Applauding certain types of design is fraught with paradox.
We can appreciate the ideas and craft, we can marvel at human ingenuity, and still remain baffled, even horrified, by the circumstances enabling such creativity to flourish. So it is with “The State of Detroit,” an exhibition curated by Elizabeth Cummings and Morgan Walsh at the Chicago Design Museum.
The exhibit showcases design-oriented thinking and problem solving to address Detroit’s myriad issues: urban blight, food and nutrition access, availability of social activities, employment generation and transit equity across a huge area with a shrinking population. The exhibit includes displays of digital data maps showing transit, property and food landscapes. It highlights several enterprises involved in empowering the larger Detroit community, such as a barber shop that offers business mentoring and panel discussions on social issues along with haircuts, a makerspace providing vocational skills to youth, and a media organization designing communications strategies “for a more just, creative and collaborative world.” A pop-up yoga studio encourages wellbeing among lower- and middle-income Detroiters outside the metro area, and a bike store offers bike maintenance, “earn-a-bike” classes, and refurbished bicycles so Detroiters can have mobility beyond the insufficient transit system.
The most sobering item on display is the EMPWR Coat, an arresting reminder of homelessness designed by Veronika Scott. By day, it is a sturdy stadium coat engineered with wind- and water-resistant materials. By night, a lower portion folds out into a kind of sleeping bag, and the sleeves roll up to act as a pillow. Detroit companies such as Carhartt, General Motors, Thinsulate and Steelcase donated the fabrics. The project evolved into the nonprofit organization, The Empowerment Plan, led by Scott. In the last three years, the organization has distributed 9,000 coats.
The Empowerment Plan employs homeless women as seamstresses, which enables them to move into permanent housing. It is a marvelous display of the power of an individual to make change by design. The viewer is provoked to ask why, in a nation that has the wealth and industrial expertise to produce such technical fabrics, we cannot also provide the basic need for shelter.
Planning a city is complicated. Resources are limited and people prioritize services and strategies differently according to their needs. The exhibit illustrates this dynamic in an interactive display involving tubes and small colored balls to encourage participants to consider municipal decisions. If one ball equals a vote for resources, what would be most important to you—schools, vocational support, parks, security, or business initiatives?
“The State of Detroit” is a small exhibition that could benefit from better presentation and organization, but nonetheless offers thoughtful ideas on what a reimagined city could be. (Toni Nealie)
“The State of Detroit” runs until August 30 at Chicago Design Museum, Block 37, 108 North State, Third Floor
Ben Schulman is the editor of the design section of Newcity and co-host of “A Lot You Got to Holler,” the Newcity podcast on design, architecture and urbanism. His work with Newcity is one of many ventures he engages in to communicate the value of design and cities. Ben serves as the communications director for Small Change, a real estate crowdfunding platform that works to catalyze the development of transformative real estate projects. Previously, he was the communications director for the Chicago chapter of The American Institute of Architects, editor of Chicago Architect magazine and communications director for the urban think-tank, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). His writing has appeared and been noted in outlets such as ARCHITECT Magazine, Belt Magazine, ICON, New Geography, Streetsblog, The National Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pop City Media and as a contributor to The Urbanophile, among others. When not writing about cities, Ben serves as an editorial assistant for the journal New Media + Society, and helps head the Contraphonic Sound Series, an attempt to document cities through sound.
Contact: email@example.com | Website: benschulman.com