by Valentin Schipfer
I have always been fascinated by shrinking cities like Detroit. Maybe because of their mysteriousness, their myths and the thousands of pictures of ruins in the internet. But last week’s book presentation by Katja Kullmann (author of the book “Rasende Ruinen – Wie Detroit sich neu erfindet”, Rushing ruins – Reinventing Detroit) demonstrated that there is more behind it than decay. Quite contrary to that these cities become places of new forms of cooperation, reorganization and alternative economies. I’ll try to sum up one of her book chapters about two local art initiatives and a special urban gardening project.
In order to gain some impressions, the specialist in American studies, sociologist and journalist Katja Kullmann travelled to Detroit in autumn 2011. In her book she now delivers a subjective story about this four week journey, describing moments, conversations, thoughts and last but not least her emotions with the city. Somehow driven by the right questions, she wrote more than just an itinerary – a very honest one by the way. Her book manages to get you up close with the current situation, the local people, their personal stories and the city’s reinventing steps after the American industrial modernity. One chapter appears particularly relevant for this blog – an ad-hoc excursion with an urban planning professor at Wayne State University indicates Berlin as an urban inspiration for Detroit.
Since mayor Dave Bing’s inauguration in 2009, political decision makers thrive to establish a creative knowledge society. The shut-down of schools and an increasing illiteracy rate on the one hand, the wish to attract young, middle-class creatives on the other seem like a contradiction at first. The urban planner reveals the background though: Firstly, it is the city administration’s aim to reduce the city’s surface area. It shall be condensed into small, easily manageable and self-supporting urban villages – in an ideal situation similar to Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Therefore structural subsidies are granted in three selected demonstration areas. The strategy’s crucial thing is that other parts of the city can then be regained again by nature.
Secondly, young creative people should be attracted to Detroit. Why? They don’t come with pockets full of money. But unlike big investors they come with diversity and vitality. They somehow work as shock troops in a social sense and contribute in re-developing a neighborhood, in establishing micro structures which raise new communities. In the eyes of the urban planning professor, such micro structures have an anchor effect: More and more people will settle down next to these sites because life is easier there. (1) But how will kids whose parents can’t read nor write get connected with this creative economy?
Exactly this question is being tackled by two initiatives in this urban, social laboratory Motown. One is called AccessArts and the other one Forward Arts . AccessArts facilitates youth public art workshops and curates public art exhibits at public spaces through collaborations with local organizations, municipal agencies, artists, businesses and individuals. The results are new arts education opportunities for youth, educators and the public as well as a network of neighbours engaged in the production of art and the maintenance of public spaces. The other initiative – Forward Arts – considers itself as an arts program and project management organization that includes initiatives that support and serve the community. Its aim is to grow, sustain and preserve Detroit’s vibrant arts communities. To accomplish this purpose Forward Arts wants to develop and cultivate Detroit’s creative industries by providing support, opportunities and leadership for artists; and support existing art organizations through partnerships, consulting, and business development. Summing up, in order for Detroit to continue to attract and retain young adults, the two initiatives try to develop new pathways to support and cultivate opportunities for local artists to thrive.
As described on Katja Kullmann’s blog (in German), one of AccessArts’ latest achievements is a picture exhibit on the walls and windows of abandoned buildings. Completely as defined by their mission, professional photographers held lectures for interested people from different neighborhoods. They then took the pictures, developed them and chose the exhibit’s venues themselves.
In another project Forward Arts teamed up with a neighborhood development corporation to bring AccessArts’ public art exhibitions to the historically rich Scripps Park. The results so far are two open air public art exhibits, four 8-10 week youth art labs, many improvements and resources for the park. The 28-years old curator Louis Casinelli is convinced that the exhibitions and youth education program would get all community stakeholders to the table to talk. Arts would help as a means to start the conversation and momentum to address issues which are being faced by the park and the neighborhood.
And indeed using the exhibit as a vehicle of park renewal and community engagement has been successful: The park is much cleaner with community clean-ups organized, maintenance has been established, the park has had infrastructure improvements like park benches and its wall getting repaired, a sensory garden getting installed, quality public programs for 2012 being planned. The project was funded by one regional public arts council and by numerous community donations, private companies and donors. Last but not least the projects would not have been realized, if there was not that much volunteer support.
Katja Kullmann admits that she was surprised by the commitment for volunteer work in Detroit. She states that it is founded on a social theory (by Robert N.Bellah and Alasdair MacIntyre) called communitarism: Thus citizens are regarded as social beings in the first instance instead of individuals. The urban gardening program Earthworks mirrors this attitude quite obviously. Earthworks has been selling its vegetables at local markets for a long time, but since 2008 is has shifted most of its food distribution into meals at the Soup Kitchen for needy citizens. In addition, they initiated a series of monthly evening community potlucks for neighbors and supporters to discuss topics related to food sovereignty and policy changes related to food and development programs to increase access to healthy, nutritious food. All these actions are done by the human service organization Capuchin Soup Kitchen which once again strongly relies upon volunteer work.
Unlike in Europe, volunteers are not disdained for do-gooders but are rather considered as indispensable in USA’s liberal environment. Shrinking cities like Detroit have to improvise and find new opportunities. The two art projects, the urban gardening program and Katja Kullmann’s book describe situations which Europe maybe will have to face too at some point in the future. By then at the latest, Detroit, the ground zero of American industrial modernity, will reap its fruits of being an incubator for many new ideas and social innovations now.
(1) Kullmann, Katja (2012): Rasende Ruinen – Wie sich Detroit neu erfindet. S.43-55. Suhrkamp Verlag: Berlin.