The Heidelberg Project, founded by Tyree Guyton, was one part of Detroit that gave a recent tour group reason to believe in the Motor City's eventual rebirth. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
In April, I took 28 Dutch urban geography master’s students on a field trip to Detroit. We spent four days in Detroit, seeing it for ourselves and meeting with Detroiters from the city’s academic, artistic and civic communities.
Before coming to Detroit, my students had an image of abandonment, crime and decay. That image was were largely confirmed on the first day. As we traveled around the city in our coach, they understood the scale of the challenges facing the city. They went to bed that night saddened by what they saw.
The second day in Detroit was all about challenging those initial ideas. We started the day by visiting the Boggs Center, and learning about its vision for hope and a future based on communities working together. Discussing problems such as a lack access to fresh food in the city and how urban farmers were trying to change that was an inspirational and emotional conversation. Seeing art at the DIA, especially Rivera Court, and the bustling vitality of the Eastern Market, also challenged the students’ initial ideas that Detroit was a dead city and an urban wasteland.
In the afternoon, we headed to the Heidelberg Project. We were given a tour of the project by two enthusiastic members of the Heidelberg team. At the end of the tour, we met Tyree Guyton; one of his first questions for us was, “What is art today?” The discussion continued with questions about what life is and the meaning of neighborhoods and communities. Those questions challenged us to look at the city in a new way. He also asked one of the students to paint an orange dot on the street, thereby contributing to the ongoing and continually evolving art installation and connecting all of us to Detroit and its people.
Seeing the ruins of Detroit turned into art was very powerful. The Boggs Center and the Heidelberg Project gave us a new perspective on the city; where yesterday we had seen decay and abandonment, today we were seeing the same landscape transformed into art and vacant lots which were put to productive use, not only growing food but growing communities as well. They saw hope turned into action by those working hard for a better future. My students began to reimagine what a city like Detroit could be like. It did not mean that they thought that the city was a paradise, but they could look beyond the negative images which are often the only ones which make it to us in the Netherlands.
Throughout our course, I have tried to convey the idea that what happens in Detroit matters for other places, too. The city has always been ahead of the curve: the first city to develop mass production, the first city to build superhighways, the first city to suburbanize and the first city to feel the full effects of deindustrialization. Visiting these places and meeting these people, one gets the sense that once again, Detroit is at the forefront of a new type of city, a truly post-industrial one, where communities are working together to forge new ideas which reinvent and reimagine cities and urban space. What this type of city will be, and whether or not it will be successful, no one knows; but you get the sense that many of these ideas are being forged in Detroit.
With this knowledge and understanding, my students have, in a small way, become ambassadors for the city. One student, the same one who painted a dot on Heidelberg Street, was in New York after the trip. While in a shop in Harlem, he mentioned to the shopkeeper that he had just visited Detroit. The shopkeeper proclaimed that he thought that Detroit was terrible; he would never go there even if he had family who lived in Detroit. The student was able to speak about the city with a far greater understanding of its complex issues; he did not write off Detroit, like so many others do and argued that while there are many problems, there is also reason for hope. In the words of another student, “we have a much more balanced view of Detroit now.”
Through these experiences, my students have been able to see beyond the destruction in a way that few visitors to the city can. Many came wanting to see the ruins first hand. But they came away with far more than just pictures depicting an abandoned city. They all left with three powerful things: a deeper understanding of the complex challenges and opportunities facing the city, a new-found passion for Detroit and a deep respect for Detroiters.
Brian Doucet teaches urban geography at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.