Karrie Jacobs


April 4, 2011

Detroit, Part I

The Dormer House by Ben Wolf (top) and Renaissance Center by John Portman.  Both in Detroit.

Just back from Detroit.  My first visit.  I am astonished.   At first glance, Detroit looks like a memorial to the 20th century.  All the big ideas we Americans had about civilization in general, and cities in particular, are on display.  It’s not pretty.

But when you begin to dig in, to meet people who are investing their creative energy in the place, it seems possible that Detroit will someday re-emerge as a credible 21st century city.

Detroit is famous for its abandoned buildings, from burnt out houses to the iconic dead train station. But the single spookiest thing I saw was the Renaissance Center, the John Portman designed hotel and office complex initially developed by Ford in the late 1970s and now owned by GM.  Like all Portman projects, it was intended to shut out a decaying city and replace it with a sparkling new substitute city.  The place still largely functions that way although GM, to its credit, built  a “winter garden” in the 1990s that better connects the complex to the scenic (truly) Detroit River.   Outside the RenCen’s big atrium is a newly landscaped, but conspicuously underpopulated Riverfront.  (On a sunny morning run, we noticed just one other runner and maybe five strollers.) Inside the RenCen are all the gainfully employed people who are missing from the downtown streets, striding purposefully along the complex’s circular walkways, going round and round.

The rebirth of Detroit, to the extent that there is one, is small-scale, entrepreneurial and driven by people who, unlike Portman, are inspired by the existing city. For instance, we toured the neighborhood near the little municipality of Hamtramck, where Gina Reichert, Mitch Cope and many collaborators — The Power House Project — are buying up unwanted houses one by one and turning them into art installations, artist studios, and community facilities (like a hand-made ice rink).   The idea is to stabilize one small neighborhood by re-infusing unoccupied, disused buildings with activity and treating them as objects of value.

The burnt out house shown above,   reconfigured by sculptor Ben Wolf, is actually owned by the city, but it’s on one of the blocks where the Power House Project operates.  It strikes me as a metaphor for Detroit as a whole; a ruin recast as aesthetic object.

I don’t know that the creative homesteading movement will be enough to resuscitate Detroit, but I see it as a good sign that the city has begun to attract entrepreneurs and artists who understand the unique opportunity afforded  by a severely undervalued place.

More later.