Antonio Cosme is working on a mural. But before any brush touches paint, before any pencil hits a pad, Cosme has meetings to attend, books to read. The new mural will go up in Delray, “essentially the coast of Southwest Detroit,” and before any image comes context.
“This area used to be very fertile, very verdant land,” Cosme says, forking into a chicken and cheese pupusa in a back booth of Pupusería Salvadoreño, in Southwest. “Natives used to come and spend their summers here.” He launches into staccato bursts of natural and social history.
“The Detroit River here is not actually a river, it’s a strait where silt deposits built over millions of years and made the area very fertile. There was tons of life here. The Ojibwe used to spend summers here hunting. There were beautiful orchards, fruit trees, very gorgeous communities.” Cosme pauses to scoop tangy, vinegar-based coleslaw onto his pupusa.
“That’s in stark contrast to what you see there now,” he says.
Delray -- which sits in the shadows of the Severstal Steel foundry, the shadows of Zugg Island and the Marathon Oil refinery, below the emissions-spewing truck traffic crossing the Ambassador Bridge -- is often referred to as Cancer Alley. “If you want to talk about environmental racism in Detroit,” he says, “this is one of the top impacted communities in the country, on the regular.”
It’s also the future home of the New International Trade Crossing, the trade bridge being footed by Canada and soon to break ground in Detroit. Cosme estimates the project will displace up to half of the entire community -- 2,700 residents and a couple hundred small businesses. He is part of the Community Benefits Coalition
, which for a year and a half has been advocating for specific benefits for the residents of Delray to be tied to the bridge’s development.
“We’re really just fighting for some say in the process, and for an outline of some benefits to residents,” he says, such as mandating emission standards for trucks crossing the new bridge and for fairer prices offered to residents being bought out in the area.
“They’re being paid at contemporary market value for their homes,” Cosme explains, “which, because of so many ways this area has already been poorly treated, are very low.” Land value after the new bridge project and a planned logistics hub, he says, will be much higher, “which residents, if they were able to hold out a few years, could get in maybe three years or so.”
Also on the agenda are resource requests for general improvements in the neighborhood: money for building renovations; funds to help residents maintaining nearby lots and homes (“it’s hard to get a loan in that area for those sorts of things,” he says); and phytoremediation efforts, like tree-planting throughout the neighborhood, to fight some of the inevitable increases in pollution. “No one’s asking for anything unreasonable,” he says.
Cosme grew up in Southwest Detroit and was educated in the private Catholic school system with kids from outside of the city. “On weekends I would go and hang out with classmates and their families in Plymouth, Canton,” he says, where things were “markedly different.”
“That was all pretty close to where I grew up, but none of them were dealing with incinerators, with garbage, with the city’s waste. They weren’t dealing with foundries and all that shit.” His political growth, he says, began in his attempts to understand such differences. After high school at Catholic Central, he studied Economics and Political Science at Eastern Michigan University, where he got involved in political activism.
By 2012, Cosme had graduated and moved back to Detroit. That summer he attended the Allied Media Conference
, where he met a group of young musicians, artists, and activists. They started hanging out regularly at a house of queer and feminist activists -- "a lot of Boricua and Chicano Studies grads from MSU,” he says -- on Clark Street, across from Clark Park.
“At some point, the idea just came: let’s do what we do in the studio, but out in the park,” he says. They started holding open-mic cyphers in Clark Park, then production and beat-making workshops, calling the group the Raiz Up. Soon, “lots of people were coming. Some MCs would come spit, but not everyone does that. So we started thinking, what could we offer them?”
Emergency Management loomed. Schools were closing. “We thought, let’s start talking about some of this real shit that’s happening in our communities.” The Raiz Up started hosting dialogs, bringing in activists and community organizers from around the country and hip hop artists from around the world. “That was mad successful,” he says. “That’s how we got started, with just public music, you know?”
And so continues the evolution of this erudite young artist-activist-organizer. Increasingly, he says, he’s finding “art and cultural work in a lot of ways to be more powerful than activism.” It may be tougher to gather people for a protest, he says, “but you can get a ton of people to a concert, and you can educate there and talk about some real shit. I think that’s huge, art’s ability to speak to people’s consciousness.”
Which brings things full circle, back to the mural he is working on.
“It’s still in design right now. I need to meet with a couple more elders and flesh out some more ideas.” In addition to Delray residents, Cosme has been meeting with representatives from the American Indian Services, in Lincoln Park, and the American Indian Health and Family Services, in Southwest.
The mural will go up near the corner of West Jefferson and West End, in the heart of Delray, he says, “in the area that isn’t gonna be, you know, gone.”
This story originally appeared in Urban Innovation Exchange.
Photos by Doug Coombe.