The Detroit Dream Project
Article by Erik Davis, Advisory Board Member
Each art project that BRAF has gotten behind has been unique, but the Detroit Dream Temple, which was unveiled this last June in Motor City, definitely broke new ground. The project ties together the most important threads of BRAF’s mission: collaborative creativity, interactive art, and the revival of community through experimental expression. But unlike experiments like the Hayes Green Project—like the Detroit Dream Temple, a David Best-inspired community construction—the Detroit Temple was built in an urban environment that, both culturally and geographically, was very far away from the Black Rock desert and Burning Man. The local success of the project, which galvanized the local Burner community and planted a marvelous bright architectural flower in a benighted corner of Detroit, shows just how far playa-inspired community art can go.
The Dream Temple began when David Best flew to Michigan to attend a university talk given by Larry Harvey. Afterwards, a crew of Detroit burners arranged a meeting with the men and everyone got to talking. “I told them, if you think we are so heroic, take a look around here,” says Best. “There’s no threats in the desert anymore—I’m in an air-conditioned air stream, eating caviar and champagne. Let’s build something here where there are real challenges. Let’s grab some land and build something.” The burners were exceptionally enthused. They were ready to dive in!
What evolved was something slightly less gonzo—and far more substantial. Best and BRAF helped facilitate and fund the project, but the crucial ingredients were provided locally. SPARC, a local Burner organization devoted to community art, teamed up with Motor City Blight Busters, a well-established urban renewal non-profit that donated the land, named Peace Park, and provided other support.
The initial vision was to make the temple out of car parts, but that proved challenging. “The scrap industry is pretty much committed to China,” says Best. “They don’t want to sell scrap to anyone else, even at a better price. In addition to that, to build with materials that represented Detroit’s failing auto industrial would have been inappropriate in a depressed economy where people are walking around with shopping cars filled with tin cans and old bottles.” Eventually, Best found some surplus plywood in California, and shipped it out. The resulting structure resembles Best’s many of classic Burning Man temples. “It looks pretty, like a thing of value. It doesn’t look like a weird pile of junk sculpture.”
The path was fraught with the usual sturm und drang, but in the end, everyone came together. The Detroit crew stepped up to the plate, contributing labor and organization as well as fund-raising to cover half the costs of the construction—something that, as Best points out, is tougher to pull of in Detroit than in a place like LA, where many Burners work for the film industry. Best and a group from BRAF flew out and joined a crew of locals for a couple of weeks of full-tilt construction, while random characters, from Detroit to Hawaii, showed up as volunteers. “For everybody on the temple crew, it was an extremely rewarding time,” says John Mueller, BRAF treasurer and volunteer. “We worked really. really hard, and had some fun in Detroit. It was full immersion, and the community received it really well. From personal standpoint it was rewarding to work with people who really hadn’t been exposed to that kind of art project.”
“Detroit is the least intuitive place for a David Best-inspired temple,” says Mark Higbie, a BRAF board member and Detroit native who visited the temple shortly after it was completed. Higbie, who has worked in Detroit recently as an environmental consultant for the automobile industry, points out that the project is located about eight minutes from Ford world headquarters. “In this particular part of town, you have a bombed out neighborhood on one side, and on the other side you have nascent, mom-and-pop businesses trying to make their way in a very difficult environment. Peace Park sits at the nexus of both the hope and sorrow of Detroit.”
When he first visited the temple, Higbie brought his 81-year old father, a card-carrying Republican who was deeply moved. “He totally got it. That is a testimony to the universality of the message, the secular beauty of something that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Burners are biased by the temple experience on the playa, but low and behold: You take the same architecture and spirit and place it in a different context and it still translates.” At first glance, of course, the exotic and delicately filigreed temple might as well have landed from mars. But as the locals interacted with the artists and volunteers, many warmed to the unusual intervention in their public space.
David Best describes one memorable encounter with Mr. Washington, who owns the beauty parlor across the street from the park. One day Washington approached Best.
“What is this? I’ve been watching you.”
“It’s a gazebo as far as the authorities are concerned,” Best told him. “It’s an easy word them to swallow. Another word is a temple.”
“What’s it for?”
“It’s for celebrations, weddings, memorials. Say a kid graduates from high school with honors, they can come here to recognize him. It’s a place for the community to meet and congregate.”
Washington then told Best that his brother had just died in prison, and that his friends and family were planning to hold a memorial in a nearby church. Best offered to inscribe the brother’s name on a piece of word, and then give Washington a ride up in the fork-lift so that he could nail the plank up top. That way he could see his brother’s name from his shop. But he didn’t want to go up.
“Do you know the gospel song, ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’?” Best asked.
“Sure I do.”
“Well if you go up in the lift you will be closer to the lord and closer to your brother.”
Mr. Washington laughed. “You are gonna make me go up there, aren’t you?” And when he came down off the lift, Best offered him the use of the temple for the memorial service. “Your brother died in a building. You don’t need to bring his spirit back into another building. Come here and do it outside.” And so a small bit of Burning Man ethos blooms on a corner in Detroit.
Another woman from the neighborhood took a similar ride one day, nailing up another sign to honor a son who had been killed a year before just around the corner. While she was up, her boyfriend told Best that he was her fiancé, and that they were going to be married in October. When the woman came back down, Best suggested that they get married in the temple so that her son could look down at her. “But her boyfriend hadn’t officially proposed to her yet. So I broke the news!”
Of course, all that BRAF, SPARC and the Blight Busters can do is plant a seed. The real story of the temple will unfold over the coming months and years. “The local community will really be the ones that own this,” says Higbie. “The art will continue to evolve as the structure is sustained. Winters bring snow and ice, and summers heat and humidity. The cycle of the seasons will create an interesting tale as the temple continues to live its existence in this sad but strangely hopeful pocket of Detroit. And I can speak poetically like that because I work here. This is my home town.”