The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Many areas of Detroit, including downtown and Midtown, are flourishing. New eateries and other businesses are opening at a pace unseen in decades. Excitement is building. But, there is much work remaining, including what to do with tens of thousands of vacant houses. Architect V. Mitch McEwen is taking one of those off the city’s hands, and transforming into a place for and of art.
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McEwen will use a $10,000 Knight Arts Challenge award to fund the transformation of a derelict dwelling in southwest Detroit into a neighborhood opera house, and possibly down the road, an artist residency studio. It's an exploration of performance, community and form, she said.
McEwen bought the Wayne County-owned house for $1,200, and paid delinquent property taxes. The 2,000-square-foot structure has two levels, plus a basement. One level is being removed to create a double-height space.
An assistant professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, McEwen is designing the project with Marcelo Lopez Dinardi, her partner at the New York-based firm she co-founded, A(n). Her other chief collaborator is the acclaimed collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?
But McEwen, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities, is engaging the community in every aspect possible, down to the color of the finished product. "It's kind of light yellow now, but not sure what it's going to be yet," she said. "We'll work with local artists from the neighborhood for all that," said McEwen, who has worked as an urban designer in New York's department of city planning.
So far, she said, she has received positive community feedback. "The test is when they see something happening here, and see that it's real," she added. "I'm just starting to hear back from activists and educators in the neighborhood who might be collaborating."
She chose Detroit's southwest side because, after moving to Detroit in 2010, she saw not only that the community is growing, but that it's full of talented artisans, particularly graffiti artists. "I thought, something interesting is happening here."
Her project coordinator has been handling ground-level tasks such as cleanup organization, and trying to curb dumping on the once-abandoned site. A structural engineer has paid a visit, and soon the house's interior will be gutted. A side wall facing the yard will be removed so that the whole house can be a theater space.
Beginning this fall, artist groups including HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? and Complex Movements will advise and direct the staging of original works that integrate stories from the neighborhood. McEwen, who lives in the Lafayette Park community, said she has been reaching out to local producers of alternative music and dance.
"I'm hoping the project becomes part of the city at the local level, where stories of Detroit will have a stage," she said.
In fact, she said, the project itself is a kind of opera. "I think of all the collaborators as kind of performers. And, there have been these dramas along the way. But yes, I'm hoping as writers get involved there will be material from the project."
Mary Chapman is a Detroit-based freelance writer.