I spent a day last week with a writer from Time Magazine showing him around Detroit. He was here to do a story about ways this city might reinvent itself, so a few days before he arrived I put together a tour of the city with that in mind. I was kind of nervous---this was Time Magazine, after all: the storied weekly of Henry Luce and James Agee and the "person of the year." I know no one really reads it anymore unless they're waiting for a root canal or a colonoscopy, but still: Time Magazine. It's a big deal. So I met the writer outside my wife's office and welcomed him into my filthy car. He was surprisingly young and all I could think when I shook his hand was, "Dude, you were born in the EIGHTIES weren't you?" He was only in town for a few hours and the mayor had just stood him up, so I had the enormous responsibility of trying to explain this insanely complicated city before he jetted back to Park Slope. This is how the mainstream media works, I guess: to write a story on the 11th-largest city in the nation they parachute in a guy who's never been there before for a few hours WITHOUT A CAR and let some carpetbagging hipster douchebag show him around town. What pertains to laws and sausages, it seems, applies also to Time Magazine articles when it comes to seeing how they're made.

To be fair, the writer was incredibly aware of how unfair this situation was. He was bright and fully engaged and fascinated by everything I showed him. I can only hope the time I spent with him will make the story something more than if he had been stuck walking around downtown trying to make sense of a 138.8-square-mile city from a few square blocks of vacant storefronts, abandoned skyscrapers, and a Hard Rock Cafe. As I drove him around town telling him all my favorite anecdotes ("That's where my kid and I got attacked by wild dogs!", "I was surrounded by wild dogs there once, too!", "Some wild dogs killed a homeless guy in that alley!") and spelling out my thoughts about why things here are the way they are, he was all, "You know, I appreciate all this information, but I have maybe 1,000 words if I'm lucky. . ." I told him I didn't expect him to write about everything I was showing him; you can't fit a dissertation on the side of a coffee mug. It can be such a challenge to capture the truth of a place; I have been hacking away at it on this blog for years because if there's anything I've learned from reading the great writers, it's that if you can capture the truth of any place you can reach the truth of every place. And if I was successful in showing this guy that Detroit does have some hope of reinventing itself, then maybe there is hope for every other place in these dark times.

But asking me to show you around Detroit is sort of like asking a devout Mormon to show you around Las Vegas: you're not going to see what the convention bureau or the city boosters would prefer. I wanted him to see up close all the different ways Detroiters have reacted to the issues of deteriorating housing stock, lost neighborhoods, drugs, loss of community, crime, abandonment, and abundant green space. I took him to the Heidelberg Project, of course, and then showed him smaller neighborhood projects like the Powerhouse I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

These are people, I told the reporter, who could live anywhere in the world, but they've chosen to settle here and become a part of this community and garden and farm and live a kind of life that would be almost impossible in any other major city. I drove him down the main commercial drag of the old Polish neighborhood that now looks like it never recovered from a nuclear blast. I showed him the operating automobile plant that years ago required a vibrant part of the old Polish neighborhood to be torn down, but also explained that the Chevy Volt---the plug-in electric car that represents much of Detroit's future---would be built there. And then, about a mile away, I showed him the neighborhood that surrounds Jane Cooper School:

This spot marks the far western edge of Georgia Street, one of the most devastated and forlorn parts of the city. I wanted to show him how the city might tear out the infrastructure and let huge tracts of the city return to nature, as other shrinking cities (such as Youngstown, Ohio) have done. I took him into the school and I could tell he had never seen anything like that before. "This is about as bad as it gets," I said, driving a mile or so to the far eastern end of Georgia Street, past shabby houses alone in their blocks and forlorn-looking storefront churches, heading to another community garden.

I heard about this garden from a friend who'd read about it on a local internet message board. She sent me the garden's blog and I arranged to meet the guy behind it that afternoon. When we arrived we found a block that looked like nothing else we'd seen all day: three vacant lots had been transformed into a well-kept garden, and at the center was a huge white movie screen with a motley collection of chairs facing it. Across the street was another vacant lot and the beginning of a small fruit orchard. Waiting for us was Mark Covington, the neighborhood hero who started all this:

He was one of the coolest people I've ever met. Last year, after the 37-year-old Detroiter lost his job cleaning massive oil tanks down in Toledo he noticed the trash-strewn vacant lot a few doors down from the house where he lives with his mother and grandmother and decided to clean it up and turn it into a garden. After negotiating the necessary permits, he recruited some neighborhood kids and even started receiving all kinds of help from people throughout metro Detroit who learned about his project through an online message board. Within a matter of months the garden was flourishing, as were his plans to do more. He started movie nights for kids and movie nights for adults. He gave away school supplies. It was the sort of outreach that patchouli-soaked non-profits requiring boards and grants and employees hope to accomplish, but this was just a guy, his best friend, a few people from the neighborhood, and a bunch of people he met on the internet. For one dollar they bought an abandoned corner store with an attached house that they plan to turn into a community center for the kids and a general store for the neighborhood that sells healthy food to supplement the free produce they get from the garden (they still need to pay a few thousand dollars in back taxes to get the property). "We were sitting here in the garden on the first of the month," he said, "And that path heads right through here towards the only grocery store over a mile away. Who were all these people walking over there at all hours of the day and night? That's when we came up with the idea to open a store here in the neighborhood." As we stood around listening to Mr. Covington, people from the neighborhood walking past greeted him warmly. "I remember when I was a kid this was a real community," he said. "We're bringing that back."

If you put Mr. Covington in a designer suit, from a block away you might mistake his silhouette for that of our former mayor, but make no mistake: in his blue jeans and work gloves he has proven himself to be everything that man was not. His selflessness is evident above all else. Where the former mayor exploited racial and regional divisions, Mr. Covington has exploited our common humanity and inspired black and white people from other neighborhoods and even the suburbs to come help reestablish some hope in this tiny sliver of Detroit.

The Time Reporter didn't get to meet our current mayor but I'm so glad I was able to introduce him to this unemployed man who---in a perfect world---would be the kind of person who leads us. The reporter asked, "Obviously Detroit is going through a lot of hard times right now, how do you see the city reinventing itself?"

Mr. Covington thought for a moment, shrugged, and pointed to the vacant lots he'd turned into gardens that feed the bodies and souls of his neighborhood. "This," he said. "On every vacant lot."

* * * * *

When we got back into the car, the reporter and I were speechless, having traveled from one end of Georgia Street to find Mark Covington at the other, to go from the worst kind of despair to the most inspiring kind of hope in just a short few blocks. "To be honest," he says, "Most of the people I interview are assholes. I don't get many interviews like that."

I had to pick up the kids at my wife's office and said to my daughter, "Say hi to Alex, he writes for TIME MAGAZINE" as though this was something that should have impressed her. She might have done something other than glare at him suspiciously if I had lied and said that he was in charge of feeding Muno on the set of Yo Gabba Gabba ("What's Foofa like in real life?"). Together we visited a school for pregnant teens that houses a working farm and my daughter pitched a fit because she couldn't see the pony. Driving away, I pointed at a nearby daycare center surrounded by barbed wire and covered with misshapen folk art depictions of Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse and said, "See that? THAT's where I'm going to send you all day if you keep this up." This is how we roll in Detroit, Time Magazine.

Thinking goats were as good as ponies, I drove straight to my friend's neighbors' goat farm just a few blocks from the casino with LED-light display that resembles Biff's from Back to the Future 2. In the shadow of that building the goats that weren't bashing their brains out totally came up to say hi.

"The casinos are part of how the mayor's office will tell you we are reinventing this city, but these goats are a lot more important," I said while getting my own kids out of the car. A homeless man pushing a baby stroller full of sheet metal ductwork walked down the middle of the road. "It's an interesting place," I said to the reporter here to write a story about it. "That's why we live here."

After we dropped the grateful reporter off at a cab stand and watched him get whisked back to the airport before we could even merge back into traffic, I said to my daughter in the back seat, "I saw a beautiful garden today, Juney. When the weather gets a little nicer, we're going to spend some time over there planting stuff, okay?"

"Okay pops," she said, and we drove home.