Digging into Detroit's Future

The Chene-Ferry Market is a closed-down farmer’s market in Poletown. It is part of an urban design plan at the University of Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) led by Dan Pitera.
Stephen Zacks

All summer, a lively cavalcade of events and performances testified to a reawakened cosmopolitanism in Detroit and proclaimed a community that is growing in size and complexity. Detroit’s 139 square miles are suddenly teeming with contemporary art, design, and development activity. The projects are no longer isolated but connect larger tracts: the Jam Handy industrial film production building-turned-performance space hosts a temporary Sunday market, around the corner from the ONE Mile funk revivalist project by Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, with Catie Newell’s studio halfway between. A land rush has begun in the area.

Enter Culture Lab Detroit. The three-year-old brainchild of Birmingham-based designer and creative director Jane Schulak, Culture Lab Detroit orchestrates dialogues between the Detroit community and internationally renowned designers and urbanists, instigating potentially paradigm-shifting collaborations that evangelize green interventions in the landscape.

“My platform is about connectivity,” Schulak said. “I pose a design question each year and try to identify people who will respond to that question in all very different ways.”

In early September, urban ecology-themed panels in packed auditoriums at the College for Creative Studies and the Detroit Institute of Arts brought together San Francisco chef Alice Waters, industrial-scale urban farmer Will Allen, French vertical gardener Patrick Blanc, Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood, and Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto to discuss strategies for greening the city and evolving architecture with nature.

“I’ve always thought that agriculture could be the lead piece to bringing these cities back,” Allen, who grew up in a sharecropping family in Maryland, said. “This city is really primed for local production because all of the vacant land where you could grow food. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Acre Farm’s “CITY DO NOT CUT” signs are meant to prevent public agencies from mistaking crop fields for overgrown lots. This tension between the small-scale farm and the urban scale network of municipal government is one of many interesting conditions raised by the urban agriculture in Detroit.
 

At Acre Farm in North Corktown, several blocks adjacent to the highway form a patchwork of fertile fields that skip over paved streets, the only sign of a once-populous neighborhood. Acre Farm is in an in-demand but mostly demolished area between the MotorCity Casino Hotel and a retail strip on Michigan Avenue (pioneered by restaurateur Phil Cooley). The farm is marked with large plywood “CITY DO NOT CUT” signs to prevent public agencies from mistaking it for overgrown lots.

Urban agriculture is not new, yet the diversity of greening tactics and players spreads benefits far from the heavily invested downtown, the Woodward strip, and Midtown areas. The number of farming and gardening initiatives has multiplied: Keep Growing Detroit has supported 4,000 gardens in the last decade with seed packs, transplants, educational, and technical assistance. Nonprofits like the Greening of Detroit have planted about 4,000 trees in the past year, while Hantz Woodlands installed 15,000 trees in a square mile of East Detroit. In 2013, the City Council adopted a zoning ordinance that legalized existing urban farms and set standards for agricultural land use.

“For some of the more grassroots or ground-up entrepreneurs, it’s all based on returning to true connections between people, relying on businesses that can help support your businesses that are within the city itself, and producing real food that you know who grows it,” said D MET studio’s Liz Skrisson. D MET designed offices and a Great Lakes Coffee shop for Midtown Inc., a major player in cultural developments and a tech innovation district near the Detroit Institute of Arts.

A circular path is planted with flowers and grass, while a fish sculpture combines art with landscape. A small building sits in the background, drawing an illusion to the wild west.
 

The Ye-Olde-Brooklyn style pioneered by John McCormick in Williamsburg—repurposed wood, distressed paint, thematically culled antiques, industrial objects, and Edison light bulbs—is as pervasive here as elsewhere. Culture Lab Detroit, however, is cognizant of a need to move beyond adaptive reuse to pioneer innovative buildings: nothing of any architectural significance has happened here in decades. Schulak’s advisory board is packed with a savvy group of local and international cultural leaders, among them Reed Kroloff, David Adjaye, collector Marc Schwartz, and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit founder Marsha Miro.

Schulak selected Hood and Fujimoto for a panel that emphasized ecological design to create landscapes and structures that connect people and evoke delight. Fujimoto incorporated vegetation into high-rises that mimic both repetitive and idiosyncratic patterns in plant life. Like inversions of vacant houses overgrown with wilderness, the design rationalizes natural forms into building technologies.

“I do think fresh voices are good for a place,” Hood said. “Places that become so insular keep repeating the same patterns over and over again: bringing people in might help others get excited.”

The dialogues double as provocations for speakers to explore Detroit: local facilitators tour designers around sites and schedule meetings with project organizers and entrepreneurs, offering a platform to present proposals. For the past year, Patrick Blanc has speculated on ways to grow vegetation on the concrete embankments along the Dequindre Cut. Blanc seeks to irrigate the plants without access to running water.

Hood is working on a concept for a square-mile area near the northeastern edge, incorporating blue-green infrastructure concepts from the 2012 Detroit Future City strategic plan to deploy large depopulated spaces for the benefit of those still living there. “One of the things that I’m interested in is how you can change people’s sociology through the pattern on the landscape,” he said.

The Flower House is a project by Lisa Waud where artists will make floral installations in a blighted building facing the I-75 highway in Hamtramck.
 

The Flower House, a project by Lisa Waud, will create floral installations in a blighted building facing the I-75 highway in Hamtramck. Inspired by the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, twenty or so florists will descend on the house during the weekend of October 16, filling its rooms with flower arrangements. Afterward, the house will be deconstructed and the lot will become a flower farm.

Further north, near the Squash House, the Play House, the Power House, the Sound House, and the Ride It Sculpture Park—a well-known collection of repurposed homes and lots by Gina Reichart and Mitch Cope of Design 99 and Powerhouse Productions—ceramicist Abigail Murray and architect Steven Mankouche (Archolab) are building a passive greenhouse in the burned out foundation of a 1920s bungalow. The team erected a slanted south-facing polycarbonate roof within the existing foundation, cladding the exterior with dark charcoal slats (cutoffs from a lumber mill) charred using the ancient Japanese shou-sugi-ban method. Inside, they plan to grow almond, olive, and pomegranate trees, as well as other non-native plants.

“The project is in dialogue with blight in a lot of ways, and how we can deal with blight other than just ripping everything out of the ground and carting it to a landfill,” said Mankouche, a professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture. After the project is completed, Archolab plans to donate it to a local gardener and evaluate its reproducibility in other places.

The industrial stock of Detroit provides a unique backdrop for urban agriculture.
 

Elsewhere in Hamtramck, sculptors Andrew Mehall and Ben Hall, co-owners of the Eastern Market’s Russell Street Deli, are using a large warehouse as a gallery to stabilize a block overgrown with weeds and grass, its double-height space presenting a fair likeness of industrial Bushwick. However, these reclamation projects demand fortitude. The day we visit, Hall struggled to open the gallery door after a break-in the night before—scrapping metal is a full-time occupation for pickup-driving bandits in southeast Michigan. Inside, the gallery exhibits colorful truck-sized inflatable pieces by Chicago-based Scottish artist Claire Ashley.

“In a lot of ways the gallery is just a basic stopgap to keep the neighborhood solid,” Hall wrote in an email. “In one way we’re pretty anti any kind of Richard Florida narrative…As the businesses in the neighborhood that were hanging on by a thread gave up, or let go, or demurred, or decided to forfeit, it became a matter of introducing some solidity, or reintroducing occupants for the sake of the building not being vacant.”

Within this ambivalence lies much of the trepidation about the city’s fast-moving developments. Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loan-led renovations—all paid for with the ill-gotten gains of payday lending—gobble up dozens of downtown buildings to restore long-lost landmarks. Among these is a planned SHoP-designed replacement for the symbolically important Hudson’s building.

Another example is Chene-Ferry Market, a voluminous closed-down farmer’s market in Poletown that is part of large-scale urban design initiative led by Dan Pitera’s University of Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC). Situated in a spottily inhabited area on the East Side, RecoveryPark uses urban farming, fisheries, value-added foods, and a farmer’s market to provide job skills training to substance abusers, the formerly incarcerated, and others struggling to land on-the-books employment. Working with the mayor’s office and the new planning director Maurice Cox, DCDC is designing RecoveryPark and other mile-wide areas far from the central business district with a mixture of ecological and commercial functions.

“We wanted to show that every area that looks like this is right adjacent to a dense area,” said Pitera. “Can they be seen more as a unit? Then you design them in a way that this could become blue-green infrastructure, more interesting design opportunities, like retail, that become assets for the denser area. How do we think about design in ways that can keep people in place, think about more off-grid ideas for people who live in neighborhoods like this?”

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