How will Detroit fill all of its vacant spaces? Carefully, deliberately and with consideration for others


Is there a way to stage a polite rebellion? Could Detroit have a reasonable uprising? How do you balance the need for immediate, aggressive change with the absolute need for inclusion and sensitivity?

muralSorry about the questions, but two fascinating but conflicting issues are facing Detroit, it seems. I write this after a week of conversations, luncheons and conferences where people appear to be wrestling with how to push Detroit forward without leaving anyone behind. It’s clear that we have a huge problem that needs delicate solutions.

The first issue goes something like this: People both within the city and outside of it recognize that residents, investors and business owners must take what’s broken about the city and put it back to work. There are too many pieces sitting unused, whether it is vacant land, empty commercial property or blighted houses.

The second issue focuses on how to get everyone involved. It sounds something like this: There is no way Detroit can fix what ails it without having people of every race, color, creed and economic level involved in the process. What will separate Detroit’s revival from those in other cities is whether it can dissect this issue and come up with an equitable solution.

Heavy stuff, yes. Necessary stuff, yes. Easy solutions? No.

Here’s what happened this week that has me scratching my proverbial head:

Selden– The Detroit-Berlin Connection (DBC) held its second Detroit Conference this week the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. I attended a media luncheon with some of the event speakers at Selden Standard. Here, the group offered insights into what they see as Detroit’s opportunities – building itself as an international brand, creating a techno/music following that boosts tourism – with its challenges. The challenges are huge: The city’s willingness to trust its entrepreneurs, its willingness to open up to opportunities, its willingness to embrace its assets in all of its decay and beauty. The big takeaway from this discussion for me was this: Detroit needs to take a chance on disruption. It needs to shake up its current views on change – it needs to be more aggressive, more hungry. Its residents and innovators must focus on collaborative efforts, creative funding. It must force change. There must be a revolution in thinking. Detroit could be a tourism Mecca – if only the people here would go ballistic and dive in fully. On the flip side, the conversation also talked about offering one another tolerance in terms of what each individual would create – giving one another space physically and mentally to get the work done.

–I attended a portion of the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, brought to the Detroit Marriott within the Renaissance Center by the Center for Community Progress. Attending these panels and keynote luncheons (see a lunch theme here?) was insightful and interesting on many levels. Here I met exhibitors who seemed shocked to be in Detroit; they didn’t understand the back story or what currently was happening. They mostly wanted to be in on the action and the opportunity that Detroit seemed to offer. That was a new one to me – people actually wanted to invest in Detroit? They weren’t hung up on our crazy past? Novel. I also appreciated the strong message I heard from panelisst and speakers including Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation. Rapson said it best: Without including everyone in on the rehab projects – whether it is leasing out properties to residents, selling side lots, helping people buy vacant properties – Detroit’s revival has the potential to stall and fail. Without bringing in residents and giving them the tools and resources they need to create jobs, finance their dreams, create income will ensure everything falls apart again in a few years. Reality? Check.

Flower House–I talked to Lisa Wald of the Flower House project for a separate blog post, and she blew my mind with the idea of what will happen to her project AFTER it is done. Yes, the owner of Pot and Box is going to transform two Hamtramck-Detroit area houses with flowers. Along with her partners, Flower House is going to be a sensory explosion this October. More importantly, it has sparked new ideas for Wald and other organizers in terms of how the houses are dismantled and what happens to the property afterward. The houses, which had been abandoned, are now Wald’s property. She is working with groups to make sure the homes are taken down in a way that allows their materials to be reused and recycled. Then, she’s going to use the property to create a flower farm. Even more importantly, she is going to keep the property in use and think of ways that perhaps others could join in her enterprise. That means involving the neighbors, the community and others. Perhaps her work will inspire others as well as the city to see how it could boost people’s incomes and involvement via leases or other long-term solutions that put Hamtrack and Detroit’s properties to use? More on this soon. In the meantime, make sure you read all about Flower House and donate to the cause – your money will go toward creating a long-term and sustainable project that will use the land in a variety of ways.

Artist–Finally, I got to hang out with artist Shepard Fairey as he revealed his new Detroit works both at The Belt (the alleyway between the Z parking lots) and Library Street Collective. Fairey greeted the media, yes. But the event also included what I’ll describe as a “Master Class” between Fairey and students from the Detroit Academy of Arts & Sciences. There, Fairey opened up in ways that were real and unexpected. Granted, from what I hear, Fairey is an open book – a person who needs a bodyguard to make sure he stays on schedule because he’ll give anyone who asks his time, talents and resources. But his honesty with these students about the challenges that come with his profession was impressive. What I appreciated the most was how he reminded these kids that what they do may not be appreciated – their parents may worry that art isn’t going to pay the bills or that the public may question whether what they’ve made is truly “art.” His message was simple and clear: “Doubts are normal. Just don’t let it stop you.” Elevate your game. Embrace competition and learn from it. There’s power in numbers, so join an artist community. Love beauty in all of its forms. Take risks. Be constructive and channel your creative into something powerful. Maybe tagging your neighborhood store isn’t cool – but creating artwork with that storeowner to change the shop’s façade in a way that inspires the neighborhood? That’s kinda amazing. Go see his work at the Library Street Collective. Appreciate what Bedrock Real Estate brought to Detroit. The folks there are working with artists like Fairey to create something you cannot find in any other city. They are giving people locally, nationally and internationally a reason to visit this great place. And they collectively have given a great voice (Fairey) a chance to be another advocate for the city and this moment — this revival that very much seems to be sustained and real.

So what’s the point of all this rambling? It’s that Detroit is faced with some tough questions. There are so, so many questions about what the city is, what it is doing and whether it is doing it right. There is such passion for change, repair, improvement, growth. Everyone wants to help. Everything needs to be done – right now. This is a time of massive upheaval and change. It’s amazing and daunting and great. What a time to be in or around Detroit – growing pains are just that. Painful. But the growth is wonderful to see.

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One comment on “How will Detroit fill all of its vacant spaces? Carefully, deliberately and with consideration for others

  1. Such a smart, thought-stirring synthesis of a whirlwind week that reflects the broad range of opportunities and hurdles.

    This sure is one powerful, packed post! Good to have your insights and tireless reporting as a guidepost for the twists and turns ahead for metro Detroit.

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