Raising a Daughter in a Detroit Squatting Community

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."