Last year, two Detroit> tavern owners were sitting at the bar, sampling their own beverages and bemoaning the local economy no one in the city has cash, and if they do, they spend it in the burbs. Then they hit on a solution: They could print their own money. It is, after all, perfectly legal for anyone to issue currency, as long as it doesn t look too much like a U.S. dollar. Thus was born the Detroit Cheer, a local scrip accepted by a handful of city businesses, including a pizzeria, an electrician and a doggy day care. Residents can exchange it at a few local bars for greenbacks, but the Cheer is vastly more colorful. It features a chiseled, naked Greco-Roman superhero (the Spirit of Detroit ) towering Godzilla-like over the city skyline, cupping a tiny family in one hand and a sunburst representing God in the other. He s a lot more fun than George Washington.
Detroit isn t the only city sporting its own currency. Since the market tanked 18 months ago, there s been an interest in local scrips not seen since the Great Depression. Residents in tiny North Fork, Calif., just launched the North Fork Share, and folks in Piedmont, N.C., spend the newly issued Plenty, a currency depicting local fauna like the ever-popular turkey vulture. Brooklyn, N.Y., is preparing to launch the Torch, while South Bend, Ind., is set to print what it calls MACs. Susan Witt, director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, a think tank devoted to decentralized economies, gets daily calls from towns across the nation looking to join the movement.
In most cases, these communities are simply looking to boost local commerce. The currency has to be spent in town, obviously, because it s worthless anywhere else. But there s also a growing distrust of the U.S. dollar at work. When the Fed prints billions to bail out banks and automakers, people look for alternatives. These folks may look nutty now, goes the quip, but wait till the dollar goes the way of the Argentine peso you ll be exchanging a wheelbarrow of cash for a Bay Area Buck.
Minting money isn t easy, of course. The Detroit bar owners spent $2,000 to print $4,500 in Cheers, thanks to an initial issue on flimsy paper. ( It costs money to make money, says cofounder Timothy Tharp.) In North Fork, currency cofounder Josh Freeman and his crew spent days cranking out bills on the ancient letterpress in his garage. And once printed, it s a struggle to keep the stuff in circulation. Towns often find their currency flowing to the local food co-op, which soon complains that the scrip isn t accepted by suppliers. Until Piedmont s Plenty was reissued with the backing of U.S. dollars, it was kept alive mainly by the local biodiesel seller, who used it to pay his interns.
There have been a few big successes. The Western Massachusetts BerkShare is accepted by 400 businesses and has circulated to the tune of $2.5 million not bad for a region with 20,000 residents. Ithaca, N.Y s Hours currency is so entrenched that the local transit system is planning to accept it. Still, University of Southern Maine sociologist Ed Collum says his study of 82 local currencies revealed a disheartening 20 percent survival rate.
Collum favors an increasingly popular twist on local currencies the time bank, which has residents swapping labor hours rather than cash. This newer solution lets the unemployed participate without spending money. But a quick glance at the listings might leave you wondering what the heck is going on in these towns. At Central Vermont s Onion River Exchange, services offered include basics like haircuts, but it s mostly oddities like puppet shows, trips to the dump and left-handed knitting. Among the service requests are a call for rawhide goat skins and a plea from Pam, who flushed a hair-catch thingy down the toilet and needs help getting it out. Perhaps the real value of community currency isn t in the currency so much as the community. As Witt points out, it forces folks to get out and meet their neighbors left-handed knitters and all.