June 8, 2012

Crossing Paths

Support TPOD whenever you buy from Amazon.com! Click here for more info. 
View large.

The People of Detroit has allowed me to cross paths with folks I would not have met otherwise - given my basal metabolic rate curmudgeonly reclusiveness. Over the past year I've been obliged to attend a few events on behalf of TPOD. At several of these events, I've noticed a young man who was  conspicuously tall while at the same time having a general affect that was inconspicuously unassuming. As fortuity would have it, I even accidentally collected evidence of this young man's unique disposition.  

At the end of March, I made portraits of people who attended the launch of the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX is a media initiative led by Issues Media Group with support from The Knight Foundation. The project is dedicated to profiling individuals who head and participate in community activities with a broad social impact. I will periodically contribute content from TPOD to the UIX project). One of the people I photographed was the dualistic mystery man.

While most of the attendees posed conventionally, when I raised my camera to the mystery man, he mirrored by motion and concealed himself behind a flier - forfeiting attention for himself in lieu of attention for his cause.

Yet again, I'd crossed paths with an interesting, socially engaged Detroiter.

As it turned out, the unpretentious mystery man was also concerned with crossing paths. The flier promoted Pathways to Parks - an innovative, emerging organization dedicated to creating public gathering places along busy pedestrian thoroughfares. 

The theory is if people come together in public, they get to know each other. When they get to know each other, they think of each other as part of a whole. When they think of themselves as part of a whole, they are more likely to think of their fates as inextricably linked and treat each other with more consideration.

Though I didn't get his information at the event, I was able to finally name the mystery man when the good people over at UIX suggested I photograph Kyle Bartell for our first joint UIX/TPOD collaboration. I arranged to meet Kyle near his place in Midtown Detroit, discussed his ideas about community spaces, and photographed him as the late afternoon sun made its final reach through the historic neighborhood's sylvan* canopy (*Bucket List item #243: Use "sylvan" in a sentence. Check).

Kyle in Midtown Detroit. View large.

Kyle grew up on the northwest side of Detroit. He went on to study urban planning at Arizona State and Wayne State universities. That training prompted Kyle to think about how to give purpose to the empty lots that punctuate even Detroit's more populated communities - including Midtown. He had a vision to, among other things, install benches that would transform these unused parcels into places where people stopped and communed with each other.

Kyle, Bailey, and a prototype communal bench. View large.

To realize this vision, Kyle reached out to Sue Mosey. Sue is the president of Midtown Detroit Inc.  - an organization that has played a fundamental role its namesake neighborhood's redevelopment. The organization was key in Whole Foods breaking ground in the neighborhood (the store is expected to open in Spring 2013).  Midtown Detroit Inc. has also been instrumental in securing millions of dollars of development funding for the area, including $22 million in 2011 from NYC-based Living Cities.

"I just emailed [Sue]," Kyle said. "That led to a walk-through identifying paths in the city; one of them being one owned by Midtown Detroit Inc. in New Center [a neighborhood just north of Midtown]."

Far too often, people in Detroit - and in urban communities in general - are imagined as hapless victims of circumstance. Many people in these communities internalize this characterization and, instead of taking whatever steps they can to affirm positive change, instead wallow in their imagined inevitable destitution.

That's why I think Kyle's initiative is particularly noteworthy. He identified a problem, considered a solution, and sought out a way to implement that solution. 
Even still, Kyle balks at the suggestion that he is a trailblazer.

"The foot traffic of people in the community literally carves out the path," Kyle said. "All I have to do is suggest an use for it."

A conspicuously lofty vision from an inconspicuously unassuming guy. A path worth following.

Noah -

Noah Stephens  founded The People of Detroit Photodocumentary in April 2010 as a counterpoint to media fixated on despair and disrepair in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing. Since, TPOD has received national and international attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other national publications. 

In early 2011, a creative director saw the project online and hired Noah to shoot an ad campaign for McDonald's Corporation in Shanghai, China. 

The People of Detroit Photodocumentary is funded in part by a grant from CEOS for Cities and the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation.


Megan said...

As always, wonderfully written and full of substance.  Sounds like a good guy and a great message you have been able to share. 

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Megan. Thank you so much! I'm glad I could share Kyle's story.