Resilient Neighborhoods: SW Detroit youth arts collective strives to build community with creativity

If you ask 21-year-old Alexis Escoto, summer in Southwest Detroit is all about the cool spray of an open fire hydrant; it’s kids laughing as they run and play; neighbors riding their bikes and walking through Clark Park; a musical fusion rising on Vernor Highway. It's more time outdoors surrounded by his community’s vibrant murals celebrating neighbors' cultural heritage, everyday life, and vitality.

"Having a mural on a building is a free way to relax and enjoy the city, nature, and local artists," he says. "Seeing them gives [people] a break fromAlexis Escoto work, school, or whatever life situation they’re in. They can walk throughout the community and appreciate all the colors of the community."

Escoto is a member of the Detroit Creative Society (DCS), a self-named collective of young people across Southwest Detroit, ages 14 to 26. The group is housed at the Congress of Communities (COC), a local nonprofit dedicated to creating cross-community conversations and collaboration between residents, stakeholders, and youth. 

The collective, having just celebrated its first year, aims to foster and uplift artists and talents in Southwest Detroit by providing the access and support they need to grow. 

Since joining, Escoto has been thinking about his art as more than a hobby. He’s eager to grow his skillset and perhaps follow in the footsteps of artists like Freddy Diaz and Elton Monroy Durán, creators of his favorite Southwest Detroit murals. 

On Springwells Street, on the side of La Posada Market, Diaz has paid tribute to his childhood landscape. The mural includes a view of the Michigan Central Train Station from Vernor Highway, a nod to the community’s strong Catholic ties through a depiction of Sacred Heart, and a memory he and Escoto both hold, joy under a fire hydrant spray. Durán’s “Dream Picker” adorns the State Farm Agency on Vernor Highway, telling the story of all immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones, holding a dream in one hand and their heart in the other. 

When he thinks about this type of visual storytelling, Escoto says he wants to bring more of his Chicano heritage to Detroit’s scenery. 

At the DCS, he and other young creatives are collectively brainstorming what type of art they want to contribute to the area. The group’s initial project was creating a community art bench together on which members painted their handprints, representing their commitment to work together to uplift arts and culture in Southwest Detroit. The bench typically sits outside COC’s youth house when it's not with the collective at an event, offering folks a seat and an artistic selfie background. 

The young artists are now thinking on a larger scale. The group is part of the Cultural Crossroads Initiative, a partnership between Southwest Solutions and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, to connect communities around the Michigan Central Station and surrounding campus renovation. 

Communities in Southwest Detroit, Hubbard Richard, Hubbard Farms, Corktown, and North Corktown have been separated through the years due to gentrification and resource inequities, according to COC’s Director of Youth Programming, Chinelo Onuigbo.

The DCS will begin creating an art installation at the intersection of Hubbard Richard and Corktown in July. They aim to honor the work previously done by Southwest Detroit muralists in this area while contributing something new — a mural, a sculptural piece, or another art form— to foster community connection and pride in Southwest Detroit’s rich cultures, histories, talents, and contributions. They also consider how they might collaborate with local artists or community members.

Escoto says he’s often felt disconnected from the Corktown neighborhoods with a "downtown" feel. When he and his friends cruise Vernor Highway, they usually turn around at the viaduct, which feels like the end of home. He’s hopeful the installation will connect the neighborhoods as residents come to see the art and that it may expand his community’s sense of representation and familiarity.  

"Having our art project there will give people more confidence to eventually explore downtown, Corktown, Midtown, the whole city of Detroit," he says. "To see the whole city as their home, not just Southwest."

Members of the Detroit Creative Society pose in front of CoC's Youth-Driven Community Center.
For the community, by the community

With room to grow, the Detroit Creative Society currently has eight core members that meet biweekly at COC’s new youth-driven community center. Chinelo, an adult ally to the group, says participants have been working over the past year to solidify the collective, build a strong foundation, and plan events and art engagement in the area. 

She says a lot of intentional behind-the-scenes work went into ensuring the group is successful and equitable. Before launching, COC held focus groups to hear neighbors’ ideas for the collective and what the application and recruitment process should be. Now, its participants lead its direction and programming.

"It’s really up to the youth to guide where the program goes," Chinelo says, "which is very powerful in a society that often times silences youth voice."

Kaylee Walker, 18, wants the collective to engage in more service opportunities like the hygiene resource pop-up they hosted in January at the Clark Park Winter Carnival.
Kaylee Walker
The group originally planned to give away art supplies like paints, paintbrushes, and sketchbooks to help young artists grow. But when they saw the essential needs of their community, members expanded offerings to provide free hair care products, hygiene items, pads and tampons, blankets, and more. 

"It was really nice seeing everybody smile," says Walker. "Personally, I understand what it's like not having something you need and it being so basic. Giving that stuff away and seeing somebody else be happy felt really good."

Walker joined the collective after she saw a DCS flyer last year at Western International High School. When making art, she feels in control of her mind and can let go of things that weigh on her. An aspiring mechanic, she especially loves creative projects where she can get her hands dirty.

Being a part of the collective has introduced Walker to new people, which she enjoys. Recently, she and her peers held a logo competition in the community to uplift young artists and to help brand themselves. They sought a logo representing the group of young creatives and activists living in Southwest Detroit and the community-building aspects of its surrounding neighborhoods.

The first-place winner, Ximena Arriaga, received a cash award of $500 for her depiction of a sun rising out of water. Colleen Crongeyer, the second-place winner, received a $250 cash prize for her design featuring the Cosmos flower native to Mexico. Escoto says Arriaga’s winning logo held a range of meanings to the group’s members.

“I saw the sunlight as a symbol of rising from the ashes, like Detroit,” he says. “I see us, the Detroit Creative Society, rising from the ashes of Detroit, bringing arts and culture and highlighting local artists in that rise.”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller