Those organizing this iteration of Ideas City thought bigger too. They worked with the city, which allowed the fellows to sleep in Herman Kiefer. And they created its foundational document, a product of months of groundwork that occurred between New Museum staff and some 20 or 30 Detroiters. Available online for all to read
, it offers a blueprint for how outside groups can foster a dialogue that doesn’t merely reinforce played-out tropes. As Invincible/ill Weaver and Wes Taylor, two members of the Detroit-based artist and activist collective Complex Movements, told me in an email, they wanted to make sure “we were not perpetuating some of the patterns of cultural erasure, displacement, and outsider and corporate-led ‘development’ under the guise of the ‘creative class’ models the city has been facing.” For the most part, such dangers were avoided thanks to “community diligence and the organizers’ openness.” Still, there’s something of a burden placed on Detroiters, who recognize that if they don’t make the effort to be at the table, they will likely end up on the menu, as one put it.
On Wednesday afternoon, two days into the exercise, different groups visited specific sites in the city that were loose anchors for the proposals they would later put forward. Then everyone gathered back at Kiefer. The fellows began to process what exactly they were there for. Was five days enough to really understand Detroit? What would these ideas be used for? How do outsiders not insult their hosts? “A lot can come out of this,” said artist and activist Halima Cassells, one of the Detroit mentors there to help guide the groups. “But we have to explore our own bias, our own privilege, our own sense of normal. Question everything.” (In that moment, I remembered that Detroiters were not characters in a story for me to write and then leave. Their thoughts are not a resource to be mined. They are real people with real struggles that will go on long after we’ve all left.)
Difficult, messy, hard, this kind of self-criticality is crucial. After the conclusion of Ideas City, some expressed the feeling that there should have been even more, and that city officials should have been pressed harder. I’d like to say there was a resolution after that first conversation, that everyone walked away with boxed-up answers feeling dandy. But that’s neither what happened nor what should have happened if people were truly invested. What did emerge was a sense of catharsis, maybe even trust. After over an hour of talking, the groups broke up and got to work or went out into the city to listen more.
The conference presentations looming, fellows huddled around laptops, paper, each other, preparing their talks, five minutes each. There was no direction given from on high, no diktat for what they should have produced. Some groups ended up with 10 people, some half that—all included the voice of at least one Detroiter. Most had taken the initiative to go out and gather more information besides what was on the scheduled programming.
The brief presentations were interspersed between lengthy panel discussions featuring major figures from Detroit and beyond.
spoke of their work in Chicago, repurposing and painting vacant buildings while arguing that art must be seen in a wider political context. In another panel, cultural critic dream hampton described coming to the city decades ago to to find a vibrant place, one that still exists despite reports to the contrary. The processes and results of “redevelopment” often look like corporate franchises, wrapped with an Ayn Rand-type bootstrap entrepreneurism. That doesn’t interest those looking to ensure that Detroit remains a singular place with a collective spirit. “We know what America looks like,” hampton said. “It looks like every other place in America.”