Bridging Borders
the "other" 8 Mile story

A red line drawn on a map can be as effective a boundary as mountains, rivers, and other natural features of geography. Humans have constructed artificial boundaries to define borders where no such natural barriers exist.

While such borders have served to divide people, according to Novi sculptor David Barr, "working on a borders project brings people together." And he should know. Barr is responsible for several art projects linking populations separated by geography and the drawn lines of men. His largest work, (in fact the largest sculpture ever made) the Four Corners Project, consisted of four small tetrahedrons each located in a remote corner of the globe creating an earth-sized tetrahedron, thus conceptually linking these disparate locales. He also constructed pieces spanning the Bering Strait between the United States and Russia, as well as another piece spanning the US and Canadian border. (Most recently he teamed with relief sculptor Sergio De Giusti to create the Labor Monument "Transcending" in Hart Plaza.)

This time out Barr has set his sights on something a lot closer to home - the Michigan base line, an East-West line established to survey the entire state. The base line is known as 8 Mile Road in these parts. 8 Mile has stood as a divisive barrier for metro Detroiters, as the official border between the city and many of its suburban neighbors. In places along 8 Mile, in fact, "Berlin-esque" walls once separated black and white neighborhoods. People to the north viewed south of 8 Mile as a no man's land not to be crossed. Former Mayor Coleman Young's much misinterpreted inaugural address in 1974 added fuel to the fears when he warned criminals to get out of Dodge, or as he put it, "Hit 8 Mile." Parts of 8 Mile have become a haven for strip clubs and prostitution, and recently gained a different sort of attention as the birthplace of Eminem with the release of the movie named after the road.

Barr's 8 Mile/Base Line Road project began when he was approached by Ken Naigus of the Northville Arts Council about doing a sculpture for the town. Barr was interested, but wanted to do something more than just donate one of the pieces from his yard. (For the record, Barr's yard is a veritable sculpture park inhabited solely by his own creations.) He envisioned a project that linked Northville and Michigan history in some fashion.

The artist immersed himself in research about the history of surveying this country and Michigan's important role in that task. Before the inception of the United States there were several existing models of property ownership including: the Native American model, in which the land couldn't be owned; the European aristocratic model, in which the King owned everything; and the colonial model in which people could use the land but had to pay rent on it. The means of dividing the land were also dubious and based on transient markers like rivers and trees.

The founding of the United States was accompanied by a new idea of ownership founded on democratic and egalitarian principles. Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate of a system where the state would be divided into a grid. People could then own equal and equitably apportioned plots of land. In order to accomplish this, a base line and a meridian line had to be marked off from which to base all the other measurements upon. Essentially this created an X and Y axis in which every point of the land could now have its own Cartesian coordinate. As the original colonies were already divided up (though not by this method) Jefferson's method was put into place in the newer states. Ohio was the first test site, but was fraught with trouble. The first state to get the job done right was Michigan.

In 1815 surveyors set off across the state to establish a base line. They started out at the boundary of the already established French "Ribbon" Farms (including Grosse Pointe) on the east towards South Haven on the west coast of the state. The surveyors risked harsh winter conditions and understandably hostile native populations in order to complete their task. With the exception of a minor jog near Jackson, the base line was completely marked off straight across the state in 1851and was soon followed by the meridian line up the center of the state. Today that line is known is some places as Base Line Road, while in others like Detroit it is 8 Mile Road.

The sculpture Barr made for the Northville site is a ten foot tall obelisk made of alternating black and white granite blocks echoing the markings on a surveyor's pole. The obelisk is engraved with information and images of local and historical mathematical importance. They are meant to be read like hieroglyphics for visitors to decode and learn about the region, art, and mathematics. Local school children were involved in coming up with the quotes and information on the sculpture. This includes some local history about Edward Hines, the man responsible for the invention of the white line on roads. The obelisk stands at the intersection of Center Street and 8 Mile Road in Northville and was officially dedicated at a ceremony on Sunday, December 14, 2003.

Barr envisions the Northville piece serving as the test model for a statewide project. With the first one in place, he hopes other communities along the base line will look to it and see the potential for getting involved. The educational benefits are an essential component of the project. Barr would like to construct the first few sites such as the outposts on the east and west sides of the state, the jog in Jackson, and the existing piece in Northville, but then hopes that other artists will continue the project. (Maybe Eminem will get involved in backing something along his stretch of the base line?) Perhaps someday those who want to "Coast the Base Line" will be able to travel the width of the state and encounter a different piece of art and history along the way.

The base line was originally intended to divide up the land, and with the case of 8 Mile in Detroit the border has kept people apart completely. With this project perhaps this longstanding barrier can become a uniting bridge of understanding.

To learn more, contact the Northville Arts Commission at 248-449-9950 during business hours or Ken Naigus at 248-349-1565. Find them on the web here. - Nick Sousanis (Sousanis is serving as a writer for the "Coasting the Baseline" Project.)

© 2002