Essays

Trying to Plan a Future Detroit Without Leaving the Past Behind

The Herman Kiefer Complex, former public Detroit house, that housed the 41 fellows during Ideas City Detroit (photo by Justin Millhouse)
The Herman Kiefer Complex, former public Detroit house, that housed the 41 fellows during Ideas City Detroit (photo by Justin Millhouse)

“A ruin is a shell that is left behind, when capital and resources have been withdrawn from a set of networks, that otherwise sustain existence. You cannot care [about a city] if you don’t have a conception of [its] future.”

—Art critic and historian Michael Stone Richards

DETROIT — I didn’t know what to expect as I prepared for the first evening of Ideas City Detroit (ICD) on April 25. An initiative of the New Museum in New York, ICD is a weeklong studio laboratory and one day conference, created to “address challenges and opportunities arising in urban reconstruction.” Last week was the first time the museum brought the venture to Detroit, Michigan, engaging 41 fellows in the process: one-third from abroad; one-third from the United States; and one-third from Detroit itself. The fellows, myself among them, were immersed in a five-day program that featured presentations from local municipal leaders and cultural producers, site visits around the city, and lab time for fellows to brainstorm potential ideas for the city’s structure.

The sleeping pods created for fellows, designed in collaboration with Family New York (photo by Justin Millhouse) (click to enlarge)
The sleeping pods created for fellows, designed in collaboration with Family New York (photo by Justin Millhouse) (click to enlarge)

The experience also called for fellows to sleep every night in geometrical wooden pods at the old Herman Keifer Complex, which caused me to raise an eyebrow early on. The complex served as the treatment center for polio and tuberculosis in Detroit throughout the majority of the 20th century and was reactivated specifically for this weeklong intensive, after being vacant for several years. Initially, I was optimistic and willing to spend time overnight in the building in an effort to bond with the visiting fellows. But shortly after I arrived, I saw just how dilapidated the place was — it made me feel like an extra in an episode of American Horror Story. I decided to opt out of the sleepovers and retreat to my own bed each night.

During the first full day, we attended a presentation led by Maurice Cox, Detroit’s new urban planner. After quoting and praising Thomas Jefferson for his urban design politics, Cox shared his own plans the future of Detroit. His remedy for revitalizing the city’s ailing landscape included a series of optimistic solutions, such as planting thousands of trees, yet his presentation left much to be desired. He proposed that existing residents need to be empowered through equity — of what, I’m still not sure — and suggested that this could happen through the implementation of a new industrial urban farming mass workforce.

Maurice Cox, Detroit's urban planner, presents new developments to ICD fellows at Herman Kiefer (photo by Justin Millhouse)
Maurice Cox, Detroit’s urban planner, presents new developments to ICD fellows at Herman Kiefer (photo by Justin Millhouse)

Theoretically, the idea of using vacant land to create more jobs through the implementation of industrialized agriculture sounds amazing. But I wondered if Cox had forgotten about Detroit’s past. The devastating decline of the Big Three automotive companies has taught us that relying on one industry as the city’s main source of employment is foolish.

Sixty-three percent of Detroit’s population left the metropolis between 1950–2010. While an unprecedented mass exodus was happening, the municipality still had to maintain its 140-square-mile infrastructure with a declining taxpayer base. This yielded a poor public transit system, extreme poverty, ailing educational resources, and ever-changing, often corrupt leadership. I appreciated Cox’s optimism, but he addressed these potent issues — which are the issues facing Detroit — with much speculation and few pragmatic solutions. The title of his urban renewal campaign, “S.A.V.E.D,” was also a red flag. The notion that Detroit needs saving continues to attract transplants who impose their own solutions on the city, with little to no regard for its existing residents.

On the first day, fellows toured Cooley High School in Detroit's Northwest neighborhood, now being repurposed for the the Cooley Reuse Project, a future community hub with a library and mixed-income housing. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
On the first day, fellows toured Cooley High School in Detroit’s Northwest neighborhood, now being repurposed for the the Cooley Reuse Project, a future community hub with a library and mixed-income housing. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Outsiders often look upon Detroiters as refugees or survivors who have withstood the bankruptcy, corruption, and crime. These are stigmatized narratives, often lacking in full context, that make me cringe. Thus I work to provide a counternarrative, one that doesn’t stereotype the city but rather humanizes it; one that amplifies its beauty, not its blight. Yet, what ICD drove home for me is that I’ve become immune to the disparities around me. While I am from Detroit and a current resident of the city, I live in one of the few vibrant neighborhoods that’s still diverse and has not been fully gentrified (Lafayette Park); I’m not forced to confront the city’s problems on a daily basis. And this is personal choice, because once you’ve experienced lowly living conditions, it’s easier to lean away from than lean back into them, which is what the Ideas City experience called for. Working in the cold and dilapidated Herman Keifer complex, hearing about the optimistic yet somewhat unrealistic solutions from the city’s urban planner, and visiting different sites to learn about their respective issues was enlightening but exhausting.

Over the course of the week, in order to provide ideas for the city’s reconstruction, I had to focus on Detroit’s many issues all at once. I had to acknowledge the fact that I romanticize too much of the past. Many of us are holding on to the old Detroit in a way that may erase us from the new one. If we, Black Detroiters, do not carve out a future for ourselves in this rapidly changing metropolis, we will be carved out of the city itself, or coopted into the imaginations and machinations of its developers.

ICD Director Joseph Grima often referred to the laboratory experience as “experimentation,” but for the Detroit fellows, Ideas City was more than just a seven-day trial. We would not be leaving on Sunday like the rest of the cohort; we would be continuing our lives in this city long after the program departed. How can we turn these ideas into a reality that benefits our home?, I asked myself. As fellows, we were able to connect and talk to city officials in ways that we, as Detroiters, had never been able to before. I decided to use this opportunity to propose an idea that could exist well beyond the weeklong “experiment.”

The author's group brainstorming in their studio lab sessions at Herman Kiefer; left to right: Taylor Renee, Kunal Gupta, Afaina de Young, and Francesca Berardi
The author’s group brainstorming in their studio lab sessions at Herman Kiefer; left to right: Taylor Renee, Kunal Gupta, Afaina de Young, and Francesca Berardi (photo by Justin Millhouse)

A key facet of ICD is the small group experience, which encourages collaborative brainstorming of locally focused urban design ideas. The 41 fellows were divided into several groups of 5–6 people. Each group was given a specific site in the city and tasked with coming up with transformative ideas for it. Writer Francesca Berardi, architect Afaina de Jong, artist Unai Reglero, social justice leader Kunal Gupta, and I were assigned to the O’Shea neighborhood in northwest Detroit. On our first visit to the site, we met with one city representative and two community leaders, pastors of the local church. They informed us that DTE, a private electrical company and Detroit’s sole energy provider, has purchased land from the city in order to install a 10-acre solar array. The plot had once been home to a community recreational center and park, but is now set to host the second-largest solar array in the nation.

To better inform our lab sessions and, ultimately, our final conference presentation, my group visited the O’Shea neighborhood several times during the week to determine if the solar array was something that community members actually wanted. From these dialogues, we learned that the short answer to this question is no.

In the short time we had to learn about the O’Shea neighborhood, we realized that its residents need grocery stores with healthy produce, working streetlights, and an activity center where children can play. These are the community’s main priorities, not a giant solar array. We also learned that its energy would not directly benefit the community in any way, instead going directly back to the general grid, which would distribute the energy to other areas of Detroit. The installation has also compromised the reactivation of the O’Shea community recreational center. Representatives of the City say they have funds to implement “beautification” initiatives around the panel, to turn the surrounding area into a park, but they were very explicit about not lending money to reopen the rec center situated a couple hundred feet away. Given that Detroit is only warm about four months out of the year, local residents would prefer an indoor space for activity and communal gathering to an outdoor beautification project. The main query behind our group brainstorming sessions became: How can we work the community’s needs into the implementation of this slate of solar panels, since plans for installing the array have already been finalized.? How could we come up with an idea that was viable and appealing for DTE, the City of Detroit, and the residents of O’Shea?

Malik Yakini (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network), Pashon Murray (Detroit Dirt), and Dream Hampton (writer) participate in post dinner panel on food justice in Detroit. (photo by Justin Millhouse)
Malik Yakini (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network), Pashon Murray (Detroit Dirt), and Dream Hampton (writer) participate in post dinner panel on food justice in Detroit. (photo by Justin Millhouse)

We found inspiration in an ICD discussion with food justice entrepreneurs Devita Davidson, founder of Foodlab Detroit; Malik Yakini, director of the Black Community Food Security Network; Dream Hampton, writer; and Pashon Murray, co-founder of Detroit Dirt. The panelists discussed how food can be a catalyst for social change and encouraged Detroiters to create their own gardens, rather than working in and patronizing large agriculture companies. “We see capital being pulled in certain areas of the city, like downtown and midtown, but the rest of the city is left in anguish,” said Yakini. “Rather than just cry and bellyache, [we] believe in self-determination.”

To remedy the imbalance of capital distribution and the scarcity of resources, Yakini proposed something like the opposite of Cox’s plan: instead of working for an industrialized food corporation, Detroiters should aim to keep their purchasing power and labor in their neighborhoods by starting their own gardens and developing community food cooperatives. He called for us to embrace the tenets of socialism.

On Saturday at the Ideas City Detroit Conference, my group kept Yakini’s words in mind and presented our case for implementing a “Co-owned Narrative for the New Solar Neighborhood.” We identified the basic resources missing in O’Shea — the same ones absent from the rest of Detroit — and proposed a twofold initiative. Inspired by the work of activist, artist, and ICD consultant Halima Cassells, as well as other Detroit community leaders, we suggested that the City and the residents of O’Shea form a Community Benefits Agreement that reflects the needs, wants, and responsibilities of both parties. Secondly, we shared an alternative model for how the solar array could be repurposed as a roof, situated on top of a food cooperative grocery store and greenhouse.

Slide from our group presentation on a cooperative food store with solar panel roof in the O'Shea neighborhood of Detroit (image courtesy Unai Reglero)
Slide from the author’s group presentation on a cooperative food store with solar panel roof in the O’Shea neighborhood of Detroit (image courtesy Unai Reglero)

Shortly after our presentation, one of the members from the O’Shea community greeted us, thanked us, and told us she was eager to explore how we could make this idea a reality in her neighborhood. I felt assured that the week had not been spent entirely in vein — that perhaps our ideas really could live beyond seven days of “experimentation.” In the short time since Ideas City has ended, I’ve been able to continue my dialogue with that O’Shea resident, and we have ruminated a bit on what partnerships need to be made, how I can present this idea to her entire community, and ways of gathering support for a Community Benefits Agreement. I feel a sense of responsibility to not only come up with ideas for the city’s reconstruction, but also to lend my support to help get them implemented. Admittedly, I’m not sure that design competitions can serve as agents for massive urban renewal without being paired with some sort of policy. But meeting and collaborating with brilliant creatives from around the world, as well as experts from my hometown, encouraged me to appreciate the Black utopian Detroit that I grew up in while also working towards a future Detroit that could be innovative, equitable, and inclusive of its existing humanity.

Ideas City Detroit took place April 25–30 at various locations around Detroit.

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