In September, pedestrians stopped in their tracks at the corner of Catherine and Detroit streets to ponder a giant map of Washtenaw County painted on the sidewalk–one that, in true Treetown spirit, also offers pointed social commentary.
“I’m very much making a political statement,” says artist Yen Azzaro. The temporary installation, one of two funded by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and chosen by the Arts Alliance, highlights each of the county’s zip codes in luscious colors, with sketches of landmarks like the Burton Memorial Tower and Dexter’s Mill Creek Park. Statistics stenciled alongside highlight inequality. “There is a 17 year difference between white residents’ average age of death in Ypsilanti Township versus Chelsea Village,” says one. And “During Covid times, 65% of white respondents report being able to work from home versus 38% of black respondents in Ypsilanti.”
Not every message is grim. “The rate of uninsured (health) dropped from 9% in 2010 to 4% in 2015,” reads one tag. But Azzarro, a Huron High and U-M grad who lives in Ypsilanti, hopes the map reminds people that “My neighborhood is not the same as my neighbor’s.”
The DDA was inspired in part to offer employment to local artists during the pandemic, explains spokesperson Maura Thomson. The second project, by four U-M architecture grads, involves giant dots painted on State St. near North University, and a cluster of what look like giant, multicolored popsicle sticks sprouting from flower pots.
Arts Alliance CEO Deb Polich says the pop-up projects reflect a trend called “tactical urbanism.” According to tacticalurbanism.com, cities around the world are using “flexible and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and more.” Other local examples include temporary bike lanes and partial street closings.
The Alliance has two more $6,525 grants to give out. Polich says proposals can be as playful as the architects’ or as provocative as Azzaro’s: “Washtenaw County, for everything it offers–and it offers a lot–has things to work on.”