The Art of Neighborhood Innovation recapped

On a night filled with great words about stellar, neighborhood-building projects, the best words came near the last, when gallery owner George N'Namdi began to talk about "fun" and "love."

Spoken like a guy who understands the business of art for what it is, N'Namdi said: "It's hard work. It's really not fun." A few skeptical guffaws were heard in the big room at MOCAD. "Let me tell you the truth: you love it, you love what you're doing, don't get me wrong. But it's not like you wake up and go 'I can't wait to have this fun today.'"

Ah, yes. A wonderful, reality-based response to what is a probably a widely-held belief that artists and entrepreneurs who make art their business are living in some sort of candy-coated la-la land. All fun fun fun, not like real work at all. Not so, N'Namdi expressed in the phrase above. Not so, according to the other three panelists -- Gina Reichert, of Power House Productions and Design 99; Erik Howard, TAP (The Alley Project) Gallery; and Kate Daughdrill, Edible Hut -- at Friday's Model D speaker series. Moderator Tunde Wey of UIX moderated the discussion.

The event itself celebrated a year's worth of hard work by the Urban Innovation Exchange, a project formed via a partnership between the Knight Foundation and Model D's parent company, Issue Media Group.

UIX project leader Claire Nelson talked about UIX as a group that has reported on "urban innovation and neighborhood transformation in Detroit over the last year. We've talked to hundreds of Detroiters across the city working on small-scale projects to improve quality of place in their communities. Over and over we’ve heard the same thing," Nelson said. "The larger goal here is to enhance a sense of community connectedness -- and often, this begins with art and design. This could be a mural project, or a garden or park, a storefront, a gallery, a district -- but it starts with a focal point where people can gather to meet, talk, create and exchange."

All of the panelists created focal points where community and neighborhood life could grow.

Gina Reichert said the Power House project is in the same Detroit neighborhood north of Hamtramck in which she lives, and that the work grew out of living there.

"We do projects we like: small, pocket recreation centers. The artists we work with 'get it.' We build relationships, then partnerships. We want artists to integrate art practice into neighorhood life. We use art as the 'in' for a positive experience for people in our neighborhood. I identify our neighbors as our audience. What we do is for the community we live in."

Erik Howard said that by developing the TAP Gallery in a Southwest Detroit alley, "we found ways to leverage what we enjoy to meet other people's needs." He said people in the neighborhood near Woodmere Cemetery had no problem allowing artists to paint on their garages instead of gang writers leaving graffiti there. "Artists needed a place to paint; and our neighbors wanted to stop the vandalism of their properties." 

In the Osborn neighborhood, on the city's northeast side, Kate Daughdrill said that what people wanted was "a beautiful space, where neighbors could walk to and meet each other. We created a place for gathering, an outdoor classroom, a place for healthy activity in the neighborhood."

N'Namdi talked about his role in developing the neighborhood where MOCAD now stands -- the historic Sugar Hill district, once a Detroit jazz hub before it was earmarked for demolition as part of construction of the John D. Dingall VA Medical Center in the mid-1990s -- as going for it "long term."

"My wife and I came to Detroit (over 30) years ago to start a school. Then we started an art gallery because Detroit needed more art. It still needs more art galleries, a lot more galleries, 40 or 50 right in this area. I'm sure I never heard of 'placemaking' when I started doing this. But that's what we're doing with Sugar Hill. Creating an art economy in a place to show, buy and sell art."

Walter Wasacz is Model D's managing editor. The video is by Cass Corridor Films. It was shot by Geoff George and edited by Oren Goldenberg. Thanks to MOCAD for keeping the lights strong and bright.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.