On Sunday I decided to drop by the DIA to see the Neighborhood Project, an exhibit by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart, the Detroit artist-duo behind Design 99 and the Power House. The artists weren’t around that day to speak to, but I was struck by the little manifesto they left on the whiteboard:
Own Your City: Ten Easy Steps
1. Own a house
2. Live in house
3. Meet your neighbors
4. Invite neighbors into your house
5. Own your neighborhood
6. Live in neighborhood
7. Meet your neighboring neighbors
8. Invite neighboring neighbors to your neighborhood
9. Share everything
10. Own your city
The list is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it stuck with me. Detroit might be a better city if more people felt like they owned the place — like we all owned Detroit and were responsible for its upkeep together.
Normally, we relegate this responsibility to government. We pay taxes so bureaucrats can make sure the street lights stay on and the grass gets mowed. But in Detroit, it doesn’t work like that. We pay taxes all right, but too often the street lights don’t stay on and the grass doesn’t get mowed. With half the population gone, there just isn’t revenue enough to run the place–and what revenue there is seems to get sucked up by corruption. So for better or worse (mostly worse), residents have to make do themselves. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality.
I find the Power House inspiring because it makes the best of this bad situation. Cope and Reichart bought an abandoned home just north of Hamtramck and are retrofitting it as an energy-independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood. In another city, the government or developers would have come in long ago to fix it up or knock it down. But Detroit doesn’t work that way. So the artists are fixing it themselves, bit by bit, with scavenged parts and help from the neighbors. They’ve taken Detroit for what it is and are making it a little better, for themselves and for the rest of us. It’s a lesson in self-reliance (and community spirit!) we could all learn from.