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Crossing Paths with Kyle Bartell

Kyle Bartell, Pathways to Parks
Kyle Bartell, Pathways to Parks
by Noah Stephens

The People of Detroit, my photodocumentary project, has allowed me to cross paths with folks I would not have met otherwise. 

Over the past year I've attended more than a few events on behalf of TPOD, and at several I've noticed a young man who was conspicuously tall while at the same time having a general effect that was inconspicuously unassuming. As fortuity would have it, I even accidentally collected evidence of this young man's unique disposition.  

At the end of March, I made portraits of people who attended the launch of the Urban Innovation Exchange. One of the people I photographed was the dualistic mystery man.

While most of the attendees posed conventionally, when I raised my camera to him, he mirrored my motion and concealed himself behind a flier - forfeiting attention for himself in lieu of attention for his cause.

Yet again, I'd crossed paths with an interesting, socially engaged Detroiter. 

As it turned out, the unpretentious mystery man was also concerned with crossing paths. The flier promoted Pathways to Parks - an innovative, emerging organization dedicated to creating public gathering places along busy pedestrian thoroughfares. 

The theory is if people come together in public, they get to know each other. When they get to know each other, they think of each other as part of a whole. When they think of themselves as part of a whole, they are more likely to think of their fates as inextricably linked and treat each other with more consideration.

Though I didn't get his information at the event, I was able to finally name the mystery man when the good people at UIX suggested I photograph Kyle Bartell for our first collaboration. I arranged to meet Kyle near his place in Midtown Detroit, discussed his ideas about community spaces, and photographed him as the late afternoon sun made its final reach through the historic neighborhood's sylvan canopy.

Kyle grew up on the northwest side of Detroit. He went on to study planning at Arizona State and Wayne State universities. That training prompted Kyle to think about how to give purpose to the empty lots that punctuate even Detroit's more populated communities -- including Midtown. He had a vision to, among other things, install benches that would transform these unused parcels into places where people stopped and communed with each other.

To realize this vision, Kyle reached out to Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., an organization that has played a fundamental role in its namesake neighborhood's redevelopment. Midtown Detroit Inc. has been instrumental in securing millions of dollars of development funding for the area, including $22 million in 2011 from NYC-based Living Cities.

"I just emailed [Sue]," Kyle said. "That led to a walk-through identifying paths in the city; one of them being owned by Midtown Detroit Inc. in New Center," a neighborhood just north of Midtown.

Far too often, people in Detroit -- and in urban communities in general -- are imagined as hapless victims of circumstance. Many people in these communities internalize this characterization and, instead of taking whatever steps they can to affirm positive change, instead wallow in their imagined inevitable destitution. 

That's why I think Kyle's initiative is particularly noteworthy. He identified a problem, considered a solution, and sought out a way to implement that solution. Even still, Kyle balks at the suggestion that he is a trailblazer.

"The foot traffic of people in the community literally carves out the path," Kyle said. "All I have to do is suggest a use for it."

A conspicuously lofty vision from an inconspicuously unassuming guy. A path worth following.

Photo essay by Noah Stephens for The People of Detroit, a photodocumentary project founded in 2010 as a counterpoint to media fixated on despair and disrepair in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing. To view additional content, visit www.thepeopleofdetroit.com.

For more info on Kyle and his work, check out his recent profile in The Huffington Post.

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