Did you know that there are currently about 50,000 vacant residential properties in Detroit? If you add commercial spaces and storefronts to the list, that number skyrockets to 80,000. That’s about 25 square miles of vacant and blighted property, out of the 139 square miles that make up the city. Which tells us something about how dire the situation has been, and for how long.
But what do you hear, when you hear these numbers? We hear possibility.
So does Daniel Commer, Detroit native and acting director at Detroit’s Michigan Avenue Business Association. He believes that Detroit has a unique opportunity to learn from other cities where gentrification has spelled the end of diversity and liveability. One of the first challenges he took on, after joining the association, was to go door to door along the Avenue, meet every single business owner in person, and put out a survey that would help him understand what factors were holding folks back. “The number one response we received was ‘vacancy and blight are detracting from the area’s safety and appearance,’” explains Commer.
Paint it new
The good news is that through his work on Michigan Avenue – including an experiment in installing cheery new trashcans that garnered outsize interest – Commer has also come to believe that little visual cues and concrete improvements can go a lot further than you might think. That’s why he’s focused on raising money for a project that will, in partnership with local organization Holding House Artspace, install community-made public art on billboards at the vacant lot at 25th and Michigan Ave, and down the three mile stretch between 196 and Wyoming. The artwork will be displayed throughout July and August; Holding House has already put out a call for art submissions, and the work that’s come in has been absolutely fantastic.
What good will a few billboards do, you ask? Think of them as little crumbs of inspiration and creativity, sparking conversations and bringing folks together. Think of them as a moment’s respite in a hard day. Think of them as laying the foundation for paths that will draw locals and tourists out of their comfort zones and into new Detroit adventures.
Lighting the way to hidden gems
“You have this public art activation strategy that would work there,” explains Commer. “You could conceivably, as you come out of this vacant lot area, be like ‘oh, I can keep on exploring, because here’s this visual cue, this protected bike lane, and here’s this wayfinding, and here’s this public art space. Oh, I can stop and eat outside at this wonderful deli. Oh, I can see a sign and keep on going, and lookit, here’s this pocket park that has these two amazing murals and landscaping. And up there’s a restaurant that does amazing Spanish-italian fusion.’ And then again, you go another half a mile up, and you’re in this beautiful theater marquis that just started. So I think that that’s all doable.”
Public art – in combination with pocket parks and creative wayfinding – is just one way to keep locals moving on foot, which is how they become better customers and more engaged neighbors. It’s all about reconnecting parts of the city that have become, whether by highway vivisection or disenfranchisement – disconnected. Like repairing the veins that carry the lifeblood of the city.
“People love to see public art,” says Commer. “Whether you’re a community organizer, or a planner or designer, people see their neighborhood and they notice when something is more vibrant, when there’s an effort to make it more beautiful.”
Want to cast your vote for public art? The project’s ioby campaign is fully funded, as of yesterday, but it’s never too late to reach out to the Michigan Ave Billboard Collective, or to parent organization Southwest Solutions, to get involved.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.