Ann Arbor – Detroit

By     Jul 2, 2014
Lecturer and Programming Coordinator, University of Michigan

Emilia White

Hi everyone! I'm very excited to be part of this fantastic group of artist/entrepreneurs, and look forward to sharing ideas and growing with you. Here's a bit of background about my own project, the Artoit Art Bus:

Ann Arbor and Detroit are two cities separated by a 40-minute stretch of highway. The span in between boasts an airport, a blue bridge, and a giant tire. The giant tire is fitting, considering that Michigan is known for its automobiles. And a very auto-driven culture it is indeed. There is no public transportation between Ann Arbor and Detroit. There is the Greyhound bus which goes a few times a day, but that's it. So really the only way to go between the two places is by car.

I have driven this route many times. Too many times. I live in Ann Arbor where my job is, but I frequently go to Detroit for art events, to meet with friends, to eat Yemeni food (yum!), or just for some variety from Ann Arbor. I have mastered the drive pretty well, but that doesn't mean that I enjoy it. 40 minutes is just long enough that it doesn't feel like a hop from one place to another. It's not a hop, it's a trek.

As I'm writing this I'm thinking of the people who live in bigger cities like Chicago and New York where a daily hour-long subway ride is the norm. And although I have experienced those subway rides and could certainly see how a commute to and from work on them every day might be grueling, I also feel that commuting on a subway is completely different from driving in a car. One, because on a subway there are lots of other people around you doing the same thing, and two, because you don't have to focus on the road. You just have to remember what stop to get off at and then you can zone out, read a book, chat with a stranger or snooze until then. When driving you have to stay awake and aware of your surroundings. You have to switch lanes and flow with traffic and get stuck behind big monster trucks and get annoyed by rude tailgaters and generally stay focused from point A to point B. Of course there are things you can do to pass the time, such as sing Madonna songs at the top of your lungs or recite your favorite poems in a British accent. But for me at least, 40 minutes of that both ways becomes a bit tiring. So a lot of the time when driving you are focused but also just zoning out; waiting for time (and scenery) to pass until you've reached your destination.

Ann Arbor and Detroit are two very different places. Ann Arbor is a smaller college town where the biggest event is football season when all of the college students are out on the streets wearing yellow and blue, holding red plastic cups filled with cheap beer at 10am in the morning while chanting "GO BLUE!" at the top of their lungs. It is also an intellectual, international hub with parks on almost every other block, farmers markets, neighborhood music festivals, a decent bus system, and a local community of artists and entrepreneurs. Detroit is a lot edgier than Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a bubble, while Detroit is not. Detroit is a sprawled out city which since the late 1960s has not seen its best days economy-wise. Just recently the city announced its plan to shut off water service to thousands of residents who are late to pay their water bills (which the U.N. has determined violates human rights). Almost half of its street lights were shut off back in 2012. There are plenty of boarded up, abandoned houses and buildings, including the historic Michigan Central Station. When comparing Detroit and Ann Arbor, you realize how white and insulated Ann Arbor is. Sure, there's diversity, but not like there is in Detroit (according to each city's population statistics, Detroit is 82% black and 12% white, while Ann Arbor is 75% white and 9% black. See the full statistics here: Detroit, Ann Arbor). Despite all the bleak facts about abandonment and lack of city funding, Detroit has a thriving scene of artist entrepreneurs that is steadily growing. Detroit is not dead. In its own way, it is alive and thriving.

Because of their differences, I think that Ann Arbor and Detroit could learn something from each other. I'm focused more specifically on artists, but I think that artists are important for communities, and once they become involved the engagement of the Art Bus could expand further to examine local issues such as race, privilege, education, environment, politics.... I don't want to push my own agenda on the bus (although of course I have lots of creative ideas on how it might be used), instead I want to focus on creating opportunities for local artists from both places to contribute to the bus programming based on the issues and topics that they're interested in. Through several conversations I've had already, I know that there is interest in lectures, screenings, artist talks, on-the-road collaborations, tours and residencies. In one conversation, I discussed with a friend how it would be interesting to have pre-show preps on the bus, for example I recently went to a summer solstice exhibition event at Popps Packing in Hamtramck (an independent city within Detroit) in the spirit of Carl Sagan and Sun Ra. If the bus had gone to that, an invited expert on Sun Ra and/or Carl Sagan could prepare passengers ahead of time for the show. The possibilities are endless, and I think the biggest challenge I face right now is 1) getting a bus and renovating it, and 2) finding a way to bridge Ann Arbor and Detroit that isn't just a back and forth between the two, but involves a mixing of individuals from both places on the bus at one time. Both Ann Arbor and Detroit have great cultural resources to take advantage of, however what I'm most interested in is creating an alternative space in between where exchange and dialogue can take place.

Plus, I'll no longer have to drive alone :).