Hope from Heidelberg Street
von Nora Sobich | Sep 3, 2011

According to the shocking statistic released by the US Census Bureau this spring, in the last ten years 200,000 people alone have left the city of Detroit. There are now only 700,000 people living in an area as big as Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco put together; when the city was booming there were 2 million. A city that in many areas looks depopulated as though the people had been swept away by one hurricane after another, Detroit has not only been making waves recently as a frontrunner amongst the "shrinking cities" but also as an up-and-coming "art city". "Creative minds now see Detroit as a blank canvas," says Eric Novack, manager of the giant 'Russel Industrial Center' factory complex, which rents lofts and workspace to artists, musicians and film people. But this popularized term "blank canvas" is proving controversial, for Detroit still remains a large city, even if it looks more like a ghost town when passing through.

At the end of the 1990s, with his photo documentary "American Dreams", the Chilean-American photographer and sociologist Camile José Vergara was one of the first to stimulate national dialogue on the architectural heritage of America's ghettos and ghost towns. His works also represented an attempt to look at these urban ruins in a new light, more specifically as a value in itself. Now, the term "ruin porn" has established itself in reference to such documentaries, whereby the accusation that such a voyeuristic aestheticization would fail to address social injustices was somewhat inevitable. Two recently published picture books demonstrate in exemplary fashion the way in which this deterioration is celebrated.

For the work "The Ruins of Detroit", French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre captured images of Detroit's lost grandeur: dilapidated theaters, office buildings and factories. The other, entitled "Detroit Disassembled", contains photography by Andrew Moore and depicts the abandoned city as a high-gloss Pompeii of the Modern era.

The terms "blank canvas" and "ruin porn" are, despite all of the criticism that they contain, characteristic of this phenomenon. There is a certain, forbidden eroticism in the violence of this quintessential American city's inconceivable downfall; a city, which in the first half of the previous century was still the economic heart of the United States and the largest industrial center in the world. In any case, Detroit's breathtaking visual effect now seems to give many people a bit of a kick. That is more than a "ghost train"; that is almost a sense of life, made up of self-qualifying transitions.

In a six-hour live performance of "Ancient Evening", which New York star artist Matthew Barney performed in front of Detroit's historical backdrop, this city's epic, completely forgotten history itself was one of the leading protagonists. In this respect, the term "blank canvas" likewise hits the nail on the head; there is hardly another city that can offer such enormous expanses of free space as Detroit – this "rustbelt city", which is spiraling out of control. Some are already speaking of the "wild west", America's new, urban no man's land. But it won't take much to set the wheels in motion in Detroit.

In the mid-1980s, Tyree Guyton and his "Heidelberg Street" project were the trailblazers of this artistic style, which has come to be known as "New Detroit Style". For over 30 years, Guyton has been transforming derelict buildings into colorful, renovated fairytale castles and witches' houses, and so transforming this area of the city into something fantastic, something of a more human nature. Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street himself and experienced the social and economic decay first hand: the 1967 Detroit Riot, which left over 40 dead and 2,000 injured, completely destroying parts of the city; both oil crises in the 1970s, when it was already fundamentally clear that Detroit's automobile industry would never fully recover; the so-called "white flight", as Detroit's white middle-class population fled the city and today live on the other side of the "Eight Mile Road", as if in a stronghold.

There have indeed been various attempts since to bring this city, characterized by spatial apartheid, back to life; but without success. As a result of the most recent economic crisis – the bursting of the real-estate bubble, for which Detroit had been a central location, and the renewed collapse of the automobile industry with over 400,000 jobs lost in the state of Michigan alone – the city as a symbol for hard work and resilience, has now even regained an air of respectability. In any case, the attention directed on this city's dramatic fate of has increased. Detroit suddenly appears to have become a place of new opportunities.

Thus a kind of urban miniature gold rush is currently thriving here, as though everybody has been reading textbooks on "shrinking cities". Artists, urban explorers and city archaeologists feel a kind of pull toward the city, as the cost of living is just as low as the bureaucratic barriers. At one point in 2010, the average house price was just 7,100 dollars. If you are lucky, you can even get hold of a so-called "for closure" house for 100 dollars and get a piece of empty land for a garden thrown into the bargain. The city is crying out for the gaps, which have been left in its tattered cityscape, to be filled.

One of young Detroit's young urban pioneers is Phil Cooley – mid-thirties, filmmaker and former model. For six years Cooley has been running the "hipster" restaurant "Slows Bar-BQ", which he renovated himself in "urban-recycling" style and now offers affordable American cuisine; every single day is full to the brim with customers. "Slows Bar-BQ" directly faces the "Michigan Central Station", which was taken out of operation at the end of the 1980s and, at 18 storeys high, is now deemed the Grande Dame of the "ruin porn" devotees. Cooley's own real-estate company now owns four of "Slows Bar-BQ's" neighboring properties. He has already opened a coffee shop; there are plans for a cocktail lounge, as well as a karaoke bar and a building, which is to house ateliers and a public art center.

"What could be better ..." asks 28-year-old graphic designer Phil Lauri, who manages the culture label "Detroit Lives!" and paints supersized wall paintings around the city, "... than reinventing one of America's most influential cities?" Kate Daughdrill, a student at Cranbrook College of Art, feels the transformation, which is already well underway, as "incredibly exciting". As part of her SOUP scheme, Daughdrull organizes a monthly "get together" for Detroit activists, the entrance fee from which is channeled into funding the renovation of public spaces or the provision of mobile cooking stations. As a so-called "creative community", the NGO "555" also hosts public art projects. Furthermore, old buildings are being snapped up and converted into ateliers; such was the case with recent renovations of an old cigarette factory and a former police station.

According to Rebecca Hart, Curator for Contemporary Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the creativity, can be accounted for by the dedication of foundations such as "The Kresge Foundation", which to date has supported the creative boom here with several million dollars. In this regard, some have already compared the city mood to that witnessed the post-Unification period in Berlin, The accomplished intercommunication between Detroit's art universities has also played a role here, says Hart. One of the central figures of the movement is Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy. As Pitera sees it, the challenge now with this "change" is to prove – to the long-standing among the city's dwellers in particular – that even a city like Detroit can change.

Tyree Guyton's "Heidelberg Project" still remains the champion of all projects. It is exemplary of an appreciation of art that is decidedly site-specific and works in cooperation with neighboring organizations and the city's so-called "grassroots movement". Here, it also seems to be above all a matter of new perceptions: as is the case with the "Imagination Station", a housing projecting from the alternative real estate company "Loveland", which was set up by 29-year-old Jerry Paffendorf, who came to Detroit in 2009 after working with various start-ups in New York and San Francisco. Last autumn, the Detroit artist couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, collected 180,000$ in collaboration with the San Francisco art magazine "Juxtapoz", which was used to fund a project whereby a range of artists transformed half a dozen derelict houses into strange and surreal pieces of art.

"Urban farming" and "community gardening", to which Detroit with its fallow land lends itself particularly well, are also playing a significant role in the city's transformation. There are already over a thousand small gardens and inner-city farms. One Detroit millionaire, John Hantz, is even planning to pump 20 million dollars into the city, to build the world's largest urban farm. Detroit's endless expanses, where Mother Nature is taking an ever more apparent hold, present themselves as the perfect laboratory for new experiments with urban space. One can already imagine what hybrid forms could be created here – loosely arranged districts and clusters of small village communities scattered amongst the green surroundings.

For a long time, the term "urban renewal" in Detroit was understood only as the indiscriminate demolition of solid building structures and monuments to the industry once existed here. With the appointment of new Mayor Dave Bing, former basketball star and businessman, the decision has now been taken to downscale the city. Redesign is the buzz word of the "Detroit Works Project" initiative, which – with the assistance of Toni Griffin, Professor of City Planning at Harvard – is working on new structures. Thousands of houses are to be demolished, in an effort to condense entire city districts and pare down public infrastructure – the police, the fire department and street lighting. How this will work in real terms, however, is still a moot point.

Luis Croquer, Director of the "Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit" and in recent years a solid institution on the budding art scene, also seems hesitant. Idealistic is how Croquer describes the notion that a city can become a better place just because it has become home to a swarm of artists. Detroit may be very cheap, says Croquer, but there are hardly any galleries here. Moreover side jobs are thin on the ground and almost half of the city's population lives below the poverty line. According to Croquer, it remains to be seen how many of these 'creatives' actually stick around. As part of an America strewn with floundering industrial towns and cities, Detroit is not the only urban conglomerate banking on the creative industry to instrument its comeback. Placing the fate of a city's rebirth in the hands of artists and urban explorers is already a tried-and-test method – with more or less successful outcomes. What Luis Croquer finds interesting about the "change" is how people come together in such extreme situations. He observed a kind of enlightenment taking place after the crash. And that now in Detroit the solution for the future could arise from the community itself, is – for him – something quite radical for a country such as the United States, which has always stood for modernism and individualism.

One thing's for sure: in contrast to Detroit's previous attempts, the current one is not ordained from above, but is arising from the bottom up. This impulse for change is not, as before, limited only to individual projects such as the regeneration of the "riverfront", the reinvention of "Greek town" or building casinos and two new sport stadiums in downtown Detroit. The city's comeback has taken on a spontaneous and decentralized character. But by no means is everyone applauding; the gentrification debate is already in full swing in Detroit, whereby in some districts calling the police too often is itself considered an act of gentrification.

Whether coincidence or fate, it may be the case that the transformation is happening in a period, where the tone has already been set: namely an aversion to "corporate America", which was brought about by the crisis and has made alternative lifestyles all the more attractive again. The DIY movement, for example, is already something of a "cultural element" in America. The Internet and platforms such as "Esty" now enable us to get creative anywhere. And Detroit, where there is a lack of everything as it were, where there is no functioning education system or public transport, where everyday grocery shopping is limited to the so-called "liquor and party stores", provides an Eldorado for those seeking a self-sufficient lifestyle. In this city, unlike Paris or New York, manual skills are a prerequisite.

The road to a living, breathing social and urban balance is indeed a long one; and it is not yet clear whether urban agriculture and green "do-it-yourself" dreams can unleash the necessary momentum for such a big city, even in a rudimentary fashion. There is however no question that Detroit is already one of the most exciting urban spaces in America. So it is no wonder, that David Byrne was filled with enthusiasm for the place, when he recorded an old Talking Heads song for the film "This Must Be The Place" here last year. The sky over Detroit, says Byrne, is vaster than that over New York.

Kobie Solomon's mural at the Russell Industrial Center, photo: Nora Sobich
Detroit in winter, photo: Nora Sobich
Old car as relict from past days, photo: Nora Sobich
Dilapidated villa, from the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
The Imagination Station is a nonprofit project to construct a creative campus in Detroit
Music-room with broken piano, from the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Cover of the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, published by Steidl Verlag
Project „Heidelberg Street“, source: Michelle Figurski
Sales-booth at Russel Industrial Center
„The people`s festival” im Russel Industrial Center
Heidelberg Street, Party Animal House, copyright: Heidelberg Archives
Graffiti “Detroit lives!” in an old train-station
Jerry from „Detroit lives!”, photo: Vanessa Miller
“Business of the future to be dangerous” by Detroit lives
“Heidelberg Street“ by Tyree Guyton
“Salvaged Landscape” by Catie Newell
“Art in a living context“, photo: Nora Sobich
Painted silhouette of a lady, photo: Nora Sobich
Glas-facade with broken-out windows, photo: Nora Sobich
View from a deteriorated house, from the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Destructed stage-hall, from the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Old library, from the book “The Ruins of Detroit“, photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Wall painting of the initiative „Detroit lives“
Graffiti at the Russel Industrial Center
Building-wall of the Northend Studios widely covered with color
In the Northend Studios
Heidelberg Street, New White House, where artist Tyree Guyton grew up, copyright: Michelle Figurski
Heidelberg Street, The Obstruction of Justice “OJ” House, copyright: Michelle Figurski
“We Kahn do it!” by Detroit lives
Poster “Detroit lives!”, photo: Vanessa Miller
“Detroit Lives“ by Johnny Knoxvilles
“Paint A Burnt House” by Marianne Audrey Burrows
Detroit Riverfront, Gabriel Richard Park, Foto: JJR