Friday, July 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Finally, after years of promising, I took my kids into the depths (and I do mean depths) of Detroit to visit The Heidelberg Project. Driving the 20 or so minutes south through Detroit to get there, we passed many of the common sights of today's Detroit; abandoned buildings which had been homes and businesses, and empty lots . . . which had been homes and businesses. Driving through some parts of Detroit, it looks like the Apocalypse has already passed through these neighborhoods and moved on to more promising cities. Vast stretches of Detroit are on their way to becoming the plains and forests that made up Michigan before the entrance of European settlers. There's even been serious talk of opening up some of these empty spaces to farming.

Maybe that's what Detroit needs, a chance to start over. People have been abandoning this city since the legendary '67 riots, and not just any people, people that this city needs in order to thrive, people who have what it takes to run a city. When one looks at whose been running the city for the past 40 years, it's painfully obvious that there has been a serious brain drain.

But not everyone in Detroit is wallowing in despair. Even though the Heidelberg Project is in one of the most desperate parts of Detroit, artist Tyree Guyton has been fighting back for the last 20 years with art. He's been collecting junk from around the city and using it to "decorate" the local abandoned houses and vacant lots. He's had help (and harassment) from the neighbors, but people come from all over the world to visit. During Coleman Young's administration, he had to battle the city, and two of his houses were torn down. Visiting this time, I had to reconcile feelings of disgust that a once proud, vibrant city has been allowed to turn into a ghost town, with feelings of hope that maybe, if people were allowed to reclaim the city, as Guyton has reclaimed Heidelberg Street, Detroit really could live again. It's happened in other places. Soho, in New York City, used to be a slum until artists began moving in to rebuild. Now it's so trendy, the artists have been relocated. They can't afford the rent anymore.

Not all of Detroit is a slum. There are neighborhoods filled with the same kind of houses you find in Bloomfield Hills. Some of them are architectural treasures. Of course, they are a lot cheaper.

Twenty minutes north of my house is the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills. If I'm not mistaken, it's the wealthiest city in Michigan. My daughter took a three week photography class at Cranbrook Academy of Art, an educational summer program located in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, which along with the Cranbrook Museum of Science, is nestled in the rolling hills of the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills. I only mention all of this to give you a better picture of the incredible resources housed on this campus. There is also a lot of open space on the Cranbrook Campus and in Bloomfield Hills. But none of it due to abandonment. The open spaces of Cranbrook are there for the enjoyment of the students whose parents can afford the tuition. Some of the million dollar homes surrounding the Cranbrook School, in Bloomfield Hills are on large lots. They are on large lots because the home owners can afford to buy large lots - and remake them in the way that is aesthetically pleasing to them.

At Cranbrook, the kids in the various art programs used the latest and greatest, most modern equipment available to create their art. They had nice cameras, computers, sculpting, drawing, and painting materials, comfortable studios, and a huge campus to wander in order to find inspiration and refuge. There was a show at the end of the session of the students' art. Some of it was fascinating. There was talent in that group of kids. And not all of them were rich. Take my daughter, for example. If not for the scholarship she received, she would not have been able to attend.

Of course, the art of Cranbrook has quite a different feel from the art of Heidelberg. I don't know if these kids could do that kind of art. Their lives are too different from that environment. My daughter appreciated it though. While we were down there, she took lots of photos. I'm not reprinting them, as there is a sign on Heidelberg Street asking that you respect the project by not putting out your own photos. There are the official photos on the website and in various publications. He's worked hard. I respect that. There are other people willing to help "bring back" Detroit. I'd like to see the ineffectual and corrupt government of Detroit get out of the way and let people rebuild. It may never be as wealthy as Bloomfield, but at least it would have a chance of becoming a city that people are once again proud to call home.

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At 11:41 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

good luck.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Mrs. C said...

One thing that I think really holds redevelopment up is the fact that eminent domain can happen any time. ALL it takes is one greedy developer. We had something like that happen here and an entire swath of land, people had to move out and just go away. They were offered "fair market value" for their stuff, but it's a forced sale. Suppose it's worth $900,000 to you and you don't want to sell so a Baskin Robbins can move in?

Too bad. Here's $40,000 and please go away. I wonder if the cities can guarantee no one would get relocated like that BEFORE they sink the money in.


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Good luck indeed. If they had any intelligent leadership . . .

Mrs. C,
That happened in Detroit a few years ago when GM wanted to build a plant in the Poletown neighborhood.,9171,922498,00.html

Wow, time does fly. That was a long time ago.


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