Heidelberg Project "The People's House"

Photo: Lisa Dahl, Future Culture Participatory Art Fellow

In October I took a trip to Detroit, arranged by New York Foundation for the Arts, which looked into how the arts have helped play a role in revitalizing that city. It was a topic relevant for me both artistically and in relation to Future Culture. In my own art, I am interested in how our residential environments can affect our lives, often in surprising ways, as well as ways that we, in turn, can affect our own surroundings to serve us better.

Our local guides were two women, both native Detroiters who had spent some time in New York City before returning to their hometown. Their creative agency, Playground Detroit, serves as an informational liaison for culture–institutions, groups, and individuals–throughout downtown Detroit. They arranged visits to museums, galleries, residencies, and studios, pointing out areas of cultural rejuvenation and enterprise along the way. The type of services they provide helps bridge a diverse community that has many pockets of activity happening simultaneously.

It was clear that the DIY ethos is alive and well throughout the Motor City, even as it still struggles with basic infrastructure problems, particularly outside the core of a rapidly developing downtown. The arts community in Detroit is small, but energetic and fiercely supportive of one another. There is a lot of cross-pollination occurring among a variety of cultural practices, and generosity of spirit is a stated requirement for success. Players large and small are all ultimately working towards the same objective–a vibrant city full of culture and innovation, with an eye towards stewardship of the urban environment and its rich history.

A major draw of the trip for me was being able to see the world-renowned Heidelberg Project before it begins to be dismantled in the coming years. The colorfully painted and imaginatively adorned houses are the singular vision of artist Tyree Guyton in response to deterioration and neglect in his community. The project is an impressive example of the impact even one artist can have on his community–drawing people together and promoting community pride. Heartbreakingly, over the last several years, twelve of his structures have been burned in arson events despite the community’s active embrace. After 30-years, Guyton is embarking upon what he calls “Heidelberg 3.0”–an archiving stage.

One of the locations that most impressed me was a large warehouse space run as a creative incubator by a non-profit called Ponyride. Bought in foreclosure by a local restaurateur with a passion for community building, Ponyride’s operations offer a roadmap to think about development in an innovative and sustainable way. Below-market rentals are offered to creative businesses and organizations, all of which make an effort to include the community in their operations. Perhaps the most famous tenant at Ponyride is the Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit company which produces a warm, water-resistant jacket that converts into a sleeping bag and is given out to the homeless in Detroit. All of the employees at the Empowerment Plan are, or recently were, homeless, and the jobs help set them on the path to financial independence.

Even though the economic details and physical landscapes of Detroit and Staten Island differ in many important ways, the cultural goals feel very similar. In both, I see the need for communication among existing cultural institutions, along with newer grassroots endeavors, to help each other grow and thrive in the face of larger economic forces and outside developments. Both cities’ creative communities are working hard to support and make known the existing vibrancy in the area. The trip energized my thinking regarding possibilities for Staten Island’s cultural community. However, I am also keenly aware that my glimpse into Detroit’s cultural scene was a brief and rarified view into what is still overall a struggling city.

Click here to read more in the first edition of our Future Culture Newspaper. Stay tuned for the next edition.

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The colorfully painted and imaginatively adorned houses are the singular vision of artist Tyree Guyton in response to deterioration and neglect in his community.

Lisa Dahl, "Future Culture" Participatory Art Fellow