Just before the holidays, The Economist touched on a topic I’ll be returning to frequently throughout the year: the prevalence of open space and empty buildings in Detroit. Vacancy may now be the signature feature of Detroit’s landscape. Some 90,000 narrow lots are thought to lie vacant, nearly all of which were once the site of homes and factories. On the east side, entire neighborhoods have been lost, creating a checkerboard pattern of density and relative emptiness. Elsewhere, the effect is subtler; pocket parks and urban gardens fill the occasional gaps where houses once stood.
Yet despite their many liabilities, empty spaces in Detroit have also been the catalyst for some of the most encouraging developments of the past few decades. Activists and artists have had the audacity to re-envision their communities. Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, a living art exhibit of painted homes and found art objects, is probably the most famous example, but the Boggs Center’s Adamah Project is probably more important, inspiring the push toward interconnected greenways and urban gardens throughout the city.
Projects like these are the silver lining to the crisis of vacancy, applying hope and creativity to a mostly dire situation. No, they’re not universally inspiring. The recently announced Ice House, which promises to completely encase an empty Detroit home in a layer of ice on MLK day, is more likely to insult. And even the Heidelberg Project has its detractors, including nearby neighbors who’d rather not live amidst a tourist trap. But projects like these can change our perception of spaces that otherwise seem lost or barren, revealing how we might reclaim them to turn the city around.