The commission called for a sculpture that would celebrate Grosse Pointe Park’s abiding relationship with the water.
But given the location, on Kercheval just one block from Detroit, artists and longtime big-city residents Israel and Erik Nordin thought: “Why stop there?”
On a border that’s seen its share of contention over the past five years, the brothers spied an opportunity for art to do something more than just look pretty.
“We wanted to create a piece about two communities living together side by side,” said Erik Nordin, “and looking for the best in one another.”
The result is a soaring 18-foot sculpture in the middle of the intersection of Kercheval and Wayburn, “Sails of Two Cities,” that celebrates the waterfront heritage both neighbors share.
Just a block from the Detroit border, the artwork’s abstracted sails dotted with brilliant blue glass are clearly visible from the Alter Road dividing line.
Other Nordin Brothers’ pieces include the sculpture in front of the Whitney Restaurant, and the giant illuminated “D” that drops as part of New Year’s festivities in Campus Martius.
Historically, Erik Nordin points out, both Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park were shaped by their proximity to the water, whether the river or Lake St. Clair.
“And sailing isn’t just about sitting in calm water,” he added. “It’s about sailing through tumultuous waters. Everybody goes through good times and bad times, and the sculpture speaks to that, abstractly.”
Waters along the city-suburban divide got a lot more tumultuous in 2014, when Grosse Pointe Park installed temporary farm-market sheds that blocked Kercheval just short of city border, leading to charges of racism and a desire to fence Detroiters out.
“They said it was about ‘traffic calming,’ ” said Detroit Councilman Andre Spivey, who attended the sculpture’s official unveiling Thursday evening, “but it looked defensive.”
The city removed the sheds in 2014. Now a small roundabout at Kercheval and Wayburn forces traffic in either direction to come to almost a complete stop.
Since the 2014 dust-up, a P.R. disaster that even landed in the Los Angeles Times, officials on both sides of Alter Road have worked to calm troubled waters.
Spivey points out that Grosse Pointe Park officials attended the recent dedication of a new pocket park, Fox Creek Park, on the Detroit side of Alter Road about a mile away.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” the councilman said of the two cities, “but we’re definitely moving forward. The Fox Creek dedication was a great melting pot of Detroiters and Grosse Pointers alike.”
Also attending Thursday’s unveiling was Pastor Joel Wallace from Abundant Faith Cathedral, housed in a handsome Art Deco building just across the border in Detroit.
Wallace applauds the new sculpture, and has no problem with the way Park officials have handled Kercheval since the sheds were removed.
“The roundabout slows people down,” he said, noting that a bunch of restaurants and businesses have popped up in recent years on the Grosse Pointe Park side, as that commercial district has come back to life.
“They have a lot of foot traffic,” Wallace added. “I often walk down there to meet (Grosse Pointe Park) former-mayor Gary Theokas or one of the council members, and you don’t want cars speeding up and down.”
The hope is that “Sails of Two Cities,” a gift from Grosse Pointe Councilwoman Barbara Detwiler and her husband, will be another concrete step in promoting friendly relations.
After the Nordin brothers won the juried competition, the Detwilers paid a visit to their design studio in an old steel foundry on Detroit’s west side.
“Erik and Israel came up with a more impressionistic sculpture, and this ‘Sails of Two Cities’ idea,” said Fred Detwiler.
He and Barb liked it immediately, and the implicit gesture it makes to Detroiters.
“My family is from Detroit,” Fred Detwiler said. “We’ve been here for generations.”
He noted how gratifying it’s been to see the recent uptick in downtown and Midtown, adding that he hopes Grosse Pointe Park can help stimulate development on the Detroit side of Kercheval, where storefronts at present are mostly empty.
For his part, Grosse Pointe Park Mayor Bob Denner is delighted with the way things have worked out.
“One of the great things about the sculpture is that it’s absolutely beautiful from Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit,” he said.
Erik Nordin concedes there are still big issues, inevitably, in the relationship between city and suburb.
“Will our sculpture solve those?” he asked. “No. But it might advance the conversation, and help both communities move into a better future.”