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Culture > Back Words

Radically wholesome

Anarchy makes a place for art.
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Published 9/11/2002

The day of my visit to the Trumbullplex, a Cass Corridor anarchist collective, is idyllic. Birds sing under the clear blue summer sky here as anywhere else.

Many people fear the concept of anarchism, which advocates a radical shift in government, to put it midly. This is not to say that anarchism is readily understood, because for most, the concept first appears during those tender high-school years, when it’s so easy to wear a baggy black T-shirt bearing a distorted “A,” smoke clove cigarettes and rail against the establishment.

I am so bogged down with preconceived notions of anarchism that the reality of the Trumbullplex mission comes as a great surprise.

The collective, at 4210 Trumbull, is on a wide, shady street featuring historic homes in various states of charming disrepair.

The Trumbullplex itself is two Victorian houses with a single-story art space in between.

It’s an incredible hub of activity. People sit on the front porch talking and eating a fragrant lunch of chutney and porridge. One member is suiting up to harvest honey. Another is taking a talkative little boy named Aidan (he and his mother live at a nearby house for radical mothers and their children) on a bicycle ride up and down the block. The scene is too wholesome to be believed.

The Trumbullplex was created in 1993 when members bought the property and created the Wayne Association of Collective Housing, a nonprofit corporation which owns it.

When I ask for a simple definition of anarchism, a woman named Angel provides an answer I’ll hear repeatedly throughout the day: “We rely on consensus decision-making and everyone in the collective has an equal say.”

Everything they do (and interviews are no exception) is done collectively. No one person’s voice is privileged. The Trumbullplex mission statement says the residents “want to create a positive environment for revolutionary change in which economic and social relationships are based on mutual aid and the absence of hierarchy.”

Members pay a portion of the mortgage each month and split household duties into four committees: maintenance, long-term repair, finance and outreach. They have weekly group meetings to decide what projects they will undertake, and what needs doing around the complex. The members cultivate not only their own property and garden, but a couple other vegetable plots in the neighborhood.

I ask how they see themselves fitting into the fabric of Detroit. Members are aware that they can be construed as “a bunch of white college kids moving downtown from the suburbs,” but they hope their commitment to revitalizing the city through the cultivation of gardens and other green spaces will create neighborhoods where all people work together, and no one is seen as an anomaly.

This doesn’t mean that Detroit’s problem of poverty and sloppily run city government will be cured by a good attitude and some organically grown vegetables. The greatest value of the Trumbullplex may be that it presents an alternative to the traditional individualistic lifestyle.

The members recognize, however, that not everyone wants to live this intimately, and the cooperative has been brainstorming ways to create affordable housing that would be structured more like a traditional apartment building.

The Info-Shop, which features books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects from anarchism to sustainable development, and the Art Space — a venue for performances, meetings and art exhibitions — are each community resources. Both spaces operate solely on donations, and visitors are asked to pay only what they can for books or performances.

Trumbullplex residents not only work within their own houses and neighborhood, they are committed to the Catherine Ferguson Academy (a school for teenage mothers), groups in Detroit that promote agriculture, and a variety of other causes and organizations.

Recently, two members of the cooperative, Oona Wieske and Emma Berger, were killed in a car accident, leaving a hole in the tight-knit Trumbullplex family. The members gathered to remember the two radical women and to paint a mural in their memory. They seek feminists and radical mothers to continue the work begun by Oona and Emma.

Currently, there is room for more members and anyone interested can call 313-832-1845. New members are accepted into the collective on a four-month trial basis, and are subjected to a constructive review after the second and fourth months to decide whether they will stay.

As we walk through the neighborhood, stopping occasionally to pick tomatoes from the garden or to tour the new greenhouse, members talk about the new construction and rising property values in the area. It is difficult to imagine what will happen to a group dedicated to creativity and self-sufficiency in a neighborhood beset by gentrification.

“We’re not a model, just an experiment to prove that it is possible to live outside of the system,” one member explains.

Whatever its fate, the Trumbullplex has succeeded in showing that there is a vibrant alternative to the dream of a white picket fence.

Domenique Osborne is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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