Real Ideas for a Real City – PDA goes to Detroit

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The Danish author H.C. Andersen said, “To travel is to live,” and even though he was an anemic nervous wreck, he traveled all over Europe to gather information and impressions for his world-famous fairy tales. He knew – despite all his anxieties – it’s in meeting the unknown that your perspectives on your own life are challenged, and you start imagining what your own world could become.

Public Displays of Affection went on a field trip to Detroit a couple of weeks ago to experience the changes in the city, meet up with like-minded organizations, and hopefully bring home some knowledge and perspective. We have heard many things about this city the last couple of years – doomsday pictures and testimonials of a post-apocalyptic, deserted city, a memory of the days of Ford’s pride, with its abandoned houses, churches and factories. But the birds are also singing about innovative community-engaged projects that will make Detroit rise from these ashes. It seems as if this city now yearns to become a textbook example of successful and inventive community-work.

Picnic with fresh produce from Eastern Market

Several Detroiters we talked to kindly asked us to consider how we portray their city, and not dwell on the usual gloominess. It seems as if the average Detroiter is a bit tired of having themselves and their city photographed and portrayed as some kind of old dying animal by sensation-hungry media and tourists. And it’s understandable, because how are you going to get people to invest in the city and move back into the deserted neighborhoods if all they hear about is crime rate, and all they see is abandonment and decay?
I can’t write that Detroit is a fairy tale, because that would be untrue. The city of Detroit has experienced its share of social and economical issues, which are still affecting the city to this day. The most amazing aspect of Detroit is its people. The citizens of Detroit will be the story of Detroit’s future and an example for other cities that may encounter similar problems of their own. The credit should be bestowed upon those devotees working to change recession into progression for their beloved city.

Nourishing the food desert – Earthworks Urban Farm in action
Urban farming has been subject to a lot of attention and hype within the world of architecture and urban development lately, with a tendency to portray it as a vague utopian ideal. There is nothing vague about Earthworks, however. It consists of pragmatic and hardworking people who acknowledge the need for food reform in the city. The Capuchin brothers started Earthworks in 1997, as they needed more food to feed the many people who came to their soup kitchen. The farm is still connected to the soup kitchen, but has also expanded in other directions, adding a green house nursery for vegetable seedlings to give out to the community, plots for enthusiastic local gardeners, and developing fruitful and educational partnerships with other organizations, especially youth- and food-oriented ones.

Shane, the outreach coordinator, showed PDA around the farm, and drew our attention to the importance of food sovereignty and food justice for the poorest in Detroit. We were shocked by the fact that there are no big chain supermarkets in Detroit, and even if there were, healthy nutritious food would not be affordable enough. Shane referred to the president of the National Center for Public Research, Mari Gallagher (who has made important studies in community development and health in relation to food), who has called the food system in Detroit a “food desert”. This was confirmed by our trips to prison-like fast food diners, where we were served cardboard nachos with plastic cheese. He stressed that Earthworks’ goal is not solely to grow things, but to change the structure of food accessibility, and to change our current relationship with the earth that feeds us. This is why they teach people to grow for themselves, systemically changing the accessibility to food and the diets of the involved growers.
They have a fully functioning bike shop connected with the farm as well, with the intention on re-inventing the transportation infrastructure of the has-been Motor City!

Entrance to Earthworks’ bikeshop

Art Houses and Tandems
Speaking of biking in the Motor City: right next to the Gothamesque GM towers (mysteriously called “The Renaissance Center”) there is a little bike rental shop called Wheelhouse Detroit. Here we rented 4 bikes and a tandem, and hit the road on a sunny Saturday. First stop was the overwhelming Eastern Market, a weekly food market in a peculiar Wild West setting, complete with Diana Ross impersonators performing behind the biggest BBQ you can imagine. Nearby, a meadow became the perfect setting for a picnic in the sun, nestled between a basketball court and a run-down church.

Afterwards we went to a neighborhood called Hamtramck (which is actually it’s own city!), where the trend of refurbishing abandoned houses into “art houses” has gained international media attention. However, this is not a new trend in Detroit, where Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project transformed the street of same name back in 1986. His aim was to recreate his childhood neighborhood from a place where it was not considered safe to walk, even in the daytime, into an ever-evolving creative project that would bring the community together. Lately young artists and architects like Design 99 have taken up the idea, buying real estate for $100 to $500 and turning these run-down abandoned homes into immaculate sculptures. When we went to see the street where most of them are located, a neighbor told us how pleased she were with the revitalization of the area, and she had never imagined something like that happening in her neighborhood.

These houses are astounding to explore. One had a back yard installation of burned down window frames, another a giant bird skeleton peeking in the side window, yet another had strange geometrical staircases and altered walls. All share a strange ghostly atmosphere, which we also found walking through the houses at Heidelberg Street. One thing is certain: this particular art project could only be executed here in Detroit, where abandoned and often burned down houses can be found in most neighborhoods. We had read a lot about these art projects before we visited them, and I was truly intrigued with the idea. Yet when I found myself staring in the dark windows and being overwhelmed with melancholy by this much decaying beauty, I wondered if these projects could undermine the revitalization of Detroit that so many are struggling to kickstart. These projects require explanation – visually the houses might symbolize the “aesthetics of decay” when viewed by external audiences, outside the context of the artistic aim of their creators. When you look closer, these projects actually do have a community-engaged purpose, as they are, in the case of Design 99 for instance, tied to a larger project of drawing attention to the affordability of real estate, as well as a whole-hearted attempt to engage in their community.

Art House by Five Fellows, University of Michigan

Hamtramck Disney (somewhere in Hamtramck – ask the friendly people at Public Pool for directions!)


Community engagement is the key

The external media needs to recognize the tireless effort the community puts into dealing with the frankly enormous challenges Detroit faces. One initiative that addresses this directly is Challenge Detroit, a program trying to retain and attract young talent to Detroit in an effort to develop and rejuvenate the city’s core and grow an attractive, urban center. It revolves around a competition which will identify 30 people with various professional skills, who will be offered jobs and housing, among other benefits, in the greater Detroit area. For a year they will be introduced to different experiences in the community, and help rebuilding and addressing current issues Detroit is facing, such as transportation, homelessness, conservation, etc.

We talked to Deirdre Greene Groves from the initiative about how Challenge Detroit will strengthen community and urban development. She states that the most urgent challenge Detroit is facing right now is that the city faces many negative perceptions, including a lack of jobs, entrepreneurial spirit, opportunities (especially for young professionals), and a lack of the urban lifestyle so many people seek: housing, culture, activities and civic engagement. She states: “Detroit boasts unique (and affordable!) housing options, an incredible nightlife, more than 150-restaurants in the downtown area alone, a dynamic cultural scene including a variety of arts and entertainment, and much, much more. Challenge Detroit will allow participants opportunities to engage with and give back to efforts that are transforming the city including potentially working on food and hunger issues, light rail development, and urban farming.”

She sees the city sparkling with great opportunities for young professionals just waiting to be accessed: “As a young, emerging leader myself I cannot imagine that there is any other city that offers the opportunity to engage in a regional revitalization effort… and actually make an impact!  Furthermore, the access offered in this area for young people to top leaders is incredible.  Where else can young people meet with the mayor of a major city on a quarterly basis to talk about what issues are most pressing to our generation?  Where else do community leaders call on young people to determine what’s needed in business, government, and the community?  Where else are young people so needed and wanted than in Detroit?”

A visit to this famous and infamous city changes your perception of the place (as is the case for most places one may have assumptions about!). We saw so much generosity, curiosity, and surprise from enthusiastic locals, in the curiously located Public Pool art gallery in Hamtramck, or in a small store full of graphic novels, or over a snazzy meal in an art café down town. Detroit defies description. Go see for yourself!

Installation at Heidelberg st.

3 Responses to “Real Ideas for a Real City – PDA goes to Detroit”

  1. You are right, Detroiters are tired of the negative portrayal of this city. As someone who has lived here for the past 11 years, it is a city of incredible frustration and incredible hope. There are incredible assets in this city and it is heartening to see that the rest of the world is finally willing to give those who work so hard to improve life in the city their due.

    One thing I will dispute, there are plenty of full service grocery stores in the city. A trade association of independent grocers recently reported at ARISE! Detroit’s Neighborhoods Day press conference that 84 grocery stores do exist within the city limits. They include Metro Foodland in the Rosedale Park neighborhood, King Cole Foods in the North End neighborhood and Honeybee Market in Mexicantown.

    A more accurate statement about the alleged food desert in Detroit would be that there are currently no chain grocery stores.

  2. Sissel says:

    Hello David
    Thanks for commenting on this important issue. I have moderated the post into saying chain-supermarkets. What I think, however, is meant by this term, food desert (without knowing a lot about the work of National Center for Public Research)is that even with the grocery stores that exist, a healthy food alternative is still not affordable enough for many people, and that is why urban farming is a great and sustainable initiative in order to obtain “Food Justice” as Shane from Earthworks called it.. I think this is a problem that doesn’t only apply to Detroit, but is the case in many cities – Toronto as well – where processed fast food is much cheaper than vegetables in the average supermarket. In deed an important discussion to take when talking about community development.
    Sissel Marie

  3. [...] Join PDA on a bike trip in the surprising and interesting neighborhoods of Detroit! And remember to read the article about our trip here! [...]

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