Raising a Daughter in a Detroit Squatting Community

March 19, 2015, 6:43 a.m.

DE­TROT—It takes a lot of wood to heat the battered, two-story bun­ga­low where Mary Wil­bur lives with her 17-year-old daugh­ter. To shower, they heat a pot of wa­ter on a wood-burn­ing stove and rinse off in the bathtub.

Neither one knows who owns the 1920s-era house they moved in­to two years ago. Wil­bur had just gone through a di­vorce at the time and had lost her home in Cent­ral Michigan to fore­clos­ure. But she felt ac­cep­ted in the off­beat De­troit com­munity of squat­ters, artists, and act­iv­ists known as Fire­weed Uni­verse City. Like many of her neigh­bors, Wil­bur simply moved in­to one of the 50,000 empty build­ings scattered throughout De­troit.

Sure, it’s been tough, Wil­bur says. Es­pe­cially in the winter, when they have to keep the tap wa­ter run­ning to pre­vent pipes from freez­ing. And the ceil­ing is sag­ging. Then there was the time a group of teens broke in­to the house and robbed Wil­bur at gun­point. She im­me­di­ately in­stalled doors with met­al bars. Des­pite all this, it feels like home.

“I feel like this is a man­sion, kind of,” says Wil­bur, a 46-year-old home­maker known in the neigh­bor­hood as Mama Mary. “Houses that are left empty, they just get trashed and ruined. I’m glad that we were able to save this one from that fate, so far.”

So far.

Squat­ters like Claire and her moth­er once had leg­al pro­tec­tion in De­troit, which re­quired homeown­ers to go through the evic­tion pro­cess to kick them out. That all changed in Septem­ber with a new law al­low­ing po­lice to ar­rest squat­ters and throw them out on the spot.

That ter­ri­fies Wil­bur.

“I don’t want them to come in and just load our be­loved things onto the street,” says Wil­bur. “That would just about kill me.”

Her daugh­ter, Claire, doesn’t seem to mind the setup. She chose to move in with her mom in De­troit in­stead of stay­ing with her fath­er.

Though it’s un­clear how many squat­ters live in the city, they oc­cupy at least 10 va­cant houses along Golden Gate Street, where Wil­bur lives. It’s part of the Grixdale Farms neigh­bor­hood, once a hot­bed of drug crime and now a par­tial waste­land of more than 500 va­cant build­ings.

A hand­ful of bo­hemi­ans—who are mostly white—began mov­ing in­to some of these houses four years ago with the idea of build­ing a self-sus­tain­ing com­munity from the rubble. They planted com­munity gar­dens, opened a bi­cycle col­lect­ive, and painted crum­bling houses in splashes of pink, purple, and red. The house next to Wil­bur’s even has a slide from the roof to the ground.

“Wel­come 2 Fire­weed Uni­verse City: We are a self-sus­tain­ing com­munity of con­scious­ness,” reads a hand-painted sign out front.

Long­time res­id­ents of the pre­dom­in­antly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an neigh­bor­hood eyed the new­comers sus­pi­ciously at first. A few neigh­bors even called the cops when their weekly bon­fire drum circle got too rowdy. But a homeown­er two streets down had nev­er heard of the ec­lect­ic com­munity.

Wil­bur is very aware of her white skin col­or and the ra­cial ten­sions that still ex­ist in De­troit. Some might even say she’s a part of the white gentri­fic­a­tion of De­troit, she said.

“I guess, in some way, I am,” says Wil­bur, who sports long dread­locks and glasses. “I know at first people prob­ably wer­en’t happy to see us. But things are chan­ging. I think every­one is start­ing to see that we are mak­ing this a bet­ter place.”

Wil­bur and her daugh­ter col­lect used cloth­ing and items for the “Free Store” they opened in an empty house across the street. Any­one can stop by and take any­thing. The city re­cently tore down the house, so they are look­ing for a new loc­a­tion for the store. Wil­bur also runs one of the com­munity gar­dens and shows kids in the neigh­bor­hood how to grow their own food on over­grown plots of land.

A month ago, a no­tice on Wil­bur’s door said that the homeown­ers were past due on their prop­erty taxes and that the county would soon place the house on pub­lic auc­tion. She checked in­to the op­tion of buy­ing an­oth­er house in Fire­weed that was also up for auc­tion. The prob­lem is that Wil­bur is a home­maker, and her only in­come is a small al­i­mony check. Claire helped her cre­ate a Go­FundMe page on­line to see if they could raise about $9,000 to buy the house. They only got $1,194.

“That bummed me out,” says Wil­bur. “I think it’s a sign that I have to work harder to be able to get this house.”

She plans to go to the Wayne County Treas­urer’s Of­fice to see if she can buy her cur­rent place be­fore it goes up for auc­tion. A search of prop­erty-tax re­cords shows that the homeown­ers haven’t paid their tax bill since 2011 and now owe $7,453.64 in back taxes and in­terest.

Wil­bur doesn’t have that kind of money, she says, but maybe the county will cut her a deal. It’s not like de­mand is high for old, derel­ict homes in De­troit, she says. And she and Claire can’t ima­gine liv­ing any­where but Fire­weed.

“I did feel for the longest time that I was a freak for squat­ting in this house and liv­ing with wood stoves,” Wil­bur says. “But I real­ized that every­body around here is liv­ing that way. I felt that I was dif­fer­ent, but really I’m the same as every­one else.”

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