Football fans are gearing up for the bright lights and glitz of this year’s Superbowl in Detroit. One event that won’t make the halftime show is a tour of the city’s dilapidated and abandoned buildings. They’re everywhere. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Guerra reports on a group of artists sneaking around late at night hoping to draw attention to the urban decay:
Football fans are gearing up for the bright lights and glitz of this year’s Superbowl in Detroit.
One event that won’t make the halftime show is a tour of the city’s dilapidated and abandoned
buildings. They’re everywhere. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Guerra reports on
a group of artists sneaking around late at night hoping to draw attention to the urban decay:
When you drive around Detroit, you can’t help but notice the abandoned buildings. Houses with
caved in roofs and charred out insides line the streets. I met up with Christian, an artist who’s
been living in Detroit for the past 15 years. He says when people from the suburbs drive into
Detroit… they don’t see a city so much as a burnt out chasm, and that’s not the kind of symbol
he wants associated with his hometown.
“I just think that the symbol of a burnt out abandoned house is a horrible symbol to grow up
around for the kids in the city. Some people have to look at beaches and mountains, these people
have to live with this sort of symbol of defeat. You almost feel like a social responsibility to do
something about it, you know.”
So Christian, along with his friends Jacques, Greg and Mike grabbed some smocks, a bunch
of rollers, and gallons of orange paint, but not just any orange paint… this is the shockingly
bright, stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of orange paint that you can’t help but notice… it’s called
Tiggerific Orange. And with that, the artists headed out in the middle of the night to paint their
first abandoned house. It should be noted here that what the guys are doing – trespassing and
vandalizing property – is illegal. So they’ve asked that their last names not be used…
Around 3 a.m. – while painting their first house – Christian noticed that they had some
company… the police:
“Well I was outside and they came by and he said ‘what are you doing?’ And I said we’re painting
the house. And he said ‘why?’ And I said because it needs a paint job, and he said ‘Have at it
bro!’… and he drove away… and it was like all right, cool!”
From there the guys went on to paint eight more houses around the area. They’re very choosy
about which houses to paint. The structures have to be residential and clearly abandoned. Also,
they have to be in a high traffic area.
(sound of cars driving by)
Mike – one of the painters – took me to a side street above two freeways. There, the artists had
recently slathered Tiggerific Orange paint on six abandoned houses clustered together.
“You wanna go closer? Just watch your step…”
From pretty much every angle along the freeways you can see all six houses. Each has fallen
victim to arson. Tires, wood planks and garbage cover what was once somebody’s front yard.
Even some of the debris is splashed with orange paint.
“There’s part of the floor that is fallen and is now perpendicular to the ground…so we painted
the underside of that floor…”
Through the windows you can see dirty, old-looking stuffed animals litter the floor. Mike says he
sees that kind of stuff left behind all the time.
“Families used to live in these buildings and now the buildings are not worth enough to tear it
down, the property’s not worth enough to bulldoze, and that’s not a judgment on the city or anything. I wish
it was worth someone’s time to bulldoze. If I had the resources to do that I guess I would, but all
I can do is spend a couple hundred bucks on paint.”
Mike would need a lot more than a couple hundred bucks to bulldoze those houses. Amru Meah
– the Director of Detroit’s Building and Safety Engineering Department – estimates the average
demolition cost for a residential building to be somewhere around 5500 dollars.
“No city could actually effectively demolish every building that became an eyesore or in bad
shape because you could actually have a situation where you gotta whole bunch of buildings… so
you’d run around and try to demolish two, three, four thousand buildings a year. That’s not
But the Tiggerific Orange paint is working. Of the nine houses painted so far, two have been torn
down, and according to Jacques – one of the guys with the orange paint – putting pressure on
city officials and creating awareness are huge motivators.
“People will drive by the houses on the highways and they’ll kind of catch a glimpse of it, but
they’re on the highway so they just drive right by. So the next time they go down the highway
they might remember, ‘oh my god, I want to look for that orange house!’ And so as they’re
looking for the orange house, they’re looking for all the other houses in turn. What that does is
that that raises sort of an awareness of what’s going on, and as we’ve already seen as two houses
have been destroyed: awareness brings action.”
But, as Jacques points out, four guys can only paint so many houses on their own:
“One of the beautiful things about the project is that it’s such a simple move. All we’re doing is
taking a roller, taking a paintbrush and painting the façade of a house orange, and it’s already
had so many ramifications. So, you know actually we would encourage anyone out there who feels the desire
to do it to just go pick up a roller and paint a house.”
But keep in mind… just because the police let the orange painters off the hook the first time…
doesn’t mean they’ll be so lucky in the future.
For the GLRC, I’m Jennifer Guerra.