City of Ideas

In Detroit, IdeasCity explores the role of culture in making cities more fair and successful

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Mountain House by IDEAS CITY Detroit Fellow Tommy Haddock
Mountain House by IDEAS CITY Detroit Fellow Tommy Haddock

“We are not here to fix Detroit’s problems. We are here to learn from Detroit. This is a learning platform,” said Joseph Grima. Grima, the director of IdeasCity, a symposium hosted by the New York–based New Museum, sat in a circle flanked by mostly-young artists, activists, and designers in a utility building on the grounds of a shuttered city-owned hospital. For over two hours, the group reacted to the first days of the laboratory, an exhaustive schedule of talks, debates, and tours, to discuss its role in Detroit. A postindustrial hipster summer camp this is not: Participants used the six-day event as a space to discuss the role of culture in making cities more vibrant, equitable spaces.

The latest iteration of IdeasCity included a five-day collaborative laboratory starting on April 25, and concluded with a daylong public conference on April 30. 41 fellows, culled from a global open call, were asked to work in small groups to explore and ruminate on the future of Detroit. Each group was assigned a site to anchor its thinking, although ideas could, and did, bleed beyond cartographic boundaries and into conceptual deliverables. Locals led tours of the sites to help fellows, especially the two-thirds majority not from Detroit, understand the depth of the history that contributes to the city’s present morphology. A stream of regional expert presenters, such as Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director of MOCAD and Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, placed visitors face-to-face with Detroiters to talk about what they love about their hometown and what needs to change.

(Matthew Messner)

(Matthew Messner)

The culmination of IdeasCity was the conference held at the Jam Handy, an event space in the New Center neighborhood. Opening keynote presentations were delivered by Detroit director of planning and development Maurice Cox, while Chicago-based artists Theaster Gates and Amanda Williams set the tone for the day.

Panel discussions focused on the power and importance of cultural production as a means of urban prosperity. Local experts such as filmmaker-writer dream hampton and community organizer Jenny Lee emphasized the need to change the narrative around what is, and what should be, happening in Detroit. This theme would permeate much of the day, as panelists, presenters, and fellows alike enlightened the crowd on topics often overlooked in the discussion of Detroit.

(Matthew Messner)

(Matthew Messner)

Fellows brought both knowledge from their home cities and newfound information to their presentations. Multiple groups advocated for the reexamination of current development plans. The first group situated the planned Gordie Howe Bridge to Canada, in terms of air, water, and soil, as it affected Fort Wayne, a Civil War–era site and recreation area in the Delray neighborhood. Fort Wayne is a First Nations burial site, heavily polluted by surrounding industry, but enjoyed for the water access it affords locals. “Having family in the area, I want to make sure that they are not forgotten,” noted fellow Stacy’e Jones, DJ and member of Liquid Flow Media Arts Center.


Another group took a look at the solar panel farm in O‘Shea, arguing that the recently constructed power station, built on former parkland, should have been envisioned as an integrated part of the neighborhood in a dense housing and agricultural mix. “We wanted to make sure we were reaching out to the community. There was a lot of tension in the room. The community was brought in at the very end of this process,” explained Taylor Renee Aldridge, Detroiter and co-editor of ARTS.BLACK.

(Courtesy Justin Milhouse)

(Courtesy Justin Milhouse)

One design-oriented proposal looked at memorializing the spaces of conflict on the site of what is now Mies van der Rohe’s cooperative community, Lafayette Park. Formerly known as Black Bottom, a neighborhood for newly arrived black residents, the area was bulldozed and reset, tabula rasa, for Mies’s modernist project in 1946. “We wanted to recognize Black Bottom, because at this time there is no physical form of memorialization there,” fellow and Detroit writer Marsha Music explained. Against a backdrop of historical images of a thriving, and then destroyed Black Bottom, the group proposed non-affirmative monuments that encourage dialogue around the themes of immaterial culture, the social culture of street life, and the city’s churches. Group member Tommy Haddock observed that housing is what ties people to place, and that themes of belonging and removal can be reflected through the motif of house and home. An architect, Haddock realized some of the group’s ideas in a series of renderings that reference the visual language of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

Black Bottom Not Forgotten by IDEAS CITY Detroit Fellow Tommy Haddock

Black Bottom Not Forgotten by IDEAS CITY Detroit Fellow Tommy Haddock

Other groups addressed less physical ideas. One simply, yet boldly, proclaimed that their project was to return to their respective homes around the world to act as Detroit ambassadors, spreading their newly enlightened views of the city. “Architecture,” explained Paris designer Pinar Demirdag, “isn’t about telling what to build, sometimes it’s about telling what not to build.”

Ryan Myers-Johnson, a dancer and founder of Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts, noted that “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission when working with the City of Detroit.” Her group addressed the interaction of the city government, law enforcement, and non-traditional community-led organizations to propose a special project permit which would streamline the bureaucratic red tape surrounding the approval process for public events.

But what does this all mean for Detroit? There was obvious mutual respect and appreciation between residents and visitors and an atmosphere of profound but critical optimism at the conference and in the days leading up to it. The ambassador group had the most actionable presentation, as they will take their new perspectives back home, hopefully working from within their positions of influence to broaden others’ perceptions of Detroit and similar post-industrial cities.

“Idea” has roots in Greek, idein, meaning “to see.” So perhaps, as Grima stressed, the true point of the event was to see more clearly into the patterns and processes
that shape the city. It’s worth noting that IdeasCity chooses “dysfunctional” cities for their forums. This would seem like a trap for offering prescriptive advice, yet  the organizers work diligently to make sure
that prescriptions are on the menu, but not the de facto option. Although some groups chose a “problem” and proposed a “solution,” They were presented with enough insider information to dispense careful, thoughtful advice.

September will find Ideas City exploring Athens, where the event’s ethos will once again be put to the test.




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