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Sidewalk Detroit wants you to rethink the purpose of public space

“We look at the public sphere as a place for healing”

Performance at Sidewalk Festival 2018
Photo by Trilogy Beats

If you’ve ever been to Old Redford during the Sidewalk Festival, you’ve probably asked yourself more than once, “What am I looking at?”

At the annual three-day street festival that takes place at and around the Artist Village Detroit near Grand River Avenue and Lahser Road, there are interactive installations and all manner of performances—dancing, theater, music—that stimulate viewers but intentionally lack explanation. Often one stage or exhibit leads to the next, so it’s common to stumble into an exotic work in progress.

“Some people complain that they don’t know where they’re going, but that’s intentional,” says Ryan Myers-Johnson, founder of Sidewalk Detroit, which produces the festival. “Everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by arts and interaction and collisions of creativity. Usually people at festivals say, ‘I’m going to go to this stage at this time.’ But at Sidewalk, everywhere is a stage.”

Sidewalk Festival is about creating spontaneous moments like this, but also reimagining what it means to be in public space.

The sidewalk is the perfect place to stage (excuse the pun) this kind of experiment. There’s all kinds of rules, both legal and social, for how people should interact with each other and their surroundings in public. And people of different backgrounds have had widely different experiences with these conventions.

“What does it mean to be a woman in public space? There’s a higher sense of danger,” Myers-Johnson says. “What about spaces that aren’t tended to? The message is ‘you’re not valued, we don’t care about you.’”

Photo by Trilogy Beats

By creating a three-day visual feast, Sidewalk Detroit hopes to replace negative or traumatic experiences with something more positive. “We look at the public sphere as a place for healing,” Myers-Johnson says.

The theme for the seventh Sidewalk Festival, which takes place from August 1-3, is “Peace Power Utopia,” where artists will create works that comment on today’s political climate but also imagine new, possibly better, futures.

The festival is what Sidewalk Detroit is most well-known for, but over the last few years it’s been taking on numerous other placemaking projects to advance spatial equity.

The nonprofit did some consulting work for The Platform about how it might incorporate the arts into the Sunflower Building in Old Redford. It’s designing the engagement process for the Joe Louis Greenway so the city can better understand what residents want out of the 31.5-mile non-motorized loop. It was also a finalist for the redesign of the Cultural Center plaza around the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But Sidewalk Detroit’s other main project has been Eliza Howell Park, where it’s working with residents and the city on beautification and accessibility.

“It’s over 250 acres, an important intersection of the upper and lower Rouge tributaries, an important migratory path for birds—one of the true jewels of the city,” Myers-Johnson says. “But some people were afraid to go there.”

She says that for years, residents and volunteers through the Friends of Eliza Howell Park fought to save it through cleaning efforts and maintaining paths. But Sidewalk Detroit wanted to bring more attention and investment to the park so that people could, once again, replace unpleasant memories with positive ones.

With resident support, it worked with a landscape architect to design a plan for the park to address persistent flooding. It then helped secure a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Service (with additional funding from the Kresge and Erb foundations) to implement bioswale and rain garden components to mitigate the flooding. Benches were recently installed in the park; the first seating in over ten years. And it replaced a sign—also the first one that’s been up in years—and plans on building four more.

Myers-Johnson has a long-term vision for Sidewalk Detroit that involves creating its own live-work arts community. Over one or more blocks, there would be residencies and studios for artists, a black box theater, flexible event space, and of course plenty of place-based art.

“We’re going to have it; I just don’t know when,” she says.

Given how far Sidewalk Detroit has come in seven years, there’s no reason to doubt her.