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The Rust Belt is new frontier for urban planning and design

Richey Piiparinen  |  04/22/10 @ 3:00pm

Heading into Detroit last weekend, there was a spray-painted message atop one of many skeletal buildings that read: "Destroy what destroys". In some respects, the words ring of a method of taking on abandonment frontally, destructively. And without a doubt, given the state of so many of the houses I saw first-hand, this is needed. But what artist and philosopher Tyree Guyton has been doing with a whole street of vacancy brings to mind those Judo masters navigating the force against them by fighting it far less than letting it harmlessly pass through.

Along Heidelberg Street-in a section of the city not far from downtown-Guyton began decades back with the simple goal of changing the way the neighborhood looked; but he has since changed the face of public art. In short, with his Heidelberg Project, Guyton takes the abandonment of a whole neighborhood and holds it as one would their stare at a sunrise: longingly, and with more hope than regret. Framing the vacancy, then, with vacant house art and sculptures made of discarded items, Guyton stands the convention of what has been dubbed "ruin porn" on its head by taking junk and layering it on disinvested houses or limbless trees, and the double-down of "bad" brings to life a neighborhood that has been left to fend for itself for a long time coming.

And to say he is reframing, reimagining-this is an understatement. Because what Guyton is really doing is creating another reality. Not through delusion or illusion or denial, but by taking the way-too-real reality of inner city Detroit and splashing it in color and advocacy in the form of spotlighting those things that have caused us harm through their promise of pleasure and companionship. Things like the TVs, and shoes, and cigarettes, and stuffed animals, or the stuff we often buy and turn on when we are feeling a little off. And then of course the old houses that no one cares for anymore because everyone began chasing the same dream somewhere else: they too are the relics of our want. And so like smoke lines left in the sky after jets, people's actions will also leave trails behind, and it sometimes fills the inner-city with vacancy for those still residing in it.

But this is no pity story, at least not on Guyton's block. As art is taught to kids who need a creative outlet from what an impoverished city can seem to stuff in. And tourists come by the bunch. And people are farming and mowing just off the street's main vacant house exhibit drag. And little girls holding Chihuahuas on leashes giggle as the dogs bark at the tourists as if to seal the fact that normalcy rests here-in the most dreamlike of places. Again, then: like a Judo fighter taking a punch with acceptance, Guyton frames the failure of what the Ground Zero of post-industrialization has to offer, and swallows it whole. Only to spit it back out like a sufferer returning to grace with prayer…

No doubt, Guyton's recourse is not a traditional means of dealing with a surplus of houses that have perhaps forever lost their appeal to potential residents, but it nonetheless strikes of a frontier-like approach to urban design-and it is an approach that has recently led planning expert Alex Krieger of Harvard to suggest that it'll be the "kind of empty containers" cities like Cleveland and Detroit from which 21st century ideas of urban design will flow. And while the engine of such projects as outdoor public galleries will never profess to saving the economy of a city, a city is not built on the foundation of just finance, but on its ability to innovate using a variety of capital, especially those creative and social. In fact, the shrinking city is a canvas. The vacant house is a canvas. And we must not be hesitant to fill it up in new ways to fulfill the opportunity its blankness has granted.

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