Detroit: Hope gets an attitude.

Written by on July 15, 2013 in Perspectives, Trends - 24 Comments

Polka dot houseDetroit. It’s enough to get any car buff’s heart racing. And when Ford recently invited me to a “Trends” conference in Motown, I was packed in a heartbeat.

But this wasn’t a conventional car convention, if you will. There were mommy bloggers, fashion and lifestyle writers, eco-geeks, designers, tech gurus. Oh yes, and a handful of auto writers like me.

Car companies like Ford are getting smart. They know that most people only read car media when they’re buying a car. So Ford is reaching out to a wider audience by wooing alternative media. Is it working? We don’t know.Diego Mural

What we do know, is that car companies are delving into cultural, social, environmental and technological trends to divine their future. And somehow, that translated into dispatching us conventioneers out into the heart of Detroit, in a convoy of 2014 Ford Escape SUVs.

This was brave. Let’s remember Detroit topped the Forbes list of America’s most dangerous cities in 2012. It’s a city on the brink of bankruptcy, that has fallen from espousing the American dream to housing 80,000 abandoned buildings. From 2000 to 2010, the population fell by 25 percent, as its citizens fled for more lucrative and genteel urban prospects.Record House

But there are those citizens who have stayed, and have pride in their town. Because there is still beauty, dignity and vision to be had. Like the Detroit Institute of the Arts, with its stunning Diego Rivera murals of the Ford Rouge factory. It celebrates the town’s legendary industry, with sponsor Edsel Ford painted in front of a sombre assembly line.Stuffed Animal House

And then there is the Heidelberg Project, which may well be the strongest metaphor for this metropolis struggling to get back on its feet. It is an outdoor art installation in one of Detroit’s most dismal neighbourhoods, that had deteriorated into godforsaken patches of weeds and burned-out shells of houses. Local artist Tyree Guyton came home from the army in 1986 and was shocked to see how his childhood home had hit the skids.

TreeWith the help of his grandfather “Grandpa Sam,” and a squad of volunteers, Guyton led a creative protest against the encroaching decay, using art as his weapon. Provocative polka dots are painted everywhere, to symbolize society’s diversity. One house has records peppering the walls (this *is* Motown). Another is adorned with slumping stuffed animals, which also fill a boat that’s beached on a lawn. Dead trees are cheekily trimmed with found objects, from mannequin heads to shopping carts. Bright, sassy colour is splashed on everywhere.Bicycle Seats

All this, in a neighbourhood where police, firefighters and lawnmowers didn’t dare to venture for years. Guyton’s mother lives in one of the homes, and had we stayed longer, we might have been treated to iced tea.

The scenic voyage went on, taking us along a road where the asphalt had worn off, and the Escape’s tires drove on bare bricks. The city is literally too poor to afford to re-pave the streets. Our directions led us to the magnificent Michigan Central Railroad Station, designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects of New York’s Grand Central Station. It’s protected from arsonists and squatters by barbed wire, and volunteers have begun restoring the top two storeys.

Train StationFinally, we returned to Ford headquarters in the well groomed suburb of Dearborn, with its small yet sparkling homesteads. This is a town that supports its industry – offshore vehicles were spread as thin as the asphalt on the Detroit roads. Well over 90 percent of the vehicles we saw sported badges that were as homegrown as Mrs. Guyton’s iced tea.

Case in point – one of the Ford employees told us that just after the convoy left Heidelberg, Tyree Guyton himself had pulled up to do some work. What was he driving?

A Ford F-150 pick up truck.


24 Comments on "Detroit: Hope gets an attitude."

  1. Mary Slagel July 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm · Reply

    Wow. I had no idea that area existed with the artwork. That is amazing and definitely a destination I would make a point to visit if I were to be in the area.

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 2:03 am · Reply

      I had heard of the project before, but experiencing it was just incredible. Getting to it was a little nerve-wracking! Of course, totally worth it.

  2. NeoshaGEE (@NeoshaLatrice) July 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm · Reply

    This is beautiful. Never would have thought that area existed. Adding this to the bucket list of places to visit in my lifetime.

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 2:05 am · Reply

      Anyone who visits Detroit needs to see this! It’s uplifting and restores your faith in what can be accomplished with grit, creativity and passion.

  3. Susan Cooper July 15, 2013 at 8:41 pm · Reply

    Wow what an amazing portrait of a struggling city. The economy has hit many many cities and left communities devastated. 🙂

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 2:02 am · Reply

      Thanks, Susan! To tell the truth, I was a little nervous about going to Detroit, but I’d go back any time. A memorable place, to be sure.

  4. Cassi July 16, 2013 at 3:11 am · Reply

    They sure got creative when designing the exteriors of those houses.

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 2:00 am · Reply

      Oh, it was just heartwarming to see. Imagination, pride, ingenuity, they’re all alive and well and living in Detroit.

  5. Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) July 16, 2013 at 5:43 am · Reply

    I admit that I started out reading your article, fearing that it would be all about cars. (I just don’t share your fascination and joy with our motorized chariots, an attitude probably inherited by my father who viewed cars as strictly necessary transportation.) However, I loved that you wrote about Detroit and found some beauty and hope there. I grew up in Philadelphia (a/k/a Killadelphia), and after surrendering and raising our sons in the suburbs — we have moved back into the city. Like Detroit, Philly has plenty to be despaired about, but there is beauty in the unlikeliest places and you have inspired me to find it and write about it!

    Here via BHB 🙂

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 1:59 am · Reply

      Suzanne, I’m so glad you stopped by and stayed for a while. Like I told Alison, I really love it when people like yourself are drawn into my stories. It’s not just about cars. It’s about what they mean, and how they impact our society and culture. Detroit was built on cars, and suffered when the car industry went bust. But now, both the industry and Detroit are rebounding. And so will Philly! I’m glad I’ve inspired you …

  6. Ash / Madlemmings July 16, 2013 at 8:42 am · Reply

    It’s always sad to see a city go from such highs to such lows. But then somehow, some key people take the initiative and get things moving again. And art is such a way to do that!! Nice to see Detroit trying to get back on its’ feet!

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 1:53 am · Reply

      Ashley, it was just appalling to see some areas of the city. Especially since it was such a bastion of commerce and industry. But it has bred people who are taking back their city and doing it proud. And that’s nothing short of inspiring.

  7. ed July 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm · Reply

    … don’t count us out – my birthplace will return. besides being on a great river, a gateway to Canada and some fine Universities, we also boast Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, etc. all close and a part of the city.

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 1:51 am · Reply

      Ed, you said it. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Museum and Greenfield Village, and was amazed at how well put together everything is. It’s not just cars in the museum – that’s American history. Henry Ford had a wonderful vision, and it’s still unfolding.

  8. Debra Yearwood July 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm · Reply

    I’ve never been to Detroit and I didn’t think I wanted to visit, but the art installations are amazing. It’s shocking to see what the city has gone through, I had no idea it had been hit so hard by the economic down turn. I’m glad its citizens are reclaiming it. A city with a history that rich shouldn’t be left to die.

    • Krystyna Lagowski July 17, 2013 at 1:49 am · Reply

      Sometimes the most interesting places to visit aren’t the prettiest. Beauty is most compelling when it’s hidden, and unexpected. The art project just springs up out of nowhere, in the midst of overgrown lawns and decrepit houses. What a joy it is to see – you’d love it, I’m sure.

  9. Jeri July 17, 2013 at 3:53 am · Reply

    I’ve never been to Detroit, and it’s just not one those places on my radar, but your post certainly brings out a side of it that would be worth a visit. Such public art gems will be hard to pass up if I’m ever in the area. Hubby has been quite few times for work, so if he goes again, I will make sure he reads your post.

  10. Barbara Hockley July 17, 2013 at 7:41 am · Reply

    Inspirational! Never likely to see it unless I venture over the pond one day, but I love these innovative projects that are so ‘outside the box’ that people cannot help but be moved, inspired and excited by them (I have no doubt there are a few grumps as well – there certainly would be here!) The discussion about regeneration of our town is ongoing and has been in evidence for years. Solutions often involve art in some form – festivals and celebrations as well. Intereesting that when the spirit of the town gets low we turn to art to lift it up! Lovely!

  11. Arleen July 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm · Reply

    I have to say that Detroit would not have been high on my list of cities to see. I was surprised that there is more there just crime. I may have to rethink it as I have been to a lot of cities in the US. I think it is great about art project.

  12. DC July 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm · Reply

    Wow! My Dad was an auto writer and can I say it’s so refreshing to see a girl’s point of view! Haven’t been to Detroit but hope to go some day…

  13. Becc July 22, 2013 at 2:25 am · Reply

    I didn’t know much about Detroit at all, except that Ford was based there. I learned a great deal about the city. It was fascinating. Thank you 🙂

  14. Geek Girl July 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm · Reply

    I have driven by Detroit and that was close enough for me. It was scary. I am glad that someone is making some sunshine in that city.

  15. kristy @ ohksocialmedia July 30, 2013 at 9:12 pm · Reply

    Krystyna – I’m in love with you. Or at least in love with your blog. It’s awesome 🙂

    High five, girl.

    • Krystyna Lagowski August 9, 2013 at 2:21 pm · Reply

      Hey Kristy, you’re so sweet. Backatcha with the high five!

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