Detroit’s Broken City Sister

With Johnny Knoxville strapping on Palladium Boots and descending on Detroit’s ruins to film a documentary called Detroit Lives, it’s become clear that the North American/European fascination with decaying industrial landscapes has hit a new apex.

While the socioeconomic bottoming out of the Motor City has led to a host of useful case studies in urban pioneering and grassroots community initiatives, so much attention on Detroit’s plight might be a bit unfair. Cities across North America are dealing with similar issues of post-industrial economies and vacant city cores, and although these cities might not have it as bad as Detroit, their situation is just as pressing. A look just across the river to Windsor, Canada and the work of a small arts collective called Broken City Lab is a good start in looking beyond the ruins of Detroit to problems shared by cities across the continent.

Since the post-war period Windsor has built its economy on automobile manufacturing.  Since Canada has no major domestic car industry, all manufacturing is done as sister plant operations to American and international makers. Windsor’s proximity to Detroit made it ideal for the industry. Windsor boomed in the sixties and the seventies, but predictably the industry suffered in the last couple of decades with major consequences for the city.  Today Windsor faces a host of problems that many other cities can relate to – high unemployment rates, a struggle to find new economies, an empty downtown, brain drain etc.

Windsor has long prided itself as not being “as bad as Detroit”, but it is clear that there is some work to be done. Enter Broken City Lab – a small arts collective that has been doing projects since 2008. Central to their mission is to get an action-oriented dialogue going in Windsor itself and between the two cities.  Many projects are typographically inspired, using appropriated billboards, large paper-machéd letter blocks, and projections with statements like “We’re in this together” and “Make things happen”. Their means of intervention are cheap, but their audience is large. In a project called Cross-Border Communication they projected a series of messages for three days on a building façade in Windsor, visible from Detroit. Messages included “We’ve missed you” and “Want to be friends”.

Making Windsor’s issues known Canada-wide has also been a cause of theirs. In the summer they curated a project called Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation, where they invited artists from across the country to do projects within the city’s downtown. Laura Paolini re-decorated telephone booths. Sarah French choreographed a live performance involving surveillance cameras and a security guard at work. Department of Unusual Certainties held an event called speed-dating for storeowners. The event got people confronting the issues of a mid-sized single-industry town in the 21st century.

Perhaps the most important work that Broken City Lab is doing is simply staying in Windsor.  Broken City Lab genuinely loves Windsor, and have thus far have avoided the temptation to drop everything and simply get out of Dodge. The issues facing cities like Windsor are not quick-fix problems that can be solved with a flashy powerpoint by an out-of-town consultant or a motivational speech by Richard Florida. The problems are entrenched and need people who are equally entrenched and devoted to making the city a better place. Windsor is lucky to have Broken City Lab and we could use more groups like them – exalting the virtues and possibilities of Sudbury, Youngstown, Tacoma and the like.