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The Rise and Risk of the Mural Economy

Individual artists and multibillion-dollar corporations are using street art to paint over Detroit’s troubled past. But they risk turning a countercultural art form into just another tool for economic development.

Victor Luckerson

Detroit’s Eastern Market is buzzing with tourists, transplants, and locals who never left. But Sydney James is stock still, staring down another one of the city’s blank walls. In her right hand she holds a can of blue Montana spray paint, which she begins to shake to keep the fluid even. There’s a rhythm to her work: spray, pause, spray, pause, shake. Her strokes are not planned — “You have to develop a relationship with every single individual can, because they all behave differently,” she tells me — but they’re not spontaneous either. Her mural emerges from that space between structure and serendipity, where the labor of creativity happens.

She’s painting the folds of a sweatshirt on a young boy, who stands more than 15 feet tall on the side of a food production plant as he clutches an apple and a water bottle. A massive blue lion (yes, the Detroit one) bursts across half the white expanse of the wall, acting as the boy’s shadow and alter ego. The model for the piece is her 9-year-old nephew, Lamont; when onlookers walk by and ask the real Lamont if that’s him towering like a god over the parking lot, he bows regally.

James has three other murals in this patchwork of old warehouses, but her work sprawls to every corner of the city: a colorful display of painted doors from vacant buildings in the neighborhood where she grew up to the north, a mural of a black woman gazing down the street behind a soul food restaurant to the west, and a painting of Michael Phelps plunging through the water at an Under Armour store downtown. Public art can be a community rallying point, a magnifying glass for the marginalized, or simply a paycheck, depending on the contour of the strokes. “Artists just want to create art,” James says as she fills in Lamont’s water bottle. “So if you give us a wall or platform to put our work, it’s a billboard for what we do.”

James is participating in Murals in the Market, an annual festival that recruits artists from around the world to paint the area surrounding Detroit’s 127-year-old farmers market. Now in its fourth year, the event has brought more than 150 public art pieces to the mostly commercial district, ranging from a photorealistic take on Detroit’s hip-hop pioneers to a giant tiger assembled from Technicolor polygons. The densely painted neighborhood is part open-air museum, part Detroit history lesson, and part Instagram playground. Smithsonian Magazine recently named the gathering one of the best mural festivals in the world.

(Clockwise from upper left) Detroit native Sydney James paints a mural of her nephew Lamont at the Murals in the Market Festival; her Michael Phelps mural at an Under Armour store in downtown Detroit; another James at Eastern Market; another piece by James at Brightmoor’s Sweet Potato Sensations
Victor Luckerson

But Detroit’s public art reaches far beyond Eastern Market. Cruise down Gratiot Avenue, one of the main drags that feeds into downtown, and you’ll spot Shepard Fairey’s hypnotic 184-foot mural from miles away. Near the Fairey mural, a formerly abandoned alleyway has been converted into a posh nightlife district lined with cocktail bars and elegant street art. A 10-story parking deck, adorned with a bright purple “Z” on top, is filled with 27 commissioned murals that commuters see as they wind their way up or down the structure. All these projects were financed by Bedrock Detroit, the real estate developer that Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is using to transform downtown Detroit, one abandoned building at a time.

From individual artists to multibillion-dollar corporations, there’s a concerted effort afoot to paint over Detroit’s troubled past and create a more colorful, prosperous future. Street art is key to the city’s comeback narrative, which is as carefully cultivated as the artwork itself. “There is a mural economy in Detroit,” says Murals in the Market co-founder Jesse Cory. “We’ve played a role in that, creating that economy, by creating a density of murals in one neighborhood, creating a story around the neighborhood, [and] creating a story around the artists.”

Detroit has long attracted artists due to its rock-bottom housing prices and abundant empty structures, but the recent rush of private investment has led to an explosion of projects that mix art and economic development. “Street art” straddles an ambiguous middle ground between the stodgy world of art galleries and the rebellious underworld of graffiti writers. It’s a visual language that differs from neighborhood to neighborhood and from artist to artist, but it tends to become tied to the buzzwords of economic upheaval, like “hip” and “up-and-coming.” Street art signifies culture, and American businesses have never been more adept at exploiting and commodifying culture at scale.

Detroit is different from the American cities that have become strangled by affluence in recent years. The Motor City’s population declined again in 2017, continuing a streak that stretches back to the 1950s. Despite the recent frenzy of development, there remain plenty of vacant buildings downtown, and lots of crumbling ones in other neighborhoods. Detroit is still less a city of cranes than one of bulldozers, in need of new investment, new residents, and new art to brighten its many dilapidated walls.

But the anxieties about gentrification here are similar to those in other places because the signifiers — public bike racks, luxury apartment complexes, and lots of pretty murals — are spreading fast. People in the city love public art, but they know that even when created with the best of intentions, it can help kickstart a real estate machine that ultimately becomes ravenous. And they don’t want the new Detroit to devour the old one.

“Street art has always been here. It’s not new,” James says. “But now the world is looking at us.”

A portion of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, at the Detroit Institute of Arts
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The story of street art in Detroit stretches back to the frescoes of Diego Rivera. The renowned Mexican artist was commissioned by Henry Ford heir Edsel Ford to dramatize life at the River Rouge manufacturing plant in 1932. At the time Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the United States and the epicenter of the auto industry. It boasted Hudson’s, the tallest department store in the world, and Michigan Central Station, the transit hub designed by the architects of Grand Central Station to be the most opulent one in the country.

Rivera was a communist whose work often included critiques of the ruling class. Across 27 panels, his Detroit Industry Murals depict autoworkers in a coordinated factory ballet, themselves mechanized due to the ruthless elegance of Henry Ford’s assembly line. The machines they’re ostensibly operating dwarf them in size. Large spindles, used to construct Ford’s V8 engine, look like spiritual totems that demand a ritual offering. Middle-class onlookers on a factory tour watch the Ford employees with detached amusement, aware they’ll ultimately reap the greatest benefits from this labor. When the paintings were unveiled at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they were controversial because of their political themes, with one Detroit News writer dismissing them as “un-American.”

Fifty years later, Detroit was a different place. The population had fallen from a peak of 1.9 million in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1980. Ford and the other automakers were steadily moving manufacturing jobs to the Southern United States and Mexico. The city had a ballooning crime problem — part of a nationwide trend — that was best exemplified by Devil’s Night, a pre-Halloween vandalism ritual that led to more than 800 fires being set in three days in October 1984. It was in this environment that muralism’s less reputable cousin, graffiti, first took root in the city.

Fel3000ft grew up in ’80s Detroit, when the light from the Devil’s Night fires lit up his neighborhood’s skies like a slag pour at a steel mill. When he was 11, a friend whose family had moved to Detroit from the Bronx showed him pictures of the colorful designs sweeping across New York’s subway trains. Fel was fascinated. He learned the names of graffiti pioneers like T-Kid, Daze, and Dondi. He watched Wild Style, the seminal hip-hop film that turned New York’s graffiti artists into underground legends. There was no one in Detroit to teach him the technique of this art form, so he picked up a can of spray paint and started experimenting. “I was pretty enthralled in the whole idea of being able to take this form of art and bring it to the street,” he says. “Being an inner-city kid, there’s really not too many avenues or outlets for self-expression.”

A graffiti bomb painted in Michigan Central Station by Fel3000ft in 1996. Ford Motor Company plans to preserve the piece when it renovates the station.
Victor Luckerson

Fel started out tagging — that is, scrawling his handle wherever he could find an open wall. He quickly moved onto bombing, painting in the bubble-letter style most commonly associated with graffiti. Writers often compete to spray their names in the most daring places possible, and the location of the tag can be as important as the craft of the tag itself. Fel resided in a city overflowing with vacant, taggable structures. “I’d find big-scale abandoned buildings [and] just walk right in,” he says. “There was a lot of canvas.”

The most notorious of these buildings became the train station that had been so majestic when Rivera painted his frescoes. Michigan Central Station closed in 1988 after 74 years of welcoming travelers from around the Midwest. Left unguarded, the building turned into a haven for scrappers, homeless people, and urban explorers. Eventually all the windows were blown out and it was gutted of its valuables. Even the marble was stripped from its once-ornate walls.

Fel never stepped inside while the building was functional, but calls the station a “cathedral” of his youth. He’s seen every inch of the 18-story structure, from the roof to the secret entrance via the train tracks. For graffiti writers, there wasn’t a better spot in the city to work. “I used to love painting there,” he says. “There were trees and stuff growing up inside. You could just sit there under a canopy and sketch all day.”

(Top row) Graffiti in Michigan Central Station; (bottom row) graffiti in Eastern Market
Victor Luckerson

The entire building is now drenched in chaotic clashes of color, a mix of slapdash vulgarities and elaborate illustrations. Across five pillars in the cavernous concourse, someone has written “VOMIT” in fat gray letters. In nearby rooms, a sleepy wizard in a blue robe exclaims “DAD” in a dialogue bubble, and a troll in a gladiator skirt bears his yellowed teeth in a dazed grin. In a fifth-floor office, a huge red-and-blue tag takes up an entire wall, its letters squeezed like a bouquet of balloons being molded by a clown. And near the lobby that welcomed travelers through much of the 20th century, a piece dated July 31, 1996, depicts a colorful cast of cartoon characters, their faces scrunched up in anger as they drip blue, green, and red paint. When Fel revisited the station for the first time in years this summer, he was excited to see his ’96 piece still intact. “Almost like a time capsule,” he says.

As Fel spread his work around Detroit, he also mentored a younger generation of graffiti writers. In the early 2000s he met Sintex, a wiry Detroit native who first started tagging the freight trains he could hear rolling by his childhood bedroom on the city’s west side. Sintex evolved into painting cartoon characters — he was heavily inspired by comics and anime — and later moved on to photorealistic murals of black and Native American historical figures. His recent projects include dedications to Detroit native Aretha Franklin and George Washington Carver, who worked in the city in the 1940s alongside Henry Ford. “I didn’t want children walking home from school in a blighted area,” Sintex says. “I’d rather put up some beautiful artwork for them to see.”

Sintex, a Detroit native and longtime graffiti artist, paints a mural of George Washington Carver in Highland Park
Victor Luckerson

For a long time this is what Detroit’s street art scene was — graffiti writers tagging up abandoned buildings or beautifying their own neighborhoods with spray paint. Their universe was small and intimate. But in the midst of the late-2000s recession, Detroit’s long-term decline became the subject of international fascination. The 2009 bankruptcy of General Motors and the 2013 bankruptcy of the city itself cast Detroit as the U.S. equivalent of a failed state. The sprawl of dilapidated buildings reinforced this perception, and photographers poured into the city to capture dramatic, stylized shots of the city’s decay. “Ruin porn” became part of the national lexicon as coffee table books and online photo galleries fetishized Detroit’s troubles. “Those are hard truths to see when you come from this place,” Fel says. “To see a building that you care about in a book that basically says that we failed as a society and as a city. I wasn’t too keen on it.”

Detroit’s image as an urban wilderness made it a prime location for outside graffiti writers and street artists looking for new territory to tag. The influx created tensions with the city’s longtime artists as graffiti spread to more and more buildings. “It felt like they were locusts,” Fel says of the initial invasion of outsiders. “They just moved in, and just went nuts.”

Detroit’s native writers say the newer artists were overly aggressive, tagging many more buildings than was customary. Sintex got into what he describes as a “graffiti war” with a group of out-of-town artists from Los Angeles, with him and the rival crew regularly painting over each other’s pieces. Tensions eventually cooled, but Detroit would never go back to being a place where graffiti writers had free reign over the city’s walls.

“I hate graffiti,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in 2014. He’d recently become the first white mayor of the city in four decades, highlighting economic development and blight removal as two anchors of his platform. Duggan’s distaste for graffiti went back years — in 2003, as Wayne County’s prosecutor, he charged two graffiti writers with felonies and compared them to dogs peeing on fire hydrants.

In October 2014, Duggan launched an aggressive graffiti-removal campaign that punished both the people writing the tags and the businesses that failed to clean them up. The purge swept up lots of art that few would consider vandalism, including a graffiti-friendly skate park and a collection of popular murals on Detroit’s west side. Even Shepard Fairey faced a 10-year-felony charge for unauthorized work he did while painting a commissioned mural. Duggan apologized for some of the early mishaps in the crackdown, but the process has continued unabated. More than 50,000 graffiti tags were removed between 2015 and 2017. (More recently, the city has launched a program to replace some of the buffed-out graffiti with sanctioned murals.)

Scott Hocking, a local photographer and sculptor, spent years documenting the anonymous scrawls that occupied Detroit’s walls through projects like his Bad Graffiti book. He thinks the city is losing something through the systematic buffing. “The idea of graffiti is somehow connected to civil disobedience … it’s a rebellion against laws and rules,” he says. “Now the city is covered with these abstract art paintings because anytime anybody gets tagged, they run out the next day, buy some oops paint and roll over it with whatever they can because otherwise they’ll get a ticket.”

At the same time Duggan was eradicating graffiti, fans of the style were devising new ways to spread authorized street art faster. Jesse Cory had already been involved in Detroit’s art scene for a few years, running a gallery in Eastern Market and cofounding 1xRun, a company that sells affordable prints of art pieces. Early in the decade 1xRun helped sponsor POW! WOW!, a mural festival in the Honolulu industrial neighborhood of Kaka’ako. There, art served as the genesis of a drastic transformation of an industrial neighborhood, with luxury condos and nightclubs rising up next to the old car mechanics and CompuServes. As the interest in local murals grew, Cory realized there was space to launch a similar festival in Detroit. “The POW! WOW! team really created the mold, and then we learned from it,” he says. “We did our own twist.”

Murals in the Market began in 2015 as a partnership between 1xRun and the Eastern Market Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the neighborhood’s flagship farmers market. The idea was to get people walking to areas beyond the large stalls where vendors set up their wares, spurring consumer spending at businesses throughout the neighborhood. 1xRun would also sell prints of many of the murals, generating revenue for the company and the artists (who are not paid directly for their murals but do have travel, housing, and food expenses covered). The annual event splits its roster evenly between locals and out-of-town muralists, serving as a launching pad for many young artists in the city. And it actively recruits people from different corners of the art world: Sydney James, Fel3000ft, and Hocking have backgrounds in illustration, graffiti, and sculpture, respectively, and they’ve all participated in the event.

(Clockwise from upper left) Murals by Hebru Brantley in Eastern Market, Ellen Rutt at Murals in the Market, Slick in Eastern Market, and Ann Lewis
First three photos by Victor Luckerson; I Vote Because photo by Craig Hejka

The economic impact of the festival has already been felt in the neighborhood. A new brewery opened last fall after the owners had perused Eastern Market’s murals and decided it was a great location to launch a business. An upscale juice bar filled with young professionals on laptops now sits a few doors down from the neighborhood’s historic delis and diners. A New York real estate firm that recently opened a boutique hotel downtown is planning a mixed-use development with the 110,000 square feet of space it just bought. “We’re kind of in that transition period in Eastern Market and we really don’t know what the future holds,” Cory says.

In other parts of the country where public art has proliferated, the future has often been intense gentrification. Ann Lewis, an artist who participated in Murals in the Market for the first time this year, watched the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick morph into a symbol of commercialized hipsterdom after moving there in 2008. She was among a group of early street artists in the area and thought her splashes of color would be a gift to local children. She painted a mural for the Bushwick Collective, a stretch of art-filled blocks organized by Bushwick native Joseph Ficalora.

But Bushwick’s art scene became part of the economic engine driving the area’s transformation. Building owners who once donated their walls for Collective pieces began selling them to brands for mural advertisements. People sold graffiti tours for $20 per ticket. Rents rose as wealthier residents were attracted to an area that had been designated as cool. “I watched creatives move into the neighborhood — I was one of them — and I understood that over time, because we were there, developers thought it was a place where they could make money,” Lewis says. “Because we were creating a community and creating accessibility to creativity, that was sellable for them.”

One day in 2016, after attending a gentrification protest in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Lewis returned to her Bushwick apartment to find an eviction notice. Her entire building was kicked out to make way for a revamped luxury-loft community that touts the neighborhood’s “colorful street art” as a selling point on its website. The base of the building is now adorned with a giant, placid mural of an outstretched hand holding a bird by the Los Angeles–based artist Kelcey Fisher. Lewis moved to Detroit the next year and hopes to avoid the same disruptive mistakes in another rapidly changing community. “I started in street art because I thought it was interesting to make work that was challenging people’s perspectives, and murals have become these decorations,” she says. “I’m just not interested in making a decoration so that a business or property developer can sell the building next door for an extra 50 grand or 100 grand because the neighborhood has been deemed OK for white people.”

Street art is now a business, not just a passion project, and artists are entrepreneurs. Though they’re finding more opportunities than ever to paint, disentangling the joy of the work from the complexity of its impacts becomes tougher as the art itself becomes more valuable to more people. “If a developer has a lot of money and is going to pay me and I need a job, weighing out my morals versus my rent is a really hard decision to make,” says Ellen Rutt, a Detroit artist who has painted both commercial and noncommercial murals. “And I feel like it’s hard to put the responsibility on the people who are more at risk and also experiencing the effects of gentrification. That’s one of the hard parts — sometimes I’m painting a wall and I’m literally painting myself out of my own apartment.”

Cory sees this cycle as an inevitable outgrowth of the interest that art brings to public spaces, and not something artists can do much to stop. “The SoHo district [in New York] was full of artists, then it was full of galleries, then it’s full of Starbucks. So then artists go to Williamsburg and the same thing kind of occurs there. Then they go to Bushwick and the same thing,” he says. “I think artists will go into any neighborhood where they can get affordable space, where they can create. The problem is they want to stay there for a long time, and I don’t think we’re really sure if we’re a part of the problem or we’re chasing something that’s fleeting.”

Walking around downtown, one’s liable to spot more Bedrock Detroit logos than traffic lights. The real estate company’s construction barriers encircle the abandoned Detroit Free Press office, which will soon be an upscale apartment building. The Under Armour store, where the Michael Phelps mural by Sydney James resides, is part of a Bedrock development. Soon the former site of Hudson’s, which was demolished in 1998, will be revived with 1 million square feet of residential and commercial space. All told, Dan Gilbert’s real estate venture owns more than 90 properties downtown and is constantly buying more.

“Ten years ago, the vast majority of a lot of this was either vacant or fairly vacant,” Anthony Curis tells me as we tour Detroit’s reimagined downtown. Curis, who runs a downtown art gallery called Library Street Collective with his wife, JJ, regularly partners with development behemoths like Bedrock on large-scale outdoor art projects. His curatorial choices are shaping the city’s visual landscape. It was Curis who recruited Fairey to paint the giant mural on one of Gilbert’s buildings. And it was Curis who first decided that the dirty alley behind his gallery could be something more.

The Belt, as the alley is now known, includes a combination barcade-nightclub doused in neon paint and a bespoke cocktail bar that can be entered through an old elevator shaft. Jazz wafting from outdoor speakers cloisters the space from the workday bustle of the streets the alley connects. Swizz Beatz performed a show here in September, and Drake showed up a couple weeks earlier. But before all that came the murals that line the alley’s walls, by artists like FAILE, Nina Chanel Abney, and Carlos Rolón.

The space, developed in partnership with Bedrock, is Detroit’s poster child for the synthesis of economic development and artistic ambition. The murals were the initial draw, creating a high-brow scene that could support upscale businesses. “The alley’s had the biggest impact of the public projects we’ve done,” Curis says. “It’s literally gone from a dirt road to being the second-busiest pedestrian space in the entire city.”

Curis has a background in real estate development, a business interest in several of The Belt’s new establishments, and an eye toward transforming more neglected portions of Detroit’s downtown. He took me on a walking tour of the revitalized blocks surrounding The Belt, filled with art pieces he curated. A long-closed skybridge connecting two office towers has been converted into a rainbow-colored pubic art installation, funded by Bedrock. A colorful 170-foot mural evoking the pulse of Detroit’s electronic music scene just went up on the side of a luxury apartment tower that features tennis courts and “sexy bathrooms.” Outside the Quicken Loans headquarters is Waiting, a sculpture of a pair of Mickey Mouse–like cartoon characters by the famed street artist Kaws. Here in the heart of Detroit’s economic rebirth, art tends to serve commerce — Fairey himself described his mural as “decorative” and said Bedrock chose it over a more challenging design.

Elsewhere in the city, murals make more overt statements. In Brightmoor, a predominantly black neighborhood in the northwest corner of the city, murals of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King Jr., and Prince surround a business district that includes a historic movie theater and an independent coffee shop. The first pieces were painted by local artist Chazz in the early 2000s, long before Detroit’s current development boom, when the area was still full of abandoned buildings. Behind the coffee shop, a sprawling outdoor patio and event space known as the Artist Village regularly attracts city poets and musicians. It’s also covered in public art by Chazz.

“The murals are what really what did it, to brighten up this area,” says Alicia George, who has lived in Brightmoor for 20 years and opened the coffee shop, Motor City Java House, in 2010. “When I first got here, there would be 20, 30 guys on the corner, hanging. Boyz n the Hood. Once they would go past here, something would humanize them for that moment. This art, us being here, would humanize their spirit. … Now there’s not 20 or 30 of our brothers just hanging on the corner every day, all day.”

A vacant two-story building across the street was bought by veteran Detroit developer Peter Cummings in 2016 as part of his pledge to ensure that the city’s economic recovery spreads to people beyond the area in and around downtown. Though it’s not yet clear exactly what will go in the building, Cummings has said he envisions turning the block into an “arts-oriented” village center. George is cautiously optimistic that this project won’t upend the character of the neighborhood, because Cummings’s development group has engaged with the community in volunteer efforts. “If that same type of art attracts a different class of people to come over here, I guess we just have to stay strong and say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, how you doing, what kind of business do you have,’’’ she says. “We know change is coming, but don’t be doing no changing while we sleep. Don’t be doing no changing while we got our backs turned. Include us in, and just let us have a voice.”

The anxiety about change is not limited to Brightmoor. Ford announced in June that it is purchasing Michigan Central Station and 45 acres of surrounding land in Corktown, where it will headquarter its mobility division and work on driverless-car technology. The automaker envisions shopping and restaurants in the station’s grand concourse, housing or a boutique hotel on the top floors, and offices for Ford and other automotive tech companies in between. All told, the company will invest $740 million in the Corktown development (while also asking for $240 million in tax breaks, including more than $100 million from the city of Detroit).

(Clockwise from upper left) Mural of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz in Brightmoor by Chazz; a piece atop the “Z” parking deck in downtown Detroit; Balancing Act, by How & Nosm, and Peace and Justice Lotus, by Shepard Fairey at the Compuware Building; Mano de Obra Campesina, by Dasic Fernández
Balancing Act photo by Sal Rodriguez courtesy of the artist and Library Street Collective; all other photos by Victor Luckerson

“We picked it because it was an area that had a lot of history,” says Dave Dubensky, CEO of Ford Land, the company’s real estate development arm. “It was an area that was sort of a cool up-and-coming area of the city. And it was an area that other developers hadn’t really moved into yet.”

Ford’s plans fit neatly into the story line that Detroit is “back.” But Amelia Duran, who grew up in the Southwest Detroit neighborhood practically in the train station’s shadow, says the announcement left her numb. “I think a lot of us have a lot of mixed feelings,” she says.

Duran is the co-director of Garage Cultural, a nonprofit in Southwest Detroit that teaches children artistic endeavors like painting, ceramics, and music. She has also helped commission many of the neighborhood’s murals, working with artists, businesses, and other community organizers to redefine Southwest Detroit’s walls. As we cruise down Vernor Highway, which winds from the western edge of the neighborhood all the way to the train station, Duran seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of every splash of color we encounter. We pass Mano de Obra Campesina, a mural of a peasant farmer that helped kick off the neighborhood’s ongoing mural campaign in 2010. Running along an aqueduct next to Michigan Central Station is a long mural of immigrants in Depression-era clothes clutching passports and suitcases as they step off a train and enter Detroit for the first time. Deeper in the neighborhood, on a black fence, the phrase “NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL” is superimposed on a row of brown faces.

When we pass a mural of brightly colored shapes, Duran bristles. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘What does that have to do with Southwest Detroit?’” she says. “Not every mural is going to have the ability to have the impact that Mano de Obra did, but that should be our objective. We should be reaching for that, instead of just reaching for art that doesn’t have the ability to incite some kind of cultural pride and value in terms of place.”

Garage Cultural is an arts-business partnership, founded by Duran’s father, Ismael, and Lydia Gutierrez, the owner of a local tortilla manufacturing company. Through its neighborhood festival, Art on the Block, the organization spearheaded the creation of four new murals over the summer, and Duran has already ID’d other prime locations for additional art. However, she now believes there may be such a thing as too many murals, and that drenching the neighborhood in paint might just make it a target for gentrification. “We’re navigating new spaces that we have never had to really navigate before,” she says. “Having to analyze and question whether or not this work could actually be used against you.”

Duran is right to be nervous. A recent study by Data Driven Detroit, an urban research nonprofit, identified Southwest Detroit as one of the neighborhoods most vulnerable to “transformational change” because of its proximity to downtown and Corktown (which itself used to be considered part of Southwest Detroit, Duran notes). In interviews for the study, residents discussed how new businesses catered to outsiders and how they’d prefer to see fresh-food markets over hip bars. “People aren’t displaced from their homes, but there are changes that make them feel more culturally alienated in the neighborhood that they’ve lived in,” says Noah Urban, the senior analyst for Data Driven Detroit who served as project lead on the study. “There’s still sort of that feeling of unsettlement.”

While Southwest hasn’t experienced widespread gentrification yet, the study indicates that a big new project like the Ford headquarters could spark rapid change in the community. “Four years from now when Ford finishes whatever development plan they have for the train station … I don’t want to say it’s doomsday, but it feels like the clock is ticking even faster,” Duran says. “Now we have the definitive time in which we know for sure things are gonna start to feel dramatically different.”

Ford’s Dubensky says the company doesn’t want its purchase to be viewed as a “corporate takeover.” It’s been involved in local discussions about how it can best integrate into the neighborhood, in part because of a Detroit law that requires large development projects to work directly with community stakeholders on a benefits package. “What we’re looking to do is really understand the community needs and see if we can complement what they already have there to respect the heritage of that area,” Dubensky says.

But the agreements reached in such community meetings are nonbinding, and so far haven’t yielded substantial concessions for neighborhoods. In September Ford negotiated a $10 million benefits package with a Corktown neighborhood group that will include $2.5 million in affordable housing funding. Still, the neighborhood originally asked for more, and residents remain unsure of how Ford’s presence will reshape the area. “I don’t know how encouraged I am by those processes, or how much I’m holding my breath for them to do right by us,” Duran says.

For now she plans to keep getting murals painted, though she wonders whether it makes sense to start replacing existing paintings in order to avoid saturation. She wants the images to reflect the neighborhood’s legacy, and believes reinforcing that legacy through art can help protect the area from unwanted change. Many of the murals here explicitly say “Southwest Detroit,” a bulwark against recent efforts by developers to rename parts of the community Springwells Village and Corktown Shores. (Parts of Bushwick were similarly sold as “East Williamsburg” when the neighborhood started to gentrify.) “We have to as much as possible continue to reiterate and tell people where we are. Because if not they forget, and then they just start naming shit,” she says. “If we don’t have a lot of economic power, what we do have is cultural power.”

Sydney James is almost done painting Lamont as evening approaches in Eastern Market, and she’s attracting more awed onlookers than any other artist I observe. “That looks sharp!” a woman yells from her SUV as she drives by. “Looking good,” another woman says as she walks through the neighborhood. A photographer from New York approaches to talk to James about her work. “It’s beautiful,” she says. She asks how long the piece will stay up.

“Until they paint over it,” James says with an air of inevitability. A nearby mural of her and her mother was already replaced earlier this year. “Street art is not permanent, so it’s best not to get attached.”

By 2022, when the Ford facility opens, most of the train station’s color-coated walls will be scrubbed clean. If Mayor Duggan is still in office, he’ll be able to cast graffiti as a hazy memory of the bad years, a time before the places Fel and Sintex painted were buffed or demolished to make way for a newer, cleaner city. The number of Bedrock buildings in town will exceed 100, and it’s certain the city will have many more pretty paintings to marvel at. But we don’t yet know what those paintings will depict or who will be around to look at them, from Southwest Detroit to Brightmoor and beyond.

Will the mural of Lamont still be there? Maybe, maybe not. But by then it will have served its purpose. It made a young boy feel larger than life. It made people stop and appreciate a moment of beauty in a city most famous for its blight. It brought a little more value — however you choose to define the term — to Detroit.

“I just hope what I’m doing doesn’t drive away the people that I’m projecting in my images,” James tells me. “It’s a double-edged sword what we’re doing here. I hope it’s for the best, but you never know until you know.”

The completed version of Sydney James’s mural of her nephew in Eastern Market
Victor Luckerson
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