It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.
A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:
Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.
The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.
On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.
I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.
A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.
We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.
I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.
Liveliness at the Edges
The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.
He suggested antagonists need one another:
For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’
Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.
The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.
If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.
The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”
Recognizing Organized Complexity
The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.
Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:
As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)
This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:
Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.
The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.