Detroit’s murals have beautified the city and gotten worldwide attention over the last several years. The city regularly promotes its homegrown talent and the work they produce. So when a new mural project got done downtown, why were none of the muralists from Detroit?
Detroit artists say they were blindsided by the mural project, called Detroit Be the Change, painted for the city in anticipation of the 2024 NFL Draft. Now Detroit artists want to create a set of guidelines for the city to follow around public art, like minimum pay and greater transparency in the selection process.
In the process of reporting this story, we got a little scoop. A mystery buyer paid more than $14 million in 2021 for a couple of buildings on Cass Avenue, including the Film Exchange Building. That vacant building was used as a canvas for one of the murals, and the organizers of the project told us who the owner is: the Ilitch family! They were long suspected to be the owners, but it’s good to get confirmation.
Elsewhere, the University of Michigan (U-M) Board of Regents finally approved construction of a major development in Detroit. This week also saw the latest stretch of the RiverWalk open, the owner of the partially collapsed building in Eastern Market submitting plans to save it and Chinese Americans continuing to seek recognition of the historic Chinatown neighborhood.
>>Green light: U-M regents approved construction of the $250 million Center for Innovation in downtown Detroit last week. The university has until the end of the year to break ground and submit a final plan, or it risks losing the $100 million earmarked for the project in the state budget. Olympia Development of Michigan, owned by the Ilitch family, is donating the 4-acre property and selling U-M another nearby parcel for $9.5 million to build a parking structure — the regents approved both items. The $1.5 billion District Detroit project being developed by Olympia and Stephen Ross’ Related Companies will have residential and “incubator” components connected to U-M’s center. Construction of the entire project is expected to take around three years. Regents also approved accepting a $100 million donation from Ross. (Detroit News, Axios Detroit)
Check out our previous reporting on how U-M quietly sidestepped a community benefits agreement.
>>A fully connected riverfront: A long-awaited connection of the Detroit RiverWalk to the MacArthur Bridge and Belle Isle finally opened last week. It is also the last piece of the East Riverfront, a project that began 20 years ago, cost $180 million and spans 3.5 miles. The latest RiverWalk section is a paved path called the Uniroyal Promenade. As for the rest of the 42-acre Uniroyal site, it is still undeveloped. Various plans for it have been floated over the years, including a self-contained “town,” an amusement park and a Donald Trump-owned casino. Former NFL player and Detroit native Jerome Bettis owns the property now, but an estimated $400 million mixed-use development he’s planning there may be over a decade away. (Metro Times, Crain’s Detroit Business, Detroit News)
>>Fighting erasure: Chinese Americans continue to press for greater recognition of Detroit’s historic Chinatown in the wake of the city’s sudden demolition of the Chinese Merchants Association building in July. State Sen. Stephanie Chang said discussions are taking place around a potential garden space honoring the neighborhood’s history at the site of the demolition, which is owned by the Ilitches. A descendent of the family that owned the Shanghai Cafe — located in the building until the restaurant closed in 1981 — wrote a moving history of her family’s immigrant experience and what the restaurant meant to them. American Community Developers, owner of the former Chung’s restaurant building nearby, said it is committed to opening a Chinese restaurant after it’s redeveloped. (Axios Detroit, Eater Detroit)
We interviewed a descendant of a different family that owned the Shanghai Cafe who talked about their history with the building and hopes for the neighborhood.
>>Quality data?: Detroit environmental activists say the state is allowing a company to manipulate air quality data in order to gain approval for a cement facility in Southwest Detroit. Edw. C. Levy Co. is planning a slag grinding facility in an area near Zug Island, where particulate matter levels are barely below federal limits. When the company applied for a permit, instead of using data from air quality monitors closest to where the facility will be located, it pulled data from Allen Park where particulate matter levels are lower. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy approved the permit nonetheless, saying pollution from Levy is expected to be “extremely small.” Exposure to particulates is linked to a variety of health issues. (Planet Detroit)
>>Development news quick-hitters: Scot Turnbull, owner of the partially collapsed building in Eastern Market, submitted plans to the city to save it last week. If approved, he will have seven days to begin work… Construction is complete on the art deco-inspired Cambria Hotel inside an Albert Kahn building downtown… The building that houses the Anchor Bar, a legendary hangout for Detroit journalists, is up for sale for $3.5 million… The city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund is seeking a third round of funding to continue its support of the same 10 commercial corridors it spent money on in the past… A new statewide fund will provide monthly rental stipends of between $300 and $500 to recently relocated immigrant families for up to 12 months. The program is being funded with $4 million from the state and U.S. Department of the Treasury. (Detroit Free Press, Urbanize Detroit, Crain’s Detroit Business, Axios Detroit, BridgeDetroit)
Where are the Detroit artists?
Sydney G. James is a well-known Detroit muralist responsible for “Girl with the D Earring” in New Center. A few weeks ago, she started getting tagged in Instagram posts when several new murals popped up downtown.
People wanted to know if she painted them. She didn’t — and she didn’t know who did. It turned out none of the murals were painted by Detroiters. James wanted to know why, and she’s worried the low prices those artists were paid will depress the market for homegrown talent.
One Good Building
Sojourner Truth Homes get historic marker
City and state officials dedicated a Michigan Historical Marker at the Sojourner Truth Homes last week, celebrating its inclusion in the National Register for Historic Places.
The Detroit Housing Commission began construction on the Sojourner Truth Homes in 1941 primarily as affordable housing for Detroit’s Black autoworkers, who were key to U.S. military production at that time. The 200-unit development was immediately opposed by white residents of the nearby Krainz Woods neighborhood, who attempted to block the Black residents from entering their homes. The federal government intervened after inaction from the city, and National Guard troops protected Black residents as they entered their homes.
The site was one of 14 proposed by the city’s Civil Rights Advisory Committee for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
The project is still owned by the Detroit Housing Commission to house low-income tenants. Twenty-six of the original 46 buildings were demolished in 1981 as part of a modernization project. More modern buildings were added to the complex at that time.