City's call to remove graffiti from Packard Plant sparks controversy

Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 4:46pm
 

The Packard Automotive Plant, the infamous image of Detroit’s poverty turned ‘graffiti haven’ — the abandoned building is covered in neon designs and tags — is being wiped clean.

Located off of Interstate 94 in Detroit, the plant closed in 1956, making it the largest abandoned plant in the world. It gained so much attention locally and internationally for graffiting by organizers and artists that in 2010, Banksy, an internationally renowned street artist, tagged one of his murals on a wall of the plant.  

The city of Detroit, however, announced last week that it plans to clean up the Packard Plant, which will mean removing the graffiti from the portion of the plant the city owns and encouraging the owner of the rest of the Packard Plant, Fernando Palazuelo, to do the same. This has sparked debate regarding the duties of private property owners in Detroit as well as what the role of graffiti and street art will be in Detroit’s future.

These renovations will not been cheap. So far, the city has spent about $19,000 in its graffiti clean-up project and Palazuelo is projected to spend $100,000 if he agrees to clean his portion of the plant, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Members of the University of Michigan community with ties to Detroit had mixed reactions about the effect removing the graffiti and the overall renovation project would have on the city. 

Critics of the initiative, such as Nick Tobier, professor in the School of Art & Design, said they feel as though this is an inappropriate allocation of government funds.

“I would say that there are tons of neighborhoods throughout Detroit that have been marked by, if you describe it as, vandalism or graffiti or broken windows,” Tobier said . “And the lack of investment and municipal infrastructure from street lighting to sidewalks is much more urgent, in terms of the number of people it effects, than protecting private investment.”

While both the city of Detroit’s General Services Department and Palazuelo were unavailable for immediate comment. However, Tobier emphasized the plant's private owners.

“The Packard Plant is now privately owned,” Tobier said. “If a private owner wants to remove graffiti from their building, that’s completely up to them. I can’t see why municipal or local funds should be used to remove graffiti from something that’s owned by a Peruvian hotel investor.”

Andrew Thompson, an Art & Design School lecturer who lives in Detroit, added that he feels removing graffiti from the Packard Plant is more of a public relations maneuver than a legitimate attempt at improving the welfare of Detroit’s residents.

“Sure, the city wanting to remove all the graffiti and clean up the Packard Plant is fine, but what about the neighborhood directly adjacent to the Packard Plant where there’s blighted buildings in between individual homeowners’ houses that I think would actually make a bigger difference in residents’ lives than a public relations maneuver of saying ‘we’re going to tackle the Packard Plant,’ ” Thompson said.

Some students, such as Art & Design junior Arica Cykiert, said they are also worried Detroit will lose a cornerstone of its cultural and artistic value. Cykiert has studied street art during her time at the University. 

“Graffiti is, most often, an opportunity for people who find their environment oppressive to respond to it,” Cykiert said. “I understand that to many it represents a culture out of control, but to so many more it represents hope and optimism, especially in a city so economically depressed as Detroit.”

Ann Arbor resident Mary Thiefels, founder and owner of TreeTown Murals —  a mural art company based in Ann Arbor — said she believes that graffiti being produced in Detroit is critical for the city to allow these young artists a space in which they can express themselves.

“I cannot condone illegal graffiti in my line of profession, but I do support the human desire to leave our mark that graffiti culture has done such a great job of encouraging,” Thiefels said. “I support that desire to leave our mark, but at the same time I don’t encourage young people to vandalize or trespass.”

While this push for the elimination of graffiti is an effort to reinvigorate the city, some, such as Antonio Cosme, founding member of the Raiz Up Collective of Detroit, a neighborhood collective of Southwest Detroit residents that use hip-hop as a tool to create social awareness, feels it is a declaration of war against art and the creative spirit of the city.

"This is art we're talking about,” Cosme said. “This is not the War on Drugs. This is the war on art that's taking place in Detroit.”

Painting over the graffiti is not the first step in their efforts to reduce the presence of vandals at the site. In the past, the city’s attempts to increase the value of the plant have been thwarted by the continual appearance of street artists. In an attempt to combat the frequent tagging, the city began reconstructing the plant to make it more secure.

Jessica Parker, the graffiti removal project manager through Detroit’s General Services Department, said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that the plant is among several historic ‘graffiti havens,’ from around the city that will be cleaned as part of a city-wide initiative to increase the overall well-being of Detroit and its inhabitants. 

“We’re trying to remove the idea that the city is in disarray because we’re making a comeback and we’re doing it one block at a time, we’re removing one tag at a time,” Parker said. “And we’re trying to restore the hope back into the community that the city of Detroit, we are here, we’re building and we’re on our way back up.”