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Art Camp Thrives On 8 Open Lots On Hamtramck-Detroit Border



This summer, we're visiting some of the more extraordinary camps around the country. Today, we head to the border of Detroit and Hamtramck, Mich., where neighborhood artists and young people built camp from scratch. Zak Rosen takes us there.

ZAK ROSEN, BYLINE: Hamtramck is formerly a working-class Polish city. But in recent years, there's been a huge surge of other immigrants, many from Bangladesh and Yemen. Accompanying that surge have been lots of artists who work to put community at the center of their practice, people like Faina Lerman, who's walking me around her compound.

FAINA LERMAN: We are on the corner of St. Aubin and Carpenter, literally straddling the Hamtramck and Detroit border.

ROSEN: Through their nonprofit, Lerman and her husband, Graham Whyte, have three homes - one where they live and program art shows, another across the street for visiting artists and a third...

LERMAN: We're slowly renovating it into another community space/tool-lending library.

ROSEN: Then they've got eight open lots. They garden on a few of them, but that still leaves plenty of space for other stuff. And in this part of the city, there aren't any playgrounds. So this summer, Lerman and some neighborhood artists started a free, week-long day camp.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Ready? We are Camp Carpenter Kids. Building stuff is what we did.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS: (Singing) Building stuff is what we did.

ROSEN: Camp Carpenter does not have a stated mission. If it did, it might be, let's just do this and see what happens. And adults are here to help, not to lead.

LERMAN: I feel like everything is just very over structured for kids. Like, they don't have even the space to make their own decisions or to let their minds expand to different ways of learning or gathering information.

ROSEN: So here, the structure is intentionally loose. But by the end of the week, there is the start of an adventure playground, built in part by the campers.

LERMAN: It doesn't have to look like an awesome playground that's polished. And, you know, it's a process. Like, kids were here, and they did stuff. They did a lot of different stuff.


ROSEN: One young camper, Jimmy Engalan, is learning how to use a hammer. A less patient adult may have allowed him a few whacks of the nail and then taken over - but not teaching artist Liza Bielby.

LIZA BIELBY: Keep your body engaged.


ROSEN: She watches Jimmy until he drives the nail all the way down into a wood pallet. It takes 258 knocks. I counted - 258. But he does it.

BIELBY: Yes. Well done.

ANGILENA OMOLARA-FOX: I'm Angilena Omolara-Fox, and I am 11 years old. I made a pillow. I made a dress. I helped with the little fort thing over there.

ROSEN: So would you come back to camp?

ANGILENA: Yes, because I don't really get a lot of chances to use tools and to make, like, things that I would like to make.

NIKI RICHARDSON: With all the camps she went to other than Camp Carpenter, it was a very, like, specific this is what we're going to do, these are the steps we're going to take to do it.

ROSEN: This is Angilena's mom, Niki Richardson.

RICHARDSON: And Camp Carpenter more was - we're going to build, but you need to figure out what you want to build. And we'll help you figure out how to do it.

ROSEN: Summer's nearly over. These campers will head back to school in just a few weeks. And there, pretty much every minute of their day will be mapped out with tests and assignments. Most of them don't get recess anymore. That might help explain why they thrived here at this meandering, creative camp sitting on eight open lots on the Hamtramck-Detroit border.

For NPR News, I'm Zak Rosen.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOLOTO'S "LIFE IN CLAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zak Rosen