DETROIT—Antonio Cosme is the program coordinator for Restoring Our Communities Through Creation, a Detroit-based youth art project that focuses on neighborhood cleanups and the creation of community art.
Cosme became interesting in starting the project after organizing neighborhood cleanups in 2012, a time when he also began to experiment with community art and graffiti. “I came up with this idea and connected with a couple of nonprofit groups, largely related to the Skillman Foundation.”
Focused mainly in Chadsey-Condon, a neighborhood located in Southwest Detroit, the program includes nine participants, ranging from ages 15 to 20.
“We got together the first week and kind of talked about what community art was, what social justice was, and what racial justice was, and did mini-trainings on community organizing.”
The group chose to work on multiple spots in Chadsey-Condon. The youth go door to door, ask the locals questions, tell them about their project, and also invite them to come to a neighborhood cleanup.
“We started on my street actually…three of the nine youth who are in the project are from this neighborhood. Cosme adds, “We’re storing a lot of the supplies in my grandma’s basement.”
“We board-up houses, and then we paint them. And that painting, that art, relies on the information [we] gathered from the people. It’s almost like telling a community narrative on houses. Kind of telling the history of the neighborhood and the history of the people who live there.”
“We’re hoping that the art reflects what the people wanted. An old lady requested a peace sign, so we put a peace sign on her house. We’re hoping that because of that, people will take more care of [the houses]. Community art begins with dialogue. That’s the most important thing I think.”
According to Cosme, the houses are going to stand out a lot. This could be an issue because the group is not asking for any legal consent to conduct their activities.
“We don’t get consent from the homeowners, or the banks. One house we even wrote over the whole side of the house—the whole side of the house is like a canvas.”
The youth have already faced some confrontation. For instance, they were once told by a neighbor to stop what they were doing during their second house project. The neighbor said that he knew the owner of the house they were working on, and that he would be very surprised when he found out. However, Cosme diffused the situation and also left his contact information. “I told him that we’re going to continue to do this because we have consent from the neighborhood, and we’re not asking for consent from the owner of the house. I told him that if [the owner] wanted it painted white again, then we would do that.”
“We’re looking not to have any confrontation at all. That’s why we spend so much time talking to people in the neighborhood. We’re making sure that what we do reflects them. We just want to have a cleanup, board-up the house[s], and paint them.”
Cosme notes that it has been difficult to recruit talented artists, pointing to a lack of art programs in local schools. “When I was recruiting, I was looking for art teachers, and a lot of the local charter schools don’t have art teachers. I would say the situation in schooling in this area, not just public schooling, is part of that artistic issue. There [are] only four or five kids who are relatively confident in their artistic abilities.”
According to Cosme, a lot of the locals in Chadsey-Condon have expressed interest in the project. “We’ve gotten really enthusiastic support from the neighborhood. People have come and given us food and water, [have supplied] us with electricity, and muscle-power too. They come out and help on the cleanup. People have been very enthusiastic about it.”
Cosme says that he refers to the youth participating in the program as organizers. “I hope that they develop a sense of agency. They need to know that it’s their hands, their skills, their sweat, their choices…[and] their [conversations] with neighbors that created this art.”
“I want them to own the process. A lot of it follows the paradigms of social justice. Where we’re going…what we’re getting done…is completely generated by them. I think that’s a big thing that they as youth get from this program.”
For the youth involved, it’s also an experience with door-to-door organizing. Cosme stresses that the project is not just about art, but also concerns race, history, and culture.
“A lot of the Yemeni kids participating don’t know why so many Yemeni are in this neighborhood. It was through conversations with the neighbors that they found out there was a civil war in Yemen. That was a big reason why a huge Yemen population came to this area. Getting to know that history, for them, I think is super valuable.”
“None of them would ever be forced into a situation where they would have to talk to every person on the block. They wouldn’t have to address people at their doors. They had some profound observation after the first day when [neighbors] were complaining who were messing up the neighborhood. The kids were taken aback by what they heard from their neighbors.”
Currently, Restoring Our Communities Through Creation is strictly a summer program. Cosme is unsure whether he wants to secure other sources of funding to make the program permanent. Instead, he hopes to outline a model for community art that can be used in other areas. He wishes to see other Detroiters in similar projects in the future.
Cosme believes there is a strong likelihood that the program will continue, commenting, “I intend to leave as much behind as I can so that someone can take it over [even] if I don’t.”
“I think it’s a great model for social change, for building camaraderie in a neighborhood and in a community. We’re [also] collecting contact information for one of our funders, Chadsey Condon Community Organization, so that they can look into block clubs in the neighborhoods where we’re working. I’d really love to see block clubs take off. I think that would be a really wonderful and sustainable thing that we could leave behind.”
Cosme feels that community art is something Detroit is in dire need of. “[Right now] the city is seeing a reincarnation, and particularly in light of the emergency manager and largest municipal bankruptcy in the U.S., this program is important because it helps Detroiters form community-based narratives, as opposed to those commonly depicted in the media telling a tale of crime, insolvency and civic incompetence, and corruption.”
“Work like this has been happening all over the city. It's not new. We exist and have thrived in this place even after everyone left it.”
Restoring Our Communities Through Creation began on July 8 and will end August 16.
To learn more about youth art in Detroit and what’s happening in Chadsey Condon, email Antonio Cosme or visit http://chadseycondon.org/. You can also visit 5878 Ogden, Detroit, Michigan, just one of the homes that Cosme and his team have worked on this summer.