Welcome to Detroit

Photo: Jeff Caldwell

Within hours of arriving in Detroit, nearly $14,000 worth of computers, iPods, cameras, and art supplies went missing from the backseat of a car. The robbery was surprisingly quick, executed in the few minutes the vehicle was left unguarded on the street. The two victims knew better than to leave valuables in plain site, yet they hadn’t quite expected the crime. Neither had they backed up their hard drives properly, so the loss was more than just monetary.

Welcome to Detroit.

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Click here to launch a slide show of Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s photos of Detroit.

The irony of the reception is that the victims had come to town to positively engage the city through Project M, an intensive immersion program founded by the graphic designer John Bielenberg. Since it began in 2003, Project M has rallied design students and professionals from Alabama to Iceland to go out and design for the greater good. Jeff Caldwell of San Francisco’s the Vega Project, a longtime Project M advisor and a Detroit native, organized this two-week event, collaborating with Doug Kisor, the chair of the graphic design department at the city’s College for Creative Studies. The goal: connect with communities, push the creative bounds of design practice, and confront real problems.

The participating Project M graphic designers and artists–Jen Lee, Jory Benerofe, Mark Wills, Jasen Mehta, and Achille Bianchi–knew the myriad problems of Detroit when they signed on for the project. They just hadn’t expected to be inculcated to its reality quite so quickly. The outside perceptions of the city, they soon learned, were quite true, and Camilo Jose Vergara wasn’t so far off when he (half jokingly) suggested the city be relegated to an urban-ruins theme park . The streets are eerily quiet, the buildings vacant and degenerating, the crime real and persistent. This is a place that inspires comparisons between crumbling housing and feral animals. The people with means long ago abandoned the center city to cluster in a fortressed suburbia. Standing at the intersection of Detroit and Grosse Point says it all: on one side, detritus and decay. On the other, landscaping and affluence.

Caldwell1From left: Project M participants Jen Lee, Mark Wills, Jasen Mehta, and Jory Benerofe. All photos: Jeff Caldwell

Caldwell2Project M participant Achille Bianchi

Caldwell4Project M’ers preparing a project in the city. For more about what this is, visit Project M’s Detroit blog.

So why go to Detroit at all? What draws not just these designers, but the bloggers, the urban thinkers, the artists, the architects, the media? What has made Detroit such a subject of outside speculation? Hell, why did I agree to forgo precious vacation time to fly out and be one of the advisors for Project M? I stalked the barren streets and hiked through urban ruins in search of signs of… something, anything… when I could have been relishing the waning summer sunlight on a beach somewhere.

The fact is that there is something about Detroit, something compelling and frightening that draws you there to consider the landscape. On some level you understand that we did this. All of us. Detroit represents the hubris of American industry, an industry once innovative and now atrophied, an industry that created the car-centric culture that is choking not just Detroit but cities everywhere (no Cash for Clunkers for our dying buildings). It is the fall of Rome right before our eyes, an apocalypse of our own making. It is the death of the American city as we know it and we are all at a loss of where to go next.

And yet.

There are the other truths of Detroit, other things that bring you here.

Object Orange. Heidleberg Project. Open City. Design 99 and the Power House Project.

There are the pioneers, the risk takers, the longtime residents taking abandoned lots and turning them into honest-to-god farms. The designers lost their electronics, yes, but there was also the note on the car from a neighbor who identified the license plate number of the offender. There was the elderly couple rocking on a front porch in the honeyed twilight next to their neatly tended farm with stalks of corn reaching the gutters. There were the gang members who invited one of the designers to play horseshoes while they smoked and talked about the territorial stakes in the city. And there are the beacons of life that defy the corrosion: Slows Bar B Q, the Bureau of Urban Living,  The Bronx Bar. Welcome to the other Detroit, the one that is, in fact, quite welcoming.

Sometimes this city feels like it’s on its last breath. Sometimes it feels like a new frontier, like a promise. And you start to think that maybe, just maybe, there is a way out of the ruins.

Caldwell5Project M Detroit continues through September 11. Follow their continued adventures by clicking here.

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