Friday, July 23, 2010

Detroit: Shrink a City with Wild Imagination

Co-owner of the Imagination Station Jerry Paffendorf leads a tour of the space and explains the future of the Detroit project.

I just returned from Detroit, where the Loveland crew continues to blow my mind while working on creative reconstruction of a shrinking city, Detroit.

The Imagination Station, depicted in the video above, is an empty building next to a burnt-out house destroyed by arson, as many places in Detroit are, and an old defunct hotel. Jerry co-owns it with Jeff DeBruyn. Across the street from the Imagination Station, beyond a grassy field, is the desolate, majestic Michigan Central Station, which stopped operating in the 1980’s and now looms tall and gray in a grassy field, full of broken windows and occasional hidden interlopers exploring the emptiness.

The cumulative effect of so much neglect makes it seem from an outside perspective that Detroit was abandoned all at once, as if a nuclear core had melted down and the entire city had to be evacuated. Vacant skyscrapers look almost normal by day, but at night, the city masterminded by Henry Ford, once the richest person in the world, is a ghost town of darkened windows and squatters.

When we meet Jeff for the tour of Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, starting at the Imagination Station, he’s chatting with squatters, Mike and Kevin, who have taken up residence in the future Imagination Station. They have big news--the three buildings were boarded up and the city is planning to come through and tear them down the next day.

Of all of the countless structures that could have been scheduled for demolition the very next day by the city, it seems absurdly odd that these buildings, two of which are now being tended by mindful new owners, would be first up. Next to the houses is the Roosevelt Hotel, a brick building with broken glass, graffiti tags and squatters. Through busted shades on the third floor, the outline of a man appears briefly in the window.

Next to the Roosevelt Hotel is the first of Jeff and Jerry's two houses, which is burned out by arson and brought back to life for a fleeting moment by the artist Marianne Audrey Burrows. A few months ago, Marianne was in a group of artists and friends from the Loveland crew who came from Detroit to visit the Imagination Age Salon in New York City. I run the Imagination Age Salon, after a lifetime of dreaming about it. Marianne had never been to New York before, and she was wild and wide-eyed with energy.

She said she needed to paint and I commissioned her to paint a mural on the double doors of the garage at the bottom of the garden. It was late spring, with hot pink rhododendrons in full bloom. Over the course of the hot day, she painted a full cityscape in the background and the blooming rhododendrons in their full rebirth in the foreground.

Since then she has painted six other murals in or on buildings around the city including inside and outside this burned-out shell of a house, which has become in its last days a canvas for her great work “Reclamation.” The hot pink rhododendrons are reborn again on the charred walls along with the blue silhouette of the black-windowed city skyline.

Paint A Burnt House from Imagination Station on Vimeo.

Now the ruined house is boarded up, and no more visitors can see the art inside. Yesterday, the day I toured with the artist herself, was the last day of the life of the house. We stepped over black bricks and burnt sticks on the shelled stairway to the second floor, where we tiptoed across damaged floorboards to the explosion of sky blue paint spreading from the corners of the rooms to the broken windows and beyond, out into the world.

After this structure is removed, The Imagination Station will be left standing across from Michigan Central Station, which was designed by the same firm that created Grand Central Terminal. While it’s hard to imagine Grand Central not existing in Manhattan, it almost happened. The structure was under siege by would-be developers in 1968.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis intervened:

"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."

Before we get in the car to explore Corktown, Jeff points across the street to a barbecue restaurant next to pawn shops and a half-painted Banksy on the last brick building, near the roof. Apparently one of the world’s greatest living artists was chased off like a common thief before he had a chance to finish, leaving only the dark faded silhouette that somehow suits the location perfectly, making me wonder if maybe that’s what Banksy intended. Across the empty grassy field, in the silent darkness of the Michigan Central Station, the shadowed perimeter of bobbing heads popping up over the edge of the roof looks like the painting came to life in the form of mysterious explorers.

There’s danger and romance in the creative anarchy of abandonment and empty space for people who have a roof over their heads but want to explore, and then there’s stark necessity for people like Mike and Kevin who have run out of other options. What they’re doing could be considered giving in or fighting back, depending on where you sit.

“In 2002 I graduated from law school,” Jeff says as he pulls away from the curb. “Six years ago, a priest brought me to Detroit. Father Tom. I moved into the shelter to run the soup kitchen and live a monastic existence, living simply, serving the poor.”

“You’ve been living there ever since?”

“Ever since. But now I’m ready to expand, that’s how I got involved with Loveland and the Imagination Station.”

He explains the nature of the divisions that tore the community apart, starting with freeway construction in the 1960’s and then riots in 1967, commencing after a police raid during a party for two returning Vietnam vets in the very place we now sit in an idling car.

“This is ground zero for the riots,” he says. The dusky night has cast the quiet street into a jagged ring of shadows on the horizon. My eyes haven’t yet adjusted. He rolls slowly past vacant lots, some bound by hurricane fences, some gone to seed, others covered in remnants and junk. “Some of the houses burned down. Crime drove people out. The city is shrinking. Detroit is 143 square miles but the population is down from over two million to under 800,000. I believe that this city can and should be used as a model for how to shrink a city.”

Some of the blocks we pass are blown out completely, empty of people and hope, with sagging roofs and rusted gates swinging open on overgrown fields of Queen Anne’s Lace. These areas, he suggests, can be turned into community parks, farmland and incubators for social entrepreneurialism.

“Wait and see what’s going to happen in the next few years. The Imagination Station will be the center of a major shift. We’re going to make it real. Community organizing through social media. I’m excited to learn these new skills and see how they can have an impact on fundraising. We don’t want to kiss ass or beg. We just want to raise the funds to make this real.”