City Drift breathes life and art back into Detroit

By Omar Mahmood, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 3, 2013

A few weeks after the news broke that Detroit was finally declaring bankruptcy, around the time former mayoral candidate Mike Duggan was making gains despite being taken off the ballot, my dad and I set out with an old friend to scout the lots that lay decrepit in the shadows of grand skyscrapers. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of Detroit now, with the public auctions nearing. What drew my dad’s friend to the streets, to Cass Corridor and Grand River, was art. He was a long-time oncologist-turned-muralist, scouting for his own gallery in midtown.

Jennifer Junkenheimer, a curator hailing from New York, works in contemporary art and has partnered with City Drift which, according to its website, is an enterprise and worldwide project that resurrects non-traditional art of the city under the “umbrella of the derive,” that has now turned its eyes on Detroit.

“I don’t call myself an artist, really. I’m a curator. So my job is to … bridge gaps between artists and the public,” Junkheimer said.

She took the job with a calm sureness, treading carefully away from sensationalism — not that Detroit couldn’t do with some sensationalism. I had been to the City Drift gallery that weekend. It was on a broken-down corner, a forlorn brick building that used to be a bank. A few paces down the street arched a rusting bridge emblazoned “Welcome to Detroit,” in an almost satirical beauty, when only across the wiry playground fence was an old car warehouse overgrown with weeds and shattered windshields.

There was an inextricable connection between City Drift and the auto industry. Maybe it was the murals of Diego Rivera that, as far away as they were on the courtyard walls of the Detroit Institute of Art, seemed to watch over the pieces. And the pieces themselves spoke of cars. One was a mountain of old tires, all identical.

Another, called “Bumper Cars,” featured a string of old car grills and bumpers, with Chrysler, Dodge, Ford and GMC still emblazoned welded stubbornly onto their frames. Yet another was a sledgehammer strung onto a windshield which the viewer was supposed to smash apart. The wall opposite was lined with carved metal shapes, beautifully woven scraps and manifestos from unions and protestors were written in simple little notes under each one.

When asked what she made of the heavy auto motif, Junkenheimer thoughtfully explained: “It’s probably not because the culture of the city is so much about cars or anything. If you look around Detroit, a lot of the empty businesses had to do with cars, so that’s what the artists have to work with now.”

As a part of the art community, her job was not to worry about trends and to name things. It was clear, though, that something was up and coming. She talked of her friend Thomas Bell, the man behind Bumper Cars. The artist and his partner had moved to Detroit, of all places, from New York, of all places. Why?

“New York is just so expensive. … And artists tend to come from lower economic status, so you know, when New York got unbearable they just kicked out anyone who couldn’t pay.” Junkenheimer said.

It seemed that Thomas Bell had found a living in Detroit. He had his own gallery, for once. And he wasn’t the only one. That’s how you know when the city is on the up: when the artists start moving in.

Junkenheimer insisted that artists have found a new home in Detroit. “Although I don’t live in Detroit, for the record,” she clarified. She was part of the Detroit arts circle, but a new voice and one removed as well, because her partner was a professor at the School of Art and Design here.

She emphasized the need to change an attitude: “Detroit for us can’t just be a Tigers game,” she said.

When she takes students out to see sites, they come upon places that are nice, that are glossy, places that you’d never expect to see in Detroit. She talked about one recent project of hers where she took viewers out to a Finnish sauna at 2 a.m. Everything about the project seemed to be about subverting stereotypes about Detroit. A Finnish sauna, right in someone’s backward. In Detroit.

Take Adil, our oncologist-turned-muralist. He hails from the suburbs and has spent his career as an oncologist. His art has long been a basement matter, but now he’s moved out into the open and has found that Detroit is asking for something more. City Drift itself shows off pictures of the doctor painting Urdu poetry on the “Wall of Freedom,” next to bubbled graffiti native only to Detroit — prayer of the mother, read the blue letters, air of heaven.

“Detroit is gritty; Detroit is tough, ” Junkenheimer said. “If someone were to ask me where to go for art, I wouldn’t say Ann Arbor. I would say Detroit.”