Detroit Diaries: Watching a City at Rebirth


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Cities for People media partner Spacing Magazine hosted their second rendition of the Detroit Road Trip the weekend of June 28-29, 2014. The bus tour took 55 urban enthusiasts from Toronto and Montreal on walking tours of Detroit. See Spacing's post about the first trip here. For the full photo collection and pages from Jane's Detroit Diaries, check out our Facebook album.

Detroit: a city at crossroads. The once-shining crown jewel of the American automobile industry now presents low-hanging fruit of investment opportunity for housing developers, but also shines in the beacon of a new light - that of unrelenting citizen engagement. Detroit today is a well-functioning community -- not fueled by the economic machinery of big industry or government, but by the collective actions of responsive residents. You'll find many things here: hundreds of Detroiters volunteering their time to grow greens across the city; a living, breathing outdoor art installation; a lively 86% African American population. What you won't find is indifference. Somehow, Detroiters find beauty in the blight, seek connection over vacancy, and build community across the vast expanses of abandoned lots. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director of the Heidelberg Project concisely evokes the spirit of Detroit: "an empty lot is not all that empty if you can see it differently."


Remnants of a burned-down house coloured with sculptures at The Heidelberg Project. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour.

The Heidelberg Project is perhaps one of the world's most radical, intriguing and sought-out art pieces, and has become a Detroit icon. It is two street blocks of creative magic in the heart of Detroit's East Side. Twenty-eight years ago, artist Tyree Guyton saw his declining neighborhood as a canvas - for ideas, colour, and hope for the future. The open-art environment features everyday discarded objects in a series of sculptures and art pieces integrated with the houses and neighbours who live in the life-size museum.


"You can sail with Heidelberg, with art." Photo credit: Warren Wilansky.


Heidelberg Project Curator Lisa Rodriguez explains her art piece. Photo credit: Warren Wilansky.

Curator Lisa Rodriguez describes the Project as "what happens when people colour a bleak environment". She leads us through the Guyton's various messages. A half-sunken car and bike, both painted pink and overgrown with flower, probe us to question our transportation and consumption choices. An oven with a myriad of gloves coming out of the stove and half a globe baking inside signifies the contribution of females - "how she made the universe and out comes man".


One of the first sculptures in Tyree Guyton's series, signifying consumption and transportation. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour

Lisa then gets personal by taking us through her own story - how art held her up during her sister's passing. She embodied her memories into larger-than-life sculpture: a wooden door frame filled with pressed glass bottles, signifying five generations of her Native American ancestry.

The tour leaves with Guyten's burning words, "You live. You die. You live again". This motif of rebirth is visible and palpable throughout the city.


Street art in downtown Detroit. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour

A few miles West of the Heidelberg Project is the Detroit Market Garden, a paint-factory-turned-urban-farm. Here, the magic lies in the loving care and painstaking labour of nine staff members (including five apprentices) and over 100 volunteers a week.


Detroit Market Garden, where seasonal produce is grown in hoophouses year-round. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour

Citizens have fought for the endorsement of the City to create The Greening of Detroit's urban agriculture department. In addition to growing fruits and vegetables on three parcels of land across the city, the Detroit Market Garden provides extensive programs in education, outreach, technical assistance, and food access. To encourage low-income households to start their own urban gardens, for instance, the Market Garden provides and delivers soil, seedlings, compost, and 2 planter boxes to residents across the city - for just $10.


Oyatunde Amakisi, Community Engagement Coordinator leading the tour group. Photo credit: Warren Wilansky.


Lafayette Greens in downtown Detroit. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour

Of course, it takes a small group of extremely dedicated people, and hundred of helping hands, to make all this possible. The Garden's Community Engagement Director, Oyatunde Amakisi, puts it, "when you get down to the earth and dig your hands into the soil, your problems go away and you start seeing the solutions".

Clearly, Detroiter hands are not idle hands. They are in constant motion: making art, growing gardens, and repurposing abandoned spaces into creative, collaborative opportunities.


Dirt Label T-shirts workshop at Ponyride. Photo credit: Tavish Gilmour.

A strong example of New Economies is Ponyride: a multi-use coworking building that encourages adults to rediscover their childhood passions and "do what they like to do". Here, signs of local cottage industries being born or reborn are ample. The Empowerment Plant creates winter coat-sleeping bags for and by homeless women; Detroit Denim stitches custom jeans for lifetime wear; and local artists and industrial designers inhabit the large workshop studio. The 10,000 square meter building costs a mere 25 cent per square meter to rent - with the understanding that anything can happen here. Ponyride, like Detroit, works the way people like it. As Tyree Guyten would describe it, "it's a little radical, a little unorthodox, and it's working".


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