Pavel Prokopchik traveled to the United States in summer 2012 in search of the American dream. He wanted to debunk it.
Prokopchik was born in Russia, raised in Latvia and now lives in the Netherlands. He believes the United States presents itself as a wealthy, unflappable superpower, but he was sure he would find a different story among people – that Americans would have their own fantastic, contradictory, far simpler dreams.
His journey wound through the Deep South, into Appalachia and the Midwest. Near its end, he came to Detroit. The city was only on the brink of bankruptcy then, but its troubles were legendary: the plunging population, the shaken automotive industry, the lawlessness and deterioration.
He’d seen photographs of the city’s feral buildings and emptied factories, and people he spoke with believed it was a ghost town.
“They had an idea there are no people at all, that it’s a desolate location with no people, just dogs passing by,” he said. “I wanted to do something different.”
He began to shoot photos around one street north of downtown, Goldengate. There were collapsed buildings and potholed streets, but residents, squatters, families, criminals and artists had begun to live in some sort of ragged harmony.
“It’s something that I noticed a lot of other places where things are not going so well,” Prokopchik said. “People are gathering in communities to survive.”
From one town to another, he said, it might be a club, a convention or a social scene. In Detroit, it was as a neighborhood.
Goldengate was anchored by the Innate Healing Arts Center, a holistic healing center that includes a chiropractic clinic and vegetarian café. Squatters, some of them tied to the Occupy Detroit movement who had been ousted from downtown’s Grand Circus Park, claimed and rebuilt empty homes nearby. Artists moved in from faraway places, seeking a cheap place to play and create.
People snagged materials from other vacant homes, fished food from supermarket Dumpsters and planted seeds in empty lots. They shared rides and split firewood to warm themselves in a cold snap. They lived simply, but not always in peace.
Even as community members came to each other’s aid, there were drug addictions, break-ins and fights. People came and went, injecting new personalities and conflicts into the culture of the street.
“I would not say it’s a happy-go-lucky kind of place. It’s tough,” Prokopchik said. “It’s a different attitude. It’s opposed to the idea of the American dream, where you need to work hard your whole life.
“They’re turning it around. You don’t need much to live a happy life.”
In the months since Prokopchik visited, the community has continued to change, said Bob Pizzimenti, founder of the Innate Healing Arts Center. Dr. Bob, as he’s known around the city, said some of the squatters Prokopchik met are still there, but many have moved on. The gardens are bigger. There’s a community bike shop now, Red Planet Bikes. Solar panels have been installed on some houses. There are still drum circles every week, and couch surfers visit almost constantly.
The abandoned buildings, drugs and fights are still there, too, but “some of the bad guys have left, or they’ve gotten better,” Pizzimenti said. “It’s pretty anarchic, pretty dynamic and organic, and here in Detroit, you can get away with murder, in a way.”
Nobody seems to be stopping anybody. Maybe, Prokopchik said, it’s because it works. It doesn’t line up with every other dream around the country, but shows “your expectations are adjustable, according to the situation you’re in,” he said.
“If you’re really attracted and attached to the city, this is the only way to survive. Just get together. I just don’t see any other way.”