#SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit

There’s a certain look people get on their faces when I answer the question of where I’m from. I go to great lengths to assure them I’m not the survivor of apocalypse they expect me to be. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more cities will start having to reckon with the torn social safety nets that failed to catch the people of Detroit.

I recently stumbled across the hashtag: #SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit. “We’re practically begging at this point,” I thought. A few years ago, the city announced they were closing seventy-two parks. The playgrounds and parks where I took my first steps are now paved over or overtaken by wild grasses. The people I loved with their beautiful copper and blue faces have since fled like refugees from their own homes. There are houses on the edge of the city that the land has reclaimed, vines and branches shattering windows, weeds, and cattails overgrowing the lawns. This is where the people who stayed began what the locals call “urban farming” when all the national grocery store chains left. This is subsistence farming. Survival farming. Only once we have our own land can we be free. The land may not be valuable, but the people of Detroit are free.

When I imagine moving back home, I’m afraid the city I knew will have been wiped away completely by the time I return. Before the pandemic, I dreamt that the house I grew up in was overtaken by vines, spilling from windows and shattering the glass. They grew, gripping the indentations between the bricks and down onto the street, filling the cracks in the sidewalks. The buildings began to topple under their weight, first crumbling, then sinking into the earth. In the back of my mind I thanked God that no one was inside, and with that thought, I looked around to find that there was nothing but silence and everyone was gone. No one skating in the park, no one buying hot dogs from the usual vendors, no one loitering on the steps of the library. Not even the police were parked in their usual spot at the intersection corner.

What happens when a city goes bankrupt? City services are cut down. Fewer trash cans, fewer cops, fewer schools and no one to put out the fires when people would rather burn down their homes and collect the insurance money than make another payment on a home that is falling apart above their heads. The government has given up on our recovery.

The Detroit of the future will be made up of the people who stuck it out, who defended their homes amid disaster. The people of Detroit are survivors of the failed experiment of the American dream, and they are the most beautiful people I have ever known. I know that someday after the world has its reckoning, I will return, and it will not be long before people have something nice to say about Detroit.

 

—April 14, 2020

The Invasion of Yonkers: People and Plants

The city of Yonkers is being invaded in many different ways at once.

Among the types of invasive plants that plague Westchester county are Kudzu, Mile-a-Minute, Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, Multiflora Rose, Purple Loosestrife and Japanese Knotweed. Each has a distinct personality; they can be identified by leaf shape, size, color and the aggression and speed with which they spread. One learns to hate certain species more than others. I’ve spent countless hours removing Multiflora thorns from my fingertips. My muscles have become stiff from cutting vines that have grown thicker than a baby’s arm. My skin is raised and itchy from contact with poison ivy and oak. My back is sore from pulling weeds rooted so deeply that the earth puts up a fight releasing them.

A species is classified as invasive when it is not only foreign but has no local predators, meaning that it can spread prolifically without being eaten, siphoning resources like space, light, and water from native plant life. Many of these species were brought from Asia by European traders as decorative additions to gardens or church hats. Others came in the hulls of ships along with food and other supplies. Others came as seeds nestled in the hair of slaves. Whatever their origin, they now grow unperturbed along the Saw Mill River and its surrounding trails and forests.

I work with high school students in Yonkers on vine removal and ecology education. We must be careful; my supervisors remind me to stay away from words like “alien” or “invader” because they may be triggering to immigrant students and their families. Instead we are encouraged to use the terms “native” and “non-native”. My boss suggests going as far as referring to them within the framework of “colonizers” vs “natives”.

The Yonkers city government cannot afford to take on the removal of invasive plants, so it is up to volunteer groups to resist their spread. At volunteer events, I explain that a tree covered in vines may appear to be alive due to the green tendrils that wrap endlessly around its branches, while underneath the thing has been dead for quite some time. This is dangerous because it leaves the tree unstable. Dead branches can fall unexpectedly at any time.

There are very few green spaces left in Yonkers. The small community gardens that litter South West Yonkers are built on city property and are liable to be taken back for “development”. Half of these plots are in the process of being converted into luxury condos.

There is no point protesting the uprooting of the gardens in Yonkers. Their removal became inevitable when a new kind of invaders began growing downtown. They take the form of real estate developers and artists escaping the rising price of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like a vine climbing a tree, they tear down affordable housing projects and uproot community gardens to make room for juice bars and upscale art galleries. We are reminded each day that this land does not belong to the community and never will. Every attempt at purchasing the land has been shot down, even when the asking value is met. We are forced to face the reality that money makes money and community gardens do not.

 

There is still trash in the river, protest over the removal of trees, miles of invasive plants that grow faster than we can cut them, and rising property taxes as a result of cleaning up the city that belongs to the community who can no longer afford to live there. We spend the day digging up the garden on Buena Vista Avenue that is older than any of us to make room for a parking lot; it can get discouraging. Buena Vista literally means “good view”, and we all recognize the irony when the new apartment complexes have been blocking the view of the Hudson for months.

To be young and of color, a child of an immigrant, is to be a product of “outreach”, surrounded by community, on land you do not own, in a city full of abandoned spaces still teeming with life. Having been touched by white systems if not white people—until they leave their hometowns—the kids I work with are happy simply with opportunity, the opportunity to fail, even. Failure rarely has anything to do with their own shortcomings but centuries and tons and miles of circumstance. I know they will blame themselves anyway, and work hard like our parents and grandparents and great grandparents, all while praying that they never end up like them. When the parents ask, “Why are you doing this again?” we are reminded that our parents did not “come to this country to have you picking fruit”.

Humans are the deadliest of invasive species, our vines growing ever upward, blocking precious sunlight.

We must become environmentalists. It is our obligation.

I’m talking about a second definition of environmentalism as well as the first: not only concern about and action aimed at protecting the environment, but the theory that environment, as opposed to heredity, has the primary influence on the development of a person or group.1

 

I understand wanting to leave when it feels like there is less and less space for the community to occupy; when they tell you your music is too loud; no, you cannot skate here; your art is vandalism; it’s past curfew; this is city property; no loitering; this area is under surveillance by camera.

In a city of immigrants, some documented, some not, the issue of invasion is blurry. Who is the invader on land that belongs to the Lene Lenape tribe, whose presence can be felt if not seen? None of us are native to this land. Whether we immigrated from overseas and beyond borders or were brought here against our will, we are all here now.

 

A community deserves land for themselves that cannot be taken away, occupied or invaded. A place to grow for the sake of growing rather than the sake of profit. A place with enough space, sunlight and water to thrive. But right now, the city of Yonkers is being invaded, and it doesn’t look like we are going to be able to stop it.

 

Along any highway in Westchester county, the invasion is evident. If you take the time to look, nearly every surface is covered in the relentless vines. They elicit a visceral reaction from me now, a feeling of rage and anxiety that lives in my chest. Deep down I believe that the task of removing them is impossible, but I will never say this aloud. Invasive removal has become a kind of therapy to work out a whole list of anxieties I cannot speak aloud for fear that speaking them into existence will make them real, that my community and communities like it do not stand a chance of thriving under these conditions. Still, I go out each week and work, little by little, in the hopes that I am very wrong.