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Detroit's 'Alley Project' Creates a Street-Level Commons

“What are some alternatives for the young people on our block between the porch and the corner?”

Kriston Capps/CityLab

DETROIT—The street art in Southwest Detroit is far from the most famous in town.

The flashiest mural in Detroit is the 185-foot-tall work alongside One Campus Martius in downtown. Detroit’s biggest mural is also the largest by Shepard Fairey (Obey) to date. Then there’s all of Fairey’s unauthorized graffiti across the city, which nearly landed him in trouble with the law earlier this year. A recent downtown mural by brothers Raoul and Davide Perre (How & Nosm) is another example of Detroit street art operating at the scale of a skyscraper.

By comparison, the work in the alleys of Southwest Detroit is modest and humble—or maybe just closer to the ground. The Alley Project, a community-driven organization that sponsors graffiti in the neighborhood, showcases art that is locally grown. Near the corner of Avis and Elsmere, the street art that graces walls and garages is a product of the neighborhood.

Or rather a project by the neighborhood. Erik Howard, one of the founders of the Alley Project, says that the dozens of murals that grace Southwest Detroit represent the work of artists, but also members of the community. The Alley Project brought together four interests—artists, neighbors, nonprofit organizations, and businesses—in order to identify their common needs and assets.

“The needs became a to-do list,” says Erik Howard, one of the founders of The Alley Project. “The assets became a toolbox. And we went to work.”

One of the murals in The Alley Project. (All photos by Kriston Capps/CityLab)

Eric Howard says that the Alley Project started as a community youth project by three friends, all of them Southwest Detroit residents. One of them was involved in hip hop and art, one of them spent his time on the corner, and one of them (that’s Howard) spent his time on the porch. The three had different perspectives and had carved different paths, but they wanted the same thing for their neighborhood.

“What are some alternatives for the young people on our block between the porch and the corner?” Howard says, thinking back to what he had hoped to accomplish with the youth group. “Half of our block grows up on the porch, half of our block grows up on the corner. But we all use the same sidewalk.”

The youths involved with that early version of the Alley Project went on to college, to jail, to the military. Some of young people Howard and his cohort worked with became teachers, police officers, drug dealers. “We stayed in touch, because there’s a lot of pride in the block,” Howard says.

To reflect the goals of a more diverse community and to fit both peer-to-peer and peer-to-adult relationships, the Southwest youth group evolved into a mentoring program built around lowrider car culture. To his surprise, though, Howard says that he discovered pretty quickly that many of the young people involved with the club had interests that were more important to them than lowriding. They were there for the neighborhood, but they were focused on other things. One of those things was street art. The other was media: photos, video, and production.

So the youth group moved in three different directions. The Southwest lowrider club turned into the Detroit chapter of the Los Angeles–based UCE Car Club (formerly the USO Car Club), a nationwide lowrider society. The community’s interest in media eventually resulted in Inside Southwest Detroit, a hyperlocal digital news site. And to channel the youth group’s artistic energy, Howard and company turned to the neighborhood’s alleys.

“They needed a place to paint,” he says.

Before the Alley Project was born, Howard says that his group appealed to the Detroit Recreation Department to use some abandoned handball courts as free-wall space. The city at first agreed, but eventually tore down the facility, despite 500 signatures collected by the youth group. So the group looked closer to home, to their own alleys, which were filled with gang graffiti. Figuring that the gang members didn’t have permission to paint (and didn’t get in trouble for it), the Alley Project decided not to ask permission.

“The neighbor across the street used to stand on the porch drinking his coffee and grunting,” Howard says. “He let us know that he wasn’t upset—he was actually a little jealous. He was on a fixed income, and he didn’t have the money to pay for something like that on his garage.”

Those murals are now easily identifiable. Dozens of them are now numbered and labeled, to distinguish works by the Alley Project from graffiti by other artists or taggers. The murals spill out in all directions from Avis and Elsmere. Eventually, Howard says, those numbers will serve as geotags that will enable viewers to find out more about the neighborhoods, the artists, and the art.

Presently, the Alley Project is partnering with Grace in Action and working out of their location on nearby Lawndale Street. But the organization is working to build out its own headquarters in the neighborhood, a garage with studio and gallery space.

“We’re very process-heavy, more than product-heavy,” Howard says. “But the beauty of our process is that it does leave products for people to come along and see.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.