,” said Mayor Mike Duggan.  “The Motor City Match program is just one example of how federal support is helping Detroit to grow its economy by supporting its entrepreneurs.”

Motor City Match is funded with more than $7 million in federal community block grant funds distributed to Detroit, as well as with city funds approved by Detroit City Council and support from local foundations.  

The program has helped to create a strong pipeline of businesses in various stages of development.  More than 570 entrepreneurs have received assistance through Motor City Match, including more than 60 that have received grant funds.  So far, 15 MCM businesses have opened or expanded and 17 more are under construction with openings expected in 2017.

Among the winning MCM businesses so far:
·        76% are minority owned
·        54% are minority-women owned
·        68% are women owned
·        62% of are owned by native Detroiters

In the program’s sixth round, grants ranged from $10,000 to $75,000 and winning businesses include:
·        Youth empowerment center
·        Artist’s incubator
·        Several restaurants and cafes
·        Custom furniture and housewares manufacturer
·        Metalsmithing and jewelry making studio
·        Bookstore
·        Massage therapy center

Among the Round 6 recipients is Karissma Pringle, a young designer and creator of precious and semi-precious metal jewelry, who will be opening a design and manufacturing studio in a Quonset hut in the True North art-centered development on Grand River Avenue. Pringle is a Detroit native who has grown an international reputation for her skills. She returned to Detroit to expand her business, which will include casting services for other jewelry designers and a retail space.  Her $35,000 grant will help with purchasing equipment and other startup costs.

As Motor City Match progresses into its second year, businesses are opening or expanding into neighborhoods that have seen very few new businesses open for a long time, said Mayor Mike Duggan. “Detroiters always have had an entrepreneurial spirit and Motor City Match is helping more of them to live out their dream to become their own boss and play a larger role in Detroit’s comeback.”

Along with grants, Motor City Match provides assistance to entrepreneurs who need help writing a business plan, finding a space or planning a renovation.  Other Round 6 award levels included the following:

·        50 Business Plan Awardees

·        26 Space Awardees

·        8 Design Awardees

Today’s awards presentation was held inside a Motor City Match winning business, which re-activated a vacant Detroit Police Department precinct headquarters into a training center and business hub. The Detroit School for Digital Technology (DSDT) is located in the old Detroit Police Department Third Precinct building. DSDT is a post-secondary school focused on 21st century media technologies, including video, graphic design, 3D printing and coding. Jamie Kothe, school director and CEO, was a Motor City Match Round 1 Space awardee and a Round 2 Cash awardee. Funds from the Cash award supported the renovation of the DSDT space.

“Motor City Match has exceeded our expectations and is quickly becoming a national model for how to revitalize neighborhoods through small business and support for diverse urban entrepreneurs.” said Detroit Economic Growth Corporation President and CEO, Rodrick Miller.

Applications are available on the first day of each financial quarter.  The next application window for building and business owners to apply to Motor City Match will be open from March 1, 2017 to April 1, 2017. Application details are available at
Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris. Photo: ECLECTION MEDIA

Shamayim Harris wasn’t sure she’d survive after her 2-year-old son Jakobi was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2007. “I remember waking up the next morning, thinking, ‘I’m living through this pain that I thought would kill me. I’m not afraid of anything anymore,’ ” says Harris, 51, of Highland Park, Michigan.

Six months after her son’s death, the single mother of three channeled her grief into action, embarking on her dream of transforming a half-abandoned nearby block into a sustainable eco-village. “I saw this blighted block every day on my way to work, and I wanted to do something with it.”

The first step was a winning $3,000 bid on a vacant home on Avalon Street. With help from a friend, and money she’d pieced together from her paycheck and a tax refund, the former school administrator bought the house and moved in. She then set up a nonprofit, The Moon Ministry, started receiving donations (via a successful Kickstarter that has since reached over $240,000) and the real work began. Harris and a group of volunteers removed mattresses, toilets, liquor bottles — even an abandoned boat — from the neighborhood. “It took a while to get to green grass,” she says.

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The Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Kevin Miyazaki for The New York Times

9. Detroit, Michigan

A comeback city set to make good on its promise.

Detroit’s revitalization, after its 2013 bankruptcy filing, has long been building. In 2015, it was named a Unesco City of Design. But 2017 may be the year promise becomes reality. The new QLine streetcar is expected to open in April, connecting the central Woodward Avenue corridor some 3.3 miles between downtown and the revived New Center area. It passes through Midtown, home to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the entertainment-focused District Detroit, where a stadium opening this fall will be shared by the Detroit Red Wings and, in a return from the suburbs, the Detroit Pistons.

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