Kyong Park and his talking house

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New York artist and architect Kyong Park has much to do with Detroit’s role in the Shrinking Cities project. Though relatively unknown here, he’s known internationally for his Detroit art and architecture projects.

In “Detroit: Making It Better For You,” a video Park created, he spins a satirical tale of a 1950s corporate conspiracy to dismantle Detroit so it can be rebuilt at discounted prices. In the piece, Park describes auto execs and real estate moguls sitting down in the Penobscot Building to seal the deal, with instructions for the last person out to “turn off the lights.”

“My work has remained unknown in Detroit and the States, but is certainly well received in Europe,” says Park from his apartment in New York City. “My work in Detroit has been underground.”

Park spent three years living in what he calls the “ghetto countryside,” otherwise known as Detroit’s east side, near Warren and McDougall. From that experience, he developed several art installations — including an abandoned east side house that he picked up and took on a tour across Europe. He has shown in Asia, South America and Europe. In 1998, he founded the International Center for Urban Ecology in Detroit/New York.

Park, a native of South Korea, moved to Flint in the 1960s and studied architecture at the University of Michigan in the 1970’s before journeying to Detroit. He says he tapped the city’s lush oral histories, the stories told by people in the neighborhoods, to learn about his surroundings, and that he developed a personal tie to the city and its struggle.

The Berlin curator of the Shrinking Cities project, Philipp Oswalt, was familiar with Park’s work. Oswalt named Park a curator of the Detroit segment of the project, and many of Detroit’s offerings to Shrinking Cities are Park’s ideas.

Park’s work exemplifies the complexities of presenting Detroit to the outside world. Though he creates thoughtful, often biting and humorous commentary, he sometimes falls into the trap many artists fall into — in presenting Detroit to the outside world, one can actually, simply, embed the negative and tired ideas that people already have about Detroit: derelict, deserted, infernal.

For instance, in “24620: The Fugitive House,” Park adopted an east side Detroit house that can be reassembled and is traveling through art galleries in anthropomorphic guise.

“I am just one of the thousands of houses that are burnt but still standing, one of the tens of thousands that are empty, and one of the hundreds of thousands that were demolished. I live in a city that hardly resembles a city anymore,” says the house in a narrative authored by Park that travels with the exhibit.

“24620” began its fictional search for a new resting place in April 2001, when it was reconstructed for the third annual Archilab exhibition in France, and since has shown elsewhere in France, Germany and the Netherlands. For Shrinking Cities, the “mobile home” will be placed on a public square in Berlin, where it will inform patrons:

“I was constructed when Detroit had a real chance to become the greatest city in the world. Three of the five biggest corporations in the world once called it their home.

“But I’ve been sitting empty for the last fifteen years. Now the land under me is worth more than me. Fifteen years has past since I last felt the stream of electricity, gas and water run through me. I helplessly watched the streets and neighborhoods around me getting worse. But I tried my hardest to look proper, and make a solid contribution to this community. I played my part. … But the city has abandoned me.”

If homes could express themselves, it’s conceivable that an east side dwelling might have conjured such thoughts. But today, the laments seem dated. Sure, it’s still rough and occasionally fiery on the east side, but there’s a wide and varied experience there and throughout Detroit that’s much cheerier than the experience represented by “24620” — which, unfortunately, again, serves to reinforce stereotypes.

“Many parts of the city turned into countrysides,” says the “24620” narrative. “Wild dogs and pheasants roam freely between electric lines and telephone poles that no longer connect to anything but just each others. Sidewalks are being covered with grasses and brushes. The rumor is that you could drive almost an hour and not see a single soul walking around. At least it feels that way. I have heard of ghost town, but never yet a ghost city.”

Park says his intentions are to find creative new ideas for development amid blight. He sees in Detroit a great opportunity for rethinking urban spaces. His Urban Ecology Center is dedicated to just such work, and Park has done much to stimulate positive change in the city. The Adama project, in which the University of Detroit Mercy Detroit Collaborative Design Center is promoting the transformation of Detroit’s great expanses of grassy lots into an urban agricultural paradise, is Park’s brainchild. (For more, see “Down a green path,” Metro Times, Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2001)

“I see these conditions as an opportunity, not a problem, an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and reinvent our cities,” Park says. “It’s quite feasible.”

Indeed, Park has big ideas about how creative art and architecture can restore the postindustrial landscape. In just one example, he was chosen for a collaborative art project in East Germany, where the city of Halle has lost 30 percent of its population since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and nearly 30 high-rise buildings are slated for demolition, says Park. A group of artists has set out to help transform a huge building into an art project and hotel. Park’s plan? To build a slide, a transparent tube, from the top of the building to the bottom, with holes exiting into rooms. It would be “an exciting new sport,” Park says.

“‘The Slide’ is a strange dialectic response, culturally, to these different conditions,” Park says. “I see it as architectural therapy. It gives satisfaction to be able to slide through these ruins. Once the slide is built it’ll be a huge success, I’m absolutely pretty sure.

“People would come not because they want to go through a slide but because they want to slide through a building. There’ll be a café next to it, a restaurant, maybe a travel agent will open up a ticket office, other businesses can start sprouting around the building. Hopefully, maybe. The point is we don’t have to use all these empty buildings for great programs like museums, as they often get used for. We should open ourselves and not be ashamed to use them for less high-level usage, we should consider all creative possibilities.”

But the question is, what outsider would have faith in Detroit after reading this line, uttered by the “24620” house: “Now we have the Devil’s Night every year, when hundreds of houses and buildings burn in a single night. Have people gone mad? Do they no longer believe in cities? I dream about picking myself up and moving out of here, just like the city and the people did. I hate being left behind like everyone else.

“Maybe I could go around the world and never come back. Maybe a kinder and gentler city somewhere would adopt me.”


Read more about Shrinking Cities:

Detroit is not alone

Which one is Detroit?

Ghetto palm

Detroit's contributions to Shrinking Cities

Contraction action

Read "Down a green path" from Metro Times' Curt Guyette (Oct 31-Nov 6, 2001). Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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