This week, we were asked to choose a Detroit news article and talk about it. While searching, I found plenty of articles on a narrative that is all too common: urban revitalization, economic development, and then the inevitable displacement of the current community, which tends to be people from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups. The tragic ending to this narrative is that there is no solution to the cyclical nature of revitalization and subsequent gentrification. Since this is a topic I’ve already grappled with, I chose an article that seems innocuous and lighthearted: It is the story of a man, a bike, and his camera.
This news article is fitting as I’m spending my summer assisting the Detroit bikeshare with numerous equity and outreach projects, so I am immediately drawn toward any story that involves biking. Thomas Leeper, a middle-aged man, is determined to ride his bike on every Detroit rode, taking pictures of every piece of street art he sees. Each artwork is then documented on an interactive map found on his project website, which is called Every Linear Mile. While Leeper has a daytime job, he calls this his “passion project,” as it is his way to showcase local artists and draw attention to every mile of Detroit.
What I like about this project is its innocence: It is simply a man riding his bike and taking pictures of art. Yet upon deeper consideration, Leeper brings about numerous discussions, debates, and problems in the city. One of which is the “what is art?” debate. This debate simply comes down to the definition of art, which differs for each observer. Some may see a pile of trash as a work of art, perhaps as a symbol of American consumerism, but others view it simply as a pile of trash. Leeper, with no professional art background, has to determine what qualifies as art for his project. On his website, he has restrictions for art, which include no tagging, gang symbols, and business advertisements unless he deems it very interesting. He also attempts not to judge the art based on its artistic quality, but rather its uniqueness and accessibility. I really appreciate this interpretation of art because it doesn’t discriminate based on ability or power—anyone can make street art and have it appreciated by others. Another notable quality of this project is Leeper’s fascination with dilapidated structures. He emphasizes that he “really [doesn’t] want to be someone exploiting the city’s decay.” Instead, he finds beauty in it, but also recognizes its ephemerality as the city revitalizes, and thus the importance of documenting it through photography.
Another discussion that Leeper’s project raises is the safety of Detroit. During his rides, he records the number of dog chasings, drug offers, hooker sightings, and broken bottles on the ground. Leeper has encountered “1 million plus” broken bottles on the ground. Whenever I’m walking around Midtown, I often comment on the large amount of glass I see on the ground, which is a hazard for pedestrians, cyclists, and even dogs. Leeper’s project draws attention to this issue, and perhaps one day the city will recognize the danger of having broking glass on sidewalks and place a greater emphasis on removing it. Leeper also documents the number of times he really felt unsafe, which is 0, and the number of times he has been stopped by the cops, which is also unsurprisingly 0. I think this may have something to do with Leeper being white; I’d be interested to see how many times an African American man would be stopped if he were to do the same thing. Leeper’s seemingly innocuous project once again exposes another issue in the city: racial disparities in policing.
While Leeper is simply taking photos of art on bike rides, he is critically evaluating the definition of art and choosing inclusivity over talent. He is respecting the city’s decay without exploiting it. He is drawing attention to disparities and public health hazards in the city. For a city that often gets bad media coverage, I’m grateful to see Leeper’s article in the news because it supports art while also revealing critical issues in the city. A man, a bike, and a camera can have a greater impact on a city than we may initially think.