Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Riding the wave of vibrancy in Banglatown

Ride It Sculpture Park, Tony Miorana from Power House Productions on Vimeo.

In the current issue of The Baffler, journalist Thomas Frank takes on the notion of "vibrancy," a term which has recently come to underpin cultural policy at the national level. As Frank reports, vibrancy is an attribute of so-called creative placemaking, the stimulating effect that culture ostensibly brings to the local environment, a kind of artsy aura that is taken to result in economic revitalization in the long run. The concept of vibrancy is being promoted in particular these days by ArtPlace, a collaboration of the National Endowment of the Arts, 10 major foundations, including the locally based Kresge Foundation, and six of the nation's largest banks. In Frank's analysis, vibrancy is shown to be the latest term of art, as it were, that substitutes an ephemeral quality of hipness for the erstwhile solidity of a once activist welfare state. It's the successor paradigm to the creative economy and other gambits of gentrification, shifting responsibility for the public domain onto private individuals, in this case artists and other creative types.

Much of Frank's critique is well taken. And yet, one wonders what other recourse there might be at this juncture? What, to coin a phrase, is to be done? In this age of compulsory diminished expectations, working with what's at hand, bricolage as an aesthetic approach and a way of life, seems like a viable solution if only by default. Hell, even The Baffler has a Kickstarter campaign underway.
Ride It Sculpture Park Site Plan, including Skate House, Banglatown, Detroit, 2011 (All images courtesy of Power House Productions unless otherwise noted.)
One acknowledged agent of vibrancy here in the Motor City is Power House Productions, a nonprofit organization created by 2011 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellows Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert of Design 99. Power House Productions recently received a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace to convert three vacant houses in their neighborhood into sites for art and community engagement. The piece of the overall project that seems to have the most immediate effect is Skate House, which is part of the Ride It Sculpture Park. When completed, Skate House will feature an indoor skateboarding track and residence for visiting skateboarders and artists.

The Ride It Sculpture Park is situated on four adjacent vacant commercial lots at the terminus of the Davison Freeway, the nation's first below-grade limited access urban highway, opened in 1942 to service nearby defense manufacturers during WWII when Detroit was known as the "Arsenal of Democracy." The project is a collaboration with skateboard enthusiasts and artists in the area as well as nationally. Design 99 and artist Jon Brumit are the principal park design team and video artists. Other collaborators include skateboard accessories providers Emerica and Independent Truck Company, media outlets Thrasher, Slap, and Juxtapoz, and a crew of volunteers. A fundraiser auction of artist's skateboard decks, including one designed by international artist Matthew Barney, netted more than $25,000 for the project. A Crowdrise campaign exceeded its goal.
Award-winning illustrator Leo Espinosa was one of the artists who contributed to the Good Wood Skateboard Art Exhibition and Auction to benefit the Ride It Sculpture Park. (Image courtesy of the artist and Good Wood Skateboard Art Exhibition.)
The neighborhood in which the park is located has come to be known as Banglatown, for its large population of Bangladeshi Muslims, who began arriving in the area about 30 years ago, mainly from Queens, New York, in search of better quality of life. On the face of it, it's not an area one would consider an obvious candidate for that much-vaunted vibrancy. While the neighborhood isn't nearly as abandoned as many in the city which have literally reverted to open field (see the Detroit Works Project Framework Zones Map), Banglatown's housing stock doesn't exactly pass muster as the stuff from which gentrification is typically made. Much of it dates from before the Great Depression when Detroit's booming auto industry brought masses of immigrants into the city who took up residence in quickly built, modest housing constructed of relatively inexpensive materials. Besides being flimsy, it isn't especially distinctive in terms of design. Indeed, Banglatown isn't nearly as picturesque as Bushwick.
"Hoodcat" at work clearing and landscaping the Ride It Sculpture Park site, 2012
But it's what's there and it's cheap. Brumit and his partner the artist Sarah Wagner (and their son Otto) are the owners of the New York Times celebrated $100 house. Other artists have acquired properties in the neighborhood at auction for the low four figures and below. The houses are generally in pretty bad shape. In fact, a couple of them acquired by Design 99 were in such a state as to be beyond repair and instead became material for site-specific art installations. To be sure, even completely discounting the considerable sweat equity that has gone into rebuilding the structures and factoring in only materials, the restoration efforts will likely never pay out in terms of the resulting market value.

Although not officially completed, the first phase of Ride It Sculpture Park is substantially in place and functional. The concrete construction features several ramparts, quarter and half pipes, spines, and banks. There's a built-in barbeque pit off to one side. The facility is already being used by skateboarders and BMX riders, many of whom have come from far beyond the neighborhood, having heard of the park through skateboarding community social networking on Facebook and Twitter. The national organization Boards for Bros has given away skateboards to kids who couldn't afford to buy their own, and more seasoned riders have helped neophytes get on board so to speak.
"Big Red" rampart feature under construction.
Board meets barbeque at Ride It Sculpture Park.
How long projects like this will continue to be possible is an open question. Recently a small group of investors in nearby Macomb County, a primarily working class suburban region and Tea Party stronghold northeast of the city, purchased every available tax-foreclosed property (a total of 645 parcels, including 403 residential) for a lump sum of $4.7 million. The inventory in Detroit exceeds that by many multiples. (By one estimate the total hit for tax-foreclosed properties in Detroit would come to more than a quarter of a billion dollars.) But news outlets such as NPR have reported stories of foreign investors from places like London and Dubai buying up large lots of Detroit real estate in speculation.

At street level, whether Ride It Sculpture Park constitutes vibrancy or not doesn't seem particularly important, much less whether it should trouble us if it does. For now, the collaborators of the project have mended a hole in the social fabric of their local community, and skateboarders in Banglatown are busy perfecting their flips and grinds.
Riding into the sunset.