Projective Fictions & Urban Desires: Toward Open-Ended Civic Spaces in Detroit


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Anya Sirota
Anya Sirota deploys cultural programming and urban interventions to activate public space and impact perception. Her innovative design and research has been exhibited and published widely, and she has lectured on the subject of urban activation to a broad range of audiences. She holds a degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where she was awarded the Araldo Cossutta Prize for Design Excellence. She currently teaches architecture at the University of Michigan while running her Detroit-based architecture and design studio, Akoaki, with her husband Jean Louis Farges. They work to give architecture cogent agency and place it back into urban planning and equitable redevelopment. @anyasirota

Detroit Cultivator
Detroit Cultivator, the current project of Akoaki and the result of four years of collaboration with community actors, is a six-acre civic commons. Launched with a $500,000 grant from the ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund and the formation of a makeshift land trust set up despite the lack of such legal easements in Michigan, Detroit Cultivator is a combination of food production, cultural programming, and civic components that work together to generate a locally-rooted economy. The components to the project include: Oakland Avenue Urban Farm; The Store, a corner store which will be converted into an event space and community kitchen; a mixed-use performance and retail space that reactivates the neighborhood’s historic speakeasy and shoeshine, a hostel for collaborators who come to work with the farm, and other “micro-institutions” sustained through partnerships with local actors.

Is this art or architecture? Which discipline’s guiding principles inform your practice at Akoaki?

Contingency on capital in the relationship between architect and client has traditionally left architects dependent on constituencies of power. As a consequence, it’s important for architects to find alternative funding models and expand on the notion of what a client base is. That’s when the architect can gain some agency and start leading the charge of addressing social problems on a large urban scale. Over the course of the past five years, we’ve essentially worked as architects who borrow strategies from art practice. We’ve informally created a series of parallel institutional entities that tap into arts funding sources to create spatial interventions and pop actions. But the long-term objective is architectural and seeks to create urban impact using spatial and organizational strategies.

The other issue that we’ve grappled with is is how to peel architecture away from the instrumentalized benevolence of architecture’s most recent “social turn”, as articulated by the art historian Claire Bishop. Altruistic conventions in art and architecture have tasked these disciplines with solving large-scale social problems while casting aside a commitment to the production of beauty, vibes and aesthetics. We want to bridge the gap between social and aesthetic practice. We assume that no matter how difficult an urban condition, it still deserves an aesthetic project that transcends the predictable outcomes of economic austerity.

Where does your aesthetic perspective originate?

Part of it comes from Derrida’s idea of the “hauntological” (haunted + ontological, a presence of the past as a ghost in the present). Currently, architecture is in a neo-postmodern moment: many young practices are citing shapes, making piles, working with graphic surfaces, but as a discipline we’re not quite sure what the new next might be. As an alternative to current trends, we’ve been exploring temporal and historical disjunctions and superimpositions without direct recourse to explicit allusion or post-modern quotation. We think there’s an incredible communicative and aesthetic power in that. Our assumption is that mining the cultural sensibility, the vibe of a place, along with its historical context, can generate distinct contextual signifiers that renew a culturally contingent and spectral experience for people. So we’re constantly looking for ways to bring to the surface the invisible narratives, aesthetic tastes, and preferences of a particular place. We’re not driven by our own aesthetic agendas but rather by our architectural capacity to create simultaneously novel and familiar social environments based on local perceptions and aspirations. We gradually cull and research these stories, symbols and affinities by creating spaces and programs where we can connect with people over an extended span of time, sometimes years.

One driving motivation is that we want to change perception about the value of certain urban contexts: to render explicit invisible narratives, to create spaces of horizontal social interaction, to pop algorithmic social bubbles, to get people from different contexts to coexist, even if it’s agonistically. We also want to draw attention to the necessity of permanent cultural infrastructure in areas where people might have thought disinvestment was so bad that aggressive blight remediation was the only possible paradigm. In Detroit, the drive to bulldoze and erase can sometimes seem maniacial. In a short period since 2008 the foreclosure rate progressed so quickly, and real estate prices dipped so low, that the only retort the City could imagine was broad demolition — removing huge swaths of residential fabric. The practice still continues with thousands of homes removed every year in predominantly African American communities to make room for possible, though uncertain, commercially-driven redevelopment. The demolition of the residential urban fabric remains a hot topic because the city’s ongoing policies and economic strategies privilege foreclosure and demolition to create a speculative territory for regeneration. The gamble is that if enough of the city’s neighborhoods are cleaned up and consolidated, it might be easier to return a normative real estate scenario. Our concern is that this systematic erasure can result in a generic urban condition in which Detroit, once an unparalleled international source for vanguard music, art and fashion, risks losing its particular cultural sensibility: its African American and working class histories and spaces for cultural expression. Still, we’re not preservationists in the traditional sense. Frankly, there’s very little built matter left to preserve. But the stories are there, and are even more important now that the matter is gone. So we are pressed to render explicit the narratives of a place that otherwise seem invisible.

How do you use your magazine as a tool for disseminating narratives? And once rendered explicit and released into the world, what are the roles of those narratives in the city?

Narrative and architecture’s capacity to disseminate certain stories have allowed us to blend history, projective fictions, and urban desires all at once into a seamless document that makes it difficult for readers to figure out what’s current and what’s projected. It makes the case that something positive is possible in a seemingly unlikely context. We try to make our magazines as glossy, blingy and popular as possible — appropriating the style of hot fashion magazines. We include fake ads for companies that might not yet exist, but that hopefully will soon. If someone in the neighborhood is trying to start a jewelry line in their basement, for instance, and they’ve made a few pieces but not a full line, we’ll feature an ad as if the company is fully established and ready to go. We want to manufacture desire for locally made commodities using our representational means. We want to capture a neighborhood in the process of becoming and promote the substantiated ambitions and fictionalized realities as if they were confirmed and very real.

There’s an incredible fear of what disenfranchised neighborhoods and poverty mean for a city and its economy. One of the first important steps that may at first seem counter-intuitive is to depoliticize a complex and seemingly volatile urban context through visual fictions, pop actions, and aesthetic representations, helping transform popular perception of what might be a difficult situation into a less threatening image. Then, once attention to the scenario has been drawn, you can engage conversation and re-politicize the pressing issues at hand with a constructed audience.

When you successfully change the narrative around a disenfranchised neighborhood, does it drive up real estate values and fuel gentrification?

Our process and method have changed over the last five years. Initially, we were quite exuberant and eager to get to work because we had uncovered an alternate method for architects to fund their utopian aspirations. But we quickly realized that unchecked place-making exercises in a neoliberal city drive up the cost of real estate, threatening residents and causing gentrification. So we had to adjust our strategies. After a few years of working with local residents to elevate and render explicit the cultural value of place, we started considering how new ownership models might precede the design efforts in order to preempt displacement.

In one instance, we turned to the land trust model. Land trusts cannot legally be established in the state of Michigan, but working in partnership with legal experts and impact investors, we hacked the system and produced a model that operates as a land trust. With a group of residents, activists, and local stakeholders, our collective spent two years purchasing land from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, an unelected, state-appointed, quasi-governmental agency that controls 25% of the city’s foreclosed properties and auctions them off online eBay-style. It’s a form of foreclosure mitigation that has inadvertently incentivized speculation because virtually any LLC, bidding from anywhere in the world, can buy property in Detroit. The land bank facilitates an easy sales process, but fails to monitor property holders who often just sit on the land waiting for its value to rise without any intention to develop it. In this model, anyone can make purchases, abstain from paying taxes, foreclose on the property, devise a new LLC, and start over. This process inevitably fuels the degradation of the urban landscape and ultimately fuels more bulldozing.

We studied how speculators take advantage of the land bank auction, then imitated those processes in the interest of people without access to capital. We learned how to strategically purchase every third lot, for example, and how to expand the effort using the side lot program which allows residents to buy lots adjacent to their property.

Then we gifted the parcels and structures to the Detroit Cultivator farm’s parent institution, a respected community development corporation and nonprofit. The land trust was therefore started by aligning with the protections of the nonprofit’s mission statement. That land trust is now Detroit Cultivator.

Admittedly, it’s very difficult if impossible to stabilize land values in the current political climate. But with the current structure in place, we feel assured that the people involved with the farm, and by association the neighborhood, will retain an equitable stake in the process. The farm will remain a cultural and economic hub – providing some housing, space for cultural expression, and a productive landscape – which cannot be sold or lost. That doesn’t stop the rest of development from marching on at a frenzied clip, but it does create pockets of autonomy.

Given that the market is going to go through phase changes, what can people who want to retain their cultural and economic autonomy do? There are neighborhoods that for decades have had to informally steward enormous tracts of lands and crumbling infrastructures without sufficient tax revenue, with limited access to capital and loans, and with a virtual absence of a stable governance system. How do these people not step aside as development moves forward?

You’ve said that it’s important for this kind of preservation and creation of public lands to happen organically. Why?

Actually, I wouldn’t use the word “organic.” There’s a danger in naturalising systems of urban development, as we’ve seen in the biomorphic metaphors of urban renewal. The economic degradation of the city is also often described in organic terms, as an inevitable market calamity. But let’s be clear, this situation was intentional, man-made, and artificial in every way. The history of redlining in American cities is well known. African American residents were targeted, and entire urban zones refused access to funding structures, property insurance, and other critical modes of growth and exchange. These policies were particularly brutal in a city penalized further for its labor history and union affiliations. So I am not sure we can work organically; instead, we might think about ways to hack normative development models and create open-ended civic landscapes even without necessary capital.

What is an “open-ended civic landscape?”

Detroit is missing civic infrastructure. There were once dozens of micro venus where the likes of Tina Turner, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, and George Clinton came to test vanguard music styles because Detroit’s audiences were amazing: sophisticated, progressive, intimate, expressive, critical. Currently, there’s only one historical venue of this type left with a roof on it. So while many talented and exceptional musicians remain in the city, there’s a dearth of civic and cultural infrastructure for experimentation.

The city and many developers are keen on returning Detroit’s urban fabric to a normative real estate value: remediating blight, cleaning up the graffiti, partnering with corporations to build ice skating rinks and downtown plazas. It’s an expressed desire to return to a normal order, one similar to the city of the thirties and forties when the demographic majority was white. In contrast to what many residents disparage as an attempt to return to demagogic “greatness,” we are finding productive opportunities to elevate the specific, the idiosyncratic, the unresolved, and the inventive aspects of places on the periphery of centralized revitalization efforts. We’re looking to create environments where cultural experiments can happen. Ironically, in a city the area of Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston combined, there is a lack of space and possibility for experimentation.

At the same time, Detroit does appreciate the role of urban farming as an interim custodial model; urban farming reverts vacant land to an image of productivity, answers serious needs around food justice and availability, and requires very little permanent infrastructure. For those reasons, the city makes temporary garden permitting rather simple. That also means, if the real estate market were to return to normal values it would be very easy to remove non-landholding farmers from the land that they have been stewarding in the interim. Many urban agricultural projects have operated in Detroit without land ownership for many years, never imagining that rising market values could put pressure on their self-determined efforts.

When we think about creating a civic landscape, we admit that urban farming has done amazing things, but it’s economically unsustainable. City water alone is expensive. Soil pollution and remediation is expensive. Labor to cultivate a sufficient volume of produce mostly by hand is costly. Growing kale and tomatoes is socially important, creates a sense of space, security, and is pedagogical, but what other activities can we couple with agriculture to produce a sustainable ecosystem in an urban context? We’re imagining a hybrid urban landscape, adding a hostel or a value-added product incubator, music venues, and pottery studio.

It’s about combining contextually-driven and evolving micro strategies, bringing them together to create a novel sense of cultural possibility in combination with agricultural activity to produce sustainable models. Any single solution will not be enough. That’s what we mean by an open-ended civic landscape.

Why are experimental spaces important?

They are critical to a healthy urban environment because they produce novel social and economic encounters and possibilities for social mobility. If we stop making new things, if we museumify the things that happened before and tweet about them in our algorithmic bubbles, we’ll never develop a city that’s heterogeneous or inclusive where people can rise and create new value for what they believe and do. If we only support spaces of completed production, we will invariably privilege a calcified cultural environment, and typical power structures will reinforce the consumption of mainstream thoughts and things.

So, creating new space for cultural experimentation is critical. Currently, we’re focused on rehabbing and programming eight structures at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. We’re creating a “steering plan,” not a “master plan” because everything is emergent and in flux. Experimental cultural programming and exploration are drivers for the plan.

We’re cognizant that the viability of these types of spaces is contingent on local community leaders instigating and stewarding the effort. As architects, we’re not going to run eight micro-institutions or a farm. In response to the context and our evolving partnerships, we can, however, catalyze activity and create the infrastructure necessary for the operations to function in relation to each other.

We have few resources, so we’re obligated to test first. Each is an experiment: starting with temporary architectural interventions, which we program seasonally with partners, we uncover possible ways of activating vacant structures. Once we’ve tested projects for viability, we pursue additional funding to create permanent structure.

For example, a long-time North End resident, Makeeba Ellington, runs the Wee Arts Gallery. She has been an artist in the community for more than fifty years. She programmed and curated the temporary gallery on the farm’s grounds, filling the micro-structure on a bi-weekly basis with original works produced by friends and associates. Over the course of the summer, she brought in over seven-hundred visitors to the intervention, galvanizing a huge network of artists and people interested in producing and buying the work. We coupled the gallery opening with produce market days – helping augment traffic to the farm. Learning from Makeeba’s successes, we’re looking to turn one of the buildings on site into a permanent gallery and art school which she can help direct.

You work a lot with community identity as a resource. What is the source of power in community identity?

We certainly learn a lot from context. But the notion of “community identity” can’t be nailed down easily. It has no clear definition. The problem with defining community is that the greater someone’s privilege, the more non-geolocalized communities that person belongs to. When we talk about places of economic austerity, we tend to geolocalize communities and ghettoize the situation. Often, too, this contributes to tribalist political finagling, questions about who belongs and who doesn’t perpetually surface. What determines if someone belongs or not? These are often fluctuating and highly politicized categories. Within a given neighborhood, there are always multiple groups and entities vying for power. Human being are just that — human — and political wrangling is similar at any scale. So we try deflect the problem by not defining exactly what community we’re working with.

Perhaps as an alternative, architecture can create contextually appropriate, playful, and emancipatory spaces where individuals are at liberty to construct their own identities. Wouldn’t that be sweet?