Why I, a white man, took a black family’s house from Detroit to Rotterdam

I turned a Detroit house into a work of art for the community to be proud of, and people who think it is ruin porn have missed the point

We took it all the walls, the windows. We took the whole exterior of the house from Stoepel Street 20194, just west of Detroit 8 Mile.

Cutting a house into pieces was something I was new to. I had come to work ill-prepared, in worn-out sneakers, and kept slipping precariously on the roof tiles. People watched me from the street below as I pulled off the asphalt shingles. Some asked me why I, a white man, was taking a black familys house.

When I started on this project, my thoughts were clear. I wanted to bring a house back to Europe from America. When I arrived in Detroit in March 2015 I realised that this city in the country I had left in 1992 out of distaste for its nationalistic, isolationist, police-dog mentality and its privatised prison system, along with its thick dictionary of rules and tax codes and its ingratiating political correctness had, aside from the positive developments that were mostly in the downtown area, begun to look like a war zone. I drove around the Detroit 8 Mile area for weeks, looking at the abandoned houses, learning catchphrases such as ruin porn and poverty tourism, and about the governments plan to encourage people to lead agricultural lifestyles as houses were demolished to give way to arable land.

Gregory L Johnson and other workers on the house in Detroit. Photograph: Fabia Mendoza

When I presented my project to the Detroit City Land Bank, I was told from the get go that the mayor might not be interested. Still, I tried to get his blessing. I explained that I would take one house and three facades from houses that would otherwise be demolished back with me to Europe, and that I would attempt to get the press behind the project. With a great outpouring of public support, we would attempt to auction off the three facades for $1m each. The money would go back to the city of Detroit, specifically to the 8 Mile area.

The mayor, however, was apparently not interested in thoughts on art, alchemy and how to change the world. As my hopes of getting the city involved in my project diminished, my dear friend in Detroit, Gregory L Johnson, said he had the house for me a house that could be turned into a work of art of which people in Detroit could be proud.

With help from Johnson and businessman Harley K Brown, as well as the support of Geert Verbeke from the Verbeke Foundation in Belgium, where the house will be exhibited in April, I took everything I could of the house. I left only the inner structure, which will be taken down once the city grants us a permit, and the bathtub, which was made of cast iron and too heavy to lift. On the side of the house someone had spray painted: There is nothing left to take. I took that wall as well.

I boxed the photos that had been left scattered in the five-bedroom house, which had been owned by the Thomas family. I picked up a black bowling ball from the upstairs bedroom and my fingers slipped into its holes. I packed four television sets that didnt work but could be used as canvases to paint on. I collected the unopened letters from the City Land Bank to the Thomas family, notifying them of the loss of their house. I cared for these treasures.

Ryan Mendoza painting the house white. Photograph: Fabia Mendoza

Word got around that I was going to take a house from Detroit and rebuild it in Europe. I was going to freeze a moment of Americas history in time. I wouldnt let the government bulldoze all the dilapidated houses with all their memories without one being preserved as testimony, a stubborn reminder of all the others. I told the curious that the working title of this project was Unforgotten. I would protect the house from the onlookers gaze by painting it white windows, roof and all. The house would be dressed in a coat of white paint, no longer left as it was, like a cadaver, naked in the street.

I met almost daily members of the Thomas family who came by to salute the house they had grown up in. Vincent Thomas spoke to me about his memories in the house, the German Shepherds, the grape vines in the back, the barbeques, and about his mother, who died in 2005 leaving behind 38 grandchildren, and his father, a bicycle repairman, who loved to listen to the Temptations and the Spinners. This house had a lot of fun, he said.

Vincent handed me a stack of photos from his private family album with the house in the background. There were photos of his mother celebrating her last birthday, of prom nights and big dinners and Christmas mornings. I promised I would take care of them and the house.

When the house got to Rotterdam on 5 February 2016, it was windy and rainy. I wanted the house to be white. I had to protect the memories and cover up the ruin porn. I had to reflect the gaze of the porn-mining onlookers so that the memories and the love would be preserved. I painted the house in the rain to see the paint wash off the roof time and again, until it finally stuck.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2016/feb/24/white-man-black-family-home-detroit-rotterdam