Can Artists Do Anything to Help Detroit?

Isaac Kaplan
May 11, 2016 2:04AM

Traveling to Detroit by train means crossing land so flat and vast you can almost see the curvature of the earth. The geography is a fitting preface to the city, one that is surrounded by different narratives, all one-dimensional: Detroit the decaying ruin, Detroit the home of urban renewal, Detroit the “post-American” agrarian farmland.

The impetus for my trip was Ideas City, an initiative by the New Museum—from New York, like me—being held inside Detroit’s vacant Herman Kiefer Hospital complex. Though closed in 2013, the 123-year-old complex remains inhabited by the memories of Detroiters who were born there, perhaps returning years later to collect their birth certificates after it turned into an administrative building.

For five short days last month, the space became a “studio laboratory.” There, some 40 artists, designers, urban planners, and, most importantly, Detroiters ate, slept in futuristic pods, and talked. At the culmination, the “fellows,” as they were called, presented not solutions, but creative ideas for Detroit’s future, at an all-day conference.

Ostensibly I was en route to watch this all unfold. (The joke became that I was “embedded” like some circle-frame-glasses-clad Geraldo Rivera, one incapable of growing a mustache.) I was supposed to come back to New York and write something about what art can do in Detroit. But I quickly realized that I didn’t actually know what that even meant. Besides a space on a map, what is Detroit? What counts as art and what doesn’t? Who am I to tell this story? It all felt so flat.

“Ya’ll look like the cast of Glee,” said Satori Shakoor, a resident of the Virginia Park neighborhood where Herman Kiefer is located. She had a point. The bright-eyed group of fellows gathered around her in the perpetually cold Kiefer building (I don’t think anyone was ever coatless) was clearly not a piece of their newfound landscape, despite being intentionally put together by the New Museum to be diverse. One third of the fellows were from other countries (Colombia to Latvia), another third were from the U.S. (New York to San Francisco), and the rest were from across Detroit.

Exterior view of the Herman Kiefer Hospital complex, where Ideas City was held. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.


Virginia Park is full of life, lifelong residents, and an active community. But it is also dotted with vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. These are familiar sights across parts of Detroit, where vacant land estimates range between 18–29% of the city’s 139 square miles. The national average is 15%. How this came to be and what to do now differs depending on who’s giving the account. If you’re listening to an urban planner, as we did when city planning director Maurice Cox came to speak, he’ll tell you that the scattered nature of the vacant lots pose both a planning challenge and an opportunity. There is a lot of green space, but you can’t just displace everyone in its midst and build a massive park. If you’re listening to a resident, they may say walking by the buildings every day is a psychological strain. Or they may say those buildings are an opportunity to build an immersive work of art. I shouldn’t speak for them. These two narratives aren’t separate, mutually exclusive, or even necessarily incompatible. Rather, the proximity is what causes friction: differing stories told by officials, residents, and developers, owing to differing perspectives all jostling to exist in the same space.

“Ruins are what you have in Rome.”

Detroit does not lack for storytellers. In describing her landscape, Shakoor said she lives on “a block that looks like a mouth missing a lot of teeth.” Though not a fellow, Shakoor—once a member of The Brides of Funkenstein, a music act that toured with legend George Clinton—was one of the Detroiters who spoke as part of Ideas City. The lineup also included museum staff, grassroots leaders, and city officials. We heard about thriving businesses and cultural centers—and about the deep memories (traumas, even) residing in places that to outsiders appear entirely empty and ripe for “redevelopment.”

“People that look like me aren’t represented in this resurgence,” said fellow Tiff Massey of a city that, amid general population decline, is seeing an increase in white residents. A designer, sculptor, and Detroiter, Massey wore a pair of rose-colored glasses (literally; certainly not ideologically) for nearly five days straight. On the first morning, we stood waiting for a fresh cup of coffee in a room at Herman Kiefer that had been fitted with a long dining table. Unsure of what to expect of Ideas City, Massey was simultaneously guarded and open, eager to fracture some of the stories that had been told about her home. “The ruin [narrative], I hated that shit growing up because to me it wasn’t a ruin,” she told me. “Ruins are what you have in Rome.”

Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.

Then there’s Marsha Music. A writer and oral historian, Music took a week off her day job in the courts to tell other fellows about Detroit. It was the first time in recent years she had taken a week off work for anything. “It’s hard to describe to people who are not from Detroit,” she began, her voice quieting the fellows like the lights were dimming before a movie, “that this openness is a new phenomenon.” She was referring to the land’s openness, but her words also perhaps applied to a group ready to listen. Detroiters have long suffered outsiders coming in, their closed-mindedness masked by huge ideas imposed on a city those outsiders quickly left or tried to rebuild in the image of somewhere else.

Look towards Lafayette Park. Before it was an idyllic Mies van der Rohe-designed modernist neighborhood sporting the “Chrysler Freeway,” it was Black Bottom, a thriving African-American community. The city’s destruction of Black Bottom began in the 1940s, and it was in the 1960s that Music’s father’s record store was demolished along with many other businesses and homes. “I don’t know if any of you have lost anything,” Shakoor told the group that first morning. “What if you lose family, home, and a sense of self?” What if you lost all that, and then no one wanted to listen to you? James Baldwin once wrote that when people used the word ‘inarticulate’ to describe African Americans, what it really meant was that black people have a ‘long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.’”

At the end of Ideas City, the group of fellows Music was a part of proposed a “conflict preservation society,” a way to memorialize the histories of destructive development in places like Black Bottom. This memorialization might come about through physical objects in specific sites but it might also take place conceptually. In a simple but powerful picture, the group superimposed the traced outline of a typical Black Bottom house over an empty space in Lafayette Park. This sort of historical resurfacing could well flourish in places beyond Detroit, hardly the only city to have been subject to frenzied and then forgotten development.

A group of fellows prepare their presentation at Ideas City Detroit. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.


Black Bottom is also not the only place in Detroit that could benefit from its history being resurfaced. Some speak about Detroit as though its history is an Excel spreadsheet of revenue numbers and population loss. But these conversations about Detroit’s finances, which Detroiters aren’t letting paralyze them, lack value when omitting people. As we took a cab back to Herman Kiefer one night, the driver asked why we were headed to a vacant building, before telling us that today was actually his birthday and Herman Kiefer was where he was born. Like in other Northern cities, Detroit services were segregated and many African Americans’ first and last breaths were in this city-run hospital, one of the few where they were admitted.

This history in the neighborhood is palpable, if not always obvious. A few blocks from Kiefer is a small, nondescript park where once there was an unlicensed bar dubbed a “blind pig.” It was there that in 1967, a conflict between police and black revelers celebrating the return of two soldiers resulted in a conflict that burned down hundreds of buildings and claimed 43 lives. It lasted five days. And though the violence ended, one wonders if the conflict ever really went away. The word “riot” is favored in the tellings by the whites whose exodus from the city in the events’ aftermath went from a significant trickle to a flood: 80,000 left in the year after, quadruple the number from 1966. But “rebellion” is used by many citizens who have remained invested in a Detroit that is now proudly 79% black.


Socially driven art takes on added importance in Detroit, a city that “not only needs our presence, but the work of our hands,” as professor and theorist Michael Stone-Richards put it to the fellows. See the three-decade-old Heidelberg Project, brainchild of artist Tyree Guyton, a community effort to reclaim vacant buildings on Detroit’s east side by covering them in polka-dots, colorful numbers, and even objects. Once you stop seeing the city’s physical space and the minds of the people that live there as separate, projects like this take on a new meaning: Breathing life into seemingly dilapidated buildings is healing the people themselves.

Why should Detroiters trust that this future—one they weren’t asked to design even as it is built atop their memories—is actually for them at all?

Though economic impact studies are a prerequisite for major cultural institutions and development initiatives, they’re much rarer for smaller, grass-roots efforts. Such projects are often seen as culturally valuable but economically marginal—the fact is, we don’t know if that assumption is true. The Heidelberg Project is among Detroit’s most visited cultural sites. And it generates some $3.4 million in revenue for the city, according to a study by Williams College. The study traced where visitors went in Detroit and how they spent money in the city, attributing the revenue figure to a minimum estimate of 50,000 annual visitors. The project says that number is closer to 275,000.

But, as is so often the case in Detroit, looking at economics never tells the whole story. The Heidelberg Project has been the site of unsolved arsons. Some residents in the neighborhood don’t want polka-dot-covered buildings and tourists, preferring, understandably, a normal neighborhood. The project is not even entirely legally condoned by city officials, who in the past even went so far as to bulldoze significant chunks.

Notes left by a group of fellows at Ideas City Detroit. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.

One group of Ideas City fellows would eventually develop a “special planning permit” designed to make it simple and affordable for community arts efforts to exist legally. Fellow Ryan Myers-Johnson, who puts on an outdoor performing arts festival called Sidewalk, told me that during his event’s first year, it was so difficult to get a road-closure permit, they just didn’t. City bus drivers and citizens alike were simply asked to please, drive around.

Sidewalk is held near Artist Village, a massive multidisciplinary space that includes a performance venue, coffee shop, and gallery. It grew out of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that began as one person boarding up a neighboring vacant building a few decades ago and now has over 10,000 volunteers. When a small band of us went to visit its founder, John George, he insisted on taking us to the Redford, a beautiful community-run theater built in 1928, still replete with the original organ used to accompany silent movies. (Purple Rain was showing to a packed house.) This is a Detroit—bustling, laughing—that you don’t see in the “ruin porn” pictures that have dominated the city’s recent narrative.

Such images create a story of Detroit where joy is not only absent, but antithetical. Nick Cave’s “Here Hear”—a seven-month-long project mounted by the suburban Cranbrook Art Museum but also occurring throughout Detroit proper—offered a corrective. The performance series was organized not in galleries or even boardrooms, but in cafés and on porches. Massey said the exuberant performances, seeing “Detroit bodies” in Cave’s iconic Soundsuits doing the Jit (google it), allowed her to “think bigger; I wasn’t thinking big enough.”

The pods where the Ideas City fellows slept. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.

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. Theaster Gates and Amanda Williams 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.”

Could this one site inject some trust between the city and residents?

One Ideas City group, which included Massey, announced “Operation Desert Storm,” a proposal to bring affordable, healthy snacks to the liquor stores and gas stations that exist in Detroit’s vast food deserts. Design is to play an important role: The food will come in cool camouflage bags. And the ball is rolling. Massey has already bought a domain name and is talking to receptive business owners. I asked Jon Gray, a New Yorker, if he would continue to be involved in the execution of the project after Ideas City ended. Nope, he said, there’s enough local expertise. And it’s true. There is an incredible urban food justice movement in the city that’s looking to challenge how capitalism creates inaccessibility to healthy food.

One group proposed being Detroit ambassadors, bringing the lessons learned (“first listen, then see”) back to their homes across the globe. Another presented “Detroit Dots,” a digital tool run by Detroiters that would bring together the vibrant grassroots organizations across the city. And one more still looked at the new bridge being built over the Detroit River that will connect the city to Canada, concerned that in the process it will isolate parts of the historic area of Fort Wayne. Could space in Fort Wayne be created to share narratives and histories—particularly the untold stories of the Native Americans who once lived, and are now buried, there? Could another, real or conceptual, bridge be built that links Fort Wayne to the rest of Detroit? “There is one bridge on the way, but how many bridges do we need?” they asked.

Theaster Gates speaks at Ideas City Detroit. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.

Similar questions were posed by another group about a new solar array to be installed in O’Shea Park, a large government property on Detroit’s west side. DTE Energy will pay maintenance fees and additional taxes for the property, which it is leasing for two decades for an upfront payment of only $25,000. At a community meeting, the fellows relayed, residents voiced frustration with this shiny project—the panels are to fill land now held by a vacant rec center. Residents want the rec center renovated, not demolished, as is the plan. Rather than spend money “beautifying” the solar panel’s fence, is there a way to incorporate the solar panels into the community? Make them a shared space, not one that requires a fence? In a way that creates jobs? Could this one site inject some trust between the city and residents?  

When we visited the site, a pastor showing us around pointed at a bunch of aging playground equipment that, he said, the city would also be sprucing up as part of the solar-panel deal. He then mentioned something obvious: Detroit is cold. It’s a detail one wouldn’t necessarily realize when looking at ambitious renderings of parks, which each tell a story where it is always warm outside. A playground is nice in summer, but “what do we do for the next seven, eight, nine months?” he asked, slightly exasperated.

The residents’ frustration should not be surprising. You don’t build community by showing a fancy computer graphic of a vacant building reimagined as a field of glistening solar panels and declaring, “This future is happening, and it’ll be great!” Unless there’s some equity in it for residents, why should they think so? Why should Detroiters trust that this future—one they weren’t asked to design even as it is built atop their memories—is actually for them at all?

Amanda Williams speaks at Ideas City Detroit. Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez for Artsy.

Who knows what lasting impact Ideas City will have. The organizers have $10,000 to allocate to one or more of the ideas. And the mayor’s office may offer more. Regardless, the way it was planned and executed offers a set of strategies for bringing people together. First just a few, and then a lot. It’s a baby step (and a time-consuming one at that), gathering planners, designers, artists, and residents, all thinking collectively to reveal the blind spots in the stories we all tell. Next comes the need to tangibly invest in the community, something many are already doing. Art alone is not enough.

“One of the successes was the capacity of the group of fellows to express compassion and seek understanding, question critically, and listen so intently that many of the final presentations spoke to the need for systemic change and uplifted parts of Detroit’s history that are often left out of the mainstream narrative,” Cassells told me in an email in the aftermath of Ideas City. When there’s solidarity and trust, who knows what story can be written.

Isaac Kaplan