Garage Cultural elevates community and culture in Southwest Detroit

Welcome to the #modeldexplorerseries, where you can follow some of Detroit's leaders and icons on Model D's Instagram and see the city through their eyes.
Since their founding in 2011, nonprofit arts and community organization Garage Cultural has made it its mission to uplift the Latin American cultural roots of Southwest Detroit. It’s done so in a number of ways, but perhaps most visibly by way of their public art projects. A recent mural, highlighted here, celebrates the life and contributions of Frankie “Panchito,” lovingly referred to as The Mayor for his ever-active place in the community.

Garage Cultural took part in our Model D Explorer Series, taking us around their Southwest Detroit community with an Instagram takeover. Gabriel Duran, son of Amelia Duran, co-directora for Garage Cultural, shared moments from the mural-painting event as well as afternoon concerts in Clark Park. Gabriel is currently helping to organize the inaugural SWFest, a music and arts festival scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 4, at the historic Senate Theater.

We spoke with Garage Cultural’s co-directora Amelia Duran about the organization, its community, the “double-edged sword” that is public art, SWFest, and more.

Model D: How is public art important to Garage Cultural and its overall mission?

Amelia Duran: We started doing these kinds of large-scale public art pieces back in 2010. I really saw art as a tool to inspire hope and resistance in my community by elevating things that were not only beautiful, artistically, but were also representations of a shared story. And not just that, but also show how they're created with community, through collaborations with other artists, businesses and residents to kind of steer what is uplifted in the piece itself, the narrative behind it: Why this artist, why this representation of X, Y, and Z. These public art projects really were an opportunity to kind of elevate our identity, our cultural and social roots, through public art.

In some ways, it's kind of a double-edged sword with public art. We started doing it as a tool to combat all the dilapidation and disinvestment that we saw around us, to give people something to feel good about. But all that work, in some ways, has created an environment that makes our communities more appealing to outside developers. So that's kind of the catch-22 that we find ourselves in. How do we continue to do this work that was a tool for our own survival when the conditions have changed? Now this tool that was for us, in some ways, becomes sordid — and is what attracts all the things that have the potential to do us harm. That's kind of where I'm at with it.

Which is why it's so important to elevate the narrative. For instance, the mural that we inaugurated on Friday; it was a commemorative piece. It was focused on a resident who lived in the same house in this community for his entire life. It’s giving honor, not only to him and who he was as a person, but also to the role that he played in our community and how he inspired hope in all of us — just through his demeanor, through the kind of person that he was. Those are the things that I think will become increasingly more important as more attention is placed on our community with inequitable types of development coming in. We want to elevate the idea that the people that have been here for a really long time matter, and their stories need to be elevated and respected as new populations come in.

Model D: Who was Frankie “Panchito,” and why was he selected for the mural?

Amelia: I only met Frankie when he was already what I would consider an elder. I met him when he was probably in his mid-60s; so, I don't know what he was like when he was younger. Apparently, he was epileptic, so I don’t know whether his condition was something that progressed over time or got worse. I don’t know much about what he did when he was in his 20s, or anything like that, but he was always checking up on us. He was one of those people that just kind of floated around the neighborhood and talked to everybody and knew everything. He had a very innocent nature to him because of the way that he communicated with people. He lived here his whole life.

He was given the nickname “The Mayor” because he was always looking out for everybody and so many of us trusted him in various ways. He had keys to the building where we're painting now, because he was like an informal caretaker. He really loved feeling like he was in charge and responsible for things. He would pick up the garbage, be there to unlock the doors when you got locked out and things like that. Or he'd be sitting at the security booth over in the parking lot by Mexican Village; even though he wasn't an official employee anywhere, he kinda acted like he was everywhere. It can be really hard to describe the depths of Frankie. It’s not like he was elevated the way he was because he had all these professional accolades or anything like that. It’s just the spirit of Frankie that was so beautiful. Because it was so genuine and everybody just knew him and felt better when he was around. He put a smile on our faces, daily. 

Model D: Can you tell us about that decision to use your resources to honor someone like that on a local level?

Amelia: It makes sense that we honor people like Frankie. He wasn’t somebody that was revered because of his accolades or achievements from within any kind of normal, existing societal standards. It’s not like he went away and got a PhD and then became some professional big wig, or whatever. He was just a normal person, a resident who had a huge impact on the people around him. And that's beautiful.

Model D: Tell us about the inaugural SWFest.

Amelia: SWFest is something that I don't think any one individual or organization can take ownership of. It's something that a group of young creatives from the neighborhood brought together, initially the call came from my son, Gabriel Duran. But from there, it’s stemming from the collective efforts of about 15 to 20 young creatives from the community, channeling their resources together to put this festival on. They want to create something that has the ability to lift up the work they’ve been doing to create a lane for themselves through music and art. Its support by Garage and other organizations, in some ways — it's like we're all kind of on the periphery, holding them up. But it’s their thing.

They felt like there hasn't really been a large-scale music festival locally that has really supported all aspects of our community; including the ones often stigmatized or left out. Sure, historically, we have Cinco de Mayo and other community events at the park and things like that. But there hasn't been any intentional effort to let young people lead on their own, together with the historical stuff rather than just isolated from it. And so, I think this is their way of jumping into that role and creating that energy for themselves, while respecting the hyper-local dynamics, organizations, and other entities in the community that have been doing this work. Having the next generation doing this is so important, but it's also about the reasons why they do it. The reason why someone like me does it sometimes has a little bit of a different angle. Like, for me, it really is about making sure that we are creating avenues for intergenerational work to kind of happen seamlessly.

So, while there may have never been a large music festival geared towards their generation in Southwest, it's also important that our activities don’t just happen in our own little silos. We’re working together so that there's space for the community needs to be met and for the needs of the younger generation, who want a particular look and feel to the things they do, to be present too. Because that's how we strengthen the fabric of our community.

Find Model D on Instagram at @modeldmedia. And be sure to follow Garage Cultural at @garagecultural for the latest in Southwest Detroit.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.