The downfall, many problems, and staggering challenges of Detroit have been abundantly chronicled, here and elsewhere. During our visits to Cranbrook, in the Motor City’s metropolitan area, Kish and I have been awed by the magnitude of Detroit’s predicament. With entire neighborhoods falling apart, acres of rubble where once there were productive, tax-paying employers, and burned out and abandoned houses and derelict commercial buildings and former factories around every corner, where do you start?
It seems clear that local government can’t lead the recovery process. The task is too overwhelming, and the city of Detroit simply doesn’t have the money or the manpower. If there is going to be a renaissance of sorts, it will be led by by individuals who are willing to commit, invest their own money and sweat equity, and take the personal and financial risks that inevitably come with being the first in on the urban renewal effort.
Russell has decided to become part of this risk-taking process. He’s leased studio space in a gritty building in Highland Park, one of the Detroit neighborhoods that is struggling to recover. His studio is in what was a manager’s office of a formerly abandoned industrial building that once was home to squatters. The factory was purchased by a sculptor from New Zealand named Robert Onnes, who saw artistic opportunity in the building’s high ceilings, open spaces, and many windows. Onnes will be using some of the vast interior space as his metal-working studio, and now Russell and some of his Cranbrook classmates are also part of the vanguard.
The building is very much a work in progress, with lots of work to be done in improved weatherproofing and power supply among many other issues, but a look at what it was when it was first acquired shows that it has made progress already. When we moved some of Russell’s materials in to his space over the weekend, the owner was there supervising work on the building. Russell and the other can-do artists no doubt will be supplying some elbow grease to improve their studio spaces, too.
It’s just one building in a vast and deeply troubled urban area — but perhaps it’s a start.