The photographs depicting the incredible decline of Detroit are shocking but well documented. Images of abandoned hospitals, crumbling theatres, buildings engulfed by trees and slums have a tragic beauty to them. The Motor City’s glory days fell victim to increased globalised competition and a harsh recession, which forced residents to leave the city in their droves. It was the antithesis to the American Dream.
By 2014, the population had dropped to 689,000; two-fifths of the number who lived there in 1960, which explains the eerie, ‘ghost town’ feel of the photography, perhaps best captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Documenting Detroit’s decline and capturing the tragedy is perhaps the easy part. As the city climbs out of bankruptcy, its recovery is slowly taking shape and Detroiters are building their own futures in an attempt to redefine their city.
The question of what to do with the abundance of decaying houses needs to be addressed before the city can make a realistic, long-term recovery. A glance at detroitmi.gov reveals that the local government has knocked down over 10,000 vacant homes in a two and a half year period as part of the USA’s largest ‘blight removal’ programme. With the aim to demolish a further 40,000 over the next 8 years, it looks like a trend set to continue.
Alongside this demolition programme, however, is the ‘Building Detroit’ initiative, where residents can buy properties at auction from as little as $1000. This makes space for some Detroiters to exercise creativity as cheap prices mean affordability for ambitious innovators with a vision. A combination of low-cost buildings, community spirit and creativity could prove to be the recipe required to rebuild a unique identity for the city of Detroit.
Three projects that highlight the desire Detroiters have to rebuild their city are:
- The Brick + Beam Detroit project, which acknowledges the efforts of residents seeking to find solutions to ‘rehabbing’ existing building structures. Project funding for a supportive network to enable ‘rehabbers’ to work together and share expertise. An interactive map on The Brick + Beam website allows users to show their progress and share insight whilst the resources tab tackles issues such as hiring contractors, DIY surveying and repairs.
- Barbers and gardeners unite in a wonderfully creative partnership called ‘The Buzz Initiative’ where modern barber inspired mowing patterns are adapted for vacant lots. (Only in America, right?!) This unique solution to land management has seen different creative talents across the city unite with a shared goal and has been awarded $84,055 in funding.
- To some people, unwanted buildings are simply giant blank canvasses and those who paint them are celebrated at the annual ‘Murals in the Market Festival’, which sees 50 local and international artists paint their large scale murals across the Eastern Market District. For a dose of inspiration have a browse at the efforts from last year’s festival.
Impoverished areas sparking unique and exciting imaginative output is not new. Many places have created a specific urban identity, such as Tacheles in Berlin, the street art movement and parts of London or New York before their more recent gentrification. Hardship, natural disasters, loss, recession and other major challenges throughout history have led to creative and determined communities coming forth and reclaiming places across the globe. Instead of being known as the fallen motor city, Detroit could become known as the creative comeback kid.
In order to achieve this, local government agencies should choose to support the redevelopment of the city through the arts, seeing them as pivotal to the city’s future, understanding the value in them and, thereby, securing the sustainable regrowth of Detroit.