Transplant Exploits: Detroit's Savior Complex

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff

not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street

but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff

like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin

this is mine!

this aint yr stuff

now why don’t you put me back

& let me hang out in my own

self

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff!

& didn’t care enuf to send a note home sayin

i was late for my solo conversation

or two sizes too small for my own tacky shirts

what can anybody do wid somethin of no value on

a open market?

did you getta dime for my things?

hey man

where are you goin wid alla my stuff?!

***

Narratives are important. They shape the way we understand a history, or time. Arguably, even more important than the narrative itself is the person sharing the narrative. The Storyteller, the person who has the privilege of using their voice to amplify an epoch. Storytellers are powerful; they have an unlimited amount of responsibility as they serve as translators of sorts, informing, re-contextualizing, and inciting . Storytellers also have the opportunity to misconstrue truths, fabricate histories, and misinform. Narratives can be held captive by people who don’t narrate justly.

In a city like Detroit, the latter happens often when there are stories told about the city through a narrowed voice and perspective. Journalism about Detroit has become wildly problematic - often times just recounts of a short visits to the city that include several ruin porn photo references paired with the thematic narrative of an overdue reconstruction and renaissance. This is a false narrative. There is no renaissance. Renaissance is often defined as a cultural rebirth. Detroit’s culture did not die. The cultural vibrancy is more so a continuation and evolution of a strong arts community that has been in existence for some time.

Ryan Mendoza is a storyteller of sorts, and an artist who has benefited from Detroit’s vibrant art community. Maybe not a self proclaimed storyteller, but he indeed, tells stories. In a recent Guardian article, Mendoza shared a short story of his most recent project “The White House,” where he has taken apart a home in Detroit and transported nearly every piece of the home to Rotterdam, Netherlands to transform the house into a piece of art. “When I started on this project, my thoughts were clear. I wanted to bring a house back to Europe from America,” he said.  Living and working between Berlin and Naples, Mendoza recently came to Detroit to take something that does not belong to him and use it for his own benefit. Simply put, Mendoza mutilated a house on 20194 Stoepel St, Detroit, MI 4822. The house was situated in a once active neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side. With the support of his “friend in Detroit,” Gregory Johnson, an alleged corrupt “business man,” Harley K. Brown and Geert Verbeke, he exported the home to Rotterdam and painted it all white. The house will be exhibited and auctioned at the Verbeke Foundation in April.

While Mendoza acknowledges the prior use of the home somewhat, sharing a bit about the Thomas family who lived in the house before losing it to the Detroit City Land Bank, he does so only in an effort to re-center his own narrative and motivations for using the house. “I wanted the house to be white. I had to protect the memories and cover up the ruin porn. I had to protect the gaze of the porn-mining onlookers,” he said. I’m not sure why white is the color that would solve this issue. I presume whiteness is right in the eyes of Mendoza.

If Mendoza wants to preserve the memories and the tragic end that forced the Thomas family out of the home, Mendoza should do that. Not through controlling the onlookers gaze by re-centering white male-perspective, (a view that is beyond over-saturated in the art historical cannon), but rather amplifying the voices of the Thomas family and many others who were forced of out their homes as a result of the the mortgage crisis. The contemporary art world does not gain anything from this linear perspective.  Mendoza’s actions are actually worse than ruin porn. Instead of spotlighting a fragment of Detroit through topical image like most ruin pornographers, he exploits a narrative that does not belong to through the physical manipulation of an artifact.

Mendoza’s story is not an anomaly. Precedence has given us other tales of a (white male) artists/creatives looking to take something that isn't theirs in an effort to change Detroit narratives for the better. But we must ask: better by whose standards? Mendoza’s goal was to take a blighted property in Detroit, turn it into a work of art whereby “people in Detroit could be proud” of the repurposed structure. My question is how can Detroiters experience this new transformed art object and develop a sense of pride around it when they have no access to the final product? This effort might have been somewhat successful if the repurposed structure was available on view in the city in which it was first built.

When transplants come to Detroit and take objects that seem abandoned (in many cases, these are places people were forced out of), I am reminded of a poem by  Ntozake Shange, Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff:

 

i wants my things

i want my arm wit the birth mark

& my leg wit the bike burns

i want my calloused feet & quik language back in my mouth

fried plantains

pineapple pear juice

sun-ra & joseph & jules

i want my own things

how i lived them

& give me my memories

how i waz when i waz there

you cant have them or do nothin wit them

stealin my shit from me

dont make it yrs

makes it STO…LEN

While the impetus behind Ntozake Shange’s poem was influenced by an abusive Lover, the sentiment is parallel to the pain Detroiters experience as they have to part with their homes (and by extension, their communities).  

Photo: Frank Hanswijk

Photo: Frank Hanswijk

Often times,  people come to Detroit under the guise of restoration and development. As a Detroiter, the feeling is indescribable.  You feel like someone has taken something from you. This theft has happened so discreetly and seamlessly, that you’re not sure if the absence of this thing is of benefit to you or not. It is a part of you. You feel like a piece of you has been taken away. Your stuff. You go through a tumult of emotions: relief, sadness, confusion, frustration. In the end, your stuff has become a commodity at someone else's gain. This thing, your stuff, that was once yours, your entire home, a part of your home, is now in the hands of someone else. Someone who is maybe more qualified, or just has more resources than you, who can maybe do your story “justice.” I mean he saved it from demolition right? The building is just ruin porn, it’s not being used anyway...right? This person tells a story about your stuff as if it were his own. He mentions you but you're just a small factor in the grand narrative. He takes your stuff to a place to which you are unable to travel. He said he would tell your story. Your stuff is in a gallery to be sold. Will you see the profits from this transaction? Maybe. The artist will receive more if the “art” sells. But he is telling your story...

somebody almost run off wid alla my stuff!!

& i waz standin there

lookin at myself

the whole time & it waznt a spirit took my stuff

waz a man whose ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow

waz a man faster than my innocence

waz a lover

i made too much room for

almost run off wit alla my stuff

& i didnt know i’d give it up so quik

& the one runnin wit it

don’t know he got it

& i’m shoutin this is mine

& he dont know he got it/

i gotta get my stuff to do it too

why dont ya find yr own things

& leave this package of me for my destiny

what ya got to get from me?

I’m not just upset with Ryan Mendoza. I also have a grievance to pick with my fellow Detroiters who buy into this notion of the savior complex. Since the Guardian article went live, and a few editorial responses were published since, criticizing the artist’s efforts, I have had a few conversations with fellow Detroiters, most of whom are Black, who think that Mendoza’s actions are a short-term solution to a long-term issue. ‘It was going to get demolished anyway,’ many have said. This is a dangerous line of thinking.

By supporting art projects like “The White House”, you are ultimately perpetuating the narrative of a helpless Detroit in need of saving. This paralyzes our own ability to organize and contributes to a false notion that we are unable to solve issues on our own. By supporting Mendoza, we affirm outsiders’ beliefs that we need their help.

Yet, there are many organizations in Detroit that are mobilizing to rectify and reconstruct vacant properties and activate neighborhoods that have experienced systemic forms of neglect. For the sake of clarity, I charge people to refer to unused properties in Detroit as vacant rather than abandoned. Due to the housing crash in 2008, residents were forced out of their homes, many did not willingly abandon their own homes. When we speak of abandonment in Detroit, we are cryptically referring to the white citizens who left, a small demographic of the population in Detroit.

Beware of the Dandelions, Courtesy of Allied Media Projects

Beware of the Dandelions, Courtesy of Allied Media Projects

Nonetheless, there are creators in Detroit who are tackling the issue of blight and community development without exploitation. For instance, the artist collective Complex Movements uses a variety of media to engage individuals in communities around the nation to participate in an immersive environment designed to embody the communal lessons found within complex sciences. The interactive pod, Beware of the Dandelions, inspired by Grace Lee Boggs and community led social justice movements, encourages the notion that change happens through critical connections rather than critical mass. Complex Movements has equipped themselves with information that helps communities work through issues around gentrification, blight, and social injustice.

Another project in Detroit doing similar work is the O.N.E Mile collective based in the North End of Detroit. The organization is a multidisciplinary effort, aiming to influence social-economic development in the North End through design. They use everything from a zine to a replica of the George Clinton inspired Mothership to engage with community and promote revitalization through design. O.N.E Mile begs to consider nuance around urban development and design through architectural intervention and various forms of media, that have proven impactful for the North End Detroit neighborhood, the organization aims to revitalize.

Mothership, Courtesy of O.N.E Mile

Mothership, Courtesy of O.N.E Mile

As architects, urban designers and artists continue to come to Detroit and use the blighted landscape as a space for experimentation, I urge you to consider the lives that have been lived here. The trauma experienced in these lives. Loss of homes, jobs, and other prized possessions. Consider these narratives as you aim to locate remedies for innovation. We, as Detroiters, welcome change but not at the expense of exploiting our own narratives and spaces for your personal gain.  

i’ll give it to ya

yeh i’ll give it to ya

round 5:00 in the winter

when the sky is blue-red

& Dew City is gettin pressed

if it’s really my stuff

ya gotta give it to me

if ya really want it

i’m the only one

can HANDLE it

Notes:

[1} somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,  For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

***

Taylor Renee Is Co-Editor of ARTS.BLACK