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Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Detroitblog: Solitary Man

[ Detroit is a city unlike any other in the world. You can even see it in the city's blogosphere. Today I want to highlight one of the single greatest blogs on Planet Earth: Detroitblog. Published by someone who prefers to be known only as "Detroitblogger John", the stories in this blog are some of the most powerful anywhere. Detroitblog is simply unlike anything else on the web. Here's a sample for you - and another example of the frontier ethos in Detroit. - Aaron. ]

Six years ago, Glendale Stewart took a look at the world around him and decided to drop out of it. He quit working, bought an empty plot of land at a city auction, parked an old trailer on it, built a wood privacy fence around it and made it his home.

He lives in a run-down part of the east side, where grassy fields fill long spaces between old houses. It’s the perfect place for someone to leave it all while going nowhere, to live a frontier life in a part of the city that’s gone rural in spots, to step away from society while still living in the middle of it.

“This trailer here is just as good as any house,” says Stewart, a short, skinny 49-year-old. “It’s small, portable, easy to clean, easy to take care of. I had a house and I had a handful. I’m one person; I don’t need all that.”

He’s immune to power outages, indifferent to rising utility costs, oblivious to gas prices. He has no plumbing to bring water, no gas lines, no electric or cable wires streaming to his place. Mail never arrives because he gets no bills. He has no car, only a bike. He is on his own, under the radar, outside everyday concerns.

“It was for financial reasons, mostly,” he says of the decision to set up his unique homestead. “I was renting and then the guy sold the house, so what can you do? This other guy wanted to charge more, and he wanted to make some changes to the house and rebuild the house on the inside.”

Stewart is an electronics wizard with a knack for inventing things out of scrap. He’s rigged the frame of a bicycle to several motors he’s built, which he uses to generate enough electricity to power a primitive microwave oven and a small TV and to light some bulbs.

“I’ve been working on electronics for quite some time — radios and other little small devices and stuff — so I pretty much know my way around electrical things,” he says. “I can pretty much build anything if I get the money.” He pedals for about an hour and a half to create enough power to last through a day. The power is collected and stored in an old car battery at the foot of the bike.

A little windmill fastened atop his fence creates a weak current when the breeze turns it. He fashioned it from flattened pieces of rain gutter. “Electrical impulses let me know how high the wind is,” he says as a needle on a dial jumps in reaction to the turning blades. He hasn’t yet found a use for it, other than as a measure of wind speed and a generator of unharnessed power.

He’s adjusted to being without other utilities as well. “I get my water from the rain,” he says. He shows off storage tubs where the water collects. “I wash my clothes with that, but it’s not drinking water. I go to the supermarket to get my water.” A similar tub sits under his toilet; when it gets full he pulls it out and dumps it down the sewer, a short walk to the curb that a slip and fall can turn into a sanitation nightmare.

Stewart has no real occupation anymore, other than endlessly inventing things. “I do odd jobs, stuff like that. Sometimes I cut grass for people.” The only things he really needs money for are bottled water, food and kerosene to cook meals on a small stove. Two large, two-wheel, homemade wood carts sit in a corner; they attach to the back of his bicycle to bring groceries and supplies home. He recently took an old radio from a car and rigged it to his bike, creating a high-decibel curiosity that onlookers see and hear passing through the otherwise quiet streets of his neighborhood. Cops have stopped him to compliment him on his contraption, for which he’s built a sturdy plastic rain hood.

The tall privacy fence leaves a snug space around the trailer, only a few feet wide. The hinge on the front gate locks, and Stewart’s rigged an electric doorbell to the outside for visitors to announce themselves. Small scavenged statues and toy figures decorate his tiny yard. A strange, amateur drawing of a raccoon on a branch is framed and nailed to the fence, discolored by the weather.

The inside of his trailer is dark, cramped and musty, a hermit’s dirty nest lined with filthy wood boards for insulation. It’s segmented into his bedroom, a kitchen and an alcove by the door where the bike frame stands with motors and wires going in all directions. In the summer, the trailer’s sweltering; in winter, it’s warmed by a kerosene heater that he uses carefully and sparingly. “You really got to know what you’re doing when you’re living like this, know all the outs and ins and stuff,” he says.

He’s vague about his past, saying only that he’s a lifelong Detroiter who used to work at a plating plant and lived in a house with a girlfriend at one time. He says he went to college but doesn’t say where.

What little mail he must get is sent to his parents’ house. They stop by occasionally to drop it off and check in, he says. Otherwise he’s got few visitors. “Not too many,” he says. “I’m sort of a loner.”

Stewart’s rather matter-of-fact about his lifestyle. He says he doesn’t live this way for any particular philosophical reason, other than he’s dirt poor and deft enough to adapt. “We can’t live the way that we used to, because the prices are up and situations nowadays we’re having is not the same, so we gotta change with the world.”

There have been no complaints about his homestead from neighbors on either side of the green lots around him, nor from the city. “As long as you keep it clean enough, you know, they never bug me or say anything about it,” he says.

Most days he putters around his trailer, working on several peculiar inventions at once, with nothing but time at his disposal. The tight fence around the little trailer creates a cozy space where he feels protected, where his whole existence is entirely within his grasp. “Because of the world we live in nowadays and how things are in general, I like to be in a space where there’s security,” he says. “I like security. This is excellent here. I don’t like a big old house. This is safer and better than any house that I know.”

This post originally ran in Detroitblog and the Metro Times. Reprinted with permission of the author.

6 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Sustainability, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

6 Responses to “Detroitblog: Solitary Man”

  1. Curt says:

    Ya know what, I visited Guatemala last summer and the conditions inside some of the homes there remind me of this. Just putting it out there and living.

  2. Cooper says:

    We’re lucky to have some remarkable storytellers in Detroit. Every week without fail Detroit Blog profiles a new character whose story has never been told before. He’s like our own A.J. Liebling, bringing the streets and neighborhoods of Detroit to life. Here’s one of my recent favorites, on a woman who outlasted her neighborhood:

    http://www.detroitblog.org/?p=941

    Sweet Juniper is a great read as well. Jim mostly writes about raising his kids in Detroit, but he’s also published some great photo essays and Detroit Blogger-esque profiles of local businesses. Here’s a taste:

    http://www.sweet-juniper.com/2009/07/feral-houses.html
    http://www.sweet-juniper.com/2009/12/r-hirt-jr-est-1887.html

  3. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I discovered Detroitblog through this blog a few months back.It defintly is one of the best blogs about a city!

    The thing that i like best about Detroitblog is that it doesnt portray the residents of Detroit as helpless victems .

    Most of the residents featured in the blog defintly live on very low incomes.But they are resourceful , hard working and able to survive under very harsh social and economic conditions.

    Sadly this is not a common way to look at residents of urban areas.Most media sources portray residents of low income urban areas as helpless victems or ruthless criminals.

    It is interesting to note that while our politicians and policy makers argue about whats best for inner city residents , the residents themselves have tried to find their own solutions.

    This is not to say that government cant or shouldnt help our urban areas. Im simply saying that the government shouldnt just regard the residents of these areas as “problems” that need to be solved.But instead should view many of these residents as a massively underused resource.Instead of viewing the residents as a “problem” the government might want to consider many of them to be a “solution” to the problems of our urban areas.

    And maybe the government should approach these residents with a little humility, instead of pretending that they “know whats best for them”!.

  4. I have been following detroitblog for close to two years now, and I must say it has definietly become on of my favorites…

  5. John says:

    Fascinating, but I don’t want to live anywhere near that trailer.

  6. kristen says:

    Glendale Stewart sounds like a fascinating character. Thanks for telling the story.

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