Art into action: Design collaborators building community one power house at a time

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert are far from strangers to Model D readers. We've covered the artist/architect couple's Design 99 storefront (R.I.P), the infamous $100-now-Power House and, most recently, the news that Juxtapoz Magazine purchased four homes in their just-north-of-Hamtramck neighborhood that served as installation space for six out-of-town artists.

This latest project serves as a fitting introduction to their expanded vision, Power House Productions, a non-profit organization Cope and Reichert have formed to develop and implement stabilization strategies in their neighborhood through the use of art and cultural resources. They've been organizing block clubs with their neighbors where they're tackling everyday concerns like garbage pickup and snow removal -- not ruminating on notions of gentrification and art theory.

They are knee deep in the notion and practice that art can fuel community development -- and not necessarily just the community that typically "consumes" art.

Powering Up

Cope and Reichert have been informally building relationships with their neighbors, a majority of whom are Bangladeshi, since they moved to the area five years ago. But Power House Productions takes these efforts to a next level -- at least within their targeted area bounded by the Davison Freeway, Klinger, Halleck and Conant. "Casual relationships are now becoming more formalized," says Reichert.

Part of the motivation comes from a standard lemons-out-of-lemonade situation. The last half-decade has not been kind to the area. "In some ways, the housing stock is worse," says Cope, who estimates that 10 percent of the homes in their target area are vacant. "There are many more fire-damaged houses, more vacancies."

One upside to this is a release of properties from the hands of what might be termed slumlords. "A bunch of crappy landlords walked away from properties that were problem houses in the neighborhood," says Reichert. "(This is) a positive thing about foreclosures -- not every occupancy is a good thing, community-building is more important."

Another positive to be mined from the downturn in the real estate market was the added urgency it lent to these efforts. Just prior to many "problem houses" being vacated, crime spiked, particularly scrapping. "A lot of neighbors started talking more, looking out for one another," says Reichert. "It seemed like when a lot of negatives started, people kept talking about forming block clubs, doing something."

Cope and Reichert, who keep stringent tabs on available real estate in the area, have used their savvy to acquire properties for not just out-of-town artists, but neighbors. "A couple, including an Imam, hadn't pre-registered or didn't have internet access or really understand the online auction," says Reichert. "So we bid on their behalf and the deed went into their name."

While it is not uncommon for two or more generations to live in one household in the neighborhood, it is also typical for people to "move on up" -- to the suburbs -- when they can afford to. Cope and Reichert would love to slowly change that mindset. One neighbor, appreciative of Power House's activity, is thinking about staying put. Selling a home in this real estate market "is not an easy thing to do," says Reichert. "So (it's wonderful for them) to feel like at least they have an option to stay, that it's not so desperate having to stay that maybe (this neighborhood) is going to go somewhere."

Planning vs. Making Moves; Activation vs. Occupancy

To Cope and Reichert, acquiring derelict properties is the primary priority in terms of stabilizing the neighborhood. "We don't have a top-down plan, we make moves based on availability," says Reichert, who says the team is "constantly" monitoring real estate in the area with help from the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign. "We get information, they verify the information and offer some guidance on what to do next," she says.

Once acquired, a use and potential owner can be determined. "Our goal is to get them on a different path than vacancy, a potential fire, demolition," says Reichert. "To get them on some kind of productive path, that means a lot of things, not only living."

This last point is important: Power House is looking at stabilization not in terms of strict home occupancy. "The goal isn't that every house has to be occupied, a residential family occupation -- there is a lot of room for other kids of occupancy, activation means (other things)," says Reichert. "The neighborhood benefits by diversity in the use of housing stock."

Said diversity of use can certainly be found in the four homes purchased by Juxtapoz, all located on one block of Moran just south of the Davison. The outsider art magazine held an auction to fund the project, and brought in a stable of artists to hunker down for a couple weeks in Detroit and make use of the homes as their canvases.

One house had already been tackled by a team of University of Michigan architecture fellows, who installed a Q-Bert-esque staircase among other artistic elements. For this reason, it was assigned to artist Saelee Oh. "It was more in line with her aesthetic, clean and design-y," says Reichert. "She started using the spaces and applied another layer to it."

Cope and Reichert envision this home as possibly retaining some public purpose going forward. "(We could) use it as a design lab, a house installation space," says Reichert. "It could be open once a month."

A couple of doors down, SWOON and Ben Wolf created an Escher-like effect with dormers and other architectural elements sprouting out of a severely marred property. "It's so far fire damaged that we thought about deconstructing it for materials," says Cope. "(But) half of the house was still OK to make it into a project."

While that one isn't likely to be occupied anytime soon, the one across the street has a potentially bright future. RETNA and Richard Colman teamed up with primarily paint as their medium to create a geometric world on its walls that is graphically arresting. "(It could) become either an event and location shoot spot or it could very easily go in the direction of live space," says Reichert. "We are bouncing an idea off the wall of making it a recording studio."

The fourth home evolved into a tactile collage in the hands of Monica Canilao, who dubbed it the "Treasure Nest." "They're actually talking with a group of friends about buying it as a touch down space for Detroit," says Reichert, who says that the artist and her collaborators were particularly engaged in the local art and music scenes during their time in the city.

"Our strategy has always been to attract other creative types, creative thinkers," says Reichert. "All it really takes is one new occupant in terms of a new thinking to change the attitude of a block."

Can Detroit embrace such a different consideration of the use of structures? Only time will tell. "The city's been more open minded than I expected," says Reichert. "It's funny timing, with the fact that they are rethinking things (with the Detroit Works Project), so they are way more open-minded to ideas and accessible than they were a few years ago."

A Kinder, Gentler Way of Looking at Real Estate

While real estate in the Power House area can politely be called cheap, the $100 House was a "fluke." Though Cope and Reichert have scored a fire-damaged house for $250 and five others that no one else was bidding on at a tax foreclosure auction for $500 a piece, properties typically cost a bit more than that -- but they still hear from people that balk at prices in the four-digit range.

In one instance, a house was going for $2,000 plus $4,000 in back taxes and the would-be buyer thought that was too pricey. "Too much? Listen to what you are saying," says Reichert. "There are so many places in the country where you can't buy an empty lot for $6,000 -- it's still an incredible deal."

If a prospect is looking at a home as an investment, Reichert advises them to look elsewhere. "It's about the quality of space, being part of a community," she says. "If you are putting resale value at the top of your list that doesn't make sense here, that's not the economy at work."

Cope and Reichert have plenty on their plate. There is maintenance of the properties they are monitoring and organizing efforts with other block club participants. They are planning a skate park for the northern end of the area and have established a working relationship with Fonds BKVB, a Dutch group that runs residency programs around the world and is interested in starting one in Detroit. Plus there's parenthood and their own art, all of which is integrated into Power House Productions. "It's a personal investment and it's part of our art," says Reichert.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Model D Development News editor.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Artists Richard Colman and Retna collaborate on a Power House

(Left) Gina Reichert and artist Richard Colman talk to a curious neighbor in the Power House neighborhood

Artist Monica Canilao assembling a chandelier with found objects

A Power House and Juxtapoz project

Dormer sculpture by Ben Wolf

Artist Richard Colman

Stained wood installation by Ben Wolf

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