By Tunde Wey
July 10, 2013
There is work to be done, and broadly observed this work falls into two categories: telescopic and microscopic. The principles are the same – taking a focused view and training that focus on something particular – however the difference is in scale. In Detroit, "scale" is the ever-present question that asserts itself as soon as any solution has been offered: "Can it scale?"
Audra Carson, 48, is an interesting study as her work is important to understand given this issue of scale in Detroit.
Five years ago, Carson began asked a self directed question: "How can we remove tire blight from the city?" She founded De-Tread
as a way to begin exploring solutions.
While tire blight is a huge problem in Detroit, in the minds of many of people, it exists on the periphery of general blight. Tires are generally manageable to wield so they seem infinitely less daunting than Detroit’s hulking physical decay in various stages of decrepitness. Tire blight then appears incidental, comparatively harmless; except tires really are blight bookends. Tires announce the beginning of blight and confirm its entrenchment in an area.
Carson says, "Tire waste is generated at one tire per person annually in the US. That equates to 290 million tires a year that need to be disposed of. In Metro Detroit, roughly 4 million tires annually contribute to waste. We are auto-centric so we would have more waste than other cities; maybe a million or more in Detroit." Even if "a million" is a hyperbolic expression of the challenge with tire blight, more conservative estimates would still be sobering.
Specifically then, the question Carson asked was modified by the scale of the challenge. It wasn’t necessarily this abstract concept; it was the fact that Detroit was overrun with tires in the hundreds of thousands. Her answer at the time was to devise a solution, from the outset, that was equal in scale to the problem. She began working on developing a tire processing plant in Detroit that could process 30,000 tons of tire waste, producing valuable materials such as asphalt for roads. She assessed her capital costs at $6 million.
"I spent two years developing a business plan around rubberized asphalt to fill potholes in Michigan. But I couldn’t get funding because I had no industry experience, and people didn’t understand it," she says.
Business is always an iterative process; however the knowledge doesn’t always dull the disappointment. For Carson it soon became impossible to achieve the sort of scale she initially thought necessary to meet the challenge at hand. So her question shifted, altered in part by reality but more from a recollection of how she first saw the problem.
"De-Tread chose me; I didn’t necessarily choose it. It was born out of being deeply impacted by what I saw in the neighborhood where I grew up, the neighborhood being used as a tire dumpsite.
At the time I lived in Midtown and on the route I took from Midtown to my parents’ home I just watched the tires accumulate – first it was ten tires, then 50 tires, then a mountain. They would disappear then come back again. So I was not physically tripping over tires but mentally I was impacted by [tire blight in] this neighborhood that I’m still very much attached to.”
Carson had grown up in a neighborhood just like Osborn, where she is now working to address tire blight. The sense of community and the beauty of Detroit that she knew growing up was threatened by illegal dumping and it was in service of a necessary communal response to cleaning up the neighborhood that De-Tread was born. Through her journey, Carson has realized that the scale and effect of her work had always been local, microscopically so.
And back to the drawing board she went. Working with the Green Garage
, she refocused her business on this original intention and began developing processes around making De-Tread a triple bottom-line business. It was a re-treading of purpose, so to speak.
Carson began working with local community groups. De-Tread, in conjunction with The MAN Network
, a local faith based organization that is working to create a network of male residents involved in security and community development, developed an electronic map that inventoried all the tire sites in the neighborhood. With Osborn Neighborhood Alliance
, De-Tread ran a couple of pilot clean-up programs in the neighborhood, engaging neighbors in the process.
"It’s an organic approach to the development of De-Tread and it’s definitely community based. De-Tread at its very core is a triple bottom line business when you talk about uplifting the environment, community [and being economically viable]. Central to that is connecting with residents at a very basic level. We can tear down old houses and build new house but if the weariness of the residents, who have had to endure such disrespect if that’s not addressed then we haven’t really done anything."
On July 20, De-Tread will move to clear the entire Osborn community of illegally dumped tires. Carson and her partners have identified 60 tire dump sites with about 2,200 tires in total and will remove them with the help of 50 volunteers.
About next steps, Carson says, "The idea is to have a line of products. We’ll collaborate with designers in Metro Detroit and tire manufacturers to design something that is innovative, fashionable and appealing. An easy example is an ecofriendly floor mat for cars. Because the community has been engaged all along the possibilities are open to them as far project ideas."
This is scale for Carson and De-Tread; people, relationships and progress. This is the microscopic turned telescopic future of Detroit.
Photos by Doug Coombe.