Anya Sirota, an artist, was perusing Bon Marche, a famous bookstore in Paris, and discovered a whole section on Detroit, filled with mostly “ruin porn” books. In its decline, Detroit, she said, is one of the most “imagined cities in the world.” And it’s now connected with stories of great loss and lament — it went from a city of 2 million to 680,000.
The story is either “this terrible neglect, or perhaps a DIY gestalt — young, talented, non-conventional types can come here and make a new life, create an alternative lifestyle.” To appeal to that DIY audience, Detroit has also become the “scenic backdrop for the marketing of the authenticity of products.”
As Sirota explained at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, she decided to go to the city and see for herself. She ended up partnering with some local African American designers, artists, and activists to write a new story. Sirota calls what she eventually helped create “generative cultural infrastructure.” She believes it’s different from the usual “placemaking” experiences, which have become too “institutionalized” for her tastes.
Sirota called for new thinking about Detroit. Instead of treating Detroit as a “shrinking city,” how about relabeling it a “shifting city?” From the perspective of the African American community who have lived there for decades, the city hasn’t really shrunk — it has expanded.
She also questioned whether the city is really post-industrial. The massive, often illegal, process of recycling Detroit’s abandoned buildings is part of an international industrial economy. “As building development has boomed in China, the rate of deconstruction in Detroit has also increased. It’s a city fully embedded in industrial processes. Those scrappy, metals workers are just not considered part of the formal economy.”
But she really got to work when she saw that remnants of Motown were on the verge of being destroyed for good. Detroit’s city government had initiated a blight remediation program with the goal of tearing down abandoned, decrepit houses. They partnered with Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies to create Motor City Mapping, a website and app that enabled surveyors to examine thousands of damaged empty homes that need to be dealt with. “The survey looked at all structures in the landscape. After 15 minutes of training, surveyors post photos and evaluate the properties.” But it turns out some famous African American clubs where Motown started were added to the list for demolition. Sirota said these technology-enabled surveyors had no clue about the history of many of the places they were evaluating. “That’s not fair.”
Sirota eventually met up with Bryce Detroit, a local record producer, who “uses entertainment arts to create media that project African American identity.” Through his work, he has gotten involved with the climate justice and social justice movements, but he doesn’t call himself an activist. “The community calls me an activist though.”
Together, Detroit and Sirota and many others came together to form the O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End, which is home to legendary musical venues like Phelps’ Lounge along the Oakland Avenue artery in Paradise Valley. What was once the hub of a “30-year Motown music economy” had become derelict, targeted for demolition. For Detroit and Sirota, this was incredibly sad. “There was no marker of the extraordinary history of the music here that impacted the world.” Instead, “someone used an app for 15 minutes and decided this place didn’t fit into the vision of the new city.”
Detroit, Sirota, and many others started to revitalize some spaces along a one mile stretch of Oakland Avenue. A part of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a collection of artists, industrial designers, and architects, they created a vision for a new arts corridor that will undo the blight. New gardens appeared in empty lots. Buildings were turned into makeshift galleries and meeting spaces. “We rehabilitated a garage, really without permission.” There, they launched the Mothership, a mobile DJ unit, which comes with smoke machines (see above).
And for the grand opening of the rehabilitated space, 12 original members of Parliament Funkadelic, the legendary funk band who created the original “Holy Mothership” in the 70s, played a free concert. Some 700 people from the neighborhood turned up.
This collective is constantly “prototyping, programming,” creating new “experimental music and catalyzing the development of new organizations.” They branded the Mothership, with local artists creating t-shirts and earrings. They created a new magazine. As Detroit explained, “we wanted it to be beautiful all the way, with the highest possible production values.” There are pop-up shops were no money is exchanged; it’s all barter. There’s now a North End Urban Expressions Art Festival to showcase local talent.
Sirota said this all constitutes a new model for community revitalization. In the usual placemaking process, community groups, she said, have to work with foundation’s funding cycles. But the problem is they can’t “create complex cultural products in 18 months. Foundations really need to revisit that.” With their bottom-up approach, “there was true collaboration across disciplines. The cultural products were produced locally — not overlaid. This makes it sustainable and self-generating.”