May 30, 2011

The New Midwest: A Day on a Bike in Flint

In New York, around 600 people are murdered every year. Flint is statistically more dangerous because there were 20 killings in the first four months of this year. The news of its danger dominates outside perception of the place, rather than the everyday normalcy of the way that people live in the city.

On a recent bike ride through this most-dangerous-city in the country, the air was filled with the smell of a landscape that was alive; lawns were being mowed, a man was painting the awning of the Vegan Soul Hut, a health food restaurant he had just opened on Flint Park Boulevard and MLK Avenue. His wife Regina was promoting the Esau Lentil Burgers as "so good it will make you sell your birthright." She said they were bringing an awareness of good food back to Flint. "It's vegetarian food for meat lovers. Because of the look, the texture, the taste, people think they're eating meat. Now I don't have to eat meat," she said, "Let the little chickens live!"

A group of young men were chatting around a gold-painted Buick Regal that had been installed with a lifted suspension, men and women waved as they sat on their steps or tended their gardens, children laughed as a reporter rode past on a bike with tall handlebars dressed in skinny black jeans and ankle boots.

Well-cared-for churches abounded, closed-down school buildings were outnumbered by working community schools, countless blocks were immaculately cared for, there were signs for block associations on corners. The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association had put up signs throughout the area northwest of downtown recognizing the value of the place's Victorian homes. You could find abandonment and neglect, stretches of homes that were rotting, evidence of arson; you could also, if you were looking for it, see a living city.

At night the downtown strip was buzzing with bars and clubs: it was the last night of the Flint City Theatre's production of Macbeth at the Buckham Gallery; Rasberries was charging a ten dollar admission to the African American kids driving in from the suburbs to dance and socialize in an upscale discotheque; the Torch was filled with burger-eating beer-drinking intellectuals; another crowd of younger people were hanging out at the bar in Churchill's.

It was someone's birthday party; rows of cupcakes were lined up on the table, and a few heavyset men and women were twirling to a 90s techno hit. It was no exclusive bar being promoted by celebrity publicists; it's also not a dangerous hell on earth.

In Flint and other areas of the Midwest, job losses and reports of decline predominate the image conveyed to the outside, rather than parallel processes of restructuring and rebuilding that are adapting the cities for new uses. Instead of looking at the past, the Public Art Project tries to look at Flint and other cities in the region as they are today, and how they're actively producing a new city.

May 17, 2011

Flint Public Art Project: Flint Meetings

This March, during a week-long visit to Flint, Michigan, the idea of a wide-ranging experimental public art and urbanism project that had been circulating privately during the previous year, posted publicly in January on this site, started to take on a more tangible form. In a series of conversations and meetings with residents, and business, institutional and political leaders, it became clear that there was a broad receptivity to the idea of a collaborative public art project with a group of invited artists from New York and around the country. They were excited about the idea of visiting artists and urbanists arriving this summer to team up on community-based public projects in Flint's amazing industrial ruins, renovated downtown, and historic landmarks. The main doubt seemed to be whether prominent artists would really want to come there.
Tim Herman, CEO of the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce, said "What can I do to help? If you want to use storefronts on Saginaw Street or lofts upstairs, just let me know." Doug Weiland, director of the Genesee County Land Bank, said there was all kinds of property all over the city we could have access to. The former McDonald Diary, in particular, had been recently closed down and was completely unprogrammed; it would be a good site to explore. 

View Larger Map

Gary Hartley, a retired police officer who owns two historic fire stations in the Grand Traverse neighborhood--one right on the Flint River--told me about his dream of an ice cream parlor where kids would dock their canoes and come up for ice cream and sit on benches by the restored waterfront.

View Larger Map

Nearby, he showed me the Indian burial ground discovered when the Genesee County Land Bank started digging foundations for infill housing. It was claimed by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and is surrounded by a fence for a future memorial.

View Larger Map

The other fire station has massive open spaces on the second floor with wooden floors and views of downtown Flint that would be perfect for experimental dance and theatrical performances.

The outreach office at the University of Michigan-Flint was willing to enlist its student body in the project. Cade Surface, an interdisciplinary urban design student at U of M-Flint saw the blog post and sent a note offering to help. I met him in the Good Beans Cafe near the Grand Traverse fire station. Andrew Morton, a British U of M-Flint theater professor, was producing a site-specific production about arson based on interviews with people affected, and offered many helpful suggestions and references. 
Artistic director designate of the Flint Youth Theatre Jeremy Winchester was enthusiastic about contributing to the project and supporting in whatever way possible, including as a fiscal sponsor. John Henry, director of the Flint Institute of Arts, loved the idea immediately and wanted to be a part of it. The Flint Institute of Arts had finished a $20 million renovation by Frederick Fisher and Partners in 2006, was aggressively adding to the collection, and his son is a young sculptor based in Bushwick.
John Gazall, of Gazall Lewis Architects, director of the American Institute of Architects-Flint, and George Ananich of THA Architects showed me the boards of an architecture competition they had launched for the Genesee Towers building, a disused 19-story building that the city had been trying to demolish since 2004, at enormous expense to taxpayers. They wanted to show that the building--the tallest in Flint--could be saved and made into a great asset for the city. They had managed to draw imaginative and practical submissions from around the country to prove it.
View Larger Map

Gordon Young, a Flint native reporter for national magazines based in San Francisco with a blog called Flint Expats, was working on a book about the city and met with me at the Brown Sugar Cafe on his way to a meeting with the 37-year-old mayor, Dayne Walling. Young was interested in reporting on the project. Mayor Walling had already offered extremely insightful suggestions and put me in touch with a program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, who was enthusiastic about the idea.

View Larger Map

Finally, a group of around a dozen residents, including community advocates, college professors, artists, Tim Monahan, head of the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, and Catie Newell, an architect teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, came to a meeting in an unfinished second-floor space on Saginaw Street owned by Joel Rash, a former hardcore punk show organizer who led the facade improvement program in downtown Flint. I got to meet Nayyirah Shariff, who had grown up in the suburbs, worked as a community activist, and started a baking company called Revolutionary Bread, and had been recommended as a possible local program manager. Tim Monahan wanted to bring our attention to Spencer's Funeral Home, a historic building that the city was planning on demolishing and he wanted to turn into a collective art space.

Guy Adamec, a ceramics instructor at Flint Institute of Arts, came with a group from the Buckham Gallery's board meeting, along with Margo Lakin and John Dempsey, an artist and teacher and Mott Community College. Alan Harris came on behalf of the Creative Alliance, a large group of young artists in Flint that collaborates on initiatives and productions. They spoke about their interests and concerns, how the project could potentially be of use, and what the dangers might be if it weren't done in an inclusive way.

View Larger Map

Not only was it clear there was a large receptive group of collaborators, there was an enormous amount already happening: studies of former factory sites commissioned, redevelopment plans for the Flint River investigated, federal funding for dam reconstruction and riverfront restoration allocated, a landmark hotel successfully converted into condos, highway overpasses remediated with streetscape improvements, a master plan for the University of Michigan-Flint's connection to the downtown area starting to be implemented, construction underway on a new all-ages show space downtown, and countless other projects initiated. Flint was not a blank slate but an immensely engaging partner that could be a great host and collaborator to visiting artists. I returned to New York to share the information with invited participants.

May 16, 2011

A Beautiful Ruin: Producing the New City

Sail, 1974, by Anne Healy. Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen, courtesy Creative Time.
In New York, we have an overabundance of artists, architects, designers, and urbanists drawn from all over the world by its cosmopolitan culture, creative freedom, money, dense history, universities, underground and pop cultural heroes. It starts to seem like we're all patting each other on our backs, talking to each other about the great city we've created.

Outside the New York bubble, outside the art bubble, outside the architecture bubble, few people know or care very much about all of that.

New York is a tourist destination. Times Square, with its bright lights, advertisements, skyscrapers, chain stores, live television studios, and over-the-top musical theater productions, is a great attraction, recovered from a half-century of neglect and underinvestment. Tens of thousands pay to take an elevator and gawk at the city from the top of the Empire State Building. The Statue of Liberty is the great symbol of America, embodying the spirit of a Nation of Immigrants. Does it matter if the rest of the country wants to close the border to Mexican migration? Give us more of them. They have enlarged the soul of the city and the country.

New York is thought to be an exception. City planners call it a "superstar" city, like London or Tokyo. The scale of its buildings cannot, mostly, be attempted in other places. Its 8 million residents produce a density and diversity of experience that keeps it in an inexorable state of creative destruction, new businesses, shops, bars, restaurants, apartment buildings, highrises erasing places that six months ago were novelties.

It wasn't always the case. Other cities and struggling suburbs can learn from the rebirth of New York.

A Beautiful Ruin: The Rebirth of New York, 1975-1986 is the story of the generation of immigrants and college-educated kids who came to New York when it was said to be dying and made use of it as they found it.

They took burned-out lots and planted them with gardens. Abandoned industrial ruins invited sculpture on a monumental scale. Unheated warehouses became open plan modern living spaces illuminated by walls of windows with no division between kitchen, workspace, and bedroom. Closed-down public schools were installed with ad hoc exhibitions and made into museums of experimental culture. They sawed abandoned buildings in half and blow-torched gaping holes through three-story warehouses for fun and sport. They performed dance and theater on streets and sidewalks as if they were rented ballrooms. They created previously unimagined clothing styles and genres of popular music, tough, dirty, full of attitude and personal expression, telling stories of a violent world that was ironically filled with excitement.

In uneasy parallel, sometimes in conflict, often in concert with this artistic transformation, in Chinatown storefronts, Lower East Side tenements, reclaimed East Village schoolhouses, and Bronx public housing community centers, a new generation of Americans banged out what it meant to be Puerto Rican or Asian or Jamaican in the United States.

The nation had just gone through radical legal reform that had forced it to demolish the century-old survivals of a feudal system of legalized slaveholding. The social consequences of this legal revolution remained unresolved, and coincided with a fissure between the city and the country. The destabilized society of the post-Civil Rights movement-era pervaded the perception of the city. In common usage, urban had become a code word for places where non-white immigrants and ethnic communities that had endured European colonialism, imperialism, and the Atlantic slave trade predominated.

In the decades that followed, through the popularization of their music, the publicization of their lifestyles in films and TV shows, the commercialization and worldwide distribution of their artwork, the commodification of their fashion, the development of new modes of real estate production that replicated these ways of living in modern building forms, the assimilation of their culture into the mainstream of American and global culture permitted a new model of urban life to emerge from the ruins of the previous century.

The postsuburban, post-Baby Boom, post-Immigration Reform Act, post-Civil Rights movement generation fashioned a new culture of the city that displaced the suburban ideal of post-World War II America. The housing industry, banks, and government policymakers have barely begun to recognize how completely this new way of living has modeled a newly productive economy of urbanism that extends beyond the Superstar Cities throughout the world.