Cutting Detroit: the creative reuse of urban ruins

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The action of cutting – or erasure – has been central to the formation of Detroit’s urban landscape today: whether that cutting is the result of longstanding structural issues (for example, highway construction in the 1950s) or ongoing attempts to remove urban blight, mainly through an aggressive demolition policy in relation to vacant homes. Indeed, cutting formed the focus of the controversial ‘rightsizing’ policy laid out in the 2012 publication Detroit Future City, the result of years of community consultation by the non-profit Detroit Works Project. Through a process of radical cuts – the demolition of tens of thousands of vacant homes all across the city and the transformation of high-vacancy areas into farms, parks, water features or even ‘carbon forest’ – Detroit Future City presents its vision of the city in 2050 (1), one that has erased much of the city as it is today, but through the lens of a positive vision of a world-leading green city, with many of its new ‘natural’ spaces being only lightly managed (if at all).

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On the much more intimate scale of individual houses, some artists have re-appropriated a few of Detroit’s 50,000 or so abandoned homes by radically transforming their structures through cuts of many kinds. These include Jane Orr and Krysta Kearney’s (Cupcake Girls) installation of concrete confectionary in an abandoned pastry shop on Detroit’s east side; and artists’ collective Five Fellows’s project Full Scale, which saw them create new design features in an abandoned house in a neighbourhood in northeast Detroit. In the same area are six additional properties purchased by Design 99 (architect Gina Reichert and artist Mitch Cope) and their organization Power House Productions, formed in 2009, which began by turning an abandoned house into ‘off-grid’ building with its own wind-turbine, solar panels, and generator (2). The other houses were transformed by visiting artists (at the invitation of Power House) into art performance, installation and residency spaces and include Monica Canilao’s project that created an emporium for salvaged objects – a gallery of found materials that spills out of the house’s interior spaces (3). In other areas of Detroit, abandoned homes have also been acquired by artists, including the Imagination Station in Corktown, a burnt-out former home directly opposite the iconic ruin that is Michigan Central Station (4). This property was salvaged by the artist Catie Newell and carefully reassembled to form her installation Salvaged Landscape (2011). The house has since become a non-profit organisation dedicated to the renewal of the local neighbourhood, hosting blight and debris cleaning parties, sculpture, installations, performances and other events.

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Many of the artists involved in these projects (the majority coming from outside Detroit), have stressed the social value of their work, particularly in the local communities in which they are located. Yet, despite the works engaging directly with the processes of transforming abandoned houses into art (and varying periods of the artists’ residency in the communities in which they are located), there is sense that some issues are being sidelined in favour of others. In one conversation with a Detroit resident and tour guide, I was told that often when abandoned properties are purchased, their former owners are still living in them because a great deal of the abandonment is a consequence of repossession which usually takes years to work itself out. Thus, many buyers are forced to evict former homeowners before any renovations can be carried out. Whilst I cannot say that any of the properties acquired by artists in Detroit have involved such evictions, it is clear that in many of these projects, there is a lack of engagement with the lived-histories of the houses that are requisitioned, painful and problematic as those histories may be. Responding to the accusation that creatives are exploiting Detroit in their lack of concern for its past (and future), Monica Canilao countered this by arguing that she is ‘interested in making art that’s alive with history’, without actually specifying what (and whose) history that might be. The fact that the majority of these artists are white outsiders is not necessarily problematic in itself, but it clearly flags up issues that should be addressed more fully in their work. As the Cupcake Girls discovered, transforming abandoned properties through art is not necessarily appreciated by the black residents in whose neighbourhoods those properties are often situated; their installation being burned down (like so many other abandoned houses in Detroit) the night after the first installation was completed. Admitting that they ‘didn’t fully understand the neighborhood we were in’ or its past history, their attempt at renovation through cutting was displaced by Detroit’s most endemic and destructive form of cutting in the city’s history: arson.

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Fire has also contributed to the evolution of one of Detroit’s best-known artworks, the Heidelberg Project, created by Tyree Guyton from 1986 onwards (5 & 6). Spanning an entire block in one of the most deprived black-majority neighbourhoods on Detroit’s east side, the project was started by Guyton to both challenge the destruction of the area in which he grew up and still lives and also to call attention to and provoke thought about issues of race, diversity and the failure of the city authorities to tackle endemic crime and abandonment in this part of Detroit. Comprised of a mixture of decorated abandoned and occupied houses and, spilling out into vacant lots, a cornucopia of found objects and urban detritus, Guyton’s work is also intimately tied up with the many attempts to ‘cut’ the project, either by the demolitions carried out in 1989, 1991, and again in 1999, or a spate of recent arson attacks on the work in 2013 and 2014 that resulted in the destruction of several of the decorated houses.

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Although now recognized as an internationally-important art work, the project is clearly problematic for some, particularly those who live nearby (some of whom may have been responsible for the recent arson attacks). As revealed in the way Guyton has responded to the attempts to destroy his work, the Heidelberg unashamedly – and aggressively – focuses attention on the devastation and violence that has characterized the recent history of Detroit (and particularly the city’s east side). For example, on top of the charred remains of one of the houses destroyed by arson, Guyton has piled found objects, the majority of which are children’s toys (5); while in the brick basement of a second fire-ravaged house, he has filled a wire cage with blue-painted shoes (6). These unsettling objects, which recur throughout the Heidelberg Project, are both references to Guyton’s own impoverished childhood (his mother could not afford to buy shoes for him and his nine siblings), the plight of the city’s dispossessed, and also the violation of human lives through arson, including children that have died in such attacks. The fact that Guyton has defiantly incorporated these objects into the charred remains of other parts of his project, demonstrates his insistence that the Heidelberg is a process rather than a static art installation, one that incorporates the negative ‘cuts’ into itself. The project subsumes the question of race into one about power, demonstrated in the project’s confrontation with (and resistance to) the power of Detroit’s civil authorities and of its resurrection despite the destructive and deliberate fires.

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Cuttings in Detroit that focus on abandoned houses tend to flag up questions of race and power; other issues emerge with processes that have cut through the city’s public spaces. One of the most extraordinary examples of the latter is the Michigan Theater in the downtown area which, in 1977, was converted from a cinema/concert venue/nightclub into a car park (7 & 8). When the proposal was first suggested, architectural studies showed that demolishing the theatre would compromise the structural soundness of the adjoining office building (whose tenants wanted the car park to be built). Thus, in an ingenious solution, parts of the ornate baroque-style theatre (constructed in 1926) were kept, the three-level steel and concrete framework for the car park literally cut into the theatre space, leaving untouched parts of its ornamental interior, including the four-storey lobby ceiling and columns (7), the proscenium arch and part of the balcony seating area (8). Although the remaining part of the theatre is now in an advanced state of decay, this structure cut remains a unique example of the creative incorporation of an older building into a new one without displacing the former, effectively creating a double time-zone within the building. Both of the spaces are, in their own way, defined by the power of the automobile: the theatre by the rise of the car-making industry that flooded Detroit with wealth; the car park, the opportunistic invasion of the car into a formerly human-centred space. Yet, at certain times, the space is transformed once again into a place of leisure, whether as the location of freestyle rapping in the 2001 film 8 Mile, or, annually, on the day of the opening game of the baseball season (when I visited the site), when the car park becomes a place for impromptu parties and ball games.

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On a much larger scale than the Michigan Theater, the Dequindre Cut is Detroit’s most recent example of the creative structural reworking of a ruined landscape. Opened to the public in May 2009, this 1.35-mile fully-lit greenway, including a 20ft-wide pedestrian and bicycle path, was built on the former Grand Trunk Railroad line which had been abandoned and overgrown for many decades prior to its redevelopment. The Dequindre Cut is remarkable for the ways in which it incorporates the ruins of the former railway into itself, principally the concrete abutments of the many bridges that use to cross the railway (9). With most of these covered in graffiti and now weathered into almost natural rock-like formations, the ‘cut’ of the greenway is much more than simply a cleaning up of the former ruins of the railway line; rather, it represents an attempt to include some of those ruins within the new environment and also to embrace what would have previously been regarded as the defacing of those ruins with tags and other forms of graffiti (10), resulting in what Barrett Watten has described as a ‘practical case of refunctioning urban negativity’ that he compared with the work of the radical architect Lebbeus Woods. As Woods has argued in his own engagements with damaged buildings, ruins ‘suggest new forms of thought and comprehension’ that should be fully accepted and integrated into any attempts to restore those ruins or build anew on top of them. As a redevelopment that does precisely this, the Dequindre Cut suggests (like the Heidelberg Project) a radically new way of engaging with the destructive forces that have made Detroit what it is, one that opens up very different possibilities from the conventional imagination of Detroit with regard to the city’s future. In this project, the static (or rather slowed-down) time of Detroit’s ruins has not been replaced or erased; rather it has been cut into in such a way as to remain alongside the new; with both the old and the new now melded in such as way as to create a radically new configuration of time for the future.

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9 thoughts on “Cutting Detroit: the creative reuse of urban ruins

  1. Pingback: Cutting Detroit: the creative reuse of urban ruins | Decayetude's Blog

    • Thanks Diana. Yes, I found Detroit to be an amazingly positive city, despite the terrible problems it still faces.

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  2. Interesting and thoughtful-provoking article. Sounds like a great trip. It’s fascinating reading about the positive ways people have interpreted and handled Detroit. However, you can see how sometimes that could rattle or provoke marginalised local residents. White mostly middle class people making a playground out of mostly black urban poor areas, neglected and abandoned for years. I remember reading about the urban skiers who would set-up their jumps and stunts in the ruins. I think they had run-ins with locals as well.

    Still – extreme sports in urban ruins!

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  3. Thanks Alex. You are quite right about the insensitivity of some of these projects, and that white artists moving into the city can be guilty of this, but what’s really troubling is that the Heidelberg Project – created by a black artist who has lived in the same area of Detroit for 30 years – has been targeted by arsonists recently. I’m not sure what this shows, but it certainly moves the question beyond that of race relations.

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