If you’re in Woodbridge, you can’t miss Bob Thibodeau’s lot. It’s the one with the massive red cannas surrounding it. Every year Bob takes out the roots, stores them, and replants them in the spring. For Bob, it’s not only a beautification project, but an act of renewal. He seems to have a keen sense of the way things come and go. He’s lived in Detroit since the early 70s; it only makes sense.
Bob worked thirty-four years for Blue Cross at all levels of customer service. During that period he found time to travel, and time to archive decades of Detroit decay and renewal.
Bob Thibodeau isn’t necessarily a worker of Woodbridge, but he’s a part of what’s happening in the community. The work he does is in keeping his corner beautiful, knowing his neighbors and doing something positive with the space around him. Now, more than ever in Detroit, these things matter, and Bob seems to understand that fully.
LIW: What brought you to Woodbridge?
BT: I bought my place here, one of these three townhouses, probably twenty years ago. I moved in five years ago. The property had an abandoned car, a makeshift garage, the basement was loaded with garbage. The first thing I did once I got it was to remove everything from the yard. While I was doing that I was also starting to gut the interior and strip the woodwork.
The gentleman who lived here was an older black gentleman from the South, and he brought some of his ways with him. In one of the bedrooms, he was smoking meat. There was a piece still there, a line from the window to the closet. It didn’t taste very good either. When we were restoring the floors, we had to cut out all the wood where oil had dripped down.
LIW: Talk about the composting you’ve been doing here.
Bob led me across the street to a vacant lot where dead leaves covered the ground. We started walking on the leaves. Bob stomped on certain areas, trying to mush it down.
BT: Compost, leaves especially, is the cheapest compost material you can get. Labor is free. I don’t know how much you read, but, I keep reading about all the water runoff and sewage issues. Even in Detroit, you can’t ask for a better sponge than leaves.
This is the third year I’ve done this, although someone complained, saying we were “dumping.” The police were called in.
LIW: What were they going to do?
BT: Well, they were going to fine us. I called the Wayne State Police and Larry got involved. This area used to have really bad soil. When they tore houses down they really used pathetic soils. It wasn’t even.
This will all turn into grass and soil, and the neighbor lady is going to try to buy the place. I guess it just went into the land bank.
Between random topics, Bob and I walked back across the street toward his garden.
LIW: Did your parents instill in you this green thumb?
BT: Oh yeah. We were taught how to work and not to think of it as work. As you know, initiative begins with an “I.” With thirteen of us, we had no problem working. We could work circles around any thirteen people.
LIW: There were thirteen in your family?
BT: Yeah, I was the one the Beatles named that song after; I was number nine.
LIW: You’ve been in Detroit longer than the five years you’ve lived in this place?
BT: I’ve been in the city since 1972. My partner in ’72 worked for the opera company, so I got to know a lot of people downtown. I had a poster route. I’ve been a newspaper reader since fifth grade, so anytime there’s a new development or restoration, I’ve got that article. I’m an archivist. I’ll show you.
Bob took me in through the kitchen, which smelled of freshly boiled chicken.
LIW: It smells like you just boiled a chicken.
BT: That’s because I just boiled a chicken.
After an in-depth background on his renovations and full tour of the house, we made our way to the attic, where Bob’s incredible collection of newspapers and historical items relating to Detroit’s history were scattered across tables, cabinets and other random furniture. Also in the attic, Bob keeps art and other pieces from his extensive world travels.
On our way back outside, we stopped to look at Bob’s garden.
LIW: What else do you do besides keep up this beautiful space?
Travel the world; I’d like to get back into that.
When you see what’s out there, Detroit is one of the least expensive places to live in the world, with the most potential. I just hope residents would see it. It’s amazing how the various newspapers will dismiss all of the housing on the lower east side. Oh it’s too small, too close to one another, but I’m thinking if those were in San Francisco they would be million-dollar houses.
Here, it’s the mindset. Let’s say your house is worth a million dollars, well some people would say, oh, but it’s in Detroit. I turn that around that and say, where do you think value for housing lies for you? It’s not in the suburbs; it’s in Detroit.
I couldn’t have afforded a place like this in the suburbs. That’s one of the things about the city. If you can’t afford a house in Detroit, you really can’t afford a house anywhere. And, if you own a house and you don’t see the value in it, well, what can I say?
LIW: In the neighborhood I live in, five years ago there were houses for sale. Now there aren’t. But even some of the houses that are owned are un-maintained.
BT: That’s the difference between a dysfunctional garden…If your neighbor’s house isn’t being maintained, why is it up to you to knock on his door and say would you please? — A functioning government knocks on his door and says fix it.
Housing doesn’t give you any pass, whether you’re old, young, whatever. It needs to be maintained.
LIW: On the other side, there are people who’ve been in their home four or five generations and they’re facing tax foreclosure, and they government’s not on their side either.
BT: Unless you own something, you don’t have control, and to own something means you must pay your taxes. You don’t get the option. That’s where you teach your children how to maintain your home. When there are eight people living in the same home, basically it’s called shared labor. You only need one plumber, one electrician. It’s the same thing in the community. How many churches have a plumber, or an electrician. You can trade labor, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
If there’s a vacant lot next to you, and you’re maintaining it. Why you’re not doing some gardening there is beyond me. In a city with so many poor people, why we don’t have more gardening…
LIW: You’d think that in a community like this, where there’s a problem of not enough unadulterated food, more people would be doing it.
BT: Years ago, there was an African-American studies professor at Wayne State who said something like “Farming reminds us of slavery.” Well, I would agree; it’s slavery to ignorance. There’s a lot of poverty-of-mind in this city. It’s not just education in learning how to read and write but education in learning how to maintain a home, how to garden, how to live. Even the leaves — taking advantage of what you have. My view is that people should be fighting over leaves.
I read an article in the New York Times: Vietnamese immigrants in Phoenix were taking unused lots and growing vegetables. Well, we could do the same thing here. It’s all a choice. It’s not that people can’t.
I’m not one to believe in helplessness.
On the way out, Bob sent me home with a bag of canna roots. He told me how to plant them, and he warned me how big they might get if I let them. He told me that when it gets cold, I should dig out the roots, take them inside, put them in a plastic bag and store them in the basement.
I planted them. It’s been a couple of weeks and they’re starting to sprout. In the winter I’ll store the roots and keep them for next spring. Maybe if there are any extras, I’ll pass them to someone else in another part of town.