EMAIL: Jason Irla on Detroit

The other night after I saw Detropia, a moving documentary about post-industrial America and Detroit’s dire financial crisis, I advised on Twitter that MFA grads should consider moving there to help revitalize the city because there’s plenty of cheap space and grant funding is available. And remember how many artists from Detroit were included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial? Detroit native Jason Irla, a faculty member at the University of Maine, suggested otherwise. After a long back and forth via Twitter, he sent me this note, which he agreed to share with readers.

Image above: Jason Murphy, A Spanish
Father and an Italian Mother# 2,
2012, enamel and fabric, 81 x 85 1/2 inches.

Hi Sharon,

I felt like I owed you a proper email, Twitter is such a poor medium for thoughtful discussion. Listen, I didn’t want it to seem like I was poo-pooing your enthusiasm for Detroit, I hope I didn’t come off that way. I�m always curious when I see people who are not from Detroit recommend that young folks move there and rebuild.

First I should say I’m no expert on Detroit and it’s issues. But you’ll notice I don’t live there anymore. My family is there, my closest friends are there, my heart is there, but my feet are elsewhere. I try to visit often, read the Detroit newspapers, follow a bunch of folks on twitter who are actively trying to make Detroit a better place to live. I try to stay informed but it’s nothing like actually living there. Last summer Chloe Watson (we�re married), and I nearly moved to Detroit. It was our plan B if we didn’t get a teaching gig.

Well we did get hired to teach and didn’t move back to Det. Looking back at it, and knowing what I do now, seeing the state take over of the city, having an emergency manager put in place (effectively canceling out all of Detroit’s elected officials!!), I feel like we might have dodged a bullet. Even then Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing was trying to downsize/annex off neighborhoods in the city (see Planned Contraction), the only reason I feel eminent domain wasn’t used was that the city was too poor to actually litigate and win. Planned Contraction means forcing or coercing residents out of distressed neighborhoods by eliminating services like trash pick-up, police and fire protection, street light repair, public schools and other essential services.

That’s all changed now with the emergency manager, I mean you’ve seen how he’s thinking/attempting to sell off the DIA’s collection as a city asset to cover the city�s enormous outstanding debts�we’ve seriously reached the unimaginable there. In the late 1950’s Detroit had a population of just over 2 million. Now Detroit has a population of under 800,000. No other city in the US can boast that type of depopulation is such a short period of time. This massive city is literally deserted in many neighborhoods. We�re talking about a city large enough to fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco, within it�s border with room to spare. The residents who have stayed�through the riots, the crime, the mass fires, the removal of basic services, the gutting of police departments and fire departments�they aren’t going anywhere. They’re either too stubborn, have nowhere else to go, or have a profound love and sense of dedication for the city, maybe all of the above. Detroit has no infrastructure, the People Mover light rail is a joke and a bus system that is so systematically broken that other cities study it as a model of what to avoid. The city�s public school system is so poor that students have historically had to bring their own toilet paper, and many of the textbooks being used are hopelessly out of date. The schools are underfunded, over populated, and often times dangerous. Obviously the tea-publican Governor’s solution is�you guessed it, charter schools. Detroit�s unemployment hovers at just above 18% but the official number is like much of the US, probably much higher.

I think you’re right though, Detroit is a magnet for young artists, and that’s a good thing. But right now the city is in a very precarious situation and its balance held in the grip of someone who will most likely gut the city further. It’s highly likely the he will move forward with Planned Contraction, eliminating services to the portions of the city that are underpopulated but still require utilities and basic services to function. That will decrease Detroit’s effective footprint and expenses, but not before he guts the pensions of public employees, devastating a police force and fire department that is already running a skeleton crew and crippling deficits. It’s going to get worse before things get better. My guess is much of the city owned properties will be sold off to the highest bidder (see Pontiac MI). Many of the recently abandoned/vacant homes (it’s estimated that there are upwards of 45,000 abandoned homes), are owned by banks and have been allowed to fall into disrepair while the banks refuse to pay property taxes leaving these vacants in limbo, continuing to bring down property values in neighborhoods attracting squatters and arsonists (look up Devil’s night if you don’t know anything about that 70/80’s Detroit phenomenon. Although arson in Detroit is nowhere near its 80�s era record, it is still a concern for many residents).

I do think Detroit has an opportunity like no other city in the US does though. Detroit has an extensive network of community urban gardens, many of which are run on city owned but neglected land, others on forgotten about private property long having returned to fields. These gardens are a kind of miracle really. People are raising not only organic vegetables but also small livestock�chickens, goats, etc. Detroit could very well become the first city in the US that does not need to import any food�everything can be grown/raised in the city�and given the direction it’s going this is definitely a very real possibility. I hope it happens. Detroit is full of highly motivated visionaries and a DIY community that is truly inspiring, check out Power House Productions  or Russell Street Deli (owned and run by two artists Ben Hall and Jason Murphy),  who get nearly all of their unprepared foods from local farms and gardens around Detroit and SE Michigan and support many local charities through their work at the restaurant. Something is happening in Detroit that is quite amazing. That said, Detroit is not for the faint of heart. It’s a challenging place to live and work and will be for some time to come.

 Ben Hall, Bear Trap-Perspex, 2012; Cotton,
Pigmented Resin, Tambourine, Cereal, Vulture Feather, Beach Ball,
Rolling Stone, Brass Pate, Formaldyhyde Dipped Cigarettes, Ash/Remains,
Butts, Mirror, Cereal Bowl, Prayer Bowl, Spray Bottle, Recycled
Plastic; 100 x 64 inches.

My only reservation is the emergency manager Kevin Orr and the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder (along with the state legislature), a tea party extremist. Michigan�s state government is controlled at all levels by Republicans (since 2011), from the state House and Senate to the governor�s office, attorney general, secretary of state and the state Supreme Court. The take over of Detroit by the State of Michigan has been decades in the making. They have the power and incentive to gut Detroit of nearly all of its assets and privatize much of the city and it’s services without consideration of its residents or in a way that will hold them accountable to the public.

It’s a precarious time to invest in Detroit�either with money of energy. We need to wait and see how this whole thing plays out first. The emergency manager was only appointed about 5-6 weeks ago, so this is all very recent. I’m optimistic and have a great deal of faith in Detroit’s people to move forward and create a new model for an urban center, but right now a lot of their fate is held in the hands of a group of politicians and business people who don’t give 2� about Detroit or it’s residents. It’s simply a place to be plundered. We’ll know how all this will play out soon, it’s developing every day. But it’ll take a couple of years to begin to see improvements. First the Governor needs to be voted out, hopefully that happens in two years. The emergency manager and his tactics are in play, and there’s little that can be done there. I’m sure the citizens of Detroit will find a way to adjust to whatever damage he does.

So there’s some background from an ex-Detroiter. Have you ever been to Detroit? If not I would highly recommend it, you’ve never seen another city in the US like it�nothing! If you ever want to visit I can put you in touch with good people, shoot if the timing worked out Chloe and I might even be able to meet you there and run around together. Either way if you haven’t been, you have to go. It’s a raw, blank canvas. Just as soon as the State gets out of the city it’ll be ready to move back towards the direction of thriving�and it will, it’s coming.

Hope all is well with you. Thanks for the Twitter conversation!



  1. This is great, thanks.

  2. It's incredible to me the extent to which people are clueless about the reality of Detroit's situation. Visiting New York, I'm constantly simultaneously depressed/entertained to hear people talk about the "art revolution" happening in Detroit, and the dreams New York based artists have of taking over abandoned buildings to make work in, obviously without realizing that those same buildings have been stripped of wiring and plumbing and have their roofs caving in. My friends and family that visit are astonished to see the city literally collapsing as we drive south down Woodward Avenue. I sincerely appreciate an article speaking to the Detroit that is real to the people living there now.

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