Rocking a blazer with a t-shirt, John George tips the brim of his baseball cap embroidered with an Old English “D.”
As acclaimed photographer Marcus Lyon snaps a photo, the well known Detroit activist reveals a slight smirk.
“I believe Detroit is on the front porch of the greatest urban comeback story in this nation’s history,” George told CNN. “It’s because we’ve learned to work together and support each other.”
The 62-year-old is executive director of Detroit Blight Busters, a non-profit focused on revitalizing and stabilizing the city’s neighborhoods.
“We call it ‘spreading the Detroit love,’ and that means to help your brother, to help your sister, to help your community,” George said.
George is one of 100 Detroiters featured in British artist Marcus Lyon’s latest project, i.Detroit: A Human Atlas of an American City, which profiles some of the city’s most influential social change agents.
The project is interactive, including digital photography, in-depth oral histories and ancestral DNA analysis brought together into a coffee table book and image recognition app.
“This city really needs to have these stories told in this way, about our social change agents to create change in our society,” said Lyon. “This is a time where we need to focus on our extraordinary diversity, and all the wonderful range of human beings who can make a significant change in our societies.”
A journey that started in Brazil
For Lyon, the human atlas is an in-depth identity project.
“The initial idea behind the human atlas was to do a really deep and significant portrait project to look at a photographic collation of a cohort of fascinating and powerful people working in social change,” the photographer said.
Lyon, whose works hang in the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Arts Council of Great Britain, says he was first drawn to Brazil to document his family history.
“It was very much a father’s journey to understand the country of his growing family,” Lyon said.
Lyon is married to a Brazilian woman and wanted to help his two children better understand their heritage.
“It turned into something so much bigger, and the book and the exhibition traveled around the world,” he said.
Mark Davidoff, a Detroit businessman, met Lyon in 2017 and got a copy of his human atlas of Brazil, “Somos Brasil” (We Are Brazil).
“The book about Brazil landed on the desk of Rip Rapson of Kresge Foundation in Detroit,” Lyon said. “Rip took one look at it and said, ‘we have to do this here.’”
The Kresge Foundation partnered with the Charles H. Wright Museum to commission the project, and three years later, i.Detroit is revealing its beautiful picture of the Motor City’s social change makers.
An artist paints a picture of Detroit
To decide who to feature in i.Detroit, Lyon asked a diverse group of locals to nominate people from their communities who represent the very best of service to society. The final list includes 100 people from all races, ages and backgrounds.
Lyon worked with Family Tree DNA to analyze the DNA of the 100 Detroiters. He then traced their generational migration to the city and interviewed each one to record their personal stories.
“You would have a deeper look at a group of remarkable people through their visual spoken and genetic information,” the photographer said.
After spending months in the city and getting to know some of these remarkable Detroiters, Lyon realized there are many misconceptions about the city.
“It’s very easy to go and take pictures of ruined spaces or empty factories, but that is so not the story,” he said.
“You need to go past the post-industrial decline and look at the much warmer and powerful way that people are co-authoring new futures,” Lyon said. “There’s a wonderful mix in Detroit, of people being very gritty and having side hustles and having to make things happen in very entrepreneurial and imaginative ways – many people working in grassroots in activism, who are doing the hard work, often the most important work in our society, but often with the most limited resources.”
“So, in a sense,” he added, “these projects for me are my opportunity to cast a light on other people’s excellence and the extraordinary work they do and the lengths they go to to create change within communities.”
Monica Lewis-Patrick, president of We, the People of Detroit, agrees.
“We call Detroit ‘beloved Detroit,’” she said. “What we have seen is that even impaired in poverty, disparity and much of the loss that people have experienced even recently with Covid-19, you still will see a community that’s willing to do everything that it can to help its neighbors and friends.”
Lewis-Patrick, known as the “The Water Warrior,” was selected as one of Lyon’s featured 100 for her work advocating for affordable and clean water access as a fundamental human right.
“I was witnessing blocks and blocks, and thousands and thousands of Detroiters cut off from access to water, just simply because they could no longer afford to pay the increasing rates,” she said. “We had to respond to what was happening in our community.”
That response includes research, legislation and providing water to those facing emergency needs.
“We’ve used our resources, our power, our talents and abilities to work with others to be the solutions to many of the issues that impact our communities,” Lewis-Patrick said. “We’re hoping that our young people know that we love them enough to make this investment to commit our life’s work to ensure that they have a better tomorrow.”
John George’s activism began three decades ago when the then young father decided to go board up and clean up a crack house.
“We didn’t want to move out of the city,” he said. “But at the same time, we didn’t want our children growing up in and around this negative energy.”
George got together with a couple of neighbors and spent about eight hours boarding up the house, cleaning up the neighborhood, cutting the grass and picking up debris and glass.
Now, he said, “We’ve been meeting every Saturday for the last 32 years.”
Detroit Blight Busters has about 7,000 community volunteers who have helped complete cleanup, demolition and renovation projects across Detroit. George has also helped over 400 people become homeowners, and he has assisted in establishing dozens of small businesses.
“Our work has always focused around the home, the family and creating those homeowners and those business owners,” George said. “It really is a situation where we want to have our children grow up in clean, decent housing and safe blight-free neighborhoods.”
The book also includes US Representative Rashida Tlaib and many other prominent community organizers, first responders, entrepreneurs, ministers, artists and educators.
“We’re hoping that a lot of people will visit it and enjoy the deepest stories and the stories of DNA and the relationship to both the past and our origins, but also use this as an inspiration for the future,” he said.