Detroit is Not Your Blank Canvas

The rise of art as a means of revitalizing Detroit has become an exciting and controversial topic. I myself have been fairly skeptical and often view “art projects” with a certain about of disdain for their naivete and lack of real impact. Young gentrifiers and artists have called for Detroit to offer them more opportunities and good paying jobs, others have been drawn to the idea of “making” art in Detroit’s emptiness, and some artists have focused on Detroit as a place for only charity.

One well known example of art helping Detroit is the Heidelberg Project, which recently celebrated 25 years. The local artist who launched the project with his Grandfather is well known for taking vacant and litter-filled lots and turning them into “lots of art.” He has made his Eastside neighborhood more attractive with a mission to give young people a different vision of their neighborhoods and Detroit’s blight. Since the project began in it has faced demolition from the city and funding troubles. In 2011, the Center for Creative Community Development (C3D) conducted an economic impact study on the Hiedelberg project. The study found that:

[…] based on the nonprofit Heidelberg Project’s annual budget of $400,000 and an average 50,000 visitors per year, the annual economic impact in Wayne County is about $3.4 million. The exhibit also has led the creation of an estimated 40 jobs […]. The local economic impact — in areas of Detroit around Heidelberg — is about $2.8 million.

I have to be honest, I didn’t imagine that a neighborhood of art made from found objects could have had any impact bigger than the houses that it occupied. The Heidelberg Project is now in the process of building an art center to house the non-profit, its workshops, and other creative events. If anything the Heidelberg Project has shown that art can revitalize a community from the bottom-up.

However, there haven’t been any art projects that I have seen mirroring the example of the Heidelberg Project (have you? let me know in the comments). Most come from the outside; new arrivals to Detroit planning to make a mark on the “barren” city through art. The problem is that revitalizing Detroit needs more rooted efforts, art doesn’t always lead to economic impact, Detroit isn’t empty, and charity alone won’t solve the problems.

What about beautifying neighborhoods, painting houses that people do live in, or supporting community arts education programs?

The Allure of Revitalizing Detroit

Detroit has become a new kind of mecca for young people who want to make a difference and turn Michigan’s economy around. It has become “cool” to move to Detroit and work for a non-profit or other organization. This is all well and good and exciting, as long as young people who move to Detroit recognize that Detroit isn’t just about “saving” and doing whatever you want. There is a common misconception that Detroit is an empty landscape based on all the epic pictures dilapidated buildings taken by budding photographers, while the city has a lot of vacant properties and empty buildings downtown, the city is not empty or devoid of people. The people who remain in the city need to be engaged, included, and consulted on any project – citywide or neighborhood-based.

This often brings in the G-word: gentrification. I have written about my experiences living in Detroit, considering if I was a gentrifier, and calling for greater understanding of the city’s racial history and the privilege that many young artists bring into Detroit. Recently, Huffington Post Detroit, published a long article by Tommy Simon who wrote as a “young gentrifier” struggling to get by, but failed to realize that there is a large population in Detroit that has been struggling for much longer. He called for a stronger creative economy in Detroit that could provide senior level jobs for himself and his friends by noting that other young gentrifiers in other cities don’t have it this bad.

“Because I grew up in the suburbs and was mystified by the allure of being a part of the revitalization of Detroit. […] And while I hope I do not have to argue the importance of a city providing employment, I will clarify that I am not simply talking about any job, but a job that allows a young person like myself to put my education and creativity to good use.”

To me this represents the disconnect between wanting to revitalize Detroit and understanding that it isn’t a simple creative endeavor. In the name of “revitalization” artists can’t overlook existing efforts or forget to engage a neighborhood community. An excellent example of this is the fight over an “art house” in North Corktown.

“The art house people didn’t buy it, pay taxes, or intend to live in it,” said Samul. “They were just going to use it to play in.”

Often what the “Detroit is empty” misconception means for “art” is a disregard for existing Detroit efforts and communities in the name of revitalization. In this case the art house was framed as gentrification, but in the end the “art house” best represented the failure of art to connect to community. For any artists, this should be a lesson in talking to key community stakeholders before getting creative.

Art = Employment?

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) is working on incubating and developing a creative economy in Detroit. In recent years there has been an upswing of art centers in Detroit from College for Creative Studies and the School for Creative Studies to MOCAD and Art Detroit Now  to the Detroit Design Festival (DDF) and Arts Corps Detroit, along with a long list of Detroit creative endeavors that have made art an important aspect of Detroit’s growth and image. The Knight Foundation released its list of grant winners of initiatives in Detroit that are “advancing contemporary life.” Among them were 2 groups working to advance the creative side of Detroit’s recovery, LOVELAND Technologies and the Mt. Elliot Makerspace.

But, does art and creative investment really drive jobs and economic growth?

For each dollar the state of Michigan spends on arts and culture, $51 goes back into the state economy. In Detroit alone, the 28 organizations included had total direct expenditures of more than $127 million and employed 2,657 staff. (source: about Report from ArtServe Michigan)

Art and the creative sector can no longer be ignored when talking about Detroit’s future growth. The impacts that have been measured thus far show that through programs like the Heidelberg Project the city and sometimes neighborhoods benefit from art.

“Vibrancy is probably the best proxy we have for the quality of place,” Coletta says. “Quality of place is essential for attracting and retaining human capital. And human capital is essential to the economic well-being of communities.” (source)

Art can no longer be ignored as an economic impactor, but if art can build vibrancy and revive communities it begs the question: for whom does art revive communities? For gentrifiers? For suburban weekend visitors? For the 1 million tourists who come to Detroit?

Artists need to consider their privilege, communities need to be engaged by artists interested in revitalizing Detroit, and art projects need to have a more direct impact for Detroit’s neighborhoods.


From my quick and far from extensive research I have found very few instances of art and creativity benefiting Detroiters, neighborhoods, and those in need. One of my other favorite examples of a creative project that has actually impacted the Detroit community is the Empowerment Plan a versatile street coat/ sleeping bag created by a CCS student, Veronika, but developed in close cooperation with Detroit’s homeless population. As the project grew Veronika was able to employ some of the homeless individuals who helped her with the initial ideas.

the missing ingredients from Jamie Oliver’s #FoodRevolution

Since November 2010, when I started working with adolescents in the Detroit area tackling childhood obesity, television shows that deal with weight loss and healthy eating have become more interesting. I diligently watched The Biggest Loser and similar shows to re-examine the tactics they use and how successful they were.

More recently I’ve been caught up in Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” because what children and adolescents eat at school is a critical piece if the current trends of obesity are going to be reversed. I’ve been very interested in Jamie Oliver’s attempt to become a healthy food “rockstar” from the UK (sorry Jamie, you can’t compete with First Lady Michelle Obama). Watching the most recent season in Los Angeles, I can’t tell you how many times I yelled at the screen about how ineffective Jamie’s tactics were or how naive he was going up against an institutionalized system.

I don’t doubt Jamie’s good intentions or his passion for the work, but if this is going to be a real revolution then there needs to be some basic understandings of behavioral change and social change as well as community engagement. I’m not sure if this is just a case of making good TV by “making noise” vs. making social change by public health, but there is room for improvement.

Behavioral Change

With the recent release of new cigarette packaging and the tactics used on Jamie Oliver’s show, it has become obvious that many people disregard research in lieu of “making noise as public health.” Any first year public health student (or someone in close proximity) could tell you that the “Health Belief Model” (HBM) of making people change their habits by highlighting fears no longer works, especially among young people. The HBM relies on scare tactics, some of the best example are from old posters from the 1940-50s that feature skeletons, sharks, and death if you don’t immunize your child, cover your cough, etc. The posters and messages worked for the time period when people were scared of new health issues and followed the messages, but we live in a different time. People don’t respond to scare tactics or negative messages. This is true across the board: in politics, with non-profits, and especially within public health interventions.

The scare tactics that Jamie uses, predictably, have minimal impact on changing people’s minds or getting more people involved. People prefer to be told what is going right or what can easily be done to make things better. Messages that empower individuals and reinforce positive behaviors are more likely to receive a respond. People want to know that they have the ability to make the changes themselves. When Jamie has a classroom discussion with adults who are facing health problems as a result of their past bad eating habits and lack of activity he fails to realize earlier that this is something the teens are facing already with their own family members. Studies have shown that young people respond even less to HBM tactics like these, largely because out of all age groups young people like to know that they have control of their lives – and they do!

Tactics for Social Change

I know its a TV show, but one man cannot make a revolution happen. Any community organizer will tell you that it takes many hands and years to make real and lasting changes to systems and structures that are doing harm. Jamie Oliver stands in a great position to include more people, spread awareness, and organize communities to work together to change their political and educational systems for better school health. However, that is not what happens. Jamie is always surprised by the low turnout and minimal impact of filling a bus with sugar or getting upset with the LAUSD superintendent. Telling parents that they are doing everything wrong won’t create community buy-in.

It isn’t until the final episode that Jamie encounters a group of parents protesting high sugar flavored milk in the schools that a first real attempt to meet people where they are happens. There are many people who want a food revolution and they are already doing the hard work. The final episode is also where Jamie brings together a group of top chefs in LA to run a competition with school cooking teams. This is a great example of the necessary coalition building and community engagement that needed to happen closer to step one.

If you want to change the policies of structure of a system, then you can’t start at the top. The superintendent, as we saw, has the power to kick people out, but not change whole policies. Jamie needed to start by building relationships with people within the system who have more power to push for change. The cafeteria workers would have been a great start. When Jamie finally met some of them, they were overjoyed with his message and could have been  a big force for change in food preparation. The superintendent wasn’t on board, but maybe one of the Board members was sympathetic to the food revolution message and could have been an important ally inside. You have to work on smaller targets before you can take on your primary target.

Building a coalition of people both inside and outside the system that you want to change is critical to making real social change. Jamie kept trying to take on his primary target, the superintendent, as an outsider with no community backing. You have to start with the hard organizing work of bringing together other influential community members, workers in the system, and individuals with power inside the system in order to effectively push for change.

Community Engagement

Throughout the whole season it was painfully obvious that the community wasn’t behind Jamie’s antics, but there weren’t very many opportunities for collaboration. Many of the points I want to make about community engagement are already listed above, but I do have one key ingredient that was missing in Jamie’s outreach.

Listening. From Jamie’s first show in LA he was telling people what was wrong. He used a series of scare tactics about school meat by waving inedible raw pieces of cow in parents’ faces. It was gross and it made a point, but it didn’t give anyone the opportunity to get involved.

Thinking back between the first show and the final show, if Jamie (or his crew) had taken the time to LISTEN and find people who were already championing the cause of better school food then he might have had a more successful season.


Jamie ended this season by saying, “It’s not about me. […] We all gotta start stirring the pot.” I have more hope for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution after the final show where he did some community listening, some great community engagement, and even some coalition building. Maybe he is even beginning to recognize that the problem isn’t all on his televised shoulders, but it is shared across the community – and they want change too.

Here are a few improvements to tactics that could revolutionize the food revolution:

  1. LISTEN to a community before acting on their behalf
  2. Focus on systems change, not just people in power
  3. Practice patience: the problem wasn’t created overnight, its not going to go away overnight
  4. Use inclusive tactics: don’t reprimand or scare