Most Detroiters have a sense of humor about the rapidly changing condition of their city. “There’s only about 100 of us left — you sure you don’t want to be number 101?” jokes Jeremy Haines. A committed local resident, Haines is the Marketing Manager for Reclaim Detroit, an organization dedicated to salvaging materials from demolished houses and creating jobs through training employees in green deconstruction techniques.
Detroit has 76,000 vacant homes and nearly 3,000 are demolished every year. Through embracing green practices, Haines and the rest of the organization saw an opportunity for creating jobs, reusing valuable resources and limiting the impact on landfills. “On the first house we deconstructed, we were able to reuse or recycle 90% of the material,” says Haines. “We’ve deconstructed seven full houses and a smattering of small projects. So you can imagine the impact we could make to helping the environment if we did 30 or 40 houses a year.”
Reclaim Detroit recently made headlines when they held a wooden toymaking workshop where attendees used salvaged wood from deconstructed homes to build toy trains, many of which went to disadvantaged children all over the city. Lisa Grace, the Development Director for WARM Training Center where Reclaim Detroit was incubated, acknowledges the power of these handmade objects. “I like to think of our toys as a gateway. They suck you in, and then you have these beautiful pieces created by these people and you find out their histories and the background of the house where they came from, and you realize something bigger is going on here.” The organization dreams big; Reclaim Detroit hopes to inspire a new local economy that will support new job growth and provide unprecedented opportunities to locals and their neighborhood.
When word got out that Reclaim Detroit was dismantling old houses and building everything from toys to planters, the organization was overwhelmed with phone calls from artists looking to use the salvaged wood. “Every component of the house is raw material for artisans to use,” says Haines, noting that some craftspeople have even transformed reclaimed nails into jewelry. Architecture organizations are approaching Reclaim Detroit for building materials, and even Whole Foods is looking to use as much of the group’s reclaimed wood as they can for the interior of their new store in midtown Detroit.
“I had a local guitar maker call me and say, ‘I’ve always dreamt of making a guitar out of wood from old Detroit houses. Is that possible?'” recalls Haines, who assumed the guitar maker would require exotic species of wood. As it turns out, the old growth found in reclaimed lumber from turn-of-the-century houses is exactly the type of wood that’s ideal for instruments. The guitar maker set to work on a mandolin, using reclaimed maple hardwood flooring on one side, and douglas fir from house beams on the other. “His wife suggested he should find an image of the house the wood originated from and burn it onto the back of the instrument. It’s pretty incredible,” says Haines.
One of the biggest challenges Haines and Grace now face, in addition to scaling Reclaim Detroit, is dipping into retail. The organization has begun to make cutting boards from reclaimed wood. “Jeremy and I have been working on the marketing for these cutting boards, and I feel like we’re on a runaway train,” says Grace. “We can’t even put the brakes on. We’re already getting phone calls and requests from stores. People are embracing this and they’re passionate about it.”
Reclaim Detroit is doing a good thing for the environment, but ultimately, it’s about making the city a better place for its residents. “We’re not necessarily an environmental organization,” says Grace. “We like to see ourself as a community redevelopment organization.” This means providing jobs and support for people who really need a helping hand. “We want to have a warehouse, and eventually have a retail store where we fabricate our own products,” says Haines. “The interesting possibilities with retail is that there are new training opportunities and, ultimately, new job creation. These would be higher level skills that could be a whole other job track for our employees as we grow.”
Reclaim Detroit proves that residents are ready to reclaim their city as a hub of creativity and ingenuity. Local attorneys are volunteering to look at legal documents, and retailers are donating their time to look at plans for the organization’s possible retail venture. “Detroiters are fiercely protective of what we deal with in the national media all the time,” says Grace. “We’re famous for our dilapidated, miserable buildings. But if you go a step further, we have some of the most gorgeous architecture, homes and neighborhoods of anywhere I’ve visited. We love our city, and we need to turn the page and talk about what Detroit could be in the future.”
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.