Art and Abandonment in Post-Truth Detroit

What’s the biggest piece of fake news about artists in Detroit? Ariela Gittlen explores the positive impact of local collaboration in the city, far removed from the change brought on by new luxury condos, boutique hotels and high-end retail stores.

Justin Alesna and Joshua Bisset, Sidewalk Detroit 2017
Photo: Trilogy Beats

In early October, Culture Lab Detroit, a nonprofit that organizes art-centric panels and projects, held a series of public dialogues on the timely theme of post-truth and its unwelcome relations, fake news and alternative facts. The panelists—author and critic Hilton Als, architects Christopher and Dominic Leong, and artists Edgar Arceneaux, Martine Syms, Mel Chin and Coco Fusco—discussed the question: how can art help us engage a world of contested reality? But these days the subtext of any conversation about art and politics is, of course, can art help us at all?

Post-truth—an era in which emotions, not facts, shape public opinion—was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. It’s also old news in Detroit, a place about which various contested and conflicting stories are told. The media’s version of the city’s decline shows a tabula rasa, an urban landscape returning to a state of nature. Articles about Detroit are often illustrated with photographs of crumbling art deco buildings or flocks of ring-necked pheasants nesting in empty lots. Detroit’s population has shrunk by over 60% since its peak in 1950, a dramatic decline, but with over 600,000 people still residing in its 142 square miles, it’s hardly a blank slate.

“The narrative of decline as abandonment enables this new story to be told, one that makes gentrification seem like the only possible solution to Detroit’s woes.”

The stories about the city’s resurgence offer a narrow take, showing the luxury condos, boutique hotels and high-end retail stores rapidly overtaking downtown. There’s also a new hockey stadium and a recently-completed light-rail line that travels a three-mile boomerang up and down Woodward Avenue—but all this investment only touches a small fraction of the city’s residents.

Some benefit from these stories about the city, while others are erased by them. The narrative of decline as abandonment enables this new story to be told, one that makes gentrification seem like the only possible solution to Detroit’s woes. After all, a place can’t be colonized if it’s been abandoned. Abandonment implies a voluntary departure, as if the exigencies of the subprime mortgage crisis, skyrocketing city property taxes and legacy of racist redlining policies aren’t to blame for thousands of empty homes. It also ignores the residents who never left. In fact, activists, artists and others have been working quietly to improve their neighborhoods for years, without the benefits of corporate investments or media attention.

It has become de rigueur to blame artists for bringing the first wave of gentrification to poor neighborhoods, but as Peter Moskowitz has pointed out, artists alone can’t gentrify a city. State and local governments hold the real power to shape cities, they can “build condos, change zoning laws and give tax breaks to corporations,” he noted in a recent essay. While artists may often be complicit, they are not the root cause—if a coal mine explodes you don’t blame the canary. But more importantly, can artists be part of the solution? In Detroit, some artists have teamed up with residents, community leaders and activists in order to create social practice-based art and architecture that serves the community rather than replacing it.

Jennifer Harge, Sidewalk Detroit 2017
Photo: Trilogy Beats

What’s the biggest piece of fake news about artists in Detroit? “We didn’t just get here,” Ryan Myers-Johnson tells me. The Detroit native is a performer and choreographer, the founder Sidewalk Detroit, an annual festival of independent and experimental art now in its fifth year. Myers-Johnson, who has a cascade of braids and is dressed like a dancer leaving rehearsal, explains that there are many gatekeepers around art in Detroit, and the festival is a way of circumventing them. It gives her community (neighbourhood kids in particular) direct access to radical, interactive art and performance.

“As much as a museum can serve as a refuge, it is probably a mistake to believe that art is ever more than a few steps from politics.”

Myers-Johnson has been working with local activists, business owners and artists since the festival’s inception. During the festival, performers fill the streets, alleys, theatres and courtyards of Old Redford’s commercial strip at the northwestern edge of the city. The once derelict block boasts a historic movie theater now restored to its former glory, a coffee shop, vintage clothing store, artists studios and spaces for arts education. When I visited the quiet morning was interrupted by the sounds of construction—apartments above the cafe were being renovated to serve as a bed and breakfast.

Later, in the mural-covered performance space behind the cafe, Myers-Johnson and a fellow Sidewalk Festival veteran, the musician Alex Koi, performed a slow duet, their movements echoing the outstretched arms of the bodies painted on the walls. Koi began to sing, and her high, bright vocals blended with the sounds of construction from above which kept time with the dancers like the beat of a drum.

Justin Alesna and Joshua Bisset, Sidewalk Detroit 2017
Photo: Trilogy Beats

Fifteen miles to the east (Detroit is nothing if not sprawling) is another ambitious, neighbourhood-focussed project. Power House Productions currently comprises five project houses and Ride It Sculpture Park, a combination skate park and art installation. The artist-run nonprofit was founded by Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, an artist and architect, and aims to create public spaces for art, performance and recreation via experimental renovations. Historically Polish and now home to a large Bangladeshi population, the neighborhood is mostly 1920s bungalows with tidy lawns. Walking down one alley and peeking into backyards, I saw gardens overflowing with an autumn harvest of peas, squash and pumpkins.

When Cope and Reichert first started working with artists in the neighbourhood in the late aughts, they were aware the noise and activity of construction might not be welcome. They were prepared for a negative response, at least at first. “A neighbour approached us one day and wanted to talk about what was going on,” the pair told me via email. “As he got close we realized he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Before the artists starting working on these houses, things had gotten so bad around here that I was planning on moving my family out of the neighbourhood, but now with all this positive activity I think we will stay.’” Cope and Reichert realized that it wasn’t just the final product—the community spaces—but the process of investing time and energy in the neighbourhood that could have a positive impact.

The Power House

Each of the projects’ houses is named and tailored to a particular creative or communal purpose. Play House is what it might have looked like if Charles and Ray Eames had been commissioned to design a community theatre. The exterior of the former family home blends in with the neighbourhood, but when I stepped inside the space opened up into a double-storey performance space, airy and bright. The walls are seamlessly panelled with a patchwork of wood veneers, the dynamic pattern interrupted by the occasional geometric window. The space is home to a theatre company and hosts plays, dance performances and concerts, as well as language and music classes.

Another work in progress is Squash House. Located just around the corner, it’s a somewhat earthier architectural experiment. The house, which takes its name from both the vegetable and the sport, aims to play host to both. Gutted and rebuilt as a single room, the house has a vaulted ceiling and glass wall. It looks perfectly suited to its dual purpose as greenhouse and racquet sports court. The house is available to anyone from the neighborhood, and it’s intended to serve as a meeting space for garden clubs, seed exchanges and wellness classes as well as recreation.

The Power House

Another approach to innovative architecture is slowly coalescing in the North End, where an arching stainless steel canopy sits between a vacant storefront, a single-family home and several empty lots. The airy structure, which is punctured with an Islamic-style pattern that suggests the sun and stars, is a half-size model representing the grander architecture yet to come: the American Riad, a community nexus where residents and businesses are connected via a shared public space. (A riad is a traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard.)

The Riad is a utopian concept with an explicit social justice mission. It’s the product of the Ghana Thinktank—an organization founded in 2006 with a simple slogan, “developing the first world”. The Ghana Thinktank flips the script by asking think tanks in the so-called “third world” to develop solutions to problems that plague the “first world”, such as loneliness, isolation and unhappiness. The Detroit project aims to build community the Moroccan way, by creating a shared public space that joins the surrounding homes and businesses. When construction is complete the Riad will provide a space for art, performances, workshops and gatherings.

American Riad, render

On the first night of Culture Lab’s panel discussions, a member of the audience commented during the Q&A that she was grateful for the distraction and succor art provides in such a divisive cultural climate. “After the election it was a relief to go to the Detroit Institute of Arts,” she said. “It was a welcome escape from politics.” And yet, the DIA is full of political art. Most visibly Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, an overwhelming tableau that fills a large room, floor to ceiling. Now considered by many to be his most successful work, in 1933 the murals were condemned by everyone from the Detroit News to the Catholic Church as blasphemous, vulgar and un-American.

As much as a museum can serve as a refuge, it is probably a mistake to believe that art is ever more than a few steps from politics. Many of Detroit’s artists are now embracing this proximity, and rather than assuming that gentrification is inevitable, they’re actively engaging in work that attempts to serve and engage their communities.