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Amanda LeClaire


The Artist and the City

Posted: 02/17/2012 12:43 pm

Four months ago, I moved to the neighborhood variously known as No-Ham, BanglaTown, Hamtramck Heights, or, officially, Davison (although few residents actually call it that). It's a community unaccustomed to receiving much attention or new residents, other than family and friends of the mainly Bangladeshi immigrants who reside here. But this comparatively dense neighborhood is slowly changing.

A few years back, Banglatown became somewhat notorious as the location of "the $100 house." In 2009, the structure on Lawley Street was a decrepit one that few people could find much to love about. But artists Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner saw past its facade. In the wake of the ensuing media maelstrom, Brumit and Wagner have moved in, cleaned up, and created a life -- and a home -- for themselves and their young son.

Detroit suffers from both over-hype and public derision over the role of artists like these in the city's future. But while economists, journalists, city planners, and others aggressively debate the latest formula of what makes a city desirable, the work being done on the ground is basic math: make it (that house, that block, that street) better.

The artists I've met in this neighborhood are from a seemingly scarce breed -- the kind that values work over promotion, tangible progress over blogging. Many of their websites are long overdue for an update. Theirs is the type of art that mirrors the values of a Rust Belt city -- work that's physical, practical, and imaginative.

In 2009, for just $2,000, Cranbrook architectural grad Charlie O'Geen bought a foreclosed single-family house on Klinger Street and proceeded to gut it, meticulously saving every nail, floorboard, and iron support. Those materials are now being used to reconstruct the house from the inside out; it's an exercise in sustainability, craft, eco-design, and common sense.

20th-century French theorist Guy Debord advocated the intertwining of life, art, and politics, a reaction to the stupefying of the Western populace by the machinations of advanced capitalism. Although Debord likely would have wanted to see people align themselves with one political philosophy or another, a portion of his work lives on here in the examples of these artists.

It's in the rejection of the pressure to market yourself to the world, a subtle movement away from unquestioned dependence on currency-based transactions to one where dinners are shared in exchange for help with projects. Where the intangible value of conversation, connection, and knowledge is respected.

Banglatown, USA: Here, the underground still thrives.