Demonstration block initial project!
This is a post that is overdue. This is a post that is timely because of its relevance to my architectural thesis work which is beginning now.
All of the research, meetings, talking, etc. that I did in Detroit this summer will surely continue now that I am gone. It will continue with others in Detroit furthering their projects and a lot of the work started. I’ve also carried the work and thoughts back to Rhode Island with me. Throughout the end of the summer I focused a lot of energy into developing some ideas, schematics, and images for initial projects on the demonstration block site. Now, I am immersed in the Fall semester of my final year in the M. Architecture program at RISD. My work on Mack Avenue in Detroit is not over. It will continue to inform my work throughout this final year at RISD where I will propose and execute an architectural thesis project.I fully intend for the work that I am doing throughout this year to be directly relevant to the work that was done this past summer with LEAP and the Mack Avenue Green T project. It may not be specific to the same site, but I am focusing on similar issues with vacant land in Detroit. This type of research is then applicable to other areas within the city as well as other post-industrial urban landscapes with similar conditions throughout the American Rust Belt and beyond.
Backtracking a little…
The Mack Avenue Green T project fits within the framework of the Detroit Future City plan. It fits within the neighborhood development plan for the entire LEAP district. One thing it lacked for quite a while this summer was a comprehensive conceptual approach for itself. Alongside my manager, Jackie, I helped develop that plan toward the end of the summer. I’ve mentioned the Detroit Future City Plan previously, but I may not have mentioned that the grassroots organization that put the plan together published a graphically beautiful book that outlines the entire thing. They are promoting free access to the information for anyone who is interested in working within Detroit and the framework of the Future City. To me, the book has become a religious document that outlines the framework in which my creativity can roam wild. I was able to pick up two copies of the book over the summer. One I intend to keep and cherish, the other I’m donating to the RISD Fleet library. The RISD community deserves to have a copy of this book to keep in their archive that is accessible to everyone.
The concept plan for the Green T is very simple. Blocks will be planted with pennycress plants for biodiesel harvest. The strips between the road and sidewalks will be converted into bioswales that will help capture water runoff from the road as well as the crop. This in turn, alleviates water treatment pressure in the treatment facilities across Detroit. Several locations throughout the Mack Avenue strip were selected to develop as sites for public art installations. They will be attractive locations that allow people to experience the new agricultural intervention along Mack Ave. Each location has a concept material for the public art specific to that site. Creating a plan that allows for each site to have a separate visual identity, not only provides diversity to the project, but it allows the nearby residents to help identify with the location. Having the ability to identify your home alongside landmarks within a neighborhood, begins to develop a place as an identifiable neighborhood. It can provide residents with a sense of place and sometimes a sense of pride for where they live. The following images outline a basic plan for the Green T public art projects as well as two prominent landmarks that have been identified by community members and LEAP as worth preserving.
I was fortunate enough to have the time to implement a small installation on the Green T strip. It is the first intervention within the entire project and is located on the demonstration block site. Drawing from the idea of material themed public art, I chose to use tires. We chose the location adjacent to the telephone pole at the center of the site. The installation serves two major purposes. It acts as a relocated bus stop and a location for informational signage related to the Green T project. The bus stop is being relocated from the adjacent block to the East where there is no longer bus stop signage. Therefore, we proposed to relocate the stop to the demonstration block where a new sign could be mounted on the telephone pole and draw more eyes to what is happening on the site.
Bus stops on Mack Avenue and throughout most of the city lack any type of shelter or even a bench. It gets worse. The buses are so incredibly inefficient and inconsistent that it could take nearly an hour past the scheduled time for a bus to arrive. There are also stories of individuals waiting for the last bus home at night only to realize that it is never going to come. Why? Sometimes the reason is just because the driver didn’t feel like making the last run. One day when I was out documenting the area with my camera, I watched a woman and her son walking to a bus stop, carrying a milk crate to sit on. I approached them and we had a friendly conversation about the bus system and the lack of benches throughout the city. After that conversation, advocating for the installation of benches throughout the Green T project, became a personal priority for me.
Throughout the summer I’d been taking notes about where there were piles of dumped tires throughout the neighborhood. Even before solidifying a plan for implementation, one day was spent returning to those locations and collecting tires. This was a learning experience all on its own. Initially I thought I’d just stop, pick up the tires, and then leave. However, when I stopped and began collecting them, neighbors took notice. Over a dozen people stopped to ask what I was doing. They all thanked me for helping to clean up some of the garbage. Several offered to help, including a young boy on rollerblades with a broken arm. I politely declined his help because that just seemed like a recipe for disaster. A few people asked if I was collecting or dumping for fear that I was adding to the piles of trash. Although most people were a bit confused as to why I wanted so many tires, most just shook my hand and thanked me for helping out. These simple actions can go a long way in neighborhoods which are mostly ignored by outsiders.
Upon returning to the demonstration block site, I neatly stacked the tires in the middle of the block. Overnight, a few of the stacks tipped over. Only a few days later I returned to see all of the stacks upright with some graffiti on them. We were actually hoping that the tires would serve as a blank canvas for graffiti artists, but we didn’t expect it would begin so soon!
These two concept collages depict the intention of the tire intervention. Low tires, rising out of the ground, serve as seating for people waiting for buses. Stacks serve as an infrastructure for vegetation to climb on. Signage is arranged within the space to allow for historical references, information about green infrastructure, and to explain the process of converting pennycress into biodiesel. Creating an arch that signifies a gateway to the project was the preferred direction. However, it was decided against because there could be liability issues if someone were to climb on it and fall.
When the came time to start working on the tire installation, it proved incredible difficult to dig into the site and sink the tires as much as I wanted to. It was not because of the hard nutrient deficient soil or the high levels of clay. Many of these empty sites across Detroit are deceivingly empty. It’s not uncommon to dig and find piles of trash and remnants of the buildings that once stood on a particular site. Digging at this site, was like digging into a stack of bricks. Given the amount of time available to complete an installation, I had to modify the approach tread lightly on the site. Here is the result.
It’s not yet clear exactly what the neighborhood reaction is to the initial phase of the Green T project. I do know that it is generally positive. Once the rest of the project is underway and all of the pieces become tied together, I know that people will be very excited about the Green T. The once vibrant urban corridor that once existed along Mack Avenue is likely to never return. As designers and artists, we must consider and test new approaches to utilizing these vacant and unproductive spaces.
My manager, who I worked with throughout the summer, recently told me that people have begun dumping their unwanted tires on the demonstration block. It is as if they are hoping to see more tire installations happen. Incredible! And they’re in luck, because we are hoping to find a few people to do more tire installations on the site. This way, we won’t even need to haul used tires to the site. This process shows one way in which communities in Detroit operate. When something positive, out of the ordinary, and potentially beneficial to the neighborhood happens, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Nearby residents begin to mimic what has been done and hope that it will work to their benefit. That is what happened with the Heidelberg Project. It is a neighborhood art piece started by Tyree Guyton that attempted to draw attention to and change the face of blight. I remember visiting Heidelberg for a field trip during my 8th grad accelerated art class. The project was not only noticed, but it drew enough attention that crime in the area went down. Others began adding their own pieces to the area. Now the project is a full blown non-profit organization that, among other things, advocates the arts in Detroit. Yes! Similar things happen with vegetable gardens and blotting projects throughout the city. When someone plants tomatoes on a vacant lot next door, it often inspires others to do the same. We hope that the projects LEAP is working on will have similar catalytic effects across the neighborhood and citywide.
The summer work I did with LEAP and the Eastside community went far beyond my expectations. I was able to further some of the work that LEAP is already doing and implement a small, self-directed, public art installation. My intention to use the experience as the beginning of my thesis research has been fully realized. Therefore, my work on the Eastside will continue. I am not working directly alongside LEAP or producing work for one of their projects this school year. However, I still intend to produce work that can be integrated and informative for anyone involved with community urban design on Detroit’s Eastside. Throughout the future, I fully intend to stay in touch with LEAP and becoming involved where I can and when it might make sense.
Work on the demonstration block continues [Model D article about the Green T]. From the most recent update, I learned that they are going to develop the bioswale at the edge of the site this fall. There is also still hope they will be planting pennycress this fall. The graphic design for informational signage is not yet complete. However, I was able to help enlist one of my former classmates from Lawrence Tech University to complete the signage design. Installation of the signage is planned for the spring. Over the winter, a flowering vine will be selected for the tire planters as well. It didn’t make sense to plant that vegetation this fall because we were advised the plants might not survive their first winter at this point. The next step is to enlist someone to begin painting murals on the cow building and others to begin designing more public art installations. Anyone else from RISD interested in taking a trip to Detroit?