When the Oakland North End (O.N.E.) Mile Project arrived in Detroit, the revitalization concept landed seemingly from outer space—on a "Mothership," explains designer Anya Sirota, director of the Metropolitan Observatory of Digital Culture Representation
After receiving a Knight Arts Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Sirota and her partner, Jean Louis Farges, set out to explore how design and architecture could shape the planning of urban spaces -- "if there could be a kind of bottom up planning process to doing temporary installation practice in the city," as Sirota puts it.
Partnering with the Oakland Avenue Artists of Coalition
(OACC), Sirota helped convene a public dialogue to create a community marker for the North End, a neighborhood that has been critically important to the development of culture in Detroit.
"We were imagining all of these different ideas and trying to figure out what a narrative would look like if they all came together to tell a single story. Some people were talking about music and wanting to build labyrinths, gardens and other art installations. Some were talking about the history of the place and its musical legacy in relation to Motown … Historically, we knew that all this activity happened on Oakland Avenue," says Sirota.
The story they found was funk.
"I think it was maybe 3 o'clock in the morning when my partner woke up and said, 'I think that they are talking about the birth of funk.'"
Funk as in Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk)—the legendary group, led by George Clinton, that was largely responsible for the birth of funk music in Detroit and its invasion into '70s culture.
The O.N.E. Mile Project
launched last fall last with a neighborhood concert headlined by P-Funk, unveiling a replica of the Mothership, a golden spaceship used by George Clinton and company as a stage prop throughout the 1970s (the original is now housed at the Smithsonian Institute
). Phase one of the project's mission is to transform the stretch of Oakland Avenue from East Grand Boulevard to Westminster Street by supporting area rehabilitation efforts.
"So it was born out of a lot of voices talking together and then, as architects, trying to figure out what a symbol would be to represent all of those ideas and all of that history that was already in place," says Sirota.
This month, O.N.E. Mile celebrated the first issue of the O.N.E. Mile Zine
—a biannual magazine focused on telling the narratives of the North End.
"This is part of the bigger picture which comes from this idea that there's incredible cultural production that happens in Detroit's neighborhoods, but we don't always know about it," says Sirota. "So all of the interventions that we are doing—whether the magazine or the launch of the spaceship or the bureau—it's about producing a positive image and a broadcasting the cultural production that's already happening there."
The hope is that the area will once again become the birthplace of innovative ideas, explains Bryce Detroit, a media-based cultural organizer with the OACC.
"This O.N.E. Mile Project is not narrowly about P-Funk, nor is it narrowly about music. This project is about the culture, which equals the behavior set of people. So this is the culture of the people of the North End over a continuum," says Bryce. "This is a revitalization with a valued point of community identity and cultural legacy at its roots."
He adds, "It just so happens for Oakland Avenue music is a major cultural legacy we have here."
In sharing the legacy of the North End, Bryce hopes the O.N.E. Mile Project inspires other communities in Detroit to share their legacies on their own terms.
"The point is to feel proud enough, feel self-determined and empowered enough, to tell those stories."
A new revitalization model?
In contrast to other projects that aim to "save" Detroit, Anya Sirota says the O.N.E. Mile Project was created under the guidelines that revitalization efforts should come organically.
"There are lots of people who use Detroit as a backdrop for arts practices and design practices – corporations especially do a very good job of it, lending themselves authenticity by using Detroit as a scenography to brand their own identity or their own product," says Sirota. "The way we walked into this project was to assume that we wouldn't bring any programming to any context, we would support the programming that was already happening there."
In this way, she explains, the community captains the O.N.E. Mile Project's agenda. Currently, the project has plans for a timeshare café, a greenhouse, and festival—with all reflecting some musical component of the area's history.
But making sure everyone's voice is heard in the developments is still a challenge.
"I think this is a very sensitive issue," says Sirota. "I think it's very difficult to assess whether or not you are doing a good job being completely holistic and completely inclusive of everyone's desires and sensibilities.
"The best we can do is to be as coherent and inclusive and collaborative as possible, and hope that people voice their opinions. I'm not sure that I can say we represent a single view of the way people would want their neighborhood to develop, but we are trying to be as inclusive as possible."
With that goal in mind, O.N.E. Mile rehabbed the former O.K. Barbershop on Oakland Avenue into the Bureau of Emergent Urbanity—a community thinking space that will open each Saturday.
"The Bureau was a way for us to start," says Sirota."Does that represent a truly democratic process? I'm not sure. But does it attempt to create an open-ended civic space? Yes. For sure, we're trying."
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.