DETROIT — Design duo Akoaki, comprised of the wife and husband architecture team Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, has worked closely with community members and cultural partners in Detroit’s North End neighborhood for roughly the past four years.
“We met people in the neighborhood, and we started listening to stories,” said Sirota, in an interview with Hyperallergic, “and understanding the narrative of the [North End] made it impossible not to try to figure out how to participate in recounting that story.”
Once the “north end” of Paradise Valley — a thriving entertainment district whose clubs hosted breakthrough performances by Motown singers — the neighborhood experienced a prolonged period of depopulation and entropy. Today, it is one of the many frontline areas being considered for redevelopment as the newly installed Q-Line streetcar meets the border of this area, which has been transformed over the last decade by grassroots community organizers, urban farmers, and artists.
Akoaki’s efforts demonstrate how the power of design and architecture, when applied mindfully in the service of community, can be a powerful vehicle for common progress, rather than a tool used by high-end redevelopment efforts that sweep longtime residents out of neighborhoods. Recently, the duo unveiled their most ambitious work in the North End to date. The project, called the Detroit Cultivator, was made in collaboration with the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm (OAUF) and its chief cultivator, Jerry Hebron. After almost two years in the planning, it will create a six-acre civic commons. Supported by a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund, the Detroit Cultivator is an “urban plan in which food production, cultural activity, and civic assets work together to reactivate a locally rooted economy,” according to Sirota. The organizers hope to raise $2.5 million to support the full realization of the project.
“We’re taking a space and illustrating how art, design, cultural activity, music, and food are horizontal in relationships — they can operate together, and that one doesn’t need to instrumentalize the other,” she said, during a tour of one of Detroit Cultivator’s flagship projects. Known simply as The Store, it is a converted former corner store, which Sirota describes as “a pluralistic, inclusive, African-American contemporary art museum.”
Organized under the auspices of OAUF, and featuring artists and subjects with ties to the majority African-American neighborhood population, The Store is planned as a multi-use contemporary art space, which will include galleries and a professional kitchen area.
The Store officially opened early September and celebrated with a launch party and exhibition titled Crop Up. It featured music by Emily Rogers and a smash lineup by other local musicians, as well as arts installations by Andrew Ross Evans, Dr. Kno, and Utē Petit.
“In the North End, Oakland Avenue has been so dark and isolated at night,” said Hebron, reflecting on the opening night festivities, “but when I stepped out during the opening and looked down Oakland, in both directions I saw nothing but cars and people. And it wasn’t that there was a lot of light outside — the sun had gone down, and it was dark — but people felt really cool about being out and about. I’m still hearing from folks, like at a community meeting last night, that it was the event of the year. Nothing like this has happened in the neighborhood ever before.”
Still on display at The Store is an interactive installation of clay masks, a collection of works some 15 years in the making by Dr. Kno — the alias of drummer Efe Bes, who invariably performs wearing a mask of his own creation. Dozens of these masks are suspended from fishing lines, inviting visitors to stand in the center of a disembodied audience of colorful faces.
The exhibition includes “conversation stations” designed by Utē Petit, with custom wallpaper in a motif made of auto parts; a series of portraits of the performing musicians by local photographer Andrew Ross Evans; and a grocery crate tower that was once filled with fresh food (partly sourced from the adjoining farm) that was consumed at the Crop Up opening dinner.
Crop Up also unveils a large, lit-up model of the proposed Detroit Cultivator Commons, accompanied by glossy cutaway views of three projects already in development: a mixed use performance and retail space that mirrors the function and layout of the neighborhood’s historic Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor (where the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin made regular appearances); a hostel space called the Landing; and The Store, which, according to renderings of its finished state, will include an observatory tower, a professional kitchen, and other amenities still in the works.
“The Landing is a hostel and place for people to stay,” said Sirota, “because so many people want to collaborate with the farm, and there’s no place for them to stay in the neighborhood — there are no hotels.” The Landing is a case study in the infrastructural challenges faced by Detroit’s neighborhoods attempting to manage their own come-up — organizers must not only stage the destination points, but somehow create the amenities that support visitors. “Why move capital downtown, when you can keep it local?” said Sirota.
All of Akoaki’s renderings are populated not by theoretical people, but actual residents, artists, and neighborhood characters. It is of crucial importance to all the stakeholders in this process that community members can literally see themselves as part of the picture.
“Part of the vibe is that people can find themselves in the sensibility of place,” said Sirota, pointing out a rendering of her partner, Farges, “being creepy” in the background, away from the crowd between some of the buildings. She mentions that elements of the vegetation and landscaping in the colorful pictures have been lifted from Miles Davis album cover art and that of Henri Rousseau.
“I like Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have to be there to nurture the fantasy, and he had an idea of his identity that preceded him,” said Sirota. “I find, in the process of operating here, lots of people build themselves first, in the imaginary, and then they proceed to figure out how to actually do it. And that’s okay, that’s a Detroit vibe.”
The Crop Up continues at The Store (9400 Oakland Avenue Detroit) through October 9. The Detroit Cultivator project is still in progress. Visit the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm here.