Memorandum of Understanding: IdeasCity Detroit

By Special Contributor posted 06-16-2016 13:39

  

By Cara Michell 

In 2011 New York City’s New Museum launched a biennial program called IdeasCity to promote the exchange of ideas about how art and culture can strengthen cities around the world. Recently, under the leadership of IdeasCity Director Joseph Grima and New Museum Deputy Director Karen Wong, the program has undergone a transformation to become a series of site-specific studio laboratories that invite local leaders and international fellows to gather for one week. The first such convening took place in Detroit this April.


IdeasCity public program | Credit: Cara Michell

I found out about IdeasCity Detroit through an email sent to the Black in Design Conference committee at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I was familiar with the original incarnation of IdeasCity, having taken trips as an undergraduate sculpture student to see the Bowery transformed by the showcase in New York City. Encouraged by the prospect of spending a week surrounded by more than 40 intelligent and innovative practitioners of art, design, technology, and activism—as well as by the opportunity to learn more about a city whose complexity I was sure my readings had never sufficiently captured—I decided to apply for a spot as one of the fellows.

Four months later I was on my way to Detroit for the first time. What followed was a week of intense learning that was at once humbling and uplifting. Part of what made this experience so enlightening was the understanding among the fellows and organizers that most of us are not Detroiters (only about one-third of the fellows were from the city) and therefore could not understand the full depth of the racial injustices that have plagued the city (and still do). Nor could we expect to offer up truly transformative solutions within a week’s time.


Evening conversation with Detroit food justice and sustainability activists, local residents, and IdeasCity fellows | Credit: Cara Michell

But what we did begin to understand is how those injustices and that racism are reflected in the city’s architecture. We were given a week to reflect on some of the most corrosive poison that has run through the veins of this country since its colonization, to see the resulting damage done to a monumental city’s built form, and to observe the full force of the resilience and love of Detroit’s residents. Witnessing all of this and benefiting from the local perspective is an incredible gift for anyone whose work is concerned with people and structures.

The IdeasCity program featured site visits led by longtime Detroit residents, as well as lectures by city planning officials, activists in the arts, and cultural historians. Every afternoon and evening, we discussed what we had seen and heard around a communal dining table. After the first two days, we were broken into teams and assigned sites to explore and discuss. My group, made up of architects, designers, artists, tech innovators, journalists, and DJs, was assigned historic Fort Wayne in Southwest Detroit.

Fort Wayne, as my team learned, has many identities and histories. A single, fenced-off mound is the last vestige of the First Nations burial ground previously on this site. It was repurposed as a military fort and today hosts battle reenactments, the occasional fair or festival, and a commemorative site for Tuskegee airmen.

The surrounding neighborhood of Delray has played host to heavy industry, which deposited pollutants into the air, water, and soil that sustain a predominantly black neighborhood. The industries responsible for the pollution have offered to buy out houses in the predominantly non-black neighborhood just over the Detroit border, but not in Delray.

After touring the area and talking to both Delray residents and representatives of the Fort Wayne historic site, we began to think about the site as a space that offers potential for building bridges to connect communities and geographies; encouraging local storytelling and performance that represents all Detroiters, not just privileged histories; preserving collective memory with material that might otherwise be considered rubble; and creating a process for equitable engagement. The stories and people connected to Delray and Fort Wayne are not as closely intertwined as their proximity might suggest—the Delray residents who we spoke to agreed that many young people in the area were not being engaged by the historic site’s programming, and photos of reenactments and events featuring almost no people of color suggested the same. But if Fort Wayne could offer a path to acknowledging the struggles and values of Delray—and all of Detroit—it could serve as a model of historic sites reconnecting communities and building equity and empowerment. And as we learned, there have already been steps in the right direction, powered by interest and investment from local artists.


A portion of the historic Fort Wayne site | Credit: Cara Michell

While I am just beginning my career, I have learned a lot from my studies—and particularly my time at IdeasCity Detroit. As planners, preservationists, and architects—all professionals who wield a considerable amount of power within the built environment—we must be cognizant of where our skills can help and where they may do harm. Key to that understanding is a respect for local wisdom, for what we can learn from people who know a site, neighborhood, or city better than we do—or from people who simply have a perspective different than ours. The lessons they can teach us about the memories, pride, and pain embedded in our built environment are essential to our work shaping, reshaping, and preserving the spaces around us, and it is our responsibility as designers and planners to integrate what we learn into our work.

One of the most important pieces generated by IdeasCity Detroit, a text that will influence my work from here on out, is the Memorandum of Understanding, written by Detroit artist and activist Halima Cassells and other local leaders. It reads, in part:

“It is the express objective of IdeasCity Detroit … to honor and value the people of Detroit by retaining and utilizing both human and material resources that reflect the demographics of the City of Detroit. ... IdeasCity Detroit is committed to inspiring community-created guidelines and projects for community benefit, and to creating a space to build respectful, meaningful, and lasting relationships that will foster creativity and connection among the Fellows, and in our respective cities worldwide.”

Cara Michell is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Masters in Urban Planning program, where she co-chaired the first Black in Design Conference. In her work she explores the impact of art and design interventions in disrupting racist and unjust systems of power.



#ReUrbanism #legacycities #design #Planning

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