The role of street art in Milwaukee Junction

The traditional notion of street art is changing. Candy Chang is creating paintings and installations in New Orleans that shift the public’s involvement in under-utilized space. Stephen Powers is getting paid by the city of Philadelphia to make enormous message-based paintings that are highly visible from the city’s elevated train line. And all throughout, Richard Florida has been on his soap box talking about place making and the re-growth of cities by this “creative class“.

With these three ingredients, my company DETROIT LIVES! worked with a building owner in the Milwaukee Junction area to take a historically blighted structure and turn it in to an asset to the community. We painted a very simple message on a building roughly 38 feet tall by 25 feet wide—a nod to the history of that physical place—and it was meant to make people feel good. The result:

Detroit LIVES We KAHN do it


In the mid and late 1920’s, Albert Kahn, heralded architect of Detroit, finished three iconic buildings in what is now New Center—Cadillac Place, the Fisher Building and the Argonaut Building. All three stand as monuments to progress in the city and the efforts of one man and his firm that largely re-defined the beauty and image of Detroit. It seemed a natural fit for the messaging of the mural to reflect the historical progress and tenacity of one of the city’s most significant designers—not to mention that as you stood in front of the wall looking at it, all three buildings were in plain view off to the side. It seemed too strange a coincidence, and begged a play on words.

The Process

We started painting in the fall of 2010, with the cold weather putting a stall on the completion until spring 2012, when the paint was able to adhere to the wall. The progress was a fun journey—with regular passersby declaring their appreciation for the work, others inquiring about the message, and many just wanting to have a casual chat.

Today the mural stands as a statement piece to the city’s progress and forward movements. Commuters pass by it every day. Residents enjoy the pleasant splash to their day as they walk their dog. It’s hard to measure the affect of such a work in terms of tangible resources, but surely you can’t argue its significance—even if only for the simple smile it begs day in and day out.

Why Milwaukee Junction should be a World Heritage Site

This is a guest post by Gerard Santoro, the Program Manager for Land & Water Resources for the Department of Planning and Economic Development in Macomb County.

First production Ford Model T

The first production Ford Model T, made in Milwaukee Junction

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. David Biskner, Board President of Friends of Milwaukee Junction, and what a pleasure it was. In my Graduate Studies in Urban Planning I was introduced to the Milwaukee Junction Industrial Neighborhood in the heart of the Motor City; however, what I didn’t realize then was the depth or impact that this particular neighborhood made on the peoples of the entire world.

After a few fast-talking hours of being exposed to this great complex of old, beautiful, and haunting industrial sites, it is my belief that this area is as significant as the ancient Roman Forum Ruins, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Now, hear me out on this one….

The birth of industry and the middle class

The concepts of the “assembly line” that were done on the hypothetical scale at Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant became the reality of automation the world over. It created efficiencies that made a real and stable “middle class”. Since then, these same concepts today have progressed and have had the power to turn third-world countries into global players. It ushered in a lifestyle that was only known to the noble and aristocratic classes of former millennia—now one-third of the world exploits the pleasures afforded by these same efficiencies birthed out of the automotive assembly line. Here, right here in the heart of a downtrodden, gritty, and magnificent Old Detroit, sits the increasingly guarded ruins of industry. In this area stands one of the most significant sites to the forward progression of mankind since the early Industrial Revolution, or the formation of civility of society at the Roman Forum and the Greek Parthenon, or the establishment of the World’s religions in Jerusalem. Put Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction right up there with the greatest of places that changed the world!

It’s right here in our backyards, at the Milwaukee Junction of Detroit, and it is perhaps very ripe to become a future World Heritage Site if it gets the recognition that I think it deserves.

The very few that have long understood this deep and guttural magnificent history among the industrial ruins of the world’s greatest industrial city have stood as knights to protect this great secret about Detroit. It is now that the world must stand up for this great area and celebrate it as it does the Forum, the Coliseum, or the Dome of the Rock.

Professional Urban Planners are often asked to support the efforts of those that are grassroots and trying to get a place or cause into a higher focus. A walking tour of the area with Dave Biskner was just the beginning of a whole new and deeper understanding of this Automotive Heritage Complex. The Russell Industrial Center, the Studebaker Plant, just to rattle off a few…the list was impressive. I kindly asked about the famed, but vastly unknown Piquette Avenue Plant—the plant that most automotive heritage scholars know as the “Mecca” of the industrial world.

Piquette Avenue is the very location that Henry Ford, and others like Horace and John Dodge, incubated the concepts of efficiency into the emerging automotive industry. The Dodge Brothers and their ideas of the efficient gasoline fuel motor integrated into Henry Ford’s ever-improving efficiencies of the manufacturing of an automobile. The drive and great ideas conceived on these hallowed grounds—along with the early Dodge Mansion which is a stone’s throw away in the haughty Boston-Edison Residential District—was to change the world as we knew it forever.

If you want to see and experience this great area, put this place at the very top of the attainable things to do in your own personal “Bucket List”. Plan ahead to visit the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, and the huge Russell Industrial Center’s Artist Colony and Bazaar. This is truly, in my opinion, one of the world’s great locations, and it is now under the care of the Friends of the Milwaukee Junction.

It’s time to stand up and let the world know how important Detroit is to human history, and no other specific region within our city shows it off better than Milwaukee Junction.