Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, one of the city’s largest, rambles across some 250 acres. The park thrived decades ago, but as the city descended into economic depression, prostitutes and drug dealers became sights as common as the roaming muskrats, minks, and coyotes.
A nearby artist coalition, Sidewalk Detroit, has been lobbying the city to rehabilitate the park with the hope that one day they might build a space there to house artist residencies.
The huge wildlife preserve and nascent art venue serves as a microcosm of the possibilities and challenges that social practice art in Detroit offers. With just 700,000 people spread out over some 140 square miles, and with strong support from philanthropic organizations like the Knight and Kresge Foundations, Detroit provides fertile soil for a growing art scene.
There’s abundant and still relatively affordable space. There’s an avid and receptive audience. And there are daunting, urgent social and infrastructure needs that local communities and artists can help meet.
In the case of Eliza Howell, there’s a catch-22: the city hasn’t installed basic infrastructure like lighting and bathrooms in the park because locals don’t use it; the locals say that that’s because there aren’t those basic amenities. So artists, with the support of philanthropists and foundations, stepped into the breach.
Chickens For Diversity
Similarly addressing urgent human needs is the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, in Detroit’s North End. Founded by Billy and Jerry Hebron, who previously worked in real estate, the project brings together several local organizations: the architecture firm Akoaki, art and music venue One Mile Project, and the nonprofit Center for Community-Based Enterprise. The organization is developing a five-acre complex that will integrate housing, urban farms, a hostel for visiting artists, and an art venue.
Seeking to establish a strong and lasting foothold, the organizations have worked together to buy up plots of real estate and turn them over to a community trust. The existing gardens provide produce that Oakland Avenue sells to workers at the local Daimler-Chrysler plant, where healthy food is scarce, and to the city’s open-air Eastern Market. The organization received a $500,000 “creative placemaking” grant from ArtPlace America in 2016.
Food and art are even more closely intertwined in another commodity offered at the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm: eggs from chickens bred by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen as part of his practice. Vanmechelen’s Cosmpolitan Chicken Project is supported by local art dealer Gary Wasserman, of Wasserman Projects, a contemporary art venue in the Eastern Market neighborhood.
A hybrid developed by the artist to bring together desirable qualities of several varieties of fowl, the Cosmopolitan Chicken serves as a metaphor for the benefits of diversity in the human gene pool. In the future, the birds’ meat will also be for sale. “It’s the most esoteric art combined with the most basic human need,” Wasserman said, acknowledging that the artist’s more market-ready products—including taxidermied chickens and animal portraits—remain a tough sell for locals.
Curing Social Isolation
Turning the tables on traditional power structures, the Ghana Think Tank looks to people in places like Sudan, Cuba, and Iran to help solve first world problems. The group was founded in 2006 by Christopher Robbins, John Ewing and Matey Odonkor; Maria Del Carmen Montoya joined in 2009. They surveyed Westerners who they say complained of feeling disconnected from their neighbors. In response, Moroccan consultants offered a solution, pointing out that their own living structures are often centered around a courtyard where one inevitably crosses paths with one’s neighbors. Thus was born an architectural project they called the American Riad, a metal structure incised with geometric Islamic designs that provides a covered space between two houses.