DISPATCH BY: JOHN MIRELES
Spend a few days in Detroit and you'll understand why one local company has adopted "Detroit Versus Everybody" as its moniker. To travel to Detroit is to be warned to "Be careful" by well meaning friends who've heard the stories about Detroit being bankrupt, crime ridden and and falling apart at the scenes. I can’t deny that there’s plenty of truth tucked away in within that storyline, but it’s far from the whole truth and it completely misses the reality of this city - which is far more subtle and unexpected.
I’ll start this story where no doubt many Detroit stories have began: at the city’s Michigan Central Station. Designed by the same architect who shaped New York’s Grand Central Station, Detroit’s train depot is the tallest such building in the world. In visiting this massive Beaux Arts edifice, it’s clear that the city fathers intended for this building to signal Detroit’s entry into the club of the world’s great cities.
Central Station joined other massive structures of the early 20th century that housed all manner of manufacturing facilities. From cars to stoves, if America needed something manufactured, Detroit produced it. Migrants from all over, especially blacks fleeing the poor, racist South, streamed into the city to meet industry’s growing demands for labor. The city grew, bounding upward and outward.
A funny thing happened though along the way to greatness. Racism and segregation kept blacks from being hired at many companies and then left those who did get hired in lower paid, less skilled jobs. After World War II, companies began departing the city for the suburbs, taking jobs and people - mostly whites - with them. By 1967, blacks were unemployed at double the rate of the white population and, despite the city’s best efforts, were financially and physically ghettoized.
Mayhem and Murder
Sparked by a police raid on a unlicensed bar, the Detroit riots broke out 50 years ago to the day of this writing - July 23, 1967. In the aftermath of four days of mayhem, 43 residents lay dead and thousands of business had been burned or looted. The damage didn’t stop with the restoration of peace; after the riots the slow pace of exodus by whites and money turned into a flood. Hundreds thousands of residents packed up for the suburbs in the three years after.
Throw in the decline of American manufacturing since the 70’s and what you have is a city punctuated by crime and ruin, sort of like a modern day Ankor Wat if it were stocked with muggers. Now, in most recountings of the tale of Detroit, the story ends here. Instead, by my accounting, here’s where things get interesting.
On a late Saturday morning, I helped navigate Culture Runner’s ungainly 34 foot motorhome through the middle of Detroit’s bustling Eastern Market, one of the largest outdoor market’s in the country. Into this farmer’s market jammed tens of thousands of visitors from in and around the city; somehow we managed to squeak our oversized bus through the narrow alley streets and finagle a parking spot. No signs of desolation here.
I didn't have to walk too far for that. Just a matter of yards away from the bustle of the market lie fields where entire neighborhoods once sat. One thing I learned is that, though there’s no shortage of abandoned homes, most have been leveled leaving behind areas that look far more country than urban. No abandoned homes means no crack dens and places for criminal elements to hide.
Within the city, much like a slowly emerging Spring thaw, signs of life are poking up. The downtown is being rebuilt and readied for the future masses who will inhabit the planned for urban lofts. An old railroad has been torn up and is gradually being built into a green belt to take joggers from the city center to the nearby Detroit River. The area by Central Station now sports a row of hipster bars and burger joints. Abandoned manufacturing buildings have been converted to artist friendly lofts. Speculative money is pouring into the city with the expectation that the city is on its way back.
In the center of all of this, a community of artists grows. More than any city I’ve been to, Detroit is an artist’s city. Public art, much of it graffiti art and murals, populates the huge canvasses offered by the aging brick buildings. The urban renewers and city planners know that when it comes to gentrification, that where the artists first go, the money - in the form of lofts, coffeeshops, bars and restaurants, and ultimately trendy boutiques - will soon follow.
More than just a welcoming wave, Detroit offers the two essential ingredients for art to thrive. First, there’s a tight group of artists who connect and lean on each other. The energy drink company Red Bull has established an incubator program known as the Red Bull House of Art which serves as a creative hub within the Eastern Market District. Out on the street, artists congregate and do all the usual things that artists do (let your imagination roam) and talk about.
But most of all, what Detroit has to offer is space. Cheap space and lots of it. Loft space, apartment space, warehouse space, upstairs space, downstairs space, backroom space, outdoor space, wall space - whatever sort of space your art might need, Detroit’s got it. No other American city has so much space so cheap.
I can easily imagine some artist just coming in and buying a massive warehouse to fill with oversized works a la Donald Judd in Marfa. Should that happen then the floodgates of artists and money will flow into the city. Until then, Detroit potential only grows.
ARTIST: John Mireles
DATE: 24 July 2015
In traveling with the CULTURUNNERS' RV, one of my key goals was to create portraits of individuals along the way. Below is a selection of portraits from Detroit.