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On Equity, Sustainable Design, and Detroit

“Each generation, coming out of obscurity, must define its mission and fulfill or betray it.” – Frantz Fanon

In December 2015, Detroit, Michigan became the first American city to receive the “City of Design” designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The designation allows Detroit to be associated with a network of 116 cities throughout the world. The Creative Cities network was created to promote and perpetuate cooperation with cities that have identified creativity as a strategic tool for urban development. The Detroit Creative Corridor Center, or DC3 as it is often called, a five-year-old cultural advocacy group founded by the Business Leaders for Michigan, spearheaded the application for this candidacy.

The design designation comes during a crucial time in Detroit’s history. It’s been over four years since the city filed for bankruptcy. And though Detroit is no longer bankrupt, it is evident that its people need to leverage its existing assets to make it a more viable place. One that will provide a fulfilling quality of life for its residents. It is also quite evident that we, as Detroiters, recognize the value of the its vibrant creative ecosystem— the one that survived and remained during the city’s darkest times. While there seems to be a collective goal to make our city more sustainable, the various institutions, grassroots organizations, foundations, and municipal leaders seem to have different strategies for getting there.

Nonetheless, The City of Design designation granted by UNESCO is an international tool that can be leveraged to help us achieve this goal, presenting an opportunity, but also a challenge that will require voluntary and involuntary collaboration between Detroit residents, organizations, corporations, and city government officials who often have ethical, moral, and political differences.  This designation has the ability to help us define new urban design models that center Detroit’s people, and conversely, it also has the ability to perpetuate the pimping of the creative class for corporate and governmental development, ultimately ostracizing the lifelong and longterm Detroit residents. The task at hand or question rather is, will these contentious parties within the city cooperate in order to leverage current opportunities into sustainable ones for everyone? How are we defining sustainability? And who is it for?

The vision for sustainability at a governmental, corporate and community level essentially looks similar and simple: more jobs with good working conditions and benefits, access to healthy natural resources,  quality shelter, and the ability to exhaust one’s own creative desires freely. Yet, the for whom is what remains undefined, or varied depending on who you talk to. It seems as though the desired beneficiaries of these anticipated outcomes are not consistent across these various groups – with corporations and government focusing on new residents, and community members prioritizing existing Detroiters. If the what is unanimous but the whom is not, how do we reach a viability across these sectors to reach the common ideology of sustainability for all, not just for some?

Last spring, it had been announced that the 10th Biennale Internationale Design St. Etienne (France) would feature Detroit as a guest of honor for its 2017 iteration. The Biennale often features a pavilion dedicated to newly designated UNESCO Cities of Design; this year Detroit would carry that honor. The biennale’s theme was concerned with the future of work and shifting work paradigms. DC3 would serve as the organizers of this exchange and partnership between St. Etienne and the city since it led the application for UNESCO consideration. The organization also shared a request for proposals, inviting curators or curatorial teams to submit exhibition proposals for the Detroit pavilion at the Design Biennale across the pond.

Myself and several other women were chosen to produce an exhibition for the Detroit pavilion at the Biennale. For the show, which was on view in St. Etienne during the months of March and April, me and my exhibition team – Public Design Trust were encouraged to “share the experience of a resilient city, at the heart of changes in work.”  However, we decided to subvert the Biennale theme, rather than contemplating solely on a utopian future.

We thought it would be more constructive to look at the city’s present reality, its people and systems of DIY contributions made by individuals and collectives to the city of design without the support of any institution or corporation (although we did include them too). The labor innovations that Detroit has contributed to are paramount. At the crux of these movements and innovations is collaboration. Everything from the assembly line, to the resistant efforts of the Dodge Revolution Union Movements, was made possible by the choreography of collaboration.

We decided to use the metaphor of dance to explore the future of these collaborative based models because we saw these systems as poetic movements of production and fellowship. This allowed us to examine the relationship to systems planning and the interconnected movements between people, objects, and place.

One of the projects we referenced often throughout the planning of the show was The Museum of Modern Art’s 75 Watt, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s performance (2014) which examined the poetics of production. In conjunction with the performance project, museum preparator Pamela Popeson wrote: “Production line work is always a dance of its own design: a logical mechanical choreographing of the best time- and energy-efficient movements possible for the task at hand.”

We titled the exhibition Footwork, to embolden this metaphor of dance. The title also references the popular dance ‘Jit’ culture associated with Detroit House and Hip Hop music. Through a series of soundscapes, installations, new media, and other objects, Footwork explored the trajectory of how these agents work towards individual and shared utopian futures.

We organized objects in the show by the three core elements of dance: Timing, Teaming, and Technique. The “timing” track includes innovative design that responds to a particular moment in time, which included historic ephemera like the Blue Bird stage. The second track, “teamwork,” focused on objects that represent unique collaborations between different sectors, disciplines, and communities, which housed small modeled utopian landscapes created by Detroit’s Talking Dolls Studio/Collective, to promote connectivity and diffuse insolation.  The final track, “technique,” celebrated the process by which objects have been created, with a particular focus on novel and flexible use of materials.

In this track, we showcased a range of objects and techniques like that of Thing Thing — a collective that re-uses industrial machines and discarded plastics to create furniture, and also the analogous work of textile artist Carole Harris who uses various rusting and weaving techniques to manipulate and piece together material. I was excited to have the opportunity to share a small experience of the Detroit creative community with a city like St. Etienne, which is kindred in its manufacturing craft histories.

Additionally, multimedia artist Tiff Massey produced a black and white wallpaper for the exhibition that includes visual vignettes of Detroit’s key figures and historical events. This work, the first piece a viewer sees as they enter the exhibition, acts as an anchor for understanding the maker economy and rich lineage of resistance in Detroit.

After Detroit left its mark on St. Etienne, I found myself ruminating on the point of it all. I moved beyond a theoretical curatorial inquiry and started to question the practicality of the anticipated urban design solutions, and how the UNESCO design designation will be leveraged to better the design community and the redesigning of the city.

One of the most powerful forces behind Detroits presence in St.Etienne was Cezanne Charles of Creative Many. At home she works as the Director of Creative Industries at Creative Many, leading qualitative and quantitative analysis on the impact the creative economy has had on the economies in Detroit and the state of Michigan. Her invaluable work of defining value in our creative community has allowed for practitioners in the city to leverage their work into more opportunities on a national and global scale (myself included).

In St.Etienne she continued to instigate productive exchange between creatives, designers and policymakers through the creation of Shiftspace, a small cafe and gathering hub that was situated at the center of the biennale grounds. Shiftspace offered up a holistic experience with notable foods from businesses in Detroit such as Sister Pie; an exhibition of contemporary artists from the city such as Senghor Reid and Olayami Dabls; and a small stage that platformed several open dialogues during the biennale that focused on pressing issues that lie at the center of design, policy and equity. Included some of these talks was Charles herself, along with urban planner Kimberly Driggins, then Mayoral candidate Ingrid Lafleur, and a host of others. Shiftspace prompted a stage where we could all reflect (those from Detroit and elsewhere) on the similarities and differences between the policies, designs, and infrastructures between Detroit and St.Etienne. The space allowed us to be present and question ‘why are we here?’ ‘how can we grow from this as artists, and as the city’s creative class?.’

On August 19, 2017, the 139 Square Miles Report by Detroit Future City was released. The extensive report reveals dispirited results from an extensive study on the city’s people, places, and growth. The 80 page report does, however, lead with an optimistic tone, proclaiming that for the first time in sixty years, Detroit is beginning to move towards economic growth. Despite the optics of bustling new ecosystems in Midtown and Downtown areas (where much of the growth has been concentrated), the 139 Square Mile Report also reminds us that these areas are only a small portion of the city’s geographic makeup and that many people are still being left behind as the city grows. Namely Black people.  Of the nearly 700,000 people that live in Detroit, 80 percent are African American. The city has a 40 percent poverty rate.

Detroit Future City’s Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster said of the report ” we need to look at an economic strategy for Detroiters to participate in the economic growth … to be thinking about jobs for Detroit that create pathways to wealth.”

Foster somewhat acknowledges the ‘two-worlds’ in the city that are becoming more and more discussed and distinct. In a recent essay that appeared in Riverwise Magazine entitled “The Choice Between Two Worlds,” the editors provide an in-depth overview of these tensions between populations within the city, juxtaposing the focused efforts of gardener Linda Gadsden — who has cultivated a four-season garden on the Northwest side of Detroit — with the massive developments by capitalists. The issue decides to focus more on the former — highlighting the often overlooked agriculture initiatives in Detroit that began as a way to remedy the Detroit food deserts but have now become a model for how to collaborate with not only one another but also with the plants in our own backyard.

“Plants that were often considered ‘weeds’ are now examples of the beauty and healing that exist on previously neglected lots. That fundamental change in perspective serves to heighten our consciousness and encourage participation. These dedicated efforts, by groups and individuals, are guided by long-term investments in the ecology of the neighborhood.” — Riverwise Editors, ‘A Choice between two worlds’

After reading this quote, I thought of the ‘weeds’ reference as a metaphor for existing Detroiters who are working diligently to prove that they too are worthy of survival, that their presence is necessary for growth and cultivation, and that they deserve a stake in whatever new Detroit might come to pass.

As I continue to learn about movements that have tackled mountains of issues while I was away from the city from 2007-2014, I’m reminded of the work of the Detroit People’s Water Board, founded by the late Charity Hicks, that empowered the community to demand better water rights, fighting shut-offs and the privatization of the natural resource. In addition to Gadsden, other Black farmers in Detroit like Malik Yakini, Baba Wayne, and Mama Myrtle have also created destinations for food cultivation when major grocers fled Detroit. For the past several years, Yakini has worked with a host of residents to farm acres of land on the northwest side — the produce from the land will soon be offered through the form of a grocery cooperative in the North End area of Detroit.  I’m reminded of the grassroots developed Community Benefits Agreement that was created to extend primary agency to residents in community development processes, but was ultimately eclipsed by a city council led proposal, yielding no guarantee of public benefit

 While the UNESCO designation comes as an indirect consequence of the work of these small, slow-growing efforts, I question if they will be centralized in the leveraging of the designation, or remain at the margins.

The Oakland North End Mile Project (O.N.E Mile), who also featured work in the St. Etienne Biennale, and prior to, had strong networks and relationships in France, has taken the agricultural development movement in Detroit a step further by identifying strategy and design models between community leaders, and designers from outside of the community. ONE Mile is a partnership between the North End community activists and artists Bryce Detroit and Halima Cassells, and Designers Anya Sirota and Jean Farges. Often times, it is the designer and developer that imposes a reconstructed idea onto a community. However, in this case, Detroit and Cassells have empowered the North End community by collaborating with designers Farges and Sirota who, although not from the neighborhood, want to make an impact on its community through Design but also through listening.

“There are lots of people who use Detroit as a backdrop for arts practices and design practices – corporations especially do a very good job of it, lending themselves authenticity by using Detroit as a scenography to brand their own identity or their own product,” Sirota said in a 2015 interview with Model D. “The way we walked into this project was to assume that we wouldn’t bring any programming to any context, we would support the programming that was already happening there.” Imagine if every developer entered into existing communities in that way. In the same interview, Detroit  shared that “this is a revitalization with a valued point of community identity and cultural legacy at its roots.”

As I reflect on the work included in the St. Etienne Biennale and the UNESCO designation, I recognize that some important factors have been overlooked when we talked about development in the context of design, the Biennale, and the designation. In order to reach sustainability, there are necessary relationships that have to happen between the outsider and insider; the Detroit transplant and the life-long resident; the industrial theorists and the grassroots organizers. The precarious landscape and seemingly blank slate of a city has attracted a host of designers and planners to it, along with their solutions of what they believe might be best for the city’s recovery. I ask then, as Detroit continues to attract the support of foundations, grant-makers, global institutions and others, how do we encourage these platforms to centralize the agency and authorship of its people who have already been doing this work for so long? I ask not how can UNESCO, DC3, the City of Detroit, urban designers, and foundations better plan for a more promising Detroit, but rather, how can they take a seat, and listen to the organizers, and creative practitioners on the ground who have already made strides towards economic stability and better quality of life?


Taylor Renee Aldridge is a Detroit based writer and curator. Taylor is the 2016 recipient of The Andy Warhol Foundation Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing. She has written for Art21, ARTNews, ContemporaryAnd, Detroit MetroTimes, SFMoMA’s Open Space and Hyperallergic.



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