“The best place to do permaculture and community projects is in a failed state.” Mark, of Flintopia.
A major theme of my work is that government stands in the way of real progress, when it comes to redesigning our communities. Laws and regulations, while perhaps well-intended, typically only support the status quo, inhibiting innovation and grassroots community efforts. They especially stand in the way of low budget community projects, which seldom have the resources to get permits, licenses, or official permission to do the work they are doing. Anything from gray water systems to raising chickens, to work trade housing might be considered illegal. Having potlucks, barter markets, or concerts is a great way to bring people together, but in many cases such things are prohibited unless sanctioned by some bureaucratic process.
We get a glimpse of just how much this official process hinders real progress when we go to places where the governments are bankrupt and simply don’t come around to bother anyone. This is where the agora flourishes, and Flint, Michigan is just such a place. Like many cities which were decimated by the expatriation of American industry, Flint has greatly declined. But this isn't just standard rustbelt decline; Flint has been undergoing a major crisis with their water supply, as most people know.
The population of Flint was once over 250,000 people, but now it has dropped to less than 100,000, a dramatic reduction which can be easily perceived when exploring the town. Vacant properties and buildings are everywhere, and the traffic seems minimal, given the width and general design of the road system. It was most amusing to see people treating stoplights like stop signs. Give a good look and go when it’s safe. No victim, no crime.
I was honored to be most warmly received by The Flintopia, a Sustainable Intentional Community in the heart of Flint. They have an old bank building which is set up as a community center with a kitchen and a big gathering room with a wood stove. This room was to be my lodging during my visit, on one of the many couches that took up one side of the room. It was quite comfortable, and it was a great room for other uses as well. Workshop space, tables, a map area with great layout of the city and which properties were vacant. There were also some musical instruments, and EJ, who was showing me around, was delighted when I brought in my guitar. He was very nice, and he had a grand vision that was well on its way to becoming a reality. I learned that the whole project was started up by him and his father. The price of properties in Flint is so low that they bought up several houses along with the bank building, and they had an in-depth, long term plan for what to do with all this space. Currently they had some local craftsmen, who were living in the main building, working to fix up the houses and get them up to comfortable standards. They also had forest gardens in multiple locations with predominant hugelkulturs.
EJ showed me the map and told me about the city’s plan to turn whole swaths of certain neighborhoods into renewal zones, showing which vacant lots were designated adoptable or leasable, as well as showing the condition of the existing structures. The Flintopia is one of many projects endeavoring to redesign the land-use system of Flint, and many properties were owned by the organization called the Land Bank, which was mentioned to me by the guys at Camp Promise, not in high esteem.
I didn’t ask EJ about the Land Bank, and I didn’t know much beyond that they have lots of land in Flint that they are trying to put to good use, with community restoration in mind, same as Flintopia. EJ also had a permaculture project called Abundant Michigan Permaculture Flint, which was responsible for most of the forest gardens. People interested in the project came from all over, some to stay for longer lengths of time, to intern or work trade.
Also there during my visit was EJ's partner Pascale, who was from France, living in Montreal. The three of us spent a good deal of time in conversation, and we were all thrilled to be on the same page about a great many issues. The more we talked, the more EJ and I discovered that we have very similar visions and ideas, on a number of topics. He was happy to hear me bringing unapologetic voluntaryism to the conversation, claiming that he shares the values but often isn’t able to talk too much about it because for so many people the word anarchy has too negative of a connotation. Hence my reluctance to lead with that one word. Voluntaryism is much more to the point, but no matter what words you use to describe it, the idea is always a little threatening to people who believe that initiatory violence (via government) is necessary to keep the order.
When our goals are to build projects, plant gardens, and restore crumbling cities, even the most important part of the problem (violent institutions) has to be put on the back shelf sometimes to preserve cohesion. Any solutions we come up with will be minor at best if we don't address the false authorities holding a monopoly on violence, but sometimes small steps are all we can get everyone to agree on. EJ knows this and has kept his community-building approach focused on production of food, restoration of infrastructure, and creation of small scale industry and jobs. He works with the city council and with the boards of directors from other non-profits, and even though he knows that all this work would be a lot easier if we just got rid of the violence-initiators, he accepts that things are like they are and makes the best of it. If you want to own land and buildings and have larger scale projects of any kind, you’ve got to interface with these systems.
EJ and I both are eager to see the development of strategies that will help us get around this roadblock to redesigning our societies. We are also pragmatists, and while the gangsters in charge don’t have legitimate authority, the rules they make are backed by the violence of the state, and even in a failed state like Flint, overt violation of code and zoning regulations would result in threats of comply-or-die from whichever government bodies claim jurisdiction. Point being, we have to play their game for now, buying land through their title companies and paying property taxes, or everything we’re trying to build can be easily taken away from us.
This was but one issue we discussed in our time together. I got along with EJ and Pascale so well that I moved my schedule around so I could stay longer. My plans were altered yet again when I decided to fly down to San Antonio to attend a funeral of an old friend, and I was fortunate that EJ offered to help me out, driving me down to Detroit, keeping my car for me, and then picking me up again at the end of the weekend. After my brief trip back to my hometown, I came back and spent a couple more nights with them before heading on to Chicago.
It was great getting to know EJ and Pascale. We explored downtown Detroit on the morning I was to fly out, and we went to two different permaculture installments in the city. One of them was on the east side, where I’d been warned not to go by some locals up in Flint, but when we got out there, it was like a ghost town. The whole block on which the project was set up was void of houses. There were only gardens and empty lots with tall grasses and young trees taking back over. There were no cars, and no people. We did eventually meet up with the lady we had gotten in touch with, but I’ll tell more of that tale in a separate article
We also went around Flint, visiting a great book store called Totem Books, and also a memorial to the sit-down strike of 36-37. A group of workers calling themselves the United Automobile Workers went on strike against GM, and as they usually do, the government sided with the big industry and sent in police to break up the strike. Violence ensued, though I think it was mostly minor clashes. A prominent statue in the park shows a woman being dragged away by police, which became something of an icon of the whole strike. The result was a raise in pay and a few other concessions for the workers. The United Automobile Workers were transformed from a loosely organized group to a large and prominent union.
Aside from getting along very well with EJ and Pascale, I found Flintopia to be an excellent project, a prime example of permaculture and agorism working together to tackle real problems in the world. If you want a full scoop on what all Flintopia is up to, you should definitely check out the Facebook page. They are laying the groundwork for what could eventually be a major hub of alternative living and education, not to mention a major stopover on the underground agorist migration/travel route that is forming. This is something I had some great conversations with EJ about. He and I were on the exact same page when it comes to developing an effective, consistent, but decentralized network of permaculture and agorist locations where people can couch surf and work trade as they travel around. I was blazing my own trail in this endeavor as I moved my way up the east coast on my tour, finding folks based on common interest and being offered great hospitality just about everywhere I went.
EJ’s project, HOBO, takes this idea to the next level, making it easy for people to travel unconventionally and cheaply. Different combinations of rideshare, hitch hiking, biking, and couch surfing make it possible to get all the way across the country with very little money, and EJ is working on setting up an easy to use system to streamline all these types of endeavors and establish a peer review rating system similar to what Airbnb uses to develop credentials and profiles for travelers and hosts. This idea is still being developed, and soon there will be an online manual to explain it better detail.
Some other highlights from my visit were going up on the roof of the main building, where we could see the whole spread of Flintopia, and where EJ gave me a bit of a bigger picture download on the goals of the project. I was glad to be part of a great yoga session with EJ’s friend Jules, who leads yoga for the group regularly. It was also really fun when we got an impromptu jam session going out on the street corner. I took my guitar, Mark took a drum, and EJ took some juggling balls to juggle while we played. Our goal was not to get money for this, but just to show some high spirits and vitality in the streets. We got great feedback, with many honks and cheers.
So much more could I tell about The Flintopia, but this was just a first visit. I will definitely have to get back up there for a follow up, and I’d love to get more time on camera with EJ talking about all of the ideas that he’s working on. I did get in a good interview with him right before I left, which is up on Youtube, and I’ll embed it here as well.
I write about places like The Flintopia and people like EJ not just to inspire people with what can be done, as far as solutions go, but to provide real, on the ground options for people who want to break out of the matrix. If you’re sick of the rat race and want to just get out and start over, there are places where you can go and be taken care of as you work out the details of your life transition. Places like D Acres, Keene New Hampshire, Richmond Virginia, Orlando Florida, and Earthaven Ecovillage all represent different kinds of options people have when they’re looking for a new way of life.
An example of this is Tom, who had us all over for dinner one night in Flint. Tom also bought a house in the area and is in many ways in alignment with the goals of The Flintopia. We had a great conversation over dinner, and he played us a few songs on guitar, one of which I’ll post as a video, so much did I like the words.
Tom’s story is a perfect example of what I see becoming a growing trend – people finding new situations in life that are more in line with how they want to live, and which are cheaper and less stressful than conventional work-a-day reality. Don’t get me wrong, living in the alternative scene (ecovillages, co-housing, agorist hubs) involves hard work. But it also affords a freedom that can never be achieved when you’re running an uphill race against economic factors (like rent spikes and inflation) beyond your control. Each individual has to design his or her own strategy, but organizations are popping up to help with this process, making it easier and easier for people to find their way out of the labyrinth, to come up from the caves and step into the sunlight of agorism, conscious awareness, and freedom. Let the great migration begin!