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Art on the Block and NOIS envision economic power for the people in Southwest Detroit

Amelia Duran was born into a family with a strong legacy of activism in Southwest Detroit, a predominantly Latin American neighborhood. Her mother’s family has roots in the area that date back to the 1890s. Her father is a first-generation Chilean immigrant who came to Detroit in the 1970s after meeting her mother in France when he fled to Europe to escape political turmoil and social unrest in Chile.

Her father, Ismael, is a folk musician, and he would travel to perform music about Latin American struggles, which led him to arts-based activism. After moving to Southwest Detroit, he built a now- defunct arts center at 4th and Junction called La Casona, and later became the Executive Director for the Center of Music and Performing Arts Southwest (COMPÁS). Then, about five years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and co-founded Garage Cultural with Lydia Gutierrez from Hacienda Mexican Foods. A local tortilla manufacturing company.

At that time Duran had already been working in arts activism and community engagement: during the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010, she and her father helped organize the creation of a large-scale mural on Vernor Hwy. with Chilean muralist Dasic Fernandez and a group of young people from a politically-rooted arts center in the South Bronx called the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, which was created by two young hip-hop artists who were also children of Chilean exiles. She also worked with a grassroots Detroit hip-hop collective called The Raiz Up and applied for a Knight Arts Challenge grant on behalf of the organization so they could do more large-scale mural work connecting art with music in the Southwest Detroit community.

Ismael and Amelia Duran, Co-Directors of Garage Cultural.

While the collective disbanded in 2014, the mural work continued under Duran’s direction. And when her father went to Chile for a year and a half, she took on a greater role with Garage Cultural, ultimately deciding that the cultural center needed to solidify its identity, initiatives, and role in the community.

The building in which Garage Cultural is located is a warehouse owned by Lydia Gutierrez and Hacienda Mexican Foods, the organization’s first and primary business sponsor. She partnered with Ismael, allowing him to use the space and turn it into a cultural center rooted in Latin American arts and culture, but because of the constraints of the building – its too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to be active year-round, for starters – the center was more project-based, focused on short summer programs with art and music classes. We really needed to figure out what our core program components were so that we could think of ways to strategically push ourselves forward,” says Duran. “We’re in this building on Livernois that’s covered in murals – that work needed its own identity, its own initiative, that’s the idea behind Art on the Block.”

Art on the Block (Arte en la Cuadra) is a winning project of the 2017 Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit. The concept is “to highlight Southwest Detroit’s historical connection to public art with a 10-day mural blitz and arts festival that is reflective of the neighborhood’s cultural identity and heritage.”

“We want to create a larger visual impact in a smaller period of time,” Duran explains. “We’ve been doing one or two murals a year over the last five years, but they’re really spread apart. We wanted to do something that’s deeply connected to the community and draws people together in a more strategic way with a ‘brand’ and a structure to follow.”

This 10-day mural festival will be held August 2018 and will culminate in a one-day event with food, dancing, music, and visual arts – all important components of the arts in Southwest Detroit. “There will be different activities for people to engage in while they’re here,” says Duran. “We will be working with a mix of local and international artists. There has been a concentration of mural arts in our community but we also want to bring in other artists so the walls don’t start to all look the same, but our focus will be on artists that can create things that are representative of the cultural identity that exists in Southwest Detroit.”

“Mano de Obra Campesina (Hand of the Peasant Labor)” by Dasic Fernández, on the Hacienda Mexican Foods building in Southwest Detroit.

She explains that doesn’t mean exclusively Latin culture – she herself is a mix of Chilean and Irish/Czech, and although she identifies mostly as a Latina she acknowledges both cultures and stories of migration. In a community that is heavily Mexican and Puerto Rican, even people who are not Latin themselves tend to assimilate to Latin culture because it is so prominent and diverse in Southwest Detroit.

“We want the walls to be representative of the culture here because it is its own individual, unique thing,” she says. “Sometimes I jokingly tell people my ethnicity is ‘Southwest Detroit.’ Because that’s come to be my main cultural identifier; at times, it feels like its effects come even before being Latina. It’s a pretty important thing to people who grew up here. And as the city identity shifts with an increase of outside investment, we want to assert our desire to carry over our identity to future generations so it doesn’t get lost in development. It’s an issue of identity and culture: we don’t want to be culturally displaced.”

An instructor from Amen-Ra Drummers teaches a drumming class at Garage Cultural.

Just 10 years ago, Detroit was a drastically different place. Before it topped every travel publication’s list of top destinations to discover and before every major national publication began calling it a city on the rise, before billionaire developers began buying up properties in bulk and before housing demand outpaced availability, and well before median home prices nearly doubled over a three-year period, Detroit was a city left for dead, its citizens left to fend for themselves. With necessity being the mother of invention, creative (and resilient) Detroiters made it work. But with a surge of outside investment as sudden and powerful as a tsunami came a fundamental paradigm shift in a city previously left to the scrappers and the scrappy.

“As the city develops and increases its ‘policing’ and revenue base, they’re enforcing significant fees on community members to use the parks or close down streets for locally driven events. All these things have become barriers to smaller organizations trying to do grassroots things,” Duran explains. “The Unity in the Community festival in Clark Park no longer happens. The Cinco de Mayo parade still exists but on a much smaller scale than it did when I was growing up. The Puerto Rican festival couldn’t afford to sell food anymore because of the licensing the city required, making it financially impossible to continue hosting the event in the last few years. We’re really feeling this sense of loss for all these things that were a source of great pride and cohesion in the community, so we’re hoping to recreate that with Art on the Block on a large scale and try to touch on some of the themes and elements we have lost.”

A project like Art on the Block hopes to provide a renewed sense of pride and ownership in Southwest, she says, it’s important that the murals have a deep connection to the community itself.

Festival de la Diversidad y las Tradiciones in Southwest Detroit.

“The walls can’t just happen without resident involvement because then there is no feeling of collective ownership, no increased sense of local pride within our historical population. We’re conscious that as we create more murals, we open ourselves up to having more people say, ‘Oh, Southwest is so cool, let’s move there.’ It’s a fine line we are walking, so we have to do the work in a way that’s intentionally uplifting the local community, so it doesn’t become a part of our own demise.”

What Duran is getting at is probably one of the more troubling concepts in the contemporary western world: gentrification. Which is, to wit, when a neighborhood or city once populated predominantly by low-income persons, often predominantly of color, suddenly becomes desirable to moneyed investors typically as the result of grassroots creative work done by the established residents, who then start buying properties and remodeling them for a decidedly different audience, in turn driving up rent and property values, in turn driving out the very people who once lived there and made it desirable in the first place through their sweat equity which, alas, cannot compete with large sums of cash and privileged outsiders moving into the area now perceived as “cool.” This is happening all over Detroit right now, and is affecting neighborhoods in cities all across America.

For Duran, Art on the Block is not just about throwing a feel-good arts festival. It’s about creating sustainable economic opportunities for the people who already live in Southwest Detroit, and not just passively turning the neighborhood over to the outsiders who have started creeping in. The festival will bring in people who will hopefully spend money in the community and support local entrepreneurs, so that the event can be self-sustainable beyond the two-year grant period with the Knight Foundation, and continue being an annual economic driver for the neighborhood for years to come.

Festival de la Diversidad y las Tradiciones in Southwest Detroit.

“We have yet to see a community [anywhere in the world] that has been completely successful in curbing gentrification trends,” she states. “Now we have to prepare ourselves to fight against what sometimes feels inevitable. We have to create new economic strategies so that [these outsiders] are spending money on our things, things that support our local economic fabric and cultural viability to guarantee our continued presence here. We can’t just put our blinders on anymore and pretend it’s not happening. We weren’t strategic enough five to ten years ago and now we’re starting to get priced out of the places where we laid the groundwork. We’re fighting a ticking time bomb because people can’t afford the homes they want to be in, so we’re being forced to start thinking about things as capitalists even though we’re not capitalists, we’re community activists who are interested in creating collective economic strength.”

Which is why Duran is also developing NOIS – like as to make “noise,” and a name that stands for “Neighborhood Office and Incubator Space” but is also a play off of the street name “Livernois,” where Garage Cultural is located. NOIS’s mission is to “create community equity, by making noise together” and was announced in December as a 2017 ArtPlace America grantee, the only grantee from Detroit last year. NOIS will be housed in the same warehouse space as Garage Cultural and will serve as a cooperative workspace, informal gathering space or ‘community living room’ and coffee shop – what the beloved locally-owned coffee house Café Con Leche once was to Southwest Detroiters, before it became one of Southwest’s first victims of unaffordable rents.

Festival de la Diversidad y las Tradiciones in Southwest Detroit.

“NOIS is so important because that’s our economic strategy. How do we create ways to support the informal economy and uplift the community that has supported us for so long? We create a space that is rooted in entrepreneurship where people have access to shared resources, and where they can get together informally to talk to each other, everyday. We wanted to recreate the synergy that existed in Café Con Leche in a way that’s more sustainable, so it’s not just a coffee shop but a place with memberships, programming, and vital resources for us to begin advocating for ourselves collectively with city government. It’s a space with infinite potential, it’s going to be up to those using it to decide how it evolves and what kinds of things are spring boarded there.”

NOIS will eventually occupy a 3,200-square-foot storefront next to Garage Cultural, and Duran hopes that operating this small revenue-generating space will eventually trickle over into the rest of the building and allow them to renovate it to its full capacity, so that it becomes a strong cultural hub for everyone in the community.

“We have to increase our revenue streams with social enterprise in order to sustain ourselves for the future, non-profits have to be thinking about how to evolve this way” says Duran. “If we don’t start thinking pragmatically about that now and planning for it, someone with more resources will come in and do it, taking it away from the organic populations. If you do this work long enough with no money eventually people with money will take notice and want to do it themselves, reaping the benefits from the soil we made rich. Art on the Block and NOIS are part of a bigger picture of development that’s equitable for everybody”.

We’re rooted in this geographic space. We’re emotionally tied to it. We have to do this work if we want to stay here for generations to come, we don’t have any other option.”

Garage Cultural community mural “La Bestia,” in commemoration of all those who risk their lives to migrate north from Central America

(1) How do you like to collaborate? I think collaboration has really been at the forefront of the work we’ve been doing over last couple of years. When we think about what the next generation of leadership looks like in Southwest Detroit a lot of our hopes are rooted in a deep desire to be more supportive of each other to ensure that its being nurtured from within, and not transplanted from somewhere else. Because of that, we strive to be more intentionally collaborative, something we didn’t always see from our elders in the past. We value the path they laid, but we’re also conscious of how we want to build on it. For now, our collaborations are somewhat informal, we’re not always decision makers in each other’s projects. But we’re making sure that the possibility for overlap in service exists so that we are working towards developing a strong base with a sense of collective values for the future of this work in our community.

(2) How do you a start a project? I feel like a lot of things I see happening are so organic it’s hard to identify how or when they started, they’re an evolution of things that have occurred over a gradual period of time. One thing leads to the next and so on and so forth. When we were developing Art on the Block we were conscious of the fact that there was a long history of mural work being done by a lot of different people in the community dating back to the late 80’s [and beyond], it’s all relevant because it created a community desire and a historical value for mural arts. Those installations sought to provide things that made our [sometimes bleak] surroundings more aesthetically appealing, they told our stories and gave us something to be proud of. So, in some ways, Art on the Block is the culmination of the grassroots work that had been happening here for a very long time, and because of that we hope it evolves into something that everyone can participate in and feel a sense of ‘belonging’ to.

(3) How do you talk about your value? Although Art on the Block is an arts project, the value of it is twofold: it’s aesthetic because its public art, but it’s also relationship based, working to find ways to connect people and space. We’re transforming spaces and creating something the community can be proud of, to balance out the psychological trauma that exists from being surrounded by so much blight and dilapidation. Rather than seeing a blank wall on an abandoned building they see a beautiful mural. This project was originally about changing people’s perceptions of their environment to hopefully inspire them to take better care of their block and the empty spaces around them. It’s also intentional in a desire to deepen our relationships with one another, both the residents we service and the people who come to participate in any given event, everything is family and community oriented. Sometimes the base coats of a mural can be done like a paint-by-numbers, so that people are physically involved in its creation, and they can look at it later and say, “I was involved with that; I helped make that happen.” It’s about working with the community, not against it, and helping them see themselves as a critical part of the changes we want to see in our surroundings. There is also potential for it to have an economic value, it’s a one-day festival and we want people to come, participate, and see it as an annual asset. Our primary focus is always going to be to support people within the community first, but we also want individuals from the outside communities to come so that its economically appealing for our vendors to participate every year. That’s how we create value for the local artists, restaurants, etc. – therein lies its potential to create a financial benefit and impact.

(4) How do you define success? If the event had the ability to connect people in the community to one another, if everyone is engaging with it, then it was a success. Our intent is for people to be increasingly thinking about the power of collectivity, for them to see themselves as an integral part of the processes that make positive things happen in the community, so that later, we’re all working together for the things that are relevant to making our lives better. We want to make sure these projects are somehow rooted here, so residents can see and understand their own value and importance in helping us all find ways to intersect our passions with our community ‘needs’. Southwest Detroit is still a heavily immigrant based community and residents can often bury themselves within their own siloes out of fear, so presence and visibility is very important and powerful – in order for us to come together and represent our community and be encouraged to stand up for what we want [and deserve]. We can only say so much on our own, individually. We use these art projects to engage more people in things that are perceived as safe and fun, but we secretly want them to see themselves as civic leaders afterwards, so that eventually there are more people in the room when decisions are made on their behalf, and it’s not just the same 10 people screaming at the people in power. That’s what ultimately leads to a stronger, equitable, community fabric.

(5) How do you fund your work? For the last five years it’s been pretty organically funded. We built our organization through the support of Hacienda Mexican Foods as our sole corporate sponsor, they are the only reason we have been able to ‘physically’ exist within the space on Livernois, they’re like our angel investor. Things have been mostly funded by passionate people, and a small $5,000 grant here or there. It’s never truly been enough to support a working full-time staff capable of producing year-round programming. Over the last two years, Knight and the Community Foundation of SE Michigan have been our two main significant grantors. But with the work we’re planning for now, we’re really focused on seeking out opportunities for the kinds of large-scale funding that will get us to the next level. We’ve been fortunate to have foundations [like Knight and Artplace] who are willing to support developing arts and culture organizations with small annual operating budgets. There’s also been a desire to achieve a certain level of localized credibility through resident investment. Last year we did a small crowd funding campaign to raise $1,500 to purchase a plane ticket and some paint to bring Mexican artist Jesus Benitez back to repair a mural he had done in 2015. Those initiatives are not always necessarily about the money but rather about having a sense of ‘buy-in’ from the community itself, it helps us gauge how important this work is to them, individually. $20 might not seem like a lot but for our constituents, it is, and that shows that they care enough about the work that is being done to want to financially contribute to its creation and sustainability. In a perfect world, all our summer programs would be free, because our populations need that kind of access. But for other projects it can be equally important for us to be thinking about how to increase the financial potential of our families, so that they we can be mutually invested in our long-term sustainability and presence as an asset in the community, that’s at the core of the NOIS project. With Art on the Block our funding strategy is to continue to seek out grant money and match it with dollars from the local business owners whose walls we will be painting. But to ensure that it’s economically sustainable over time, we also have to think about how a percentage of everything that is produced from the large-scale events will go back into the organization so that it can continue to happen every year. The Knight grant is a two-year commitment, then we’re on our own. We can’t always guarantee that we will be able to get more grants like that, so we need to think now about how we’re going to fund it in year three.

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