The Troubled Ghosts of Motown’s Past & The Lonely Death of a French Street Artist.

It was cool and cloudy in Detroit that day. There was a light rain that dusted the city’s cracked sidewalks with a wet sheen an hour before another body had been found. There were a total of four murders that day, all by gunshot. Even though the city had been enjoying a slow decline in crime; a strong 17% reduction in homicides since the year previous. The numbers certainly appear promising, but a close look at the details behind cold, anonymous crime stats, and that same glimmer of hope almost vanishes. On Monday, July 29, 2013, a 65 year old man was robbed at gunpoint while mowing his lawn. He got shot but luckily, survived. Later that night, a 46 year old male asked his neighbour to turn down his stereo. The resulting retort was a barrel of a gun, and a bullet that snuffed out another life.

brewster1Photo courtesy of Steve Neavling of Motor City Mudracker.

A few hours before, an unidentified young man was found lying on the ground unresponsive at 2:50PM at the corner of St. Antoine and Alfred, an area bordered by overgrown vacant lots, once housing a baseball field, and empty, windowless, graffiti sprayed towers and 2 story homes, boarded up by a combination of faded plywood and lost dreams. The Major Crimes report cited his body having sustained “major trauma”. The truth was that he had been shot in the face. This was the second John Doe found murdered on the mean streets of Detroit that day. Without any identification on his person, he would remain unclaimed and unidentified for several long months, before a determined investigator noticed his european footwear and ran his fingerprints through an international database.

The intersection of St. Antoine and Alfred would have been a lonely one in July of that year, but it wasn’t always so. Known as the Brewster-Douglass Projects, the area was once the largest residential housing project owned by the city, with a long cultural history, beginning with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on hand to signify the first federally funded housing development for African Americans.

supremes The Supremes re-visit the Brewster Projects. Photo courtesy of the Maysles Institute.

Less than 2 decades later, in 1951, the development expanded with the creation of 4 identical, 15 floor towers. It was home to several huge Motown legends including Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and screen actress Lily Tomlin. But as time passed, poverty, drugs and crime spread throughout the complex, forcing many of it’s residents to flee. By 1990, the Brewster projects were 64% empty. The towers, looming high over the I-375 highway, had become a symbol of failure for a city desperate to bury the past and build a future for itself. In 2012, they were slated for demolition. But in 2013, the same year that Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history, some were still standing…attracting scrappers, graffiti artists, urban explorers, and of course, the gangs and criminals that still roam the area.

bilal_berrani Photo courtesy of Berreni Family.

Bilal Berreni was a quiet, thoughtful artist with boundless energy who also went by Zoo Project as a moniker. He first broke ground on the street art scene in the 15th Arrondissement in Paris, close to where the 23 year old was born. Partially colour blind, he preferred to get his political and social commentaries across with stark black ink. His work took him across Europe all the way to Siberia, but his career really blew up large when he traveled to Tunisia and painted life size portraits of the victims of a revolution, then onto a refugee camp near the Libyan border. The work drew the attention of international news. He later traveled throughout the US, first sleeping in parks and working at a Pizzeria in New York, then hopping trains and finding himself in Detroit. He had spent his final days painting, writing and collecting building materials. According to his father, he was determined to find what could be born out of chaos.

zoo project A work by Zoo Project AKA Bilal Berreni, on the streets of Paris.

Some of that chaos unfortunately found it’s way onto Bilal’s path one day. On Wednesday, September 3rd, four young men were charged with his murder. One of them, a 14 year old boy.

‘One day, I saw him drawing in Paris’, Bilal’s father (Mourad Mourani) remarked. He said, “Look, Daddy,” and he remained silent,’ he also said. ‘He was painting a bunch of guys typing on computers all connected one to another to say that they are all dependent, an absurd society. That was Bilal.’

Sources: Detroit Police Department, Wikipedia, Historic Detroit, Detroit Free Press.

Other DG Longform Reads:
Pinball Wizards & Hardcore Gamers :: A Love Letter to Video Arcade Days Gone By
Punk: Chaos 2 Couture :: Lessons Learned From The Show at the Met

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