artistic bureaucrats

Hansen Clarke was on the radio yesterday, talking about his childhood on Detroit's Lower East Side first, and then about his education as a painter at Cornell University. Michigan State Senator Clarke offered an interesting take on his governing style as influenced by his fine arts background. Using both concrete examples and useful prompts a good drawing teacher would suggest, Clarke talked about seeing a big picture to understand how it is organized as whole--conceptually and as a composition, an interest in thinking abstractly, and a willingness to engage in giving form to new ideas.

As we think about artists and creative visions for the city, I thought Clarke's words were well placed and reflected on two artistically inclined politicians who have used their creative backgrounds to shape their policy and their cities. One is former 2-term mayor of Bogota, Colombia, the philosopher and recent Green Party Presidential candidate,
Antanas Mockus. Mockus used inventive strategies taken from agit-prop performance to govern Bogota--including employing mimes for traffic calming, and a women-only night out in public plazas where men were asked to stay home, along with the appearance of a recurring Super Citizen Mockus.

Of another stripe, is former painter and since 2000, Mayor of Tirana, Albania, Edi Rama who, among other accomplishments, supported the transformation of Soviet-era apartment blocks into vibrant facades. Perhaps Detroit's Mayor Dave Bing would think of incorporating creative strategies into his Detroit Works project inspired by fellow mayors.


Thriving Streets: Southwest & Midtown (or Cass Corridor--what do you call it?)

(top: Ice Cream vendor, Hubbard Street, Southwest Detroit; bottom: Goodwells Market, Cass & Willis, Midtown/Cass Corridor)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend time with Juan Martinez, principal of Ceaser Chavez Academy on Waterman Street in southwest Detroit. Juan had grown up in the neighborhood, and we got to talking about his favorite spots from childhood, and how many of them are still around--Duly's Coney Island on West Vernor and the Holy Redeemer Church on Junction-- and what makes a great neighborhood. He noted this past Sunday's feature John Gallagher's Midtown (and southwest) article in The Detroit Free Press which I'd highly recommend (along with John Gallagher's book, ReImagining Detroit )

Among the topics that come up in these discussions are themes of new use--urban agriculture, artists' work space--and along with those questions about displacement of existing communities and the interplay between neighborhood history and urban flux. The ability to use seemingly undervalued and/or seemingly vacant land is inextricably linked to power and along with that questions about race and class. At our panel on 11/6 Ron Scott spoke of living in the Woodbridge neighborhood in the 1970's, and, from the audience, Cedric Tai inquired about the pressure and attention around Midtown as the epicenter of attention, both corporate and commercial. It was pointed out that a parallel critical mass of creative activities was present decades ago on these same streets. Those streets were known then (as now by many Detroiters) as The Cass Corridor --through the 1980's the center of much of Detroit's counter)cultural life and that this renaming/re-branding of the same land mass as Midtown is in part a real estate effort.

Contiguous memory and ties to an urban fabric are what Juan Martinez shared with me. That the health and strength of a neighborhood is in part based on variety, business, civic and religious institutions, neighbors and casual associations. When those ties are broken, through social change, economic instability and wholesale change, the community shifts. It is through a careful attention to balance--of memory, of stewardship--that make great neighborhoods and streets. After speaking with Juan, reading John's article, I thought of Jane Jacobs--both her attention to her New York City neighborhood and later in Toronto. Let us all be great neighbors to one another, and stewards of great complex social streets that are attentive to both continuity and change--with mutual respect and appreciation.


Mashawanta Armstrong

Mashawnta Armstrong, a graduate of Cass Tech and of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, spoke on our panel at C.A.I.D. Mashawnta will soon launch the inaugural issue of the Detroit based and focused MASH Magazine with attention to the intersections of fashion, beauty, design and the city. Some of the insights Mashawnta brings as a designer and as an entrepreneur include making the conceptual connections between manicuring ones' nails and manicuring ones' lawn--both with points of personal pride. She contextualized her interests in the project and its contents in relationship to the early 20th century City Beautiful Movement , and in considering the myriad forms of creative work in the city from architecture to hair styling and the importance for Detroiters to have an active voice in the design of their environment.

There were a couple of questions from the audience -- one from an amazing articulate and poised 12 year old girl, and one from an artist/recent Cranbrook grad that centered around understanding oneself in the face of difference. Mashawnta's warm and thoughtful response based in part on her own experience as being an often solitary African-American woman in Architecture school enabled us all to consider the times when each of us has understood the potential loneliness of being the one and only, and the strengths of resolve needed in order to flourish creatively in spite of perceived differences.


Oren Goldenberg's documentary, Our School , chronicles the intimate lives of 3 Detroit high schools that were on Robert Bobb's (emergency manager of Detroit public schools) list. The film is beautiful--both texturally and emotionally. He spoke on the November 6th panel about schools and media as being sources of power that both have the potential to extend our abilities to interact and project.

Oren is also active on the board of the Issac Agree Synagogue --Detroit's last remaining synagogue. Oren spoke, among other things, about his own interest in understanding the Jewish connection to Detroit history, and the shifting perceptions of the city of Detroit among the Jewish population. From suburban residents who were either city residents or who are the descendants of former Detroiters, there is a complex range of emotions connecting Jewish Americans to the urban centers that were their social, commercial, civic and spiritual hubs for much of the 20th century.


creativity that transcends class

We had an unbelievable discussion on Saturday with a full house at CAID. It'll take me a little while to process it, and I'm looking forward to doing so not only to share some of the conversation but to continue it and provoke more. First, huge thanks to our panel--Chazz Miller (in photo with Rich Feldman from the Boggs Center), Mike Han, Ron Scott, Oren Goldenberg, Mashawnta Armstrong, Shea Howell--and every one who came out.

Some quick take-aways:

from Ron Scott: Artists bring the possibility to see the city as it never has been. But this can not be a replacement for the city and the people who are here and who have been here.

from Shew Howell: Creativity brings new visions and new narratives for what Detroit means to the nation.

My plan here is to tease out a few discussion threads from each panelist and from the audience questions.


More than a circus sideshow: Nurturing a Creative Class

The DIY alternative state fair/punk carnival near the now (temporarily?) defunct State Fairgrounds in Detroit is facing a regulatory challenge from the city. Parts of the challenge and the official attention paid to a creative outpost reminds me of the intermittent municipal clean-ups that the Heidelberg Project has endured.

Of particular note is the recent New York Times article on Theater Bizarre that raises the question of a nascent creative class having trouble establishing itself in the city. Your thoughts? Is Detroit hospitable to creative projects that step outside the lines of safety? Should a city be?

For more on Theater Bizarre's recent run-ins