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The world is knocking at Detroit’s front door

Kunle Ifesanya tells of his Detroit experience while Delphine Regnauld of France listens.

As the poster child for industrial decline , Detroit has become a favorite subject of study and dissection. It can be exhausting. But one of the benefits of the renewed interest in Detroit is that the city has the potential to benefit from all of the bright minds thinking about what has happened here, and what’s going to happen next.  

In mid-June, 2010, Data Driven Detroit hosted about a half-dozen such bright minds, all Urban Heritage Ph.D. students from Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. They came from all parts of the world—China, France, Armenia, Hong Kong and Nigeria—to live in a house on Moran St. in Hamtramck, near the Detroit border. They planned to stay for about ten days, exploring the area, learning from the community and conducting interviews to fuel their research.  

I was struck by the disciplines they were bringing to the table: architecture, environmental studies, sociology and urban studies. They were all clear how these disciplines affect the lifeblood of cities. They hoped to learn from Detroit, but also to leave something behind to further Detroit’s comeback.  

The project is being coordinated by Kerstin Neimann, a Hamburg, Germany student of applied cultural science, who has bought a house on Moran St. to use as a “research residency.” The project is called FILTER Detroit, a cultural exchange between the artists and academics who visit and the immediate neighborhood. Once the academics conclude their studies, their work will be used by the College for Creative Studies to create a project that responds to a community need.  

FILTER Detroit's house on Moran St.

“We need data to provide insight to our work,” said Neimann. “Without good information about the area, we would have to get it on our own, without knowing whether or not what we’re finding is accurate.” 

That’s where Data Driven Detroit came in. During a two-hour meeting, we were able to hear their ideas about urban heritage, while sharing demographic data about the area surrounding the house on Moran. From the beginning of the meeting, it was evident how differently they viewed urban areas, which are often considered the center of social, economic and political life. 

“Our cities aren’t the powerful entities that they are in Europe,” said D3’s Data Manager, Gregory Parrish. “We’re more interested in sprawl and suburbanization. Even our cities are suburban styled—single family homes and spread out.” 

“Maybe Hamtramck has a lesson for Detroit,” offered Lagos native, Kunle Ifesanya. “It’s more dense and efficient. There seems to be more of a sense of community identity, and it’s more walkable.” 

Ifesanya shared a fascinating story about his experience walking down streets in Lagos versus Detroit. In Detroit, he purposely walked into a group of large men to “see what would happen.” 

“They were friendly and asked me questions,” he said. “This would not have been the same in Lagos. It makes me wonder if the description of crime in Detroit is true.”  

Ultimately, the researchers will give their results to students at the College for Creative Studies. Supervised by Susan La Porte and Doug Kisor, the chair of CCS’ graphic design department, they will fashion a project that will leave behind a “living archive” of what the students discovered during their stay here.     

 “We’re keenly interested in connecting our students with students from other cultures who have different ways of looking at the world,” said Kisor. His students have participated in projects like Design Ignites Change 

Kurt Metzger shares data about Detroit with Bauhaus University students.

, which encourages students to apply design to urban environments to affect change.  

It will be interesting to see what kind of long-term projects evolve in the collaboration between CCS and the FILTER Detroit project. It’s one of the gifts of being at a place like Data Driven Detroit. We get to see how creative minds can use our data to directly affect lives on both a local and global scale.