Detroit Agenda: Using Art To Combat Blight

April 21, 2014

By J. Carlisle Larsen

Photo Credit | J. Carlisle Larsen

WDET is examining the concerns of Detroiters over the next few months in a series we call the “Detroit Agenda”. City residents have told us one of their biggest concerns is blight. As WDET’s J. Carlisle Larsen reports one neighborhood is taking an unusual approach to tackling blight: community art:

Since the 1950s there has been a steady decline in Detroit’s population. The city is home to nearly two million at its peak and now is down to around 700,000 residents. The loss in population coupled with the housing crisis in 2008 has left Detroit with thousands of empty homes. Abandoned structures are frequently the target of vandals, scrappers and arsonists. Reverend Larry Simmons is pastor at Baber AME Church in Detroit. He says blight can have a negative long-term impact on city residents.

“It’s eye-pollution," he says. "And it affects your whole attitude. Creating beautiful space is essential to helping people have an attitude that their life can be different. Can you imagine having to overcome this every single day?”

While city officials have made combatting blight a priority, community organizations have stepped up to tackle the issue in any way they can. Among the groups working on the problem is the Brightmoor Alliance. The alliance is using public art to change the landscape of the neighborhood. Simmons, who is a member of the Brightmoor Alliance, says the group is looking to rehab a neighborhood block with the help of a Knight Foundation Art grant. And on this block there is only one home that is inhabited and the rest are burned down. The family that lives there has four children, ranging in age from 3 to 15.

The interim executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance is Riet Schumack. She’s leading the block project. Schumack says the children who live in that home frequently come to community meetings. She says choosing the site for the project was easy.

“When they look out their front door they literally see three burned out wrecks of houses," she says. "There are probably 200 cubic-yards of garbage in their direct environment and these children have to walk two miles to school.”

Schumack says the cleanup efforts on the block are underway and a local artist has already contributed a piece of art to the project. The group plans to create a public park which is safe for area children.

“When you cross over," Simmons says, "you’re going to begin to get an experience in part but see this debris right here? Imagine the entire street filled up with that. That’s what Westbrook was."

Driving through the neighborhood you can see a stark difference between the blocks where the group is working and where it hasn’t. The houses that the Brightmoor Alliance has focused on are boarded up and covered with vibrant and colorful murals. Reverend Larry Simmons says the art is a clear way of showing would-be vandals or scrappers that these houses are being watched.

“If we just left these buildings with these naked boards in no time those boards would be gone, building’s would be back open again. So we paint them,” Simmons says.

Simmons says he believes the artwork serves as a deterrent. But some Brightmoor residents are less enthusiastic. Robert Tippins is a construction worker who lives in the neighborhood. He says the art looks nice and hopes that it’s keeping scrappers at bay.

Tippins says while he’s happy to see some positive changes coming to the community, the neighborhood is still in bad shape.

“Just recently I started seeing them change the way it looks by tearing the structures down," he says. "But it just feels like a ghetto. A hell hole, if you want to be real with it.”

Many groups have worked with the Brightmoor Alliance to demolish houses that are beyond repair. But Reverend Larry Simmons says the work to rehabilitate a blighted neighborhood goes beyond demolition.

“It’s not enough to tear down a building or even board it up. You have to create beauty where there was ugly, you have to create positive where there was something negative," he says. "And so our approach in every instance, if it’s a vacant field, Riet’s approach is to make a vegetable garden, our approach was to make a flower garden, somebody else’s approach may be to make a sitting park. But to take the negative and make it positive, and that’s our approach all across the community in everything."

Both Reverend Simmons and Riet Schumack say they prefer to use the term “beautification” to “blight removal”. They believe that by beautifying blighted buildings, the community is protecting the buildings from people who view the abandoned homes as easy targets for scrapping and vandalism. They say by incorporating art and including neighborhood children in the process the Brightmoor community will get stronger.

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.