Remains of Detroit ‘art’ house is demolished after misleading media reports

An emergency crew demolished the remains of the "art" house at 20195 Stoepel.
An emergency crew demolished the remains of the “art” house at 20195 Stoepel. All photos by Steve Neavling.

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker

Ryan Mendoza felt terrible.

What began as a sincere, ambitious art project to move a vacant Detroit house to Europe to represent “memories” of forgotten American homes has devolved into public outcry, largely because of misleading media accounts and an unscrupulous Detroit businessman.

At issue is the exposed, blighted shell left behind when Mendoza, 44, shipped the house’s facade to Rotterdam in the Netherlands in October. The Free Press featured a story on Friday that suggested Mendoza cold-heartedly abandoned the dangerous remains after exploiting the city’s abandonment.

Responding to public outcry, the city hired an emergency crew to demolish what was left of the house Monday on the 20000 block of Stoepel near 8 Mile and Livernois.

Ryan Mendoza outside of the demolition site.
Ryan Mendoza outside of the demolition site.

Although Menodza has caught the brunt of the criticism, the responsibility to raze the shell belonged to Detroit businessman Harley K. Brown, whom Mendoza paid $13,500 for the demolition job. The deal was that Brown would complete the task a day after the facade was shipped to Europe.

But that never happened.

“I got sick,” Brown told me at the demolition site. “That’s what it is.”

Turns out, Brown is not a licensed contractor and failed to get environmental permits to dismantle the house – a shock to Mendoza and his team.

Mendoza said they chose Brown because they wanted to support a small, Detroit-based business.

Mendoza apologized to residents on the block.

“I promised them I was going to get the house demolished,” Mendoza said. “I chose the wrong person. I would never have done this if I thought he wouldn’t fulfill his obligation.”

Brown was less sympathetic.

“No big deal; it’s not your problem,” Brown told me. “It was a drug house. It’s better off now.”

art house Mendoza_2911

Brown suggested he was a “friend” of Mayor Mike Duggan’s and was able to pull strings to disassemble the house, a tale that the administration denied.

Now someone is on the hook for the $9,500 emergency demolition, which was bid out by the city because Brown failed to get a permit for five months.

Brown said he “probably” will pay the bill “if it comes down to it.”

The negative attention is the last thing Mendoza wanted. The artist, who was born in Pennsylvania but has lived in Europe for the past 20 years, said the idea was to memorialize a house and the memories it represents. It was never about “ruin porn,” as has been suggested in the media.

Ryan Mendoza draped the exposed interior with a tarp that read "unforgotten" after his "contractor" failed to demolish the home.
Ryan Mendoza draped the exposed interior with a tarp that read “unforgotten” after his “contractor” failed to demolish the home.

“I was going to freeze a moment of America’s history in time,” Mendoza wrote in a piece for the Guardian. “I wouldn’t let the government bulldoze all the dilapidated houses with all their memories without one being preserved as testimony, a stubborn reminder of all the others.”

Mendoza teamed up with the home’s owner, Gregory Johnson, and the past owner to preserve many of the memories left behind – photographs, letters, old televisions. He added photos from his own family.

“The idea was to remember the story and history of the house,” he told me. “It was never about ruin porn.”

Mendoza also planned to donate money from the project to improve Detroit in the area of 8 Mile.

Mendoza’s wife, Fabia Mendoza, created a short documentary, “Coming Home,” about the project. It premiers at the 2016 Detroit Free Press film festival at 2:30 p.m. April 2 at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The house will soon be on permanent exhibit in Belgium.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Chester Marx

    Poor coverage by the MSM. I watch the news at 11 and am perplexed by what coverage is presented. I want news not opinions.

  • banmar

    From the interviews I saw and read with the artist, I didn’t think he meant for the remains of the home to still be standing, annoying the fuck out of the neighbors, this long. Mr. Mendoza seemed, to me, that he expected the remains of the house to be demolished the next day, which is why he paid the faux contractor $13,500 in advance. I live in a seasonal town, and many times homeowners will hire a contractor and pay them in full up front without checking to see if they’re licensed by the state, have pulled the demo permit and then actually performed the work. It’s a relatively common experience, though the condition of this property is worse than the normal demo. As for whether Mr. Mendoza is exploiting Detroit, I don’t see it that way. I think he was trying to show that Detroit has seen great days, hit hard times, and is now heading back into better days. I respect other’s opinions but that’s what I got out of the interviews. I do think that Mr. Brown needs to be worked over well with a bag of oranges by the neighbors on that street for the inconvenience he caused them and by the artist to get his payment back. That would be a nice ending for this saga.

  • MFS78

    One of those moments where the intent is less important than the outcome. Also, how often do Detroiters have to live through absentee artists/developers/investors not understanding how things work or don’t work in the city? He may not have intended for this to be ruin porn, but the facts are all here: Born in Pennsylvania, lived in Europe for the past 20 years, bought a house in Detroit, disassembled it to take it elsewhere at a cost that even if it in the end wasn’t demolished on time, is probably more than anyone in the neighborhood has to spend. So it isn’t meant to be ruin porn. But in the end, you still have someone from the outside, coming into an embattled neighborhood/city/socio-economic/political climate they don’t understand, but are willing to effect, play with and change for the benefit of themselves obviously and an audience far, far away. I get it. I’m an artist too, but I’m also tired of people thinking they can capitalize on Detroit–our name, our history, our essence, the perception of us, just because they have a few grand and can. This isn’t a board game, I know the pieces are cheap, but if you aren’t here, you can’t get it and frankly I’m happy that people are starting to fight back. They’re here too and like me, they’re probably tired of the thoughtlessness, intended or otherwise.

    • JohnJoslin

      What if Detroit is LIKE a board game ,though… or at least a couple squares of a pretty big board game…say an old favorite like ‘Monopoly’ ?

      Evidence ? For one thing , like a lotta’ places, money is about the only thing valued around these parts. More like worshiped ,I’d say, if you take into account the zeal w/ which washed -up federal judges & temporarily outta’ work Wall Street hacks cycle thru here variously seizing or extorting money from the regular folks , then blessing the resulting sorry mess before quickly pulling up stakes, and packing up the circus tents for another out-of-town gig ! The thoughtful heisting all done in the daylight and to the dutiful applause from genuflecting , non-absentee politicians , too.

      Maybe artists haven’t taken the lead in stepping on people & crushing Detroit over the past many decades… and maybe nobody can make decent sense of it all, but isn’t it theoretically possible for an artistic type to grapple with the puzzle of how things work or don’t work in the former Motor City?

      At least Mr. Morales the artist is trying something. And he never implied we lack brains, creativity, or a plucky ‘can-do ‘ resourcefulness, either … something that can’t be said about the ragged platoons of emergency managers & their foundation funded enablers who constantly beset us.

      Sometimes ‘Art’ takes longer to shake out then reliable old-fashioned theft, too.

      Unlike the usual hustlers noted above, looks like Mr. Morales can probably stand up under some scrutiny , too. Seems more trustworthy. -JJ ( Detroit )

  • MFS78

    One of those moments where the intent is less important than the outcome. Also, how often do Detroiters have to live through absentee artists/developers/investors not understanding how things work or don’t work in the city? He may not have intended for this to be ruin porn, but the facts are all here: Born in Pennsylvania, lived in Europe for the past 20 years, bought a house in Detroit, disassembled it to take it elsewhere at a cost that even if it in the end wasn’t demolished on time, is probably more than anyone in the neighborhood has to spend. So it isn’t meant to be ruin porn. But in the end, you still have someone from the outside, coming into an embattled neighborhood/city/socio-economic/political climate they don’t understand, but are willing to effect, play with and change for the benefit of themselves obviously and an audience far, far away. I get it. I’m an artist too, but I’m also tired of people thinking they can capitalize on Detroit–our name, our history, our essence, the perception of us, just because they have a few grand and can. This isn’t a board game, I know the pieces are cheap, but if you aren’t here, you can’t get it and frankly I’m happy that people are starting to fight back. They’re here too and like me, they’re probably tired of the thoughtlessness, intended or otherwise.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    That’s no Bad. Good idea ending bad for the fact that The artist did not ask enough questions about permits, and he is the guy who gets burned. Not cool at all. ” A friend of the Mayor “? Well I think not at this point. the truth is right there for everyone to see. Way to go Mr. Brown.