A few months back I attended a panel discussion at the N’namdi Gallery entitled “Psychological Gentrification and the Arts”. As George N’namdi, who coined the term “psychological gentrification” explained, gentrification in Detroit operates differently than in many other cities because it’s not as if long time residents are being pushed out in droves by rent prices across the city (although in the case of Midtown, this might be a fair assessment). If you’d like to probe the concept further, it’s worth reading the Metro Times’ interview with N’namdi. The panel was moderated by Stephen Henderson and included George N’namdi, Piper Carter, Marsha Music, my neighbor Kate Daughdrill. While the conversation traversed a great deal of ground, I walked away wishing it had gone a bit deeper. Overall, the consensus seemed to be that Detroit was a place where anyone was welcome, but that newcomers should be cognizant of the spaces they inhabited regardless of their racial or economic backgrounds. I can’t say that I don’t have a dog in the fight. As a Detroit rookie, I tend to shut up and listen when it comes to conversations around gentrification in the city in ways that I might not when it comes to similar conversations around Roxbury, MA where much of my family grew up. I suppose what I wanted was a clearer sense of what any concept of gentrification means for a city where so much has been made of its dwindled population and economic hardship.
Much of the panel discussion touched upon the money from arts foundations being granted to Detroit’s artists, and who had access to such institutions by way of understanding the application process. The one thing that has lingered with me is N’namdi’s claim that, despite the fact that he liked Guyton’s work, the Heidelberg Project contributed to the narrative of blight surrounding Detroit. I’ve written about Heidelberg for the blog previously, and I won’t talk about it in great detail here. It was evident from N’namdi’s statement that he did not mean the arsons at Heidelberg, but the artwork itself—compiled of all kinds of materials that might otherwise have ended up in a scrap heap. It set my gears turning, thinking about the numerous ways visual art is in many ways the premier cultural battleground in Detroit. From the Grand River Creative Corridor to the recent, highly contentious article in Vulture magazine, I find myself talking about and mulling over the state of visual art in Detroit almost as much as I do the literary arts.
Since moving into the Brave New Home, a funny thing has happened. I submitted some mixed media tarot cards for an exhibit entitled “Detroit is Afrotopia” and had them accepted, and will also be taking part in the Hinterlands’ Porous Borders festival in May, although that work will be collaborative and performance-based. I have never considered myself much of a visual artist, although I do sketch, occasionally paint and make collages and yet I find myself engaging with the visual arts community in a more hands-on way than I have in any other city I’ve lived in.
One of the things that troubled me about N’namdi’s view of Heidelberg was precisely the way it could be misconstrued in light of the idea of psychological gentrification. When I think about my neighborhood just north of Hamtramck, one of the things that I love the most is the way in which structures are used to create art. Powerhouse Productions owns several homes within walking distance of mine, and also put together a functional skate park off of E. Davision which is almost completely covered with graffiti writing. Maybe unsurprisingly, I find this comforting. Not only are these spaces being given funding by foundations, they also belongto the community in some sense. There are also houses nearby with the familiar wheat-pasted portraits created by the artist Swoon adorning them. Shortly before I left New York, the Brooklyn Museum had featured a stellar exhibit of her work. In some sense, my particular neighborhood is a hotbed of creative activity which overall values art as much as any museum. However, there is a strange balance to be struck between a world renowned street artist and, as N’namdi put it “the narrative of blight”.
Also within walking distance from me is one of the most whimsical and strange pieces of “outsider art” I’ve seen (outside of Henry Darger’s drawings)—Hamtramck Disneyland. I recently took Write A House’s intern Joel for a brief tour of the neighborhood and insisted that before we dine at Aladdin Sweets and Cafe, that we visit. Before I moved, my mother had suggested that I investigate Hamtramck Disneyland although she has never been herself. As you can see from the photos, there is a lot to see in a small amount of space. While I have yet to meet the artist, Dmytro Szylak, what I’ve read has explained that the project began in 1992 and was initially met with concerns over the structure being built between two garages. As Joel and I marveled at the brightly colored work, he asked what would become of it should the structures fall into disarray. This wasn’t something I had considered previously. I almost took it for granted—that it had been there for so long that it would always remain where it is, as it is. For me, the question isn’t about collapse but of longevity.
The seemingly constant conversations about New vs. Old Detroit were almost inherently embedded in the panel discussion at the N’namdi Gallery. Of course, Hamtramck Disneyland is in Hamtramck, but the question remains relevant—are outdoor large-scale displays of artwork contributing to a narrative of blight? I disagree with N’namdi’s sentiment that Heidelberg is adding to such views. Those narratives exist regardless, and I think anyone who attempts to contextualize Guyton’s (or Szylak’s) art in such a way is probably already inclined to view the entire city in such a light. I connect it to the idea of New v. Old Detroit, because both Heidelberg and Hamtramck Disneyland have been a part of the landscape for decades, and losing either means losing something valuable within the culture here. This is not to say that I think N’namdi was suggesting Heidelberg be eradicated. Instead, he championed having an arts district in Detroit, a place where artists could place their work and sell it. To me, it stood out as part of a much broader conversation in the arts about established routes and forms and new or “untrained” ones. There is a kind of analogue I can draw from my own life between written poetry and spoken word, or “page vs. stage” as it’s often put. For quite some time, poets who have come up writing slam poetry or spoken word have to fight for legitimacy in the world of publishing, although as of late there has been much more crossover between those realms. Literary critic Harold Bloom once famously derided slam poetry as “the death of art”. It was a transparent, reactionary stance girding an established elitist view of art against art with a populist appeal, art which seems to say to the reader or viewer “anyone can do this”.
I’ve always been of the mindset that everyone should have some sort of creative outlet, regardless of their level of talent, because creating can be a healing and transformational act. It’s why we sing in the shower, or dance alone in our kitchens. Audience is often what creates anxiety when it comes to art, and in the West a class of people with the leisure to create, appreciate and purchase it has historically maintained an exclusive concept of art as part of various elite institutions. When art is free to view, unprotected by docents and out in the open, it rattles these historical institutions. To me, the conversation shouldn’t be framed as to whether or not Heidelberg contributes to narratives of blight, but how such views of Detroit impact the ability of homegrown artists to succeed here or on a global art market. What I find most valuable and even magical about Detroit is that there is room for both—outsider and established, Hamtramck Disneyland and an arts district, and maybe even a balance between Old and New.