A crowning achievement in a neighborhood's fight against air pollution
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A crowning achievement in a neighborhood's fight against air pollution
In an undated image provided by Manifest Justice, for “American Dreamers Phase 2,” 2014-15, Crenshaw, Los Angeles, Jordan Weber painted an old Ford Crown Victoria to look like a police car, filling it with plants and dirt from Ferguson, Mo., to honor Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were both killed by the police. Weber’s queenly sculpture in a Detroit park does double duty as an air quality monitor. (Manifest Justice via The New York Times)

by Patricia Leigh Brown

DETROIT, MI.- The East Canfield Village neighborhood of Detroit is not the most likely place to encounter a monumental sculpture of an African crown glittering with gold lowrider paint and soaring high into the trees.

Yet this queenly structure, designed by land artist and activist Jordan Weber, is fitting for one of the city’s most disadvantaged and polluted neighborhoods: In place of jewels, the crown is outfitted with an air-monitoring system that will enable residents to track airborne pollutants, from Canadian wildfire smoke to emissions from a massive automotive assembly complex four blocks away.

Weber’s sculpture, “New Forest, Ancient Thrones,” in the newly designed East Canfield Art Park, was unveiled May 18 in a procession led by West African drummers. The sculpture melds crowns worn by two African queens — Ranavalona III of 19th-century Madagascar, who led her kingdom’s resistance to French colonizers before being exiled, and Idia of Benin, whose military derring-do during her son’s reign in the 16th century helped fend off tribal invaders.

Weber’s métier is working in industrial corridors in redlined neighborhoods helping communities of color heal from the effects of environmental and social ills, often a lengthy and collaborative process. He is part of a growing movement called regenerative art, which seeks to revitalize links between communities and their ecosystems.

His installation, which will include a raised walkway for “forest bathing,” amid pollution-absorbing conifers, was commissioned by Sidewalk Detroit, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the city’s public spaces more equitable and livable and with whom Weber has spent the past year as artist in residence.

Long-lost queens may have been the sculpture’s stylistic jumping-off point — Ranavalona’s leafy top ornament meets Idia’s latticed conical crown. But the crown’s real-life inspirations are Rhonda and Kim Theus, sisters who returned home to East Canfield in 2016 — Kim from New York and Rhonda from a Detroit suburb. They founded the Canfield Consortium to transform junk-ridden vacant lots into productive spaces brimming with flowers and public art and have collaborated with Sidewalk Detroit and Weber on the crown.

Like the African queens of yesteryear, the sisters are “matriarchs, protectors and providers,” Weber said. “It takes fortitude to hold landscapes, especially Black land,” he added. “The crown is Kim and Rhonda through and through.”

In many ways the sisters’ story is the story of Detroit. Their parents, Mary and Sherman Theus, met in Tennessee and fled the Jim Crow South, unable to buy property or find employment other than sharecropping or domestic work. They moved to Detroit for the opportunity to buy a house and raise a family, “which is the story of most of our neighbors,” Rhonda said. She and Kim, who worked with Bloomberg Associates in New York, started the consortium in tribute to their parents and grandparents and the houses their generations cherished.

“The Carnegies and the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts left legacies to their families,” Rhonda said. “Our legacy might not look as grand as that, but it’s still a legacy. That motivated us to do this work.”

The legacy they have fought hard to preserve has been buffeted by a now well-worn litany of environmental and social problems that continue to plague neighborhoods like East Canfield. Most of Detroit’s automotive and other industrial factories were in historically redlined areas.

The charred, boarded-up houses, the vacant lots, the weedy prairies spreading from cracks in the sidewalk are manifestations of historic disinvestment, the flight of whites and middle-class Black homeowners to suburbia, and mass foreclosures — more than 100,000 properties. Some studies concluded that lower-priced homes were illegally over-assessed more frequently than higher-priced homes, displacing thousands of the city’s poorest residents.

Organizations like Sidewalk Detroit and the Canfield Consortium are the creative pushback. Sidewalk has long embraced public art to revitalize sites like Eliza Howell Park, the city’s third-largest, where elaborate stickwork sculpture by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty, built with volunteers, has prompted public investment. In East Canfield, located in a U.S. census tract where 43% of residents live in poverty, the Theus sisters started with side-by-side vacant lots they bought themselves. The first commission for the East Canfield Art Park, across the street from the Barack Obama Leadership Academy, a K-8 charter school, was a figurative sculpture by Detroit artist Austen Brantley of a young Black boy sitting cross-legged holding a flower.

It now shares space with Weber’s crown, which includes real-time air monitor readings downloadable through an app and indicated more broadly through LED colored lights on the sculpture itself, signaling good to hazardous air days using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s color system.

“Art can make complicated and hard subjects more palatable,” Kim Theus said. “Jordan is not only beautifying our community but addressing an issue — we need to feel comfortable with the air we’re breathing.”

For the past three years, residents have contended with paint fumes and other noxious odors they say are emanating from the Stellantis-Mack automotive assembly factory, which produces Jeep Grand Cherokees. Since the 3 million-square-foot complex expanded in 2021, including a paint shop, the facility has received seven violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, known as EGLE, citing “objectionable paint/solvent odors of moderate to strong intensity.” As part of the expansion, the company also erected a fortresslike, gleaming white security wall that now abuts neighboring backyards.

Robert Shobe, 62, who lives on a tidy block a mere 400 feet or so from the security wall, said he has experienced coughing and skin rashes and no longer feels comfortable having his four grandchildren visit. He used to be a “barbecue king,” he said, juggling four grills. No more. “This facility has brought a lot of hardship to this community,” he said.

The violation notices prompted a state enforcement action, known as a consent order, that required the company to undertake a compliance plan, including the installation of two air pollution control devices.

Since the devices went in, odor complaints have significantly dropped, said Jill Josef Greenberg, a spokesperson for EGLE. The consent order will be in place for two years based on the company’s continued compliance, she said.

Ann Marie Fortunate, a spokesperson for Stellantis, said in an email, “The company continues to monitor for odors daily to confirm the new system is addressing this concern and also has not detected any nuisance odors.”

Dr. Ikenna C. Okereke, chief of Thoracic Surgery at Henry Ford Health, has evaluated air quality disparities in the Detroit area. Lung-related diseases, including cancer and asthma are correlated with highly polluted areas. Even in nonsmokers, residents in communities of color exposed to unhealthy air are more likely to be living with one or more chronic conditions that make them more vulnerable to disease, Okereke said.

The Detroit area received failing grades for ozone and short-term and annual particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s 2024 “State of the Air” report.

What can an artist do? Weber’s gravitational pull has been toward environmental and urban planning hot spots. In his 2018 4MX Greenhouse, for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in North Omaha, Nebraska, he reconstructed Malcolm X’s birth home as a holistic greenhouse cum artwork that serves as a space for spiritual reflection as well as for seedlings.

His early focus was on museum and gallery installations. That shifted in 2014 after he drove from Des Moines, Iowa, his hometown, to Ferguson, Missouri, to join the protests after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. “Seeing the outline of where Michael Brown was tore me apart,” he said. He committed himself to an “impact-focused” practice.

A year later, he bought an old Ford Crown Victoria on Craigslist and painted it to look like a police car, filling it with plants and dirt from Ferguson, to honor Brown, and included a tribute to Eric Garner, who died following a deadly Staten Island police chokehold. “American Dreamers (Phase 2)” caused a stir when it was exhibited in Los Angeles.

During a two-year residency with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Weber collaborated with teens on an urban farm laid out like a basketball court, with two sculptural rain catchers resembling hoops. In industrially ravaged North Minneapolis, the idea was to cultivate plants to filter pollutants before they reached the Mississippi River.

“It takes a special artist to build coalitions in communities with serious systemic challenges,” said Nisa Mackie, who brought Weber to the Walker and is now deputy director of learning and engagement with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Jordan’s works are never just decorative,” she added. “They’re always designed to serve a public end.”

Back in East Canfield Village, eighth grade science students from the Barack Obama Leadership Academy helped plant trees and will use the crown as an environmental classroom. They are already citizen-scientists, telling their teacher, Monique Taylor, “Mama Taylor, the air quality is poor.”

Taylor recalled that a female student picked up a piece of paper on the ground in the East Canfield Art Park, and asked, “Why would that dirty piece of paper be on the ground when it’s nice over there?”

Now there’s the crown in all its glory, a gateway into the rhythms of nature for children for whom such amenities do not overflow. As Taylor put it, “I think it represents ‘We didn’t forget about you.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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