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The Imagination Station is exploding from the ashes of a firebombed flophouse standing — barely — in the shadow of Detroit's abandoned, antique train station. Painted colors splash from a second story window, and people congregate on the lawn to plan the future. It's the work of a racially and generationally diverse team of community organizers, artists and activists who've united to show how dilapidation can be recycled into inspiration: They envision a combination community center, public art space and living quarters for resident artists. They also want to establish a model for sustainable restoration. The Imagination Station is a refinery pumping out the brand of idealistic, DIY fuel that's helping rebuild, if not at least re-envision, Detroit.
You can find the Imagination Station by heading west from downtown on Michigan Avenue through the city's historic Corktown neighborhood, traveling past the bars, lofts and pawnshops, and beyond the field at the corner of Trumbull Street where history was pitched, batted and bulldozed. At Rosa Parks Boulevard you'll come to a point where two of Detroit's old and new landmarks meet. There they are, right across the street from each other. The culinary coup d'état Slows Bar BQ is the new: People wait in line before they're open, beer, barbecue and money flow till close, and life is good. But the eatery sits near Michigan Central Station, Detroit's answer to New York's Grand Central Station. But the last train rolled out of this palace of transit on Jan. 6, 1988, and, after 22 years of triumphant neglect, it exists only as a ghostly relic. Majestic yet despondent, to some it's a 500,000-square-foot metaphor.
Just as the Imagination Station sits near the intersection of landmarks, its conception is the result of the intersecting lines of artists, dreamers, doers and schemers attracted to the same small piece of Detroit.
One of them is Hamtramck's Marianne Audrey Burrows, who felt the depot was beckoning her to paint its portrait last summer. She started on July 4, during what she called an "art vigil." For Burrows, 29, it was an artful arrival.
"I got sick of being passive," she says. "I was looking at the art community, feeling like a lot of people were doing it half-assed. I wanted to jump in and push harder." She says she was an artist who wasn't making art and concedes, "So what the fuck was I?" To make up for lost time, Burrows spent 30 hours painting on canvases made from discarded window frames while camped out at Roosevelt Park, a grassy crash spot with plenty of shade for vagrant nappers.
Exhibited today at the pro-city organization Inside Detroit's Welcome Center downtown, the painting "isn't about abandonment, as one might suspect," says Burrows, "but about landmarks." It's part of her series also interpreting the wreckage of Tiger Stadium and the long-abandoned Fisher Body plant, which could lead you to other conclusions. But for Burrows and artists like her, there's little to no separation between the art being made and the city it's being made in, the art is celebration not exploitation. "For the people who love living here, Detroit's our own little dreamscape, maybe even a dream city," says Burrows. "Certain things are possible here that wouldn't be possible in other cities."
Over the course of the year, Burrows has painted several murals on public structures all around Detroit; she turned heads by shaving her own in a performance piece last fall, and has since been a regular live-art maker at festivals and parties. "I want art to be an unavoidable presence to anyone who is unfamiliar or familiar to this town," Burrows says. "I want it to be able to speak to every person, integrating a new era of culture into our city.
"People are coming to Detroit, choosing to live here and to experience what it's like to do business and live life on their own terms," Burrows says. "What they have in common with Detroiters is that they already think like Detroiters in that we're fashioning a city for ourselves. But if you come in and soak it up for a couple days, that's cool," says Burrows, "but you'll still have no idea what it's like to really be here. You can only really get it if you do something."
Jerry Paffendorf, 28, who moved here last year, is a doer, and another intersecting line in the story of the Imagination Station. The calculating and creative New Jersey transplant earned received his BFA there, a degree in Studies of the Future from University of Houston, and moved to San Francisco, where things got really nerdy. He worked as a futurist, consulting for major corporations and online worlds such as Second Life to create Web-enabled social and virtual world experiences. Laid off, bouncing back and forth between Brooklyn and San Francisco in limbo, he moved to Detroit. Aside from a few online connections, Paffendorf knew no one. He rented a studio space at the Russell Industrial Center to live and work out of, more or less mainlining Detroit to the best of his ability.
Around the time Burrows was throwing herself into the art world, Paffendorf was launching a virtual world that connects to a very earthly one right here in Detroit: Welcome to Loveland. Inspired by elements from video games and online environments — and meshing those with new concepts for fundraising, community identification and social ownership — Loveland is an experiment in micro-real estate. Residents, or "inchvestors," of Loveland buy square-inches, or make an inchvestments, at $1 a pop. The first plot of land, aptly called Plymouth (8887 E. Vernor Hwy.), is a 10,000-square-inch property now "home" to nearly 600 inchvestors from around the world. There's no vacancy in Plymouth now, so Paffendorf has opened a second 50,000-square-inch "microhood" called Hello World in Loveland, which is also home to the Bridge to Everywhere, a series of virtual roads that grow by the inch from Detroit to the locations where inchvestments originate. If you have an altruistic idea that seems crazy but doable, Paffendorf is a natural-born ally.
Another intersecting line here is Corktown Residents Council President Jeff DeBruyn, often referred to as "the mayor of Corktown." He knew of Paffendorf's work with Loveland, and when he heard that Jerry and his partner Mary Lorene Carter were both moving to the neighborhood he was adamant in tracking them down and pressuring them to engage directly with the community. That's what he does. Ask anyone.
"It's not hard for me to promote Corktown as a really safe community," DeBruyn says. "It takes people and energy, communication and creativity. Jerry is an energetically creative person. Teaming up was natural."
When the county called DeBryun to let him know of Corktown properties newly made available for purchase, hoping he'd be able to connect them with buyers, he noticed the list included the houses at 2236 and 2230 14th Street — long-vacant eyesores that look out onto Roosevelt Park and stare Michigan Central in the face. Nobody was more interested in procuring those deeds than DeBryun himself.
"These properties are nothing but blight, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. Sure, I saw potential, but it was a safety issue, if anything," he says. "When I fed the opportunity through Jerry's mind, the chance to do something with the space, that's when the Imagination Station was born. I said, 'You know, Jerry, it's cool doing your project over there someplace that's really rather isolated and out of the way, but this project I have I mind is going to really raise the stakes. It's going to be front-and-center as a huge capital project. And, with your skills, it might actually work."
DeBruyn and Paffendorf bought the houses together, for $500 apiece. With artists in Paffendorf and Carter on board, the next step was to diversify the team. They brought in Pashon Murray (another line), a young Corktown resident who specializes in community outreach and sustainable reconstruction, as well as media-savvy documenter and social justice champion April Woodard (and another) of Hamtramck. Software developer and Web designer Alan Languirand (and another) started working on a website, and videographer-photojournalist Stephen McGee (yet another) started to shoot, edit and post the first in what will be serial short-form documentaries. Then they brought in muralist Burrows to attack.
The Imagination Station will come together, however it does, over the course of the summer and well into next year, assuming money can be raised. One building is burned-out beyond repair and has to come down. That will create more room for a public art and outdoor meeting space, while the second home is rehabilitated to the tune of $150,000, all of which has to be raised, which so far Paffendorf is doing one inch a time. That will create room for a resident artist, a computer lab, educational workshops, break-out space and more. It will change the face of Corktown while providing a living model on green renovation.
"As we work on this, as we spread what it is we're doing in the community and on the website, as we create those direct connections and increase fundraising, hopefully, people fall in love with the story and plan to visit," says Paffendorf.
"If that works, it becomes a destination. If that works, I'd hope that Imagination Station becomes a model that can be replicated locally or anywhere. Consider this the first Imagination Station. If we do it properly, people can come together, take ownership and renovate properties in a very interesting and somewhat streamlined way: First you find the place, set up the website, add in a fundraising tool, document the process of the project through photos and videos, and tell the story kind of like this. It's fun, it's easy, it's a good way to reward volunteer work too. The trick is turning it into a process."
After buying the property, Step 1 was bringing in Burrows to reclaim it through art. She started upstairs with buckets, rollers and brushes and went wherever she felt the house took her. The finished result, she says, "was born out of crazy and rapid brushstrokes because the building itself has no neatness or delicacy. It explodes out of that one room and the installation of other painted pieces is the debris thrown all over the rest of the house, caused by the explosion."
The idea for her to paint the house to be demolished was that the space deserved one last creative effort, to die respectfully, so to speak. Its deconstruction, Paffendorf notes, can be viewed as one would a Tibetan sand mandala, alluding to the temporal nature of life itself. Things can change. They do, sometimes for the better. Even in Detroit.
It's unusual for a rehab project to consider a filmmaker and a software developer as integral to the team as an architect and roofer, but, then again, Detroit's creative capital gains interest through the extraordinary. That's what brought Paffendorf and Murray here in the first place. It's what strengthens the roots of artists like Burrows and activists like Debruyn. Extraordinary things are possible in Detroit.
"If major foundations and nonprofits were involved in the Imagination Station, as they would have to be in a city like Chicago, there'd have to be 6,800 meetings before anything got accomplished," Debruyn says. "Then they'd want to produce a 40-page document; they'd want to know how this is going to be sustainable, what the programming is going to be over 12 months, who's going to be in charge of the programming, who's going to manage the education and sciences center, exactly which artists will be residents, and so on. Then they'd talk about it for another two years. This crew just does it. Go check out what's going on at Spaulding Court up the road. We don't need to talk about it, plan about it, raise federal dollars for it, schmooze with City Council. We don't need to kiss butts or ask permission. We just need to do it and get it done."
Maker Faire! Imagination Station is in on the action at the Henry Ford
Projects as ordinary as screen-printing T-shirts and building giant chess pieces from Legos will be joined by those phenomenally described as "interactive fire sculpture," "circuit-bending sound experimentation" and "wireless brainwave controlled interface pyrokinesis" at the Maker Faire, Make Magazine's celebration of DIY ingenuity. Make is bringing the Faire to Detroit for the first time, with local and national steampunk brigades, robotics gangs and hacker space collectives, as well as initiatives in other fields, including music and food sustainability. Jerry Paffendorf and the Imagination Station, for instance, will be there with the Loveland crew, as will Detroit's Cyberoptix TieLab, Detroit Lives and Detroit Evolution, but none of those groups make marshmallow guns, anime costumes, paper-thin sandals from garbage or purely electric motor scooters. Find out who does at the Maker Faire, July 31-Aug. 1, at the Henry Ford. Learn more at makerfaire.com.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.