On Thursday, the Sleight Fellows joined tour guide Sean Mann of the Michigan Municipal League to explore Detroit. The students faced the bitter cold and visited diverse sites, from the burgeoning expansion of the RiverWalk to the abandoned, though awe-inspiring Michigan Central Depot in Corktown. They also met passionate Detroiters, like Slows Bar-B-Q Owner Phil Cooley and Clark Park Recreation Center Director Anthony Benavides, who spoke of building community and inspiring hope. Five students share their thoughts on the day:
I grew up on the west side of Michigan and it wasn’t until coming to college did I finally begin exploring Detroit and its surrounding areas. It has only been quite recently that I have begun to pay attention to the cool things happening in the city – especially in regards to artistic endeavors. As an Art History major at Albion, creativity has always been one of my passions. I have come to see Detroit as a hot bed for artists and opportunities. Between the brilliant inspiration the city offers (the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the amazing architectural wonders), the educational institutions brimming with young people (the College of Creative Studies, Wayne State) and the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades this town, Detroit can easily be called a beautiful canvas upon which new hope may be painted.
The people of Detroit recognize the power of art. No where is this more evident than at Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. In the hopes of drawing attention to his otherwise blighted neighborhood, Guyton began creating outlandish collections of found objects and organizing them in quirky and unconventional ways throughout an entire city block. Stuffed animals decorate abandon houses, shopping carts hang from trees, stoves are filled with shoes. After visiting Heidelberg and also after talking to people involved in the Hygienic Dress League, a guerrilla art group that aims at bringing attention to Detroit’s vacant buildings with the goal of rehabilitation, I am certainly impressed. Seeing the success of these two projects were, for me, a testament to Detroit’s wonderfully unique sense of self. Art’s ability to move the soul will always continue to be one way in which Detroit may heal its heartaches of the past while at the same time promoting faith in its future.
Exploring Detroit with Sean solidified many of my changing perceptions of the Motor City. For a long time, my view of Detroit has been largely shaped by the news that I read each morning. It is not necessarily the previous day’s criminal activity which garners my focus, but rather the happenings in Detroit politics. The published scandals and inadequacies of the Detroit City Government and Public Schools were my primary sources of knowledge about Detroit. I continuously heard about leaders seeking change who were hamstrung by red tape and successful programs which were ended by unaware and uninformed administrations.
Talking with members of the city’s private sector along with John Gallagher and Dan Austin from the Detroit Free Press changed this. I began to get a more realistic impression of what is actually going on in the city. Some of the aspects of Detroit that I saw as contributing to its downfall turned out to be its greatest assets. The city government is crippled by corruption and bureaucracy; this opens the doors for residents to begin programs such as urban farming ahead of zoning ordinances being altered to allow this. The immense number of vacant and abandoned buildings allows for individuals or groups with little startup capital to start a business. This also can help spur large corporations into the area; there are immense uninhabited office buildings in the downtown area which they could buy for less than it would cost them to rent for a month in a place like New York City. Though the city still has more than enough problems, it is not a place without hope for the future. There is a dedicated group of residents and plenty of opportunity to go around in Detroit
Though the bitter cold, and snow covered vacancies filled our tour of Detroit on January, 13th, there existed something more significant radiating from every street corner: hope. After today’s experiences, I find it really odd that people perceive Detroit as a city of lost hope – they are sorely mistaken because it is a city blossoming with hope. From the retold stories of old from the life-long Detroiters, to the visionaries rebuilding the city piece by piece, it it was quite obvious to me that Detroit’s ever-present hope, with a twist of initiative, has become essential elements to reviving this city. As we toured the city with Sean Mann, I began to recognize the importance hope played in terms of the citizens of Detroit. Every neighborhood had a different story or culture, but has the same hope for revitalizing Detroit. Throughout the multitude of stops made along the tour that i found extremely beneficial, there was one encounter that I found quite moving. Near the end of the day, we met up with Phil, owner of Slow’s Bar BQ and urban developer. As he showed us around his restaurant, and described the ins-and-outs of his vision for his neighbor hood,of which he was creating by hand and heart, I realized that the real beauty of Detroit is found within the hope for the city’s future, and the leadership the citizens are actively taking. Whether it is refurbishing buildings for local artists, or reaching out to the public school system, Phil embodied the real change in Detroit is making from the inside-out. And though there are many people that are remaining as roadblocks, I believe that the active citizens in Detroit who are taking leadership in the community are a prime example of how heart, vision, and hope can make it a long way. Though many may say that Detroit is falling to ashes, I now see that with the hope from leaders like us, Detroit can and will rise from the ashes of its past.
Before yesterday’s tour, I perceived Detroit to be just like it is often described: a once-great city, which has fallen into despair. However, after spending the day with Sean Mann , I saw Detroit as a cluster of unique communities isolated from each other by burned-out blocks and empty parking lots. What inspired me is that some neighborhoods are banding together to improve the safety and beauty of their streets. In Mexicantown, people are using paint to clean up abandoned buildings and highway overpasses. On Heidelberg Street, the artist Tyree Guyton has created a reflective artwork about consumerism that takes up an entire (otherwise decrepit) city block. This movement of community improvement is a consequence of local activists like Sean, who see opportunity in the ‘ruins’ of the Motor City. Sean and Phil Cooley, the owner of a Corktown restaurant, started to build a public park in front of the abandoned Michigan Central Station. It began two years ago with a $10,000 budget and has since been expanded to a half-million dollars; it will include an amphitheatre, a skate-park, and a playground. This culture of hope and cooperation is one that I believe will attract young graduates to the city. I had not previously thought of living in Detroit after graduating, but what I saw today has made me reconsider.
As a senior at Albion, I have officially entered those last few whirlwind months in which the question of my next move after graduation is frighteningly, but also thrillingly, real and pressing. My broad mixture of interests in psychology, sustainable agriculture, food and environmental justice issues, and community development lend themselves to a number of possible directions, both in terms of career path and physical location. As for the latter, the tour today helped put Detroit at the top of my list.
Here is why: between the community groups fighting relentlessly to preserve beautiful historic architecture, the conversion of vacant lots and houses too expensive to demolish into canvasses for public art, community gardens that offer places for green thumbs to gather and share their proven techniques with neighbors, a bakery that incorporates food grown in Detroit soil into its regular menu, and neighborhood ice skating rink and hockey league, I can envision myself eventually calling this city home after living in a suburb of Chicago for the past 21 years. I say “eventually” because this possibility is, of course, contingent upon the availability of jobs since idealism can only go so far without an income (see Mom and Dad? I pay attention sometimes). That said, today’s tour left me with a kind of educated optimism that good jobs can be found here by recent graduates who don’t have much experience. Historian and author of Lost Detroit Dan Austin spoke about his friend who started a now very successful creperie. Later, we’ll meet with 26-year-old Emily Doerr, who is preparing to open her own hostel in Corktown. Giving support to the niches that exist for creative job outlets like these is a network of idealistic (but humble), community-minded, risk-taking, and persistent professionals like Dan Austin and Phil Cooley, owner of the wildly popular Slow’s Barbeque and benefactor to local artists looking for a place to showcase their work. He has spearheaded an effort to renovate old buildings for use as apartments and free studio space.
Suddenly the questions, “what’s next?” and then, “why Detroit?” seem a whole lot less daunting to answer.