The Artist and the City

02/17/2012 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

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)

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.