Monday, August 25, 2014

Can art save Detroit?

The Artist (detail), Grand River Avenue Creative Corridor
I wasn’t prepared for Detroit. Now that I’ve been there I wonder if anything could have prepared me for the experience, for the shock. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried. I’d read about the city’s troubled history, the bankruptcy and current malaise. I’d seen some of the many photos that have been taken of its storied architectural monuments in ruins—so many that they spawned an entire genre dubbed “ruin porn.”

That wasn’t why we chose to visit Detroit, my friends and I. The ruins have been exploited for whatever potential they possessed, an act of desperation in a city with few opportunities for economic gain. You can still find guided tours of decaying parts of the city. And it’s true that the towers with their vacant windows and hollowed interiors create an awesome and horrifying spectacle. But what affected me more deeply were the endless blocks of boarded or burned out houses and the great swathes of simply empty land in the middle of what was once the fourth largest city in the country.

The second, more hopeful surprise was the art.

Mural, Grand River Avenue Creative Corridor
Blight attracts graffiti like a dead carcass attracts flies and Detroit is awash in graffiti. But as we drove through certain neighborhoods the graffiti gave way to far more accomplished and serious murals. These often were painted in the very places you would expect to see graffiti and in fact, the murals and graffiti were so intimately intertwined that it could be difficult to disentangle the two. Moreoever, although I am no graffiti expert, it seemed that a substantial percentage of the graffiti itself had higher aesthetic aspirations than typical tagging.

We weren’t there to see graffiti. My wife and I and four friends were on a pilgrimage to see the renowned and recently controversial Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Talk of selling off its world-class collection to pay the city’s creditors following the bankruptcy has died down of late—fortunately. However, the mere idea that such an important public asset could have been dispersed inspired us to see what we might have missed.

Mural by Diego Rivera (detail), Detroit Institute of Arts
We were not disappointed. If we had done nothing else, visiting the DIA was worth the 7-hour drive to Detroit. The magnificent 27-panel cycle of murals by Diego Rivera in the central court is justly famous. But the entire collection is of such a high caliber that I would rank it among the best museum collections I’ve had the privilege to visit. For me it was an added boon that the superlative works of art by well-known masters often were not the ones made familiar through reproductions. 

The quality of the DIA collection was not a surprise. After all, it had been assessed for billions of dollars in anticipation of the proposed sell-off. (True! Estimates varied between four and eight billion dollars.) The surprise, given the distressed conditions, was the vitality of the contemporary art scene and the many creative projects going on elsewhere in the city. We managed to visit several, mostly in passing. At two sites, however, we were given extended personal tours.

Love. Grand River Ave. Creative Corridor offices
Driving away from downtown on Grand River Avenue is one of the places where you suddenly realize the graffiti has been supplanted with artistic murals. The Grand River Creative Corridor, as it is known, was a deliberate initiative by a real estate executive to transform the depressed strip into a creative hub that would attract tourists, artists, new businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors. Its website boasts of “over 100 murals on 15 buildings; an outdoor fine-art gallery at a bus stop; free-standing art installations;” along with cleanup efforts along the corridor.

Decorated abandoned house, African Bead Museum
Also on Grand River Avenue is the African Bead Museum. Unfortunately, we never got there during visiting hours, so we only saw the buildings from the outside. But what a treat that was! We happened upon it following an evening thunderstorm. This abandoned house, transformed into a sparkling gem with colorful designs and faceted fragments of mirrored glass, reflected a stunning sunset. The rainbow that rose over the house seemed to symbolize the potential for art to further catalyze revitalization.

Mural, Russell Industrial Center Arts Building
Within walking distance of our midtown hotel was the Russell Industrial Center, a former automobile body and parts manufacturing complex. Its post-industrial identity, like so many similarly abandoned factories, revolves around the arts, with studio space for visual artists and filmmakers. Milwaukeeans familiar with Riverwest’s Nut Factory will have to imagine that building bulked up about three times its size and then multiplied by 5. It covers “millions of square feet,” according to its website. I could fit only a fraction of the complex in a single photo.

The Alley Project
It would have been hard to find The Alley Project (TAP) without a guide. Fortunately, we were able to follow our friend Holly, an art therapy professor at Wayne State University, to the Southwest Detroit neighborhood where it’s located—literally in the alleys behind the houses. Holly introduced us to Erik Howard, the founder of TAP, on the street where he lives. Howard explained that the garage door murals that are the most visible manifestation of TAP really are incidental to the mission, which is to facilitate community relationships and improve the lives of participants. TAP connects creative young people with homeowners, who often are elderly and alone.

The Alley Project
Howard told us that the process has empowered over 120 youth, decreased gang activity and vandalism in its highly diverse neighborhood, and increased community togetherness and pride. In an example of working locally and thinking globally, TAP also has attracted international attention. Some of its student artwork has been showcased at the Venice Biennale. A pop up gallery in a well maintained vacant lot—outfitted with a secure bike rack—sees constant use. Indeed, we witnessed one young man (above) adding his spray-painted contribution.
Rodriguez with sculpture: Sun Dial
The granddaddy of Detroit socially engaged, community-oriented art projects is the Heidelberg Project. For 28 years artist Tyree Guyton has used two city blocks on Detroit’s east side as canvas and bully pulpit. When we arrived curator and sculptor Lisa Rodriquez was weeding around one of several of her installations on the front lot, which serves as an informal gateway into the Heidelberg Project proper.  Rodriquez’s piece was an enormous sundial in the shape of an artist’s palette. Brick pavers were embedded with melted and flattened glass liquor bottles salvaged from nearby vacant properties. She explained the symbolism of the piece and its relationship to her Native American heritage.

Rodriguez then took us on a formal tour around the two-block extent of the Heidelberg Project. When it began, Guyton was inspired to use art to stem the deterioration of his neighborhood. The mission was to improve the lives of those living in the neighborhood, much as Howard is doing with TAP. The houses themselves are integral to the art, as subject, object, and metaphor. Through the years Guyton has achieved both notoriety and acclaim and the project has grown in scope and popularity. Over 275,000 people visited the site in the past year, we were told. I’m not sure if that figure includes the surreptitious visitors who have torched some of the houses in the project.

Setbacks such as arson seem to provide Guyton with new inspiration. The charred foundations of at least four houses have been memorialized with new installations of found materials. One of them, Rodriguez explained, was once the home of Wilson Picket. Other famous names such as former White House Press Corps Helen Thomas are associated with the neighborhood as well.

View of Heidelberg Project with Pink Hummer
There were things about the project that I found invigorating, particularly its community activism and educational outreach programming. But some of the art itself appeared a bit tired to my eyes. Cast off stuffed animals and other paraphernalia of everyday life have become weather beaten after 28 Michigan winters. Such natural progression is to be expected for assemblages exposed to the elements, of course. But in the end the question that I still found burning was this: With all of the attention being paid and with the substantial financial support for the project (among other things an expensive new solar powered security system to prevent vandalism recently went online), why aren’t the houses themselves in better condition?

What does success look like for these artists? Is Detroit being saved one alley, one block, one abandoned factory, and one street at a time? The artists we met believe in the process. Their commitment to their art is matched by their commitment to the community. This is laudable and encouraging. Such local efforts may succeed where the grand gesture failed.

Renaissance Center
Detroit tried architecture. The grandiose and maligned Renaissance Center, built in the late 1970s, was intended to revitalize the already depressed city. The world’s largest private development at the time, it quickly became a textbook case for how not to revitalize a city. Recent renovations to the buildings and also to the riverfront, along with other investments in the downtown area have led some to predict that Detroit has reached a turning point. According to a recent article in the New York Times “a growing chorus of optimists in Detroit is saying that the time is right to invest,” the time-honored investment principle being “buy low.”

Some things have indeed changed. We toured the Riverwalk and ate in Greektown. We rode the “people mover,” a short loop around downtown that is Motor City’s gesture to mass transit. The place bustled with people; business appeared to be booming. We could imagine that things are improving. We could hope.
Much of the inner city has gone feral
But leaving downtown still involves running a seemingly endless gauntlet of vacant, overgrown lots and graffiti-scarred abandoned buildings. It will take more than angel investments to save Detroit. It will also take more than art. But the artists working on the ground, in the neighborhoods seem to be making a difference.

Tyree Guyton’s work now hangs in the DIA along with Rivera, Van Gogh, Warhol, and a host of other famous names. That is the traditional measure of success for an artist. But as Rodriguez guided us down Heidelberg Street we passed Guyton standing on the sidewalk near an assemblage. He was surrounded by a small group of attentive children and speaking to them with animated gestures. When someone asked if we could be introduced Rodriguez told us he preferred not to be interrupted. Clearly, teaching the next generation was a high priority.

Guyton’s fame will not save Detroit; even his art won’t save Detroit; but his example—and Howard’s and other artists all over the city—just might do the trick.

Boogaloo, by Tyree Guyton (DIA)
To see more images from our pilgrimage to Detroit go to my flickr album.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Canal Street and placemaking in the Menomonee Valley

Canal St. overpass connects east end of valley with west
(A photo essay follows.)

Sometime around the turn of the millennium I stood on the stub end of Canal Street and looked across the west end of the Menomonee Valley at a scene of devastation. Near at hand stood Falk Corporation, one of the few old heavy manufacturing industries left in the Valley, which once had been full of such factories. Off in the distance cranes hovered over the an unfinished mammoth new stadium. Between these points the 35th Street Viaduct sliced across a broad no-man’s land dominated by the ruins of the Milwaukee Road Yards, a locomotive and railcar manufacturing and repair facility abandoned in the 1980s.

Around the crumbling buildings I also could see wide, grassy meadows speckled with wildflowers—interspersed with gravel pits and piles of broken concrete.  Along the steel-bracketed Menomonee River grew an expanding feral forest of box elder and other weedy trees. Over the next few years I found ways to explore the area, which wasn’t easy to reach. It became one of my favorite places to find what I termed “urban wilderness.” 

Jacques Vieau, a French fur trader, discovered the Menomonee Valley in 1795. I discovered a very different Menomonee Valley in 1999. But neither of us found anything new. Vieau, credited with being the first white settler in what is now Milwaukee, was preceded by no fewer than five distinct Indian tribes. When I first started to explore its urban wilderness the Valley had gone through two great periods of transformation at the hands of Vieau’s successors. The first replaced the original wild rice marsh with Milwaukee’s industrial powerhouse. The second resulted in the devastated landscape that confronted me the day I first went there.

Today, as I walk around a great sloping curve where Canal Street now proceeds down onto that former brownfield, I see notable consequences of continuing transformation. Nestled into the curve, fresh paint gleams on the Rishi Tea Company’s newly constructed factory. Rishi joins a growing number of businesses that have rediscovered the Valley, many of them right here on the former rail yards. It is no coincidence that these businesses are located along the sinuous strip of pavement that finally spans the distance from Falk to Miller Park. In fact, Canal Street has meant far more to the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley than the average street.

When asked to describe a favorite Milwaukee street for a series in Art City on placemaking I immediately thought of Canal Street and the Menomonee Valley. Despite its storied history, for most Milwaukeeans it's the streets that cross over Canal on viaducts that have defined the Valley. The long-blighted valley floor, first with its noisy and smelly industries then later with its polluted river, crumbling buildings and vacant, often contaminated lots, was a place to avoid, a place that seemed not only unappealing but dangerous.

The Menomonee Valley was a dank, forbidding place that divided the city.

Until recently, that is. In the past 15 years the Menomonee Valley has undergone a remarkable—and well-planned—transformation. After decades of contraction, business and industry are expanding once again. The natural environment that suffered degradation while the Valley became “machine shop to the world” is being reintroduced. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Valley now attracts 10 million visitors a year to recreational and entertainment destinations.

To a large extent, the redesign and extension of Canal Street made all of this possible.

In 1999 when I first saw the Milwaukee Road Yards you could not drive the four-mile length of the Menomonee Valley. Canal Street languished beneath the viaducts as a dusty, deteriorating alley that provided truck access to the few remaining industries. Near 32nd St. the pavement ended abruptly atop a truncated ramp overlooking the urban wilderness.

The Harley-Davidson Museum
Today Canal Street is a continuous four-lane road that connects the Harley Davidson Museum on the Valley’s east end with Miller Park on the west. Significantly, the roadway is flanked by the Hank Aaron State Trail, a unique urban park. By bike or on foot, the trail is the best way I’ve found to experience the resurgent vitality of this place.

Miller Park
Commuters drive and cycle their way in both directions along Canal and the bike trail. But they do far more than provide access to workplaces and recreational venues in the Valley. Together they have helped create a new, inviting and forward-looking identity for the Menomonee Valley.

The Valley is now recognized locally and nationally as a model of economic and environmental sustainability. Canal Street has been a catalyst for cultural as well as economic development. Public arts programming has brought performances as well as temporary installations and permanent sculptures.

"Nature Belle," temporary public sculpture by Roy Staab, 2006
Since most of the viaducts still sweep over the Menomonee Valley, access is one of the keys to its revitalization. Geographically and functionally isolated, disconnected from the municipal street grid, and handicapped by a legacy of negative perception, simply bringing people down to the Valley and enabling free movement once there has been a major accomplishment. The new Sixth Street Bridges provide gateways into the valley but it is Canal Street that physically and symbolically creates a unified whole.
Stormwater Park & Industrial Center
The street winds past the Palermo Pizza factory, under the 35th Street Viaduct and around an industrial center, which has risen atop the former Milwaukee Road Yards. I walk beside the road on the Hank Aaron Trail, through Stormwater Park. The path arcs gracefully among tall golden coneflowers, brushy shrubs, and young oak and maple trees. I pause at a railing overlooking a pond. A heron rises abruptly from the reeds, sails off over the resuscitated river.

The newly unified Valley is in the midst of another great transformation. It is not only being revitalized but also reimagined. By design it is a place where economic development is tied to environmental restoration, community needs, and cultural assets. I believe the Menomonee Valley truly embodies an exciting vision for sustainable urban development. It all began with Canal Street.

An edited version of this essay first appeared in Art City. To see it there click here. I want to thank Mary Louise Schumacher for inspiring this essay and creating the placemaking series on Art City.

Photo Essay (all photos 2014 except as noted)

The end of Canal St., circa 2003
Construction of Canal St. overpass, 2006
Public art on Hank Aaron Trail, circa 2005 (taken 2014)
Fundraising run/walk on Canal St. and Hank Aaron Trail, 2007
Hank Aaron Trail & Canal St. looking west from 6th St.
High Rise Bridge spanning the Valley
27th St. Viaduct and Menomonee River

35th St. Viaduct
25th St. roundabout and Potawatomi hotel under construction
City Yards at 25th and Canal
27th St. Viaduct, Canal St. & CP Rail from bike trail
Stormwater Park in action after rainfall in June

Canal Street extension winds into the west end of the Valley around Rishi Tea factory and under the 35th St. Viaduct.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Brass Light Gallery: A beacon in the Menomonee Valley


In the middle of the ground floor of the enormous Brass Light Gallery complex there is a large, mostly empty room. Its bare walls are made of pressure-cleaned cream city brick. The front of the room, which looks out on St. Paul Avenue, has been sectioned off by mirrors in ornate wooden frames. An extravagant cut crystal chandelier, along with a variety of other lighting fixtures, is reflected in the mirrors. So are the massive horizontal steel and concrete forms of the Marquette Interchange outside.

The partially complete room is symbolic of the enterprise that surrounds it: A showcase for its products, a model of business acumen, a distinctive place within its downtown Milwaukee context, and replete with the energy of visionary potential. Stephen Kaniewski, the owner of Brass Light, tells me that this room eventually will replace the current second floor showrooms. The one thing it lacks, he says, is a view into the manufacturing section of the operation. Final renovation will include some kind of window or glass doors to correct that, he assures me proudly, because it is the manufacturing end of the business that distinguishes the Brass Light Gallery: “We make our products right here. We’re ‘made in the USA’.”

This is no idle, self-promoting boast in the current economic climate. During a period characterized by businesses moving offshore, when manufacturing jobs in the U.S. plunged from 19 million to 12 million, the Brass Light Gallery has not only remained in Milwaukee, it has continually expanded. In fact, Kaniewski started the company—which specializes in custom-designed brass fixtures—from scratch 40 years ago and it has been growing ever since.

Kaniewski fondly remembers the moment when, at 16 years old, he first went into a “fabulous movie palace” (the Warner Theater) and saw its “gorgeous Art Deco lobby, with beautiful French Rococo chandeliers.” He witnessed someone buffing old brass fixtures, restoring them. “He turned this tarnished piece of brass into a beautiful architectural element,” Kaniewski says. “That was it: I was hooked.”

Kaniewski  began the business in a basement on Milwaukee’s south side. In 1978 he “moved to 5th and National when everyone was moving out to the suburbs.” By way of explanation he adds, “I’ve always loved the central city with its unique architectural character.” Since that time as the company grew he has twice more moved to neighborhoods that “had seen better days,” as he puts it. The move to the Menomonee Valley in 2006 in the shadow of the High Rise Bridge was, if anything, the most challenging. He purchased two vintage buildings, built circa 1898 and 1953, that had been abandoned and boarded up. The Marquette Interchange project was already underway; the freeway literally was being torn down all around him. St. Paul Avenue was closed for a year.

Owner Stephen Kaniewski on the factory floor
But where others saw liabilities Kaniewski saw opportunities. It took two years to complete the move to the St. Paul location and six years later, with manufacturing in full swing, large sections of the 1898 building are still being renovated. Kaniewski envisions renting the excess space to compatible businesses, such as cottage industries that might include metalworking and glass. The St. Paul Avenue corridor is undergoing its own renovation as a light manufacturing and retail outlet district. Kaniewski, sensitive to his surroundings, considers the Brass Light Gallery “a gateway to the Menomonee Valley” on St. Paul Avenue.

This vision, which clearly encompasses the big picture, is complemented by attention to detail as well as aesthetics. Whether it is a meticulously polished nickel-plated brass fixture, a scrupulously restored antique, or the narrow strip of earth between the buildings and the street saved for flowers during sidewalk reconstruction, Kaniewski is resolute. He maintains matter-of-factly that it’s a “no-brainer” to take care of things, to make them presentable. It is an attitude that extends from the products that he sells to the property he owns.

It is no wonder the Brass Light Gallery attracts customers from around the country. In a time when most industries compete with formulaic business plans, Kaniewski takes a more personal, non-formula stance. The success and growth that have followed benefit not only the company but also the community. In fact, Kaniewski’s faith in his new location bodes well for the still redeveloping Menomonee Valley. Call him prescient, perhaps: each of the neighborhoods where Brass Light previously was located has seen revitalization and unequivocal economic growth.
Photo essay:


This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.