Cityfest, Detroit’s best summer festival, is no more. After a great 20-year run, the New Center Council, the organizers of the festival, have decided to focus instead on redeveloping New Center Park. Just as the award-winning Campus Martius has brought new life to downtown, organizers hope the renovated park will serve as a year-round anchor for the neighborhood. The park, which has capacity for 700, will host free movies and concerts Wednesday through Saturday all summer long.
New Center Park Site Plan
As disappointed as I am to see Cityfest shut down, I can’t totally begrudge their decision. The New Center Council is an economic development agency, not a cultural organization. The motivation for producing Cityfest was to draw attention to the New Center and build the area’s image. In that regard, the event was a great success. Who didn’t gawk at the majesty of the Fisher Building while standing in line for ribs? But a four-day party doesn’t make a neighborhood. A great urban park can.
New Center Park Pavilion
I’m certainly still rooting for Cityfest to make a comeback. Summertime in Detroit won’t be the same without it, especially with Festival of the Arts having met its end as well. But if the choice is between a great, four-day party and a round-the-clock neighborhood, I know which one I favor.
Driving eastbound on I-96 through Detroit, you might see it out of the corner of your eye — a brief burst of light and color as you pass West Grand Boulevard. That fleeting flash of brilliance is Detroit’s African Bead Museum, a remarkable but unheralded collection of outdoor art on the city’s west side.
Started ten years ago by the artist Dabl, the open-air exhibit celebrates African language and culture through an exuberant display of broken mirrors, beads, colorful paint, and found objects. The collection consists of two brightly adorned buildings, a found art exhibit (“Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust”), a community garden, a sidewalk mural featuring the scripts of African languages, and a small shop, Dabl’s Perette’s, which is filled to the brim with gorgeous African beads and jewelry.
It’s truly a sight to behold, and further evidence that Detroit deserves to be a national arts destination. You can check it our for yourself at 6559 Grand River Avenue, Detroit, MI 48208. It’s near the junction of W. Grand Boulevard, Grand River Avenue, and I-96, right across from Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and Northern High School. Be sure to stop into the store, too, to meet the artist and peruse his fabulous collection of African beads.
Detroit’s not often pegged as a beautiful city, but art is pervasive here, if you just look. Hand-painted signs, community murals, and street art seem to adorn every building or the ruins that remain. As I walked through the quiet streets of the New Center today, along Second and Cass between I-94 and Grand Boulevard, I noticed some stunning pieces amid the grit.
Then I wondered alongside the train tracks. Much like the Dequindre Cut, the walls between the two sets of tracks function as an ever-changing gallery for graffiti and street art, visible only to the passengers of the Amtrak trains that pass by every few hours.
When a feral dog began to bark in the distance, I turned back toward Woodward. There I found a colorful youth mural, tagged over in parts with graffiti, that had been organized by the New Center Council. And in the distance stood the newest addition to Detroit’s skyline looking north: a bright blue, 9-story mural splashed across the side of a building on Grand Boulevard.
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.
I drove by the much-talked about Ice House today. I was not impressed.
It didn’t help that half the ice had melted from the roof. But I just didn’t find it compelling. Covering an empty home in ice is a novel idea, and it draws a crowd, just like those homes that go overboard with Christmas lights and life-size Nativity scenes. But it doesn’t mean a thing.
The Ice House, half-melted after a sunny day in Detroit.
The fact that two Brooklyn-based artists were able to do this just reminds me how little Detroit’s East Side is valued. Within a block of the house, you’ll find burned out homes, old tires dumped on the side of the road, and stretches of sidewalk completely overgrown with ground cover. There are also a lot of friendly, hardworking folks trying to make a living. I don’t see the Ice House — or any of internationalmediacoverage it’s received — connecting with any of that.
What’s more, it’s not even the prettiest ice sculpture in Detroit! That honor goes, of course, to the Belle Isle Ice Tree, a Detroit tradition since the 1960s. I’m a big fan of cutting edge social art, but I think I’ll stick with the home favorite this time:
The Belle Isle Ice Tree -- a wonderful sight, even at dusk on a cloudy day.
After visiting two artopenings in Detroit last week, I’ve been thinking again about the role art might play in enlivening the city’s open spaces. This has been a pet subject of mine since 2008, when I first read Rebecca Mazzei’s great cover story in the Metro Times on “Waking Up the Neighborhood.” Drawing inspiration from the work of Detroit innovators like Tyree Guyton and Scott Hocking, her manifesto called for “a public art fund that commissions major contemporary projects beyond the conservative traditions of public art. And it needs to happen everywhere — in the urban center and in remote locations across the city.”
Scott Hocking's "Midden Mound." Photo taken from the artist's website.
A year later, her vision came to life — in New Orleans. A new biennial, Prospect New Orleans, placed works by both local and internationally-recognized artists in every pocket of the city, from the French Quarter to the Lower Ninth Ward. The event drew rave reviews and had wealthy out-of-towners brushing shoulders with local residents in neighborhoods they might otherwise not visit. A less critically acclaimed but similarly exciting event took place in Grand Rapids last year. Tens of thousands of people strolled Grand Rapid’s streets for Art Prize, which promised $250,000 to the artist with the most votes. Most of the work was kitschy, but it was a huge success for the city.
"Mithra" from Prospect New Orleans. Photo by New Orleans Lady on Flickr.
Nothing on this scale has yet been tried in Detroit, but the city’s landscape continues to serve as both canvas and inspiration for artists. Two recent examples include the Power House — a project by locals Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart to retrofit an abandoned home as an energy independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood — and the less community-sensitive Ice House — a project by two Brooklyn artists to coat an empty home in ice to dramatize the foreclosure crisis. Together with more traditional draws like the DIA, MOCAD, and the city’s many publicsculptures (like the iconic “Fist” downtown), Detroit’s outdoor art installations could both fill some of city’s open spaces and make Detroit a year-round arts destination.
I’m a skeptic of the medium, too, but I plan to make the most of it. I’ll be posting links every day as well as quick commentary when I don’t have time to write a formal post. You can read the updates on the right hand side of the blog or follow along directly at twitter.com/rethinkdetroit.
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.
After two years blogging at Think Detroit, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog hosted at its own domain. The focus will again be on the revitalization of Detroit, but I’ll be taking a more personal approach, writing about life in Detroit as well as the emerging trends that promise to transform it, from creative enterprise to rightsizing. As a young person living in Midtown and a serious student of Detroit present and past, I hope I can offer a fresh perspective on the city, at once honest and optimistic.
So please follow along and comment frequently as the blog unfolds!