How public art builds safer, stronger neighborhoods

In April of 2014, Damian Woetzel and the Aspen Institute Arts Program convened a Strategy Group in Detroit. This convening brought together local and national experts: artists and leaders in arts, policy, community development and education. The group spent a thrilling morning at Spain Elementary School where Yo-Yo Ma, Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck, Aaron Dworkin and Cristina Pato conducted an ArtStrike with students and teachers followed by a roundtable discussion on the role of the arts in Detroit Public Schools. In the afternoon the group focused on creative placemaking and the ways in which art is contributing to Detroit’s future and how it can be further utilized to reimagine the city. There is so much important, groundbreaking work happening in Detroit right now that the Aspen Institute Arts Program felt it was important to share the story of this work more widely. Our hope is others may learn from and understand more deeply the challenges and opportunities facing Detroit and the unique way that Detroit views artists as a critical asset and building block for the future. This is the second of three pieces commissioned by the Aspen Institute Arts Program in partnership with Creative Exchange. (Read part one here.)

Asked to conjure up an image of “outdoor art,” most people will picture an oversize abstract sculpture sitting on the lawn of an institutional building. But in Detroit, art that is integrated with the city’s buildings, lots, alleys, homes, and streetscapes is an integral part of the community — a vigorous, and even essential, part of daily life.

Art that merges with the landscape brings human presence, safety, and physical activity into the city’s spaces. This kind of art triggers more than one sense: it is something you move in, touch, and, in some cases, even eat. In Detroit, a spread-out city of single-family homes that is difficult to traverse and pockmarked by vacancy, these artistic interventions are an uncommonly powerful nexus of community life. They create welcoming traffic, as well as opportunities for neighbors to interact and work together. And rather than being a temporary show, in the style of a traveling exhibition or ephemeral installation, this is art for the long-term. It is for a city with a future.

This is unfolding in a residential neighborhood north of Hamtramck, sometimes called Banglatown for its large Bangladeshi population. Here, the Power House Productions community is nesting.

Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope are Detroit artists who bought a home here in 2002 in what was once a corner store. Over the ensuing years, the foreclosure crisis hit hard and put the community in a precarious spot. “The neighborhood could go either way,” Reichert said.

The couple began to purchase vacant homes in the area at auction, and they have since built them into a multi-faceted artistic community. The one dubbed the “Play House” has become a community performing arts center. The “Sound House” began as a recording project and continues as a public recording studio. The “Squash House” is being converted into a venue for play and gardening, with a venue designed specifically for squash, racquetball, and other games. The “Skate House” will merge with the Ride It Skate Park to create an indoor/outdoor skating facility. The original “Power House” produces its own electricity from solar and wind power, while modeling the broader power of self-reliance and problem solving. And the “Yellow House” is where visiting artists and residents can stay and work. Reichert and Cope still live in the same home, now with their young daughter.

Artists buying houses for creative ends is not a new story, and Detroit in particular has a long legacy of public and place-based based art: nothing bothers Reichert more than erasing what’s come before. But Power House does have a unique texture to it. Unlike The Heidelberg Project, the famed found-art installation on a residential street that began in 1986, Power House is not about creating spectacle. Instead, Reichert said, “It is about integrating in the cultural fabric of the neighborhood here.” Both Heidelberg and Power House hinge on the fundamental resourcefulness of artists using what they have on hand to create a new public narrative – and a new way of life.

Welcoming neighbors and strangers

In many ways, the project’s current renovation, the “Jar House,” is about being a good neighbor and citizen. The Jar House will be the public front door of Power House Productions, providing space for community information and a starting point for visitors. Power House has attracted widespread notice, and outside guests frequently come for tours of the neighborhood. The Jar House could be the space where the tour ends, where guests are invited to settle in, ask questions, and discuss what they’ve seen.

But as Reichert said, the Jar House is “also a way for people in the neighborhood to come through with their questions, ideas, and concerns.” To date, that has happened casually, when neighbors happen to run into Reichert and Cope on the street. It’s worked well enough for a while, but it’s important to create a clear and distinct space to welcome those neighbors and allow them to become invested in Power House projects. The organization hopes that it will be able to hire an administrative assistant to be a regular face at the Jar House.

Power House’s relationship with its neighbors opens up a tricky issue that place-based art creates: How do you balance the public and private, especially in a residential neighborhood?

“We get people who want to do bus tours,” Reichert said. “Do we say no [because it will disrupt the residents]? How do we say yes to their interest, but maybe do [a tour] in a different way?”

At the same time, Reichert wonders if she is more concerned than she needs to be about privacy: “I’m always a little bit surprised when [the residents] want to talk to, well, strangers.” Many seem to take pride in the interest their neighborhood has generated. Their sociability doesn’t make privacy irrelevant, however: Folks may be open to talking to visitors, but may not want a picture of their house on display. They may not mind tours, but want a heads up before a big one comes through. Maybe they’d even like to be a part of the tour in some way; there is a big food culture in the community, especially around gardening, and residents may want to sell concessions to the guests.

These are the conversations that Power House must navigate as it evolves. And they are not happening behind closed doors.

“We’re figuring these things out in a public way,” Reichert said. Power House is helping to build a sustainable artistic presence in the neighborhood, but these conversations can stitch together the community fabric among residents, too.

There is something inherently democratic about this sort of art.

“We want to show what arts and culture can do,” Reichert said.

Building safer community spaces

Part of what it can do is make the community safer. In Detroit, city services are starved for resources. For years, failed street lighting has left communities in the dark. While private organizations and businesses have helped fill the gap in downtown and Midtown, residential neighborhoods are often left to wait it out. At the same time, vacancy causes a number of problems for residents: falling property values, dangerous physical conditions as structures deteriorate, and a susceptibility to crime.

When Reichert is asked to think of how Power House helps to interrupt this pattern, the first thing she thinks of is human presence.

“All our properties were vacant, bottom-of-the-barrel pieces of real estate that nobody wanted,” she said. By changing the physical spaces — painting the building, cutting the grass — residents “can see something other than that there, and that someone’s paying attention.”

Those physical spaces also create a stimulus for talking to neighbors, and spaces for neighbors to talk with one another.

“What art can do is start conversations,” Reichert said. She compared it to a typical model of construction, where there is scaffolding or tape — distancing elements between the site and the community members. Artists, on the other hand, tend to be more purposefully open to engaging with their neighbors.

“It’s entry-level safety, but it’s true,” Reichert said. Bringing a human presence into the neighborhood’s empty spaces mean more eyes and more lights, which mean more visibility, which means more public safety.

As artists, the Power House team is interested in looking at unusual ways of managing safety challenges. “How do you have fun and be playful with these things you have to deal with every day?” Reichert asked. Her team likes to use colors and patterns — “something other than boarding up a house.” With Design 99 — her effort with Cope to explore new connections between art and architecture — she experimented with three-dimensional board-ups on vacant homes. “We were trying to do something more spectacular and confusing and delightful,” she said. While the 3-D board-ups are effective, they are impractical. “Functional, but absurd,” as Reichert put it. “They are not the most efficient way to do it, but at some point, you don’t want to be efficient.”

A sustainable, catalytic model

While its work began independently, Power House has been fueled by support from local and national foundations, as well as the public sector. (The city of Hamtramck was a recent municipal partner for a funded project.) But Power House does not mean to rely on grants and philanthropy for the long term. Reichert views it as “seed money” or a start-up investment. In the future, the organization would like to sustain its overhead with its own programming revenue — freeing the project to set its own schedule and priorities based on what’s best for the community, rather than the interests of a third party. When Power House phases out of its construction and renovation period, it will amplify its focus on performance and community engagement.

This means it will be a catalyst for other like-minded place-based artistic ventures. In fact, Power House already has a strong partnership with the Hinterlands, an ensemble co-founded in 2009 by Richard Newman and Liza Bielby. They live in the neighborhood and participated in the development of the Play House performance space. Now, the Hinterlands is responsible for its programming. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership: the artistic community grows with the presence of the theatre arts, which is beyond the scope of Reichert and Cope’s practice, and the Hinterlands team becomes a responsible member of the community: shoveling the snow, unlocking the Play House door for other tenants.

The essentially social nature of these projects is echoed in how other place-based artistic projects engage residents in their very making. The Alley Project facilitates youth/adult partnerships in Southwest Detroit, collaboratively creating a gallery out of a garage-turned-studio, two lots of common art space, and a walking gallery that stretches through the alley of one city block. Through this project (by Youth Nation), members of the community, especially young people, experiment and play with invigorating forms of street art that are both head-turning and legal.

In Calimera Park, in the city’s Osborn neighborhood, The Edible Hut is a gathering place for the community under a living edible roof, teeming with sage, thyme, lavender, and oregano. The gazebo-like structure was built collaboratively by artists, designers, residents, and teachers and students from the local neighborhood high school. And it is not a pilot venture: it is meant to be a lasting catalyst for the community, a space for performance, learning, and recreation.

And in Brightmoor, the Talking Fence and Illuminated Garage (projects by Design 99) depended on collaborations with local youth to collect and share stories from the neighborhood. Its benches create a common space designed to encourage the sort of informal storytelling that makes a community out of a neighborhood, and brings civility to a city.

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist and the editor of A Detroit Anthology. This story is the second in a three-part series about urban transformation through the arts in Detroit. (Read part one here.)

It was produced in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and the Aspen Institute Arts Program.

For more stories of community transformation through the arts, please visit