Driving from the mansion-lined streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, into Detroit, where there are around 45,000 abandoned houses, can feel like crossing a border. (Last year, temporarily, there was an actual border, as Grosse Pointe controversially blocked off the main road into Detroit). If you live in Grosse Pointe Park, you probably don't spend much time in the nearby crime-filled neighborhood of Lindale Gardens—or know anyone who lives there.
Last fall, that started to change with some simple postcards. Lindale Gardens residents jotted a brief note about their neighborhood, included a snapshot, and sent it to a random address in Grosse Pointe, with an invitation to meet for coffee.
The project was the brainchild of artist Hunter Franks, who traveled across the country last year designing urban interventions to help bridge gaps in divided cities. (The Neighborhood Postcard Project was originally born in San Francisco, where Franks helped remake the image of several "bad" neighborhoods.) The Creative Interventions Tour, funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, gave Franks three weeks in each city.
In Macon, Georgia, his first stop, Franks built a wall filled with portraits of neighbors and hand-written stories of their first loves. For people who might not otherwise have met, the project was a reminder that everyone has at least something in common. Franks also worked with community groups to build a cookbook of family recipes, spraypaint hearts on abandoned buildings, and organize a local version of the same postcard project he later recreated in Detroit.
Each of the interventions was small but had immediate effects: Suddenly, neighbors were talking to each other, and starting to see much-maligned neighborhoods in a different light.
"In the post-industrial cities I visited, these small interventions have the power to change the conversation from 'what is' to 'what could be,'" says Franks. "Residents are used to blight and disinvestment in their communities and a feeling that they cannot change that. Carrying out small-scale projects and intervening in the normal way of life allows residents to see that it is okay to reimagine their public spaces, their communities, and their cities."
In Philadelphia, Franks helped create a crowdsourced community mural in the neighborhood of Belmont, dropping paintbrushes and instructions in random mailboxes in other parts of the city. In Akron, Ohio, he collected 600 personal stories for another iteration of the Neighborhood Postcard Project.
As he visited each city, Franks also helped launch new chapters of his organization—the League of Creative Interventionists—to keep the work going. This year, thanks to another Knight Foundation grant, he also plans to expand on the projects he began in Akron. Wherever he works, the goal is the same: To get people talking outside their normal social circles, and start breaking down stereotypes.
"People really do want to connect, but sometimes they just don’t know how," Franks says. "I help them by inserting the opportunity for fun and spontaneous connection into the urban landscape."