“A big thing in Detroit,” says Mitch Cope, “is taking ownership of your neighborhood. Because the city has neglected the neighborhoods for so long, in order for a neighborhood to survive, you have to take it into your own hands.”

The artist is talking about a lot of enterprising Detroiters, including his neighbors in the Banglatown district straddling the border between Detroit and Hamtramck: Bangladeshi immigrants, older people of Eastern European heritage, African Americans, and younger whites. They beautify their homes with the vibrant colors of South Asia, create sculptural garden trellises, carve out recreational spaces for kids, and a lot more.

He’s also talking about himself and his wife, artist-architect Gina Reichert. Since 2008, they’ve been doing their own brand of artist-led community development in Banglatown: buying abandoned houses at auction and in other ways, collaborating with artists to rehab them and turn them into centers of neighborhood creativity, and developing a skate park/sculpture park. Their goal: to help stabilize and celebrate an immigrant neighborhood, one formerly derelict house at a time.

FROM VACANCY TO VIBRANCY

“We’d lived in the neighborhood since 2005,” says Cope, “with no inclination to do anything like Power House. But then came the financial crisis in 2008. Seeing houses go vacant, people being evicted—seeing what happened to the houses after that, including vandalism and drugs—was very problematic.”

They bought a derelict drug house in that year and dubbed it the Power House. It gave its name to their nonprofit, Power House Productions, which launched in 2009. They’ve bought and sold more than 40 properties. “We’ve acted as a kind of land bank,” says Reichert. But some of the houses were transformed by artists and other collaborators into installations/environments that also serve the neighborhood.

It wasn’t Reichert’s and Cope’s goal to create an “arts district.” Instead, they aimed to focus attention on the continuing value of houses that the city views as valueless eyesores, bring artists into dialogue with community members, and most importantly, stabilize the neighborhood. One way they did that was by buying properties that were, as Reichert told a placemaking forum in 2014, “close enough to each other to have a relationship to one another, but far enough [apart] so that the impact covers more geography.”

“HOW HAS THE NEIGHBORHOOD RESPONDED TO YOUR WORK?”

Reflections from Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert:

Cope: “At the beginning, neighbors were just excited that there was something happening, they liked the energy. But then with the beginning of programming, especially in the Play House, we saw more interaction.”

Reichert: “We had a block party with an MC-hosted talent show. And with the crossover between Hinterlands and the Bangla School of Music in the Play House, we’ve noticed that there’s been audience-building between the two. That’s a model for how we want to move forward in the neighborhood.”

Cope: “There’s been some animosity between groups, particularly between newer immigrants and the older residents, but we’ve noticed that at our events and sites the different groups have begun to talk to each other. We feel that we’ve helped break down barriers by providing space for people to express themselves and have shared cultural experiences together. We’ve provided space for cross-cultural exchanges, sharing time and talent and experiences that allow people to move forward as a community.”

Reichert: “That’s especially been the case at the Ride It Sculpture Park. Interactions happen informally all the time there. They don’t have to be programmed.”

COMMUNITY HOUSES

Today, Power House Productions is housed in the Jar House. It’s a resource, complete with a project library, for anyone in the community who wants to read and learn about the neighborhood, and about socially engaged art practice.

Power House Productions has bought and sold more than 40 properties in Detroit’s Banglatown. They’ve rehabbed five collaborating with artists. The artist-altered houses provide space for art and cultural activities in the neighborhood.

Power House: The first house Cope and Reichert bought had been so vandalized that it was off the power grid. They decided to make the most of that by powering it entirely by wind and solar. With a colorful striped exterior, the house became a focal point in the neighborhood for discussions about renewable energy and the repurposing of the area’s derelict houses—and a model for future projects.

Sound House: After buying it in 2010, Reichert and Cope invited L.A. artist RETNA to transform the interior. Jon Brumit, a sound artist who had relocated to the neighborhood from Chicago, “interpreted the painting in sound terms,” according to Reichert. He installed sound artworks and established an archive of sound art and a musical instrument library. Artists-in-residence work in the house by invitation, offering in exchange public presentations or additions to the archive or instrument library. The current artist-in-residence is Detroit native Sterling Toles, a sound artist and music producer.

Squash House: Detroit artist Graem Whyte developed a vision that revolved around squash as both a sport and a vegetable. The front part of the house has been transformed into a squash court where local kids play. A back portion is a greenhouse devoted to the plant; by the luck of wordplay, squash is also a staple of Bangladeshi cuisine. Neighbors are invited to take part in a seed exchange and plant squash and other vegetables in the space. Neighborhood residents and artists Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Mendes added “Our Big Drawing” to the front of the house.

Play House: A two-unit apartment house was gutted to create a space for the Hinterlands ensemble, a performance troupe that emphasizes physical theater. The ensemble performs there regularly, and the space also hosts dance, puppet productions, experimental film, folk music, and other events. The Hinterlands have forged an alliance with the Bangla School of Music, a local cultural organization that holds classes and practice sessions in South Asian music every weekend, along with seasonal concerts.

Ride It Sculpture Park: A skate park that’s also a sculpture park, initiated in 2012, Ride It has just seen the completion of the third phase of its construction process. “Most of the concrete is poured,” says Reichert, “and we’ve been installing work by New York artist Nari Ward, who’s been involved with the project for about three years.” Cope adds that the shape of the park itself is “unusual for a skate park—more sculptural than most.”

Written by staff of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “Taking Ownership.”
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