A Story of Resistance and Resilience in the City’s Southwest

Detroit has long been known as an ‘urban ghost town’ with many vacant buildings – not just houses, but large-scale hotel buildings, apartment buildings and industrial buildings too.

While on a trip to the D, home to some of hip-hop’s finest – from the late great J Dilla to the promising young talent Big Sean – Urbanology Magazine Staff Photographer Lee Hon Bong had the privilege of capturing the essence of a city rising above trying times through the below photo essay.


With unemployment at a rate double that of the U.S. average and declining job opportunities, Detroit is in a dire state and it has been for years. In fact, the city filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy in July 2013. In December 2013, it was official; Detroit was eligible for protection from creditors on $18.5 billion in debt.

With unemployment at a rate double that of the U.S. average and declining job opportunities, Detroit is in a dire state and it has been for years. In fact, the city filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy in July 2013. In December 2013, it was official; Detroit was eligible for protection from creditors on $18.5 billion in debt.

According to the latest national Kids Count Report in 2013, out of the 50 largest cities in America, Detroit has the most children living in extreme poverty (59 per cent) an increase of 34 per cent since 2006. Even worse - the cutbacks to social services, due to the economic downturn.

According to the latest national Kids Count Report in 2013, out of the 50 largest cities in America, Detroit has the most children living in extreme poverty (59 per cent) an increase of 34 per cent since 2006. Even worse – the cutbacks to social services, due to the economic downturn.

This kind of barrier places a burden on the people most affected by poverty to not only find alternative means to take care of their own children, but the welfare of all the children in their communities. On one hand, the system demands you do more with less, on the other … well; it is tying it up and saying that you can’t use the other hand.

This kind of barrier places a burden on the people most affected by poverty to not only find alternative means to take care of their own children, but the welfare of all the children in their communities. On one hand, the system demands you do more with less, on the other … well; it is tying it up and saying that you can’t use the other hand.

The Alley Project (TAP) is one of the projects taking matters into its own hands so to speak. The project is run by a program called Young Nation and based out of Southwest Detroit. It is based in a largely Latino community where more than half of the children live in poverty (which speaks much louder to systemic issues than anything else).

The Alley Project (TAP) is one of the projects taking matters into its own hands so to speak. The project is run by a program called Young Nation and based out of Southwest Detroit. It is based in a largely Latino community where more than half of the children live in poverty (which speaks much louder to systemic issues than anything else).

Founded in 2008, Young Nation’s mission is to promote holistic development of youth in urban settings through building relationships, community education, and passion-driven projects. The Alley Project is just that, turning an unkept alley into an art space that the community holds dearly – across cultures and across generations.

Founded in 2008, Young Nation’s mission is to promote holistic development of youth in urban settings through building relationships, community education, and passion-driven projects. The Alley Project is just that, turning an unkept alley into an art space that the community holds dearly – across cultures and across generations.

The project’s executive director, Erik Howard, speaks passionately about its beginnings and how neighbours started to pay attention: “Initially, it started out with painting my garage door, my parent’s garage door and my aunt’s garage door.”

The project’s executive director, Erik Howard, speaks passionately about its beginnings and how neighbours started to pay attention: “Initially, it started out with painting my garage door, my parent’s garage door and my aunt’s garage door.”

Howard continues, sharing a story about a grumpy elder man across the alley that never spoke to anyone. “Every day during the project, this man would be outside in his yard yelling at his dogs. The kids thought he didn’t like them or what they were doing, until one day [he] leans over and says, ‘they’ve improved. You can actually read what it says now. It’s too bad that I can’t afford anything like that on my door, I’m on a fixed income.’ Then he walked away.”

Howard continues, sharing a story about a grumpy elder man across the alley that never spoke to anyone. “Every day during the project, this man would be outside in his yard yelling at his dogs. The kids thought he didn’t like them or what they were doing, until one day [he] leans over and says, ‘they’ve improved. You can actually read what it says now. It’s too bad that I can’t afford anything like that on my door, I’m on a fixed income.’ Then he walked away.” Howard later let the man know the improvements could be made for his door as part of the project, at no cost to him. “It was just word of mouth and speaking to our neighbours that the project spread throughout the alley.”

Walking through the alley is like walking through a well-curated exhibit. Much of the artwork consists of cultural pieces celebrating the calavera (Spanish for skull) and Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday, also celebrated in Latino communities and throughout Latin America, focusing on remembering friends and family who have passed on.

Walking through the alley is like walking through a well-curated exhibit. Much of the artwork consists of cultural pieces celebrating the calavera (Spanish for skull) and Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday, also celebrated in Latino communities and throughout Latin America, focusing on remembering friends and family who have passed on.

The Alley Project has become widely known for its participatory process and it’s ingenuity in uniting the neighbourhood’s young people. Young Nation also has a small screen-printing business that the youth have taken on. There is a lot of pride in their voices when these young people talk about the project.

The Alley Project has become widely known for its participatory process and it’s ingenuity in uniting the neighbourhood’s young people. Young Nation also has a small screen-printing business that the youth have taken on. There is a lot of pride in their voices when these young people talk about the project.

Through the support of the people and local businesses in the community, the program recently found a home. It is a donated former funeral home. Walking into the space, you would never know that it was a funeral home, but because so many people in the neighbourhood have been through there to pay tribute to friends and family that have passed on, a space to honour these memories has been created within.

Through the support of the people and local businesses in the community, a sister program to TAP, Grace in Action, was even recently able to set up inside a donated former funeral home. Walking into the space, you would never know that it was a funeral home, but because so many people in the neighbourhood have been through there to pay tribute to friends and family that have passed on, a space to honour these memories has been created within.

Perhaps the most telling symbol of things to come is their use of art as tool of resistance and a testament to the resilience of the community. The decaying, abandoned buildings of yesteryear have become the perfect canvas for all forms of art and to tell their stories and rebuild a city that was left to fend for itself.

Perhaps the most telling symbol of things to come is their use of art as tool of resistance and a testament to the resilience of the community. The decaying, abandoned buildings of yesteryear have become the perfect canvas for all forms of art and to tell their stories and rebuild a city that was left to fend for itself.

Words & Photos By. Lee Hon Bong // © Urbanology Magazine