Portraits of Detroit – An artist in the Motor City

After the fallout of the auto industry and the riots of 1967, Detroit, once one of America’s most successful cities, was left to ruin. With a reputation of deadly crime and decay that greatly precedes it, the city has not drawn much positive attention in recent years. However, amidst its hulled out exterior, the Motor City seems to be reinventing itself through a burgeoning art scene. Sensa Nostra talks with one local artist about life in Detroit, struggles the city faces, and how it affects her work.

I am from southeastern Michigan/northwestern Ohio, which is about an hour away from Detroit. I always grew up in mostly rural environs and never once anticipated living in Detroit. I have now lived here for almost three years and I can’t imagine leaving.

I moved to Detroit after a hard break-up. The city helped me see who I really was. I was alone so I had to start fresh and really rely on my own company. I was lucky to have been a student and to have friends who could show me the ropes of being a Detroiter. I was discovering galleries, jazz bars, speakeasy bars, new friends, sports teams and so much more.

I will admit that the stigma surrounding Detroit worried me a bit before I moved here, but I am a pretty independent person and knew I could figure things out, despite what the media had to say. I notice this stigma more so when I am away from Detroit. People—family, friends, strangers etc—always have some ‘insightful’ something to say. It can be disheartening because it is my home and has been for a while now.

Detroit can be a complicated matter to talk about. There has been a lot of corruption and crime in the city over the years, and I think we are in the top three for the most dangerous cities in the United States (go figure!), so statistics like that don’t exactly contribute to any positive outlooks on the city. I feel that when a city such as this is facing so much pain people resort to violence. Maybe they are lost or stuck in their lives and don’t know how to get out. I don’t know. I don’t want to stick up for them, but our lives can be the consequences of those before us and I think that is true in regards to The D.

Living in Detroit definitely has its advantages and challenges, both economically and socially. The city has a large population of African Americans and there are a lot of racial tensions that still exist. I see it and feel it every day that I am here. There is a struggle. Our city has suffered a lot over the years, and mostly before I was born or even thought of.

I think being aware of these tensions is definitely helpful. Just like anywhere you go, you should have some idea of what the culture is like and be respectful of it. For an outsider it is challenging because sometimes you just don’t know the history. Detroit can be especially difficult because, just like any big city, there are some bad areas. There is crime, the news will tell you that, but things like that happen in big cities—especially where there is struggle.

I am also speaking as an outsider. The city has a dominant population of African Americans and I am a white female, so from a social standpoint I would appear to be more privileged. I think I was keener on how I was treated differently when I first moved to the area and I guess I have grown a bit calloused. Everyone is just trying to get by here. I don’t know anyone else’s background and struggles and they don’t know mine. Since we do have a very rich black culture, I have a lot to learn and so do many others. There are areas of Detroit where there aren’t really any white people at all, and that can really make you feel like an outsider. It’s just different—the demographics are just different here.

If you stick to the developing areas, I think you are golden. Even though I live here I don’t go wandering in areas where I don’t belong. There are difficult stretches of land with abandonment, poverty, etc, and sometimes these areas don’t want to be exploited. They are places that were once rich, where people had homes and lives, and now there isn’t much of anything. It’s hard for them, and it’s sad.

Though the tensions that exist here are relevant, the ignorance new people have when coming into the city can help it strive. We can help the city start fresh, and I really think that is what is happening. As younger generations infiltrate the city we don’t have the same baggage and weight that older generations carry. I think we are a lot more tolerant of diversity than our parents and our parents’ parents. We can start fresh—we have the mentality to do so.

The beautiful thing about Detroit is that it is becoming a ‘makers-mecca’. As an artist, I see a city that has a lot of potential. There is something about a creative mind that can really see the beauty in the breakdown. We can reimagine things a little easier and make use out of things or places that others feel weary about. Many of our greatest venues are repurposed factories: The Red Bull House of Art and POW Detroit, to name a few. We also have the MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) that is constantly hosting fun and engaging gatherings.

I live in Midtown, which is a wonderful area. It seems that here, and in other pockets of the city, new galleries and eateries are making an appearance regularly. Neighborhoods are quickly becoming richer. There have been so many great shows here in Detroit and exposing myself to them has shown me what art truly is and can be. Gallery openings are accompanied by musical performances—sometimes jazz and blues, other times weird experimental shit. You can walk into a gallery and realize you’ve actually walked into a performance where the performer grabs your hand in some tender way.

A lot of my work as an artist focuses on understanding the self and relationships with others. I think the city has helped me learn to understand myself in some ways and to become less of an introvert. I have grown along with the expansion of the city and it has been so exciting get others turned onto Detroit. I am still discovering new people and places. It seems like every time I think I know all there is to know, the city keeps surprising me.

Once I realized how big the city was, outside of my comfortable cocoon of Midtown, I was sort of shocked. I made a wrong turn one day and I was in awe looking out my window. The struggles of the city are reinforced by the blight—the abandonment, the burnt-down houses, the blocks of vacancy. It really was a sad thing, and for me, I looked inward. I wanted to understand something that I may never have been able to. That statement is the kernel for what I try to talk about in my work.

It is a parallel in some ways to being in large natural environments. It makes me feel small and kind of uncomfortable. When you’re in Detroit on Michigan Avenue and you see Michigan Central Station—MY GOD, that thing is huge and vacant— it fills you with some sort of wonder.

Because we are becoming this cultural mecca, we are bringing a lot of outstanding artists here. There is art all around us here, and not just in Detroit, but also in the Greater Detroit area. Everyone is trying to help each other and keep one another informed. All of the diverse connections that are taking place are bringing more and more people into the city, which in turn makes it so much richer.

We have our old staples of course—old bars, restaurants, cafes, etc—but there is still so much room for new ideas. We are all remaking the Motor City, embracing the old but also evolving. It would be hard for one with a limited income to open an ‘up and coming’ crepe eatery in Chicago or New York, but Detroit opens up that possibility. Storefronts are inexpensive and everyone is really open to new things around here. The city is appealing to different types of audiences.

I don’t know that the tensions that exist will ever completely disappear. There are a lot of hurt feelings and mixed opinions, I think. We just have to keep progressing and working together to bring the city back. Although Detroit faces struggles, I believe that big changes are going to continue to happen. There is so much pride here, both internally and externally. There is a chance for everyone here, and the more we can adopt and spread a positive message, the better.

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