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CHICAGO — An artist-run non-profit organization, Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope‘s Power House Productions works to develop and implement neighborhood stabilization strategies in Detroit, a city where property is cheap and the stakes are high. In opposition to the elitist romanticization of poverty through so-called “ruin porn” — which John Patrick Leary nicely rips down in his essay Detroitism in Guernica, pointing out the ways it is exploitative in its depictions of Detroit’s impoverishment — Power House is interested in integrated community involvement through their projects.
Their latest example of this is Ride It Sculpture Park, a skate/sculpture park that utilizes a piece of vacant land, transforming it into both a public space, a landmark and a sculpture park. It has already received $30,000 in funding from the Tony Hawk Foundation; Reichert and crew are working to match that donation through a Crowdrise funding campaign. In our conversation, Gina and I talked about Power House’s mission, Detroit’s “isms,” and how the Power House began. This is part one of a two-part conversation.
Alicia Eler: What about a skate/sculpture park intrigues you?
Gina Reichert: It’s partly about land use and trying to figure out what to do with vacant land; it creates a public space, a sort of a landmark, a public social space sanctioned. And then the sculptural aspect comes in — that it has to function whether people are using it or not. That’s why we call it a sculpture park and not just a skate park. In this neighborhood, there are a lot of kids who do skate, but a lot who don’t. The sculpture/skate park occupies this stretch of vacant lots between an expressway and where the houses start. . . it’s this funny stretch of land.
Mitch Cope, my husband and co-founder of Power House, grew up skateboarding and I grew up with friends who skateboarded. There’s a link between skateboarding and creativity — it’s a way of approaching the world. You fail a lot when riding a skateboard. If you want to get good at it or learn a trick, you have an idea of how you want to get there. For me, I’m coming from an architecture background — the way people use and misuse public space. Also there’s something that practically — thinking outdoors, it could work there in terms of maintenance and a concrete park.
AE: So in that way, does the presence of this park create a safe space?
GR: The neighbors we talked to were not that sure of what it would be. The joke for us is that people already hang out there illegally, there aren’t any lights … and if it becomes a place, a designated intentional place, then people won’t keep dumping garbage there. When we do work in the neighborhood, we pay attention to a certain area — the negative activity will tend to go away. We’ve also found that a lot of the work we do is about activating a space and paying attention, and that displaces the negativity.
AE: I’ve been thinking a lot about ruin porn and this whole romanticization of poverty, especially after reading the “Detroitism” essay. I noticed on your website that you have a link giving suggestions to people who are considering moving to Detroit or buying property. How do you deal with the amount of attention and influx Detroit receives?
GR: There’s been a lot of media coverage, and a lot of it was romantic especially in terms of what you can do here. Very little touched on the persistence of what you must have to do in relation to a long-term commitment to the place. We don’t want to emphasize the crime sprees. I don’t want to discourage people but do don’t want to give them blind hope. My take on it is that there’s definitely room, but don’t be naive and you really have to be aware of what you are walking into — the history of the place, the racial history of the place, dozens of immigrants. In a weird way, Detroit gets oversimplified sometimes. We would hear stories about people going to the neighborhood saying ‘we can save this place!’ Stop right there. None of us want to be saved — that’s insulting to start with. Like you have some answer that people who have been living here for decades haven’t thought of that. Then there’s more media coverage about this place being a blank slate. The positive take on that is theres an opportunity to really build a new model. There are over 700K people living here — well, it’s social complexity. Sometimes artists and designers are really tuned into that — sometimes there’s this weird naive or romanticism that doesn’t go over there.
There’s also a real estate bug — there’s a lot of property to be had. We warn people and say you have to go look at things first. People from out of town bid on stuff, and they think there will be a proximity relationship. But no, you’re on the other side of this street. I don’t know what you’re used to dealing with, but you will be dealing with a whole other level of disregarded neighborhood even though it’s only a half mile away. They go for it, buy it, and then after being there for weeks working on i t … they’re like ‘oh, that’s what you meant.’
AE: What’s your process like? How do you go about buying property?
GR: We live around the corner from Power House. We bought a house from the family who was living here. Originally we were looking to rent — we bought it before the market sank. It’s a brick corner property and it used to be a deli in the front and residence in the back. We paid $75K for it. After we were here maybe a few years, a year and a half, people started walking away from houses, going into foreclosure, so we started to be very aware that there were more vacant houses. That’s when we started looking into what was going on, how to find out what they were going for. We found the Power House through a real estate listing. The price was dropping every month, and we decided that we had to figure out how to buy that house. We bought it in 2008. We moved to the neighborhood in 2005. People refer to it as Banglatown, because most of our neighbors are from Bangladesh.