Articles

After Years of Battling Gentrification, an Artist Opens a Sculpture Park in Detroit

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Welcome to City Sculpture (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — It was a letter-perfect evening in Detroit for the opening last week of Robert Sestok’s long-anticipated sculpture park, City Sculpture. It seemed the weather was as eager as the hundreds of people who attended the festivities to support the longtime Detroit artist and contributor to the Cass Corridor art movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The conceptual basis of this movement was inspired by the sense of destruction, rebuilding, and resurrection — concepts so fundamental to Detroit’s spirit that it is part of the city motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” (“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”). Sestok, who has lived in the rapidly gentrifying Cass Corridor neighborhood since he moved to the city in 1967, engaged in a long and arduous struggle with the city to purchase four vacant lots on the M-10 frontage road at 955 Alexandrine — a typical experience for most Detroiters trying to purchase lots today, while millionaire investors seem able to navigate the process with far more access and success. Sestok spent months agonizing over the logistics of moving more than a dozen of his welded-salvage sculptures — some of which weigh half a ton — from his nearby workshop onto a grid of cement bases in the newly manicured park. It was therefore gratifying to see Sestok relaxed and happy at the opening festivities, allowing himself a rare moment of pride in this Herculean task — executed, in signature Detroit style, largely by himself and with the support of a close-knit circle of volunteers.

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City Sculpture park on opening day

Attendance was a veritable who’s-who of old school fixtures of the art and activism scene, with a huge percentage of people on hand able to claim longstanding connections to the artist. For his part, Sestok remains firmly fixed in the history of the neighborhood (now called Midtown, a key play in the rebranding of Detroit), and continues to make an effort to mentor and connect with up-and-coming artists, including muralist and painter Nicole Macdonald and recently-named 2015 Kresge Visual Art Fellow Jonathan Rajewski.

Ultimately, City Sculpture, now a permanent addition to the Cass Corridor — which in the future will see more of Sestok’s works as well as that of other artists — didn’t just give a dedicated artist get his due, but has transformed the formerly overgrown and abandoned space bordered by thick brush into a fenced park. This place, though alive with visitors and revelry during the open night festivities, has a quieter feel in its everyday state: Sestok’s rusted metal compositions blend in with the skyline visible across the highway, and toward the back of the park meditation benches sit beneath trees.

Robert Sestok, sitting in front of the Recycle Here jam band, which assembled to play the opening.
Robert Sestok, sitting in front of the Recycle Here jam band, which assembled to play at the opening

City Sculpture is a personal triumph for Sestok, whose tireless efforts to support himself and other artists over the course of a five-decade sculpting career have personified the struggle of artists everywhere to survive in a fraught economic landscape, even as they have quietly shaped the arts in the city (showcased beautifully in last year’s Big Paintings at the Factory show, which Sestok organized). As the Cass Corridor becomes “Midtown,” and high-end restaurants, boutiques, and housing developments pop up on every corner, City Sculpture is drawing from a deeper wellspring, one that touches the people who have lived and loved Detroit through its hardest times. Gentrification may be several steps ahead, but City Sculpture, and its felicitous opening, felt a lot like a win for the old school.

The City Sculpture art park (955 W. Alexandrine, Detroit) opened on July 10.

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