By Regina M. Connell
Think about how the simple printing press changed the world. It helped create a wider, more literate public. Scientific information and works were shared. Politics and political ideologies changed. The power of the people grew. The “Dark Ages” became the Age of Enlightenment. Talk about a tool for social change.
Now it’s all about the internet as that tool, but in some places, it’s the humble printing press (perhaps with an assist from the internet) that’s once again at the heart of a new organizing force and agent of change. At least if Megan O’Connell of Salt & Cedar has her way.
On one level, Salt & Cedar is a press and bindery based in the historic Eastern Market area of Detroit.
Salt & Cedar does custom commissioned work for Detroit’s growing creative community, offers workshops and classes, and designs limited edition books. (One example: a unique two-volume boxed book printed and bound as a special gift to mark Beyoncé’s –yes, that Beyoncé –first Mother’s Day. It included a four-page handwritten letter reflecting on the role of mothering from Michelle Obama.)
But, Megan isn’t just an artist and craftsperson: she’s long been an advocate and practitioner of making social change through art. (Her partner, Leon Johnson, has joined the ranks of activist chefs like Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver, and he created Market Studio Kitchen, a food education program for the underserved residents of Detroit.)
To Megan, Salt & Cedar is a “project” and a tool for change, with its centerpiece the 3,000 square foot space that holds the press. “It’s a case study in the power of artistic entrepreneurship. It sparks curiosity, invites participation, and serves various populations with the forthright messages that letterpress delivers so succinctly,” Megan explains.
Then there’s the press itself along with killer design instincts. What’s the power of an identity? Think Shepard Fairey’s word-image combination used on the posters for Barak Obama’s first campaign.
And then, and perhaps most importantly, there is the notion of bringing people together to explore and craft an identity and a vision for the future of Detroit.
Detroit’s a city with a proud, powerful heritage wrapped in the all-too common narrative of de-industrialization. In the go-go years of the automotive business, the city started to hollow out when all those high-paying auto jobs moved out to the suburbs. Then those jobs moved, too, or simply disappeared, Nothing replaced them.
Some de-industrialized cities have gone through a rough patch, but come back: think New York, and maybe Pittsburgh. Others, like Detroit and Newark, still struggle.
There are signs of life. The auto industry is righting itself slowly, albeit with a smaller and less geographically concentrated footprint. Tech companies are moving in. There’s a Design Festival. And young creatives are setting up houses and small businesses, lured by cheap real estate, rose-colored visions of a Ruskin-esque future, and a city hungry for business.
But this creates its own challenges: what if you’re not young, educated, and hipster-cool? What if you don’t like espresso or chai? What does Detroit hold for you then?
That’s the challenge of urban regeneration: cities are not blank slates. There were, and are businesses that have been around for generations. There are small businesses that have continued to thrive. There are people who want to preserve the character of what they have, and people who want to see a diversity of jobs, lifestyles, and races.
Like any material, they have characteristics that need to be honored. Like any process, they take painstaking practice, a whole lot of patience – and a few failures – to understand.
Megan understands this. What she is doing is helping to craft, articulate, and express a new, authentic identity for Detroit. And she does it through events, workshops, and shows that build relationships, air perspectives, and get people sharing, laughing, and connecting.
Our favorite? Anecdoted City, an event designed in collaboration with 1/X that drew over 1,100 people in one night to Salt & Cedar’s front gallery in which people were asked to temporarily donate objects that “capture the complexities and exuberance of Detroit.” Individually, the objects (from bikes to punk rock safety pins) hint at memories and lives. Collectively, they weave a story about identity. (At Handful of Salt, we believe in the power of objects to tell profound stories about the people they represent, and know that it works for cities, too.)
Another favorite event – this one in collaboration with Leon – the monthly Book & Bread event, which features a three-course dinner prepared with ingredients fresh from the market for 12 people, and then afterwards, the group works on bookbinding, and guests leave with a blank book that they can use as they wish.
Urban renewal is complicated, non-linear, and messy. Taking a crafted approach to urban redesign is the way to go. And who better to do that than a skilled artist and craftsperson who wants to put the power of her press to good use? We can’t think of anyone better.