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Using Public Art To Boost A Depressed Town

Aug 8, 2013
Originally published on August 8, 2013 3:39 pm

The big news out of Michigan recently has been about Detroit’s bankruptcy. But another city about 100 miles northwest of Detroit shares some of Motor City’s history and problems.

Saginaw was once a big General Motors town. It has a growing medical industry with two hospitals and a new medical school today.

But a third of its 50,000 residents live below the poverty level. And the city struggles with violence and crime. Even locals call it “sag-nasty.”

One artist is tired of all the negativity. And he’s using art to change the way the town sees itself.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Kyle Norris of Michigan Radio reports.


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Well, the big news out of Michigan has been Detroit's bankruptcy, but another city about 100 miles northwest of Detroit shares some of Detroit's history and problems. Saginaw was once a big GM town. It has a growing medical industry with two hospitals and a new med school today, but a third of its 50,000 residents live below the poverty line. The city struggles with crime. Even locals call it sag-nasty. One artist is tired of this, and he's using art to change the way the town sees itself. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris has our story.

KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: Saginaw was once a big logging and industrial town but these days it's struggling with unemployment, crime and a shrinking population. But where some people might see blight and lots of problems, 37-year-old artist Eric Schantz sees a giant canvas. He's pointing out one of his creations on an old school brick building. His mural is 12 feet high and 110 feet long, and it just consists of these giant black words on a white backdrop.

ERIC SCHANTZ: ...newspaper and it says: Imagine in Saginaw, surrounded with the words respect, peace, hope, pride and love. All it is, is the word triggers that get people to think about things that could be.

NORRIS: He says he's trying to make his city a better place to live, and Schantz says he's kind of surprised at who's paying attention.

SCHANTZ: We had somebody actually come out of woods underneath the bridge with a rifle on their shoulder and a hatchet, and so you're the guys making - you guys make this all art? Like, yeah. He says, I like it.

NORRIS: Then the guy invites them down to his camp to have some raccoon he had been cooking, but they were like, but we're good.

SCHANTZ: When people like train-hopping hobos offer you lunch for making art, you know you're doing something good in the community. It's the comments from people that never talk about art just for them to be like I like it, that's all it takes.

NORRIS: Schantz says he makes art because he wants to make people happy, and people are noticing hundreds of pieces he's done in the past six years all over Saginaw.

KATE SCHEID-WEBER: Good afternoon, Francis Reh Academy staff. The Internet is back on, so we are good to go. If you have any questions...

NORRIS: Kate Scheid-Weber is head of Francis Reh Academy.

SCHEID-WEBER: I saw his murals, and I saw that he signed them with his last name, and so I Googled him.

NORRIS: She called Schantz, because she had been thinking about putting up some murals in the school. He came in, and he held a brainstorming session with the kids to find out what they wanted. And then he transformed a boring school hallway to looking like it had been tagged with lots of bright blue-and-orange graffiti, which are the school colors. The artwork plays with the concept of electrical power.

SCHEID-WEBER: There's lots of plugs and outlets. Where they're plugging in, there's this huge brain with all of its little nooks and crannies glowing, plugged into the wall.

NORRIS: The art is meant to inspire students to plug in and engage with their education. And when the kids saw it, they were shocked.

SCHEID-WEBER: They were, like, this is sweet. This is awesome. This is so much better than we thought it would be. And they felt very proud.

NORRIS: Schantz's artwork makes other people around town feel a sense of pride, as well. Officer Henry Reyna's favorite piece of artwork is a painting of a giant American flag that wraps around an entire building. The building is in a historic neighborhood, and was once a Native American trading post.

HENRY REYNA: I'm very patriotic, anyways, and to see a structure like that covered or blanketed in our American flag, it's just huge.

NORRIS: Reyna specializes in crime prevention, and he's taken advanced training on how to strategically put up art in public places to attract people, which can help prevent crime.

REYNA: Good foot traffic to any community that is suffering is going to benefit, because all of a sudden, good people are there. Honest people are there.

NORRIS: Reyna says the art murals in Saginaw have become this destination hot spot, and now people are coming there to get their high school portraits and their wedding pictures taken in front of the art. These days, the artist and the cop have actually become friends. They text each other and keep up on Facebook.

REYNA: You know, Eric bleeds Saginaw. He is the art juggernaut, that unstoppable force that just continues to say, look at this. Artworks, carefully placed art by the community is going to help Saginaw.

NORRIS: Schantz and Reyna have been trying to drum up support and funding to put up more art. Reyna says public art can reduce police call volume and help save the city money, and he says those are things Saginaw needs. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Kyle Norris, in Saginaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.