Where Will the Wind Take Us?

Looking back over the growing catalogue of Riverwise articles dedicated to community-based economic production, the piece on the low-altitude windmills of CANArts Handworks is the one that I keep returning to. In the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Riverwise, we featured Carlos Neilbock, whose latest works are based on the process of ‘upcycling’ (see ‘The CANArts Inventions: Upcycling Meets Energy Needs’), or taking discarded materials and repurposing them for our evolving needs. Neilbock, a formally trained metalsmith, has devoted years to his visionary work, resulting in an exciting path toward community production of energy.

The current decline of the environment demands a rapid socio-economic response to convert this consumer-based economy to something more sustainable. Recycling is proving to be less efficient than promised on both a local and global level. But upcycling provides a level of sustainability which inspires the transformation of both our physical and mental environment. Neilbock’s windmills show us that discarded items become potential material for almost anything we can imagine. In a so-called post-industrial city struggling to manage its physical and material assets, upcycling could be a path to salvation.

On September 6, Neilbock, in partnership with the Eastern Market Coporation, unveiled one version of his windmill-driven ‘micro-energy grid’. Although we’ve peeked at Neilbock’s inventions through the gates of his whimsical CANArts Handworks compound for years, the Eastern Market project marks the first time that the public will have the opportunity to engage with them directly.

Neilbocks’s Eastern Market windmill, located on Russell in front of Shed 5, uses old TV satellite dishes as blades, powering the electricity-producing generator, enough so that visitors will be able to charge phones, laptop computers or other electrical devices. At the unveiling ceremony, Neilbock made sure to emphasize that his Eastern Market ‘micro-grid’ is the first of its kind designed, built and installed in Detroit. Other speakers noted that the ‘micro-grid’ represented, not just technology, but “an activation of a public space to engage with that technology.” That’s surely true for the thousands of visitors to Eastern Market every week.

But what are the future implications for the communities of color with whom Neilbock seeks to collaborate? Bryce Detroit, who performed and spoke at the Sept 6 ribbon-cutting ceremony, stressed the opportunity that ‘upcycling’ offers for emerging Detroit communities increasing efforts toward self-determination. Though Neibock’s windmills have been acknowledged by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) through its Creative Cities Network and by the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute, Neilbock’s project offers the most potential to areas like the North End, where residents are incorporating visionary and community-driven development.

We can imagine seeing the ‘low-altitude windmills’ spinning and powering water pumps at urban farms throughout the city; or providing electricity for tools, heaters and lights needed to grow year-round. D-Town Farm recently installed a windmill to pump water from a water-retention pond to holding tanks for keeping their crops healthy. Perhaps other designs based on other found materials will emerge to power new community housing collectives. In fact, one of Neilbock’s most recent projects involves the generator form discarded Prius engines, which, allegedly, have the capacity to power a six-story building.

With access to energy assets comes the ability to support many community-based ventures. Neilbock has speaks freely about the potential of his version of upcycling for real, grassroots community production. The challenge now is propagating Neilbock’s vision, design, and, most importantly, his commitment to utilizing materials that are already accessible.

“Work with what you have available, period,” Neilbock insists. “Recognize the resources that are all around you.” This powerful suggestion applies not only to economic production in a world teetering on environmental catastrophe. It’s also consistent with the objective of continuing toward communities built on self-determination, and managing the material world for our collective benefit.

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