What's the value of Detroit's cultural legacy? Artists and preservationists make the case

As an artist, when Faina Lerman looks at an abandoned building, she thinks about its history. What happened here? How did it decline? 

But rather than preserve the building, sometimes developers will raze it to make way for high-end condos, retail, or worse, surface parking. And with it goes the design, history, and culture of a place, especially when it's replaced by a cookie-cutter development that looks like it could belong in any other city.

Lerman believes that every project should seek to take advantage of Detroit's cultural assets. "As artists, we think: 'There's got to be a better design that fits in with the neighborhood.'"

As developments rapidly take place around the city, changing the fabric of structures and neighborhoods, many wonder how these projects will incorporate Detroit's rich heritage of art, music, design, and the cultural blend of all these ingredients so that the city's unique aesthetic is preserved. 

Lerman and her husband, Graem Whyte, are honoring the history of space in Hamtramck and Detroit with their artist-run nonprofit, Popps Packing, which the couple start in 2009. They bought the space on St. Aubin during the Great Recession and started using it as a vehicle to support artists through residencies, exhibitions, and more. 

In 2011, they created Popps Emporium, which builds on Popps Packing with more residency space, a community gallery, and a tool lending library. The property used to be a speakeasy and grocery store, and the history of the space inspired how they reactivated it.

Faina Lerman

Graem Whyte, co-founder of Popp's Packing, exists the tool library behind Popp's Emporium
While rehabilitating the building, they got to learn more about the history of the neighborhood, inspiring them to envision Popps Emporium as more than just an artists' space, but also a gathering place for neighbors to share information and to collaborate to build the type of neighborhood they want to see.

Music is also an essential component of the city's cultural legacy and one of the ways the rest of the country connects to Detroit. That's one reason why the Motown Museum has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in philanthropic support to expand in both size and scope. 

And music venues were essential parts of Detroit neighborhoods. Places like the The Vanity Ballroom in Jefferson-Chalmers and The Phelps Lounge in the North End not only enriched neighborhood life but gave young musicians opportunities to perform and see music. Today those buildings are abandoned and will require significant sums of money and inventive thinking to restore. 
Gholz outside the Blue Bird Inn circa 2012
On the near west side, the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a music preservation nonprofit, received a Kresge Innovation Project: Detroit grant earlier this year to conduct community engagement and initial design to redevelop the legendary Blue Bird Inn jazz club into a neighborhood hub for music performance. The stage played host to greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane in its heyday in the 1950s before closing in the 2000s.

According to Carleton Gholz, founder and executive director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, it's important to save spaces like the Blue Bird Inn because there are so few walkable neighborhood venues in the city. 

Specifically on the west side, the number of venues dropped precipitously after the '60s and '70s and now, "the actual buildings don't even exist anymore," Gholz says. "So not only are there no venues, but there aren't enough buildings to celebrate or add a historic marker. It's very difficult to tell the story."

In 2012 when Detroit Sound Conservancy was founded, Gholz wrote in Model D, "We, current Detroiters, former Detroiters, and global lovers of Detroit sound, have had and continue to have opportunities to conserve Detroit’s rich musical heritage not only for us but also to current and future Detroiters. However, many times these opportunities are disparate, uncoordinated, and even ill conceived."

Six years later, there's still a long way to go. "There's been a lack of real progress on a big scale," Gholz says. "There needs to be citywide impact around music preservation and music history and music culture.

"It needs to be more organized, it needs to be lead, it needs to be financed."
Kimberly Driggins - courtesy the City of Detroit
That task may possibly fall to Kimberly Driggins, the director of strategic planning for arts and culture for the city of Detroit's Planning Department. She says the city views arts and culture as "integral to rebuilding and strengthening neighborhoods and an asset to the city's identity."

The Strategic Neighborhood Fund is pouring an additional $130 million in investment in 10 neighborhoods from Northwest Grand River on the west side to East Warren/Cadieux on the east across the city on top of a $42 million initiative in three neighborhoods (Livernois-Six Mile, Islandview-The Villages, and Southwest Detroit).

There are four pillars to the city’s neighborhood revitalization efforts: multifamily housing including affordable housing; streetscapes; parks and open space; and small business development.

What's missing, and what Driggins hopes to launch, is an arts and culture program along the revitalized streetscapes. She's currently fundraising for that effort.

"We think that arts and culture and heritage are key to making our corridors distinctly Detroit and really reinforcing the community's identity." 

Driggins adds that the city is incorporating arts and culture in its neighborhood framework plans, which include recommendations from the community. In Old Redford, for example, the city has been supporting the Sidewalk Festival, a two-day street festival involving dozens of local performance and visual artists. 

That said, there's room for improvement. Driggins says the city needs to "get stronger" in how it engages artists. There's also no dedicated agency for arts and culture in the city.

"Part of the challenge is communicating all the things that are available for artists to tap into," she says. "We're looking to improve on that every day."

And that's a key component to spreading Detroit art and culture: making sure everyone's on the same page. Lerman hopes for true collaboration between developers, artists, and the city. "I think that's the only real way to make sure how things look and how things function are cohesive."

Until then, art lovers like Gholz and Lerman — and the many other organizations working to preserve it in the city like CultureSource and Garage Cultural — will continue to do their part.

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, where we explore issues and stories on growing Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit. Read more articles in the series here

Support for this series is provided by the Knight Foundation, Knight Fund at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Photos, except where mentioned, by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.