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Artists, Foreclosures and the Ruins of the Unsustainable
Julia Levitt, 19 Mar 09

detroit_540.jpgI've been waiting for a story like this to pop up, so when I heard it on the radio yesterday I geeked out a bit. As NPR's Jennifer Guerra reports, artists in Detroit are buying up foreclosed properties and turning them into cultural havens. In the crumbling Motor City, Mitch and Gina Cope have been purchasing ailing properties at rock-bottom prices, and are encouraging other artists to do the same.

That part isn't shocking; rather, it was just a matter of time until a really good example showed up. Artist communities are known for reinventing downtrodden neighborhoods the world over; in fact, the phenomenon of artists-come-in, neighborhood-becomes-hot, prices-go-up, artists-forced-out is so familiar now that what's happening in Detroit can be seen as something like the larval stage of neighborhood development. But Guerra uncovered a development that hadn't even occurred to me:

Then [Mitch and Gina Cope] set their sights on the foreclosed house down the street — a working class, wood frame, single family house that was listed for sale for $1,900. The house had been trashed by scrappers who stole everything, including the copper plumbing, radiators and electrical lines. Still, they decided to buy it and turn it into what Cope calls the "Power House Project."
"Our idea — instead of putting it all back and connecting to the grid, we wanted to keep it off the grid and get enough solar and wind turbines and batteries to power this house and power the next-door house," [Mitch] Cope says.

Although it is small consolation in the face of overwhelming economic strife in Detroit and elsewhere as the foreclosure crisis continues, this story gave me a real feeling of hope and renewal. To me, this example and other corresponding cases – like the artist-driven re-imaginings of shopping malls and big box stores seems symbolic of an even larger cultural shift. The arts community isn't just moving into one downtrodden urban neighborhood; rather, they're taking on the ruins of the unsustainable. They're taking on big box stores, shopping malls, and grid-connected homes in the car capitol of North America. And they're not just creating new art. They're seizing the opportunity to turn old shells of buildings into independent, renewable energy-powered, 21st century-ready spaces.

What I'm most eager to hear next is that creative pioneers are conquering McMansions in the suburban hintersprawl. As Bryan Walsh wrote recently for Time Magazine, "The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (on one-sixth of an acre [675 sq m] or more) in the U.S."

Will subdivisions be turned into workshops and performance spaces? Or possibly into small-scale agricultural communities, or enclaves for artisan food-production? At the very least, will they become denser, transit-connected and less car-dependent ... and what will drive that?

The future of North American suburbia is a question on everyone's lips these days, but I have yet to hear a truly beautiful, bright green answer. If you have one, please share it below.

Photo credit: Jennifer Guerra

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This is such a light being shone on what sometimes seems like a dark situation- If we are going to make changes in this world, we have the opportunity now to do it. Through creative collaboration by artists and non-artists, we can rebuild a place around community and hope for the overall good as a result. If we had a chapter in each city that did this alone, creating a community around it- imagine the impact it would have! If we think creatively in general with our lifestyle, helping one another, and rethinking how we live... It would create jobs and stimulate our economy as well. How can I get this started where I live? There are plenty of foreclosure places that I would love to add my artistic touch to! Thanks for posting!

Posted by: Kelly Stanley on 19 Mar 09

James Kuntsler referred to suburbia as the greatest misallocation of resources in history. I prefer to think of the it as an opportunity.

Instead of cultivating lawns with all the attendant petrochemical and water use we need to instill an ethic of sustainability. Grow food instead of lawns, gardens watered with rainwater harvesting, fossil fueled lawnmowers and leafblowers replaced with human powered mowers and hand rakes. Bring back the clotheline! Develop neighborhood food cooperatives to distribute locally produced food within the neighborhoods, composting operations, local transport and work from home initiatives to short circuit the auto based commute. Build private wire energy networks and community scale renewable energy generation to supplant dependance on fossil fueled grid electricity. Etc, etc...
The opportunities are endless as suburbia itself, the very nature of the home with land makes it possible.

Posted by: C Robb on 20 Mar 09

"If we had a chapter in each city that did this alone, creating a community around it- imagine the impact it would have!"

Planning to! I live in Indianapolis and if we don't have one yet, I'll get some peers together and initiate one. Any other good models out there?

Posted by: Brandon Hoop on 20 Mar 09

This is such a good idea, and it will lead to others following the artists into these areas. A kind of reinhabitation process will occur. And, out of the ruins of the old order, will come a more thoughtful, sustainable approach to community building.

We haven't had the same mortgage meltdown up here in Canada, but artsy folks and freelancers of all stripes have been finding some bargains by moving away from the mega-cities, especially into our mid-west (eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba). I almost wish we'd had the same meltdown you all did so I could move to an area where you could buy a house for the same price I paid 20 years ago. +/-$50,000 But, I really hope it doesn't come to that up here.

Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 20 Mar 09

Disgusting and a blight on my beloved city of Detroit!

Posted by: brandon on 20 Mar 09

I believe that getting this movement going takes ideas and action. The artists in Detroit simply saw opportunity and are taking the necessary steps to see it through. The best way to change others minds is to lead by example. We don't know how long this economic downturn will last so take the opportunities while they are here.

My wife son and I currently live 10 minutes outside of Tampa,Florida a place that seems to lack young artistic culture, but has plenty of foreclosure problems. Last month we purchased a mobile home for $2,500 in an RV resort. We were pleasantly surprised that there is a strong sense of community here.

It is a refreshing change from living in an apartment, and has many benefits.

1. no building permits. This will allow us to experiment with making a 550 sq ft space comfortable to live in for a three person family, legally without pulling permits for every change we make.

2. The small living space will make it more affordable to get off the grid, we would love to see this happen.

3. We have a yard to start experimenting with urban gardening. The steps we are taking will be to re-landscape get rain barrels and start a worm powered compost.

4. Mobile park people are a different breed so they seem to be more accepting (or oblivious)to what some people see as strange.

Posted by: Jacek on 20 Mar 09

Retrofit the big box stores into greenhouses. All except Wal-mart, of course. Make them into experimental workstations for how to best function off the grid or how to best feed excess electricity into the grid.

Tear down the crappiest of the foreclosed houses and provide competitive grants for rebuilding some of them with the greenest, most innovative architecture available. Such grant applications have been relatively successful in science because, by and large, the bad ones get turned down.

Posted by: Rojelio on 21 Mar 09

This is truly inspiring and great to read. I see on the news all the houses that are empty and have been ransacked for anything - it is disappointing that this is what it has come to, there is no point houses standing empty when people need somewhere to live also when they do stand empty people just go in and steal anything they can and destroy the house, surely this has a worse effect on the economy as the houses make back the banks loss if they are destroyed.

I am pleased to read something positive from this situation, and they have done a really good job bringing the building and architecture back to life and giving hope back to the neighbourhood.

Posted by: lucy on 22 Mar 09

This will work for older homes, but new subdivisions tend to have deed restrictions and homeowner's associations that force you to keep unsustainable green grass lawns. No gardens or native grasses allowed.
And any paint colors or architectural changes require prior approval or they will assess fines. Unless your group can buy enough homes to affect a takeover of the board.

Posted by: TOmD on 23 Mar 09

this conversation although helpful also needs to consider the inherent unsustainable nature of suburban development. yes i believe an abdandoned suburbia could be retrofitted to become a sustainable green long as commuting to the urban center is abandoned by residents. localized self, sufficient economies are one idea in the direction of a greener future. and if they are linked to urban centers via rail even better.

yet the reason why suburban development is often harmful to the natural world is not only because of commuting distance and shiny green plastic lawns. often times valuable agricultural land is scraped over to build these developments. once this is lost, it takes serious time to rebuild soil health and fertility. what about considering higher urban densites through propper planning and architecture...and scraping clean these foreclosed developments so they can feed local economies?

just an idea....

Posted by: keegan lund on 24 Mar 09

Of possible interest and use: "The Enterprise of Community: Social and Environmental Implications of Administering Land as Productive Capital", by Spencer Heath MacCallum, 2003/2007

Posted by: Leif Smith on 11 Apr 09

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