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Sharing is a part of Detroit's underground economy

Feb 3, 2017

Shadow of the Spirit of Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham

In Detroit, jobs are scarce. Money is short.

That has led to an underground economy that one Detroit reporter calls a “gift economy.”

Valerie Vande Panne’s piece is titled “Life Without Money in Detroit’s Survival Economy.” 

“It’s a little bit different from a barter system,” Vande Panne explained on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program. “Economists tend to think of barter as ‘I will give you one loaf of bread for one pound of meat,’ or something like that. And it’s a system that tends to take place when people don’t know one another and they want to make sure their exchange is equal,” Vande Panne said.

She says what’s happening in Detroit is whatever people can share, they do. People who are in need can take it. It’s a neighbor-helping-neighbor system that’s evolved in areas that long have been impoverished and short of outside help.

While Detroit’s central business districts are in the midst of a revival not seen in decades, much of the rest of the city, the residential neighborhoods, languish. The prosperity in downtown is not making its way to Detroit’s people in any meaningful way.

The Bloomberg article tells the stories of several people and how the “gift economy” works in Detroit. While some efforts are more formalized (such as a time bank where an hour babysitting might earn someone an hour of a mechanic’s time), much of the sharing is informal. A favor today might be paid back in the future, but there is no guarantee. You help because you can.

Vande Panne’s research found there are plenty of stories of neighbors looking forward to helping when they are able. She found one 21-year-old woman who bought her first car. Although her story wasn’t part of the final article, Vande Panne says the woman was excited because she’d be able to give people who lived near her rides to the doctor or other appointments. No one in her immediate area owns a car. Most don’t have smart phones, so getting Uber or Lyft is out of the question. The woman said getting a taxi in her neighborhood could take hours. And, despite improved service, public transit is still considered unreliable.

Credit Detroiters Helping Each Other logo

One of the people featured in the Bloomberg article was Jessica Ramirez. She operates Detroiters Helping Each Other. It’s a store that operates something like a thrift store, with one key difference: it gives away its goods.

“If somebody needs an item, we’ll post it on our page and if somebody has it, they can drop it off or we’ll pick it up,” Ramirez told Michigan Radio.

The top priority for the store is families that might be in trouble with Child Protective Services (CPS) because they don’t have what they need for children’s welfare. Perhaps the home doesn’t have the proper number of beds or an operating refrigerator.

“Big-ticket items like refrigerators and stoves, those are so hard to come by and there’s a mile-long list,” Ramirez explained. She just helped a single mother with five children find a replacement refrigerator.

An appliance like that can make the difference between a family staying together or children being taken away by the state.

Ramirez says another priority for her store is fire victims. The store gets donated items from all over the city, from the suburbs, and even beyond Michigan. 

People in Detroit don't expect their economic future will change dramatically any time soon. Cash will be short. Any money they get quickly disappears, paying for power, water, or rent. For the other things they need in life, some will figure it out with a little help from their neighbors.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.