From the sublime to the ridiculous-a day in Detroit
The day commenced on a hijacked University of Michigan Bus packed to capacity with forty college freshmen, in differing degrees of consciousness. We rubbed our eyes and sipped our morning coffee, nursing hangovers from alcohol or the taxation of a busy week. We came equipped with backpacks, IPhones, and pencils for notes, open minds, packed lunches, and casual outfits. We were ready for a day in Detroit. As our states of fatigue varied, so did our expectations for the city itself. Although everyone in our class had exposure to the same study materials relating to the city, our experience with Detroit itself were varied as can be. Some students sat calmly, almost cynically in their seats. They were experienced and wise. These students had grown up in and around the city- going there for concerts, sporting events, and volunteer opportunities. Then there were the Detroit Virgins like myself- born and bred in states far away from Michigan. We were naïve and curious, and had no idea what the hell to expect.
Prior to coming to the University, I had very limited knowledge of Detroit. My vision of a metropolitan area was very clear-cut and specific. I grew up on Long Island, just sixty minutes away from Manhattan. When someone says “City”, images of Midtown, Chelsea, and the Upper East Side instantly come to my mind like old friends. I think about bustle and prosperity, glamour and infatuation. I obviously knew that Detroit was no Big Apple, but there was a time where it had almost as much vitality as the city I love. I knew Detroit as Mo-Town, the home of a popular black music movement in the 1970s. I knew that Detroit was once the wealthiest city in America. I knew it was a bona-fide boomtown, the heart of the American auto industry. I knew people came to Detroit to improve their lives and seek prosperity. I also knew that this golden age did not last long- beginning in the 1960s, the city began it’s downward spiral. Factories closed. People lost their jobs and gained chips on their shoulders. There was a “white flight”- many middle class, Caucasian residents moved out of the city and into the suburbs. Poverty and crime increased while the city’s economy broke to pieces until we’ve arrived at the summer of 2013- Detroit filed for bankruptcy with nothing but a corrupt municipal government and the nickname “murder city.” It was a faraway land of ruin, a fantasy, even a comical hotbed. When Kate Middleton gave birth to her first-born child in August, I lightheartedly tweeted “Kate Middleton has seen more labor today than the city of Detroit has seen in a long time.” Before beginning What You See Is What You Get, the only preconceived notion I had of Detroit was that it was, quite frankly, a shit hole. Even though we’ve been studying it for weeks, I really didn’t change my outlook on the city until I visited. I couldn’t. I figured, with “The D”, I’d have to see it for myself in order to form a real opinion- what you see is what you get.
As our bus made it’s way along the Michigan freeway and into Detroit’s city limits, I began to see my preconceived notions about the city come to life. I saw the newly built casinos and sports stadiums glistening with artificiality and false hope. I saw a billboard that read one single word: “Bankruptcy”. I was shocked, but then thought, “Well, at least they’re being honest.” I saw fast-food restaurants and liquor stores without a single grocery store in sight. A food desert, a nutritional wasteland. As we traveled across the city, along the east side, we began to pass more residential areas. Some of the houses were clearly abandoned and presented the typical decay and lack of upkeep that Detroit is famous for. However, there was something about them that intrigued me more than repulsed me. As we exited the bus and made our way toward our first destination-Earthworks urban farm, I was fascinated these decrepit shells that people once called home. I wanted to do something but couldn’t put my finger on it. What could my empathy do? A privileged white girl from the Long Island “Gold Coast” taking photos of utter desperation with my 500-dollar smart phone. I felt guilty, even shameful to be in my position. How could I exploit this ruin? Take a snapshot, make up some “introspective” caption and form some artificial conclusions about the city? But, every cloud does have a silver lining. After all, We were here to see organizations and places in Detroit that were making a difference. We made our way towards Earthworks- an organization dedicated to nourishing the city and taking back control of it’s wellbeing.
Earthworks, at first, seemed completely removed from the city. In class, the urban farming movement was always a point of personal fascination. As we stood in the community orchard, I began to feel very serene- much different than the feeling of exhilaration that I typically associate with large cities. Robbie, an Earthworks employee, discussed Detroit’s former natural plenty. He said that fruit trees used to be commonplace. Then he moved on to the objectives of the orchard.
“We use it as a classroom, and also a safe space for the community. Our goal is that these trees will grow up with the community, and people will be able to sit under them, picking apples and having conversations.”
This image sounded blissful, nostalgic, and utterly tranquil. It was a complete contrast to my idea of Detroit: the Shit Wonderland. As we toured the other various Earthworks complexes, I began to notice blatant juxtaposition between the decay of the city and the grassroots attempt to revive it. There was an Earthworks plot right across from an abandoned Iron Works plant. There was a soup kitchen that was deemed “not the safest place to be”- a complete contradiction to my notion about soup kitchens. My favorite example of these contradictions, however, was Donna’s Plot. It was an Earthworks plot a couple of blocks down from where we’d began. It was an herb garden, meant for tealeaves. It was gorgeous and desperate at the same time. A beautiful flower and herb garden growing right in front of an abandoned house. Half the exterior of the house was white, the other was charred black. It looked like the house had some kind of horrid, flesh-eating virus. The exterior was covered in graffiti, and all the windows were broken. The garden, by contrast, was colorful and vibrant. The flowers were not fully grown-even more beautiful things were still to come. I found a lot of symbolism in this simple visual-flowers were a symbol for the entire urban agriculture movement. It’s easy to look at abandoned buildings and barbed wire and make judgments. But hope can be found in decay.
We progressed on to the Heidelberg project, confounding and awe-inspiring at the same time. I had read about the project previously, but had never seen it or even a photo of it. We turned off of an ordinary neighborhood street and into a new world. We got off the bus and I just stood there for a second, taking in the sights around me. It was an optical cornucopia. Some of the exhibits were lively- I took such a liking to the polka-dot house that I told everyone I saw that I wanted to paint my walls with the same pattern. Others were more difficult to interpret, such as an abandoned front porch with overturned chairs. There were gloves on the chair legs, symbolizing arms reaching out from the underworld. Some were just impossible to swallow, such as an old telephone poll with stuffed animals nailed onto it. They were old and ragged from many nights exposed to harsh weather and air pollution. I saw a stuffed rabbit assuming the position of Jesus on the cross that made my blood curdle. Everywhere I turned, I saw old baby dolls in similar states of decay, something out of a horror movie. It sent shivers up my spine. As I wondered around, snapping photographs, I began to wondering what the whole point of the project even was. Was it a political statement? Anarchy? A cacophony of crap found in the city? I was almost certain I would never find the answer until I wondered back around toward the Vinyl house. There, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. A simple wooden box, painted white with one yellow polka-dot on it, and two powerful worlds: “Building Bridges.” I realized that the other sides were painted with similar phrases as well: “Crossing Over” “Meet Me Half Way” and “One Step At a Time.”
This, I realized, was the objective of the project. It didn’t matter what statement these people were trying to make. If someone wanted to turn an overturned chair into a hell-bound gremlin, so be it. Their opinions-no matter how disturbing or advant-garde, were essentially irrelevant. This project exists to build bridges. It’s a spot of hope, no matter how scary or strange the contents may be. It’s a way for the neighborhood to express itself, to bring change and make itself know for something other than drugs or crime. The objective is for people to grow into and around each other in a supportive and vibrant place. My feelings of unease melted away, and I spent the last few remaining minutes in awe of this project. It was such a contrast to what I knew art to be- a beautiful yet unattainable thing on a gallery wall. It was alive, breathing, shaping and being shaped by the community. It was art, and they didn’t care if you liked it.
Back on the bus, we ventured from the sublime to the ridiculous. A place in the city where they actually DID give a shit whether or not you liked the art, a place where you had to be a certified idiot to not like the art. I had heard of the DIA before. My father has many clients in the Detroit-metro area. He had always mused about the beauty of the DIA, how it was such a boon to the otherwise dreary city. As we approached the museum, I knew he was right. The exterior was gorgeous; it reminded me of buildings I’d seen in London and Barcelona years ago. The interior was no different-regal and elegant, marble as far as the eye could see. I love art museums, I always have. Therefore, I took immense pleasure in wandering around the huge building and gazing at the art. Classical, modern, concrete, abstract, it was all beautiful and thought-provoking. I ultimately ended up in the Rivera exhibit with the rest of the LHSP group. What I knew of the mural was that it was meant to chronicle the history of the city, bring together it’s values, accomplishments, and downfalls. I took in the mural, and there was so much that went over my head. Still being an outsider, there were so many things I didn’t know about the city, so many conclusions I hadn’t yet drawn about it’s past, present, or future. Yet, there was something very optimistic and understated about the mural. Even though the city was in a dark place, the mural celebrated Detroit’s innovation and promise. I took a panoramic shot of the scene, naïve and entranced. I knew I may never have such an intimate relationship with the city to understand the mural in it’s entirety, but it was a good start. That was all I could do, start my relationship with the city.
After viewing the mural, I spend another 45 minutes wandering and marveling at the museum. I would have been content to stay there for the remainder of the day, however, real life did beckon us back. As we boarded the hi-jacked bus and passed through midtown Detroit, I found myself puzzled by the gentrification of that particular part of the city. ”How can this be so nice? It’s just a façade!” I still don’t know enough about the city to fully understand the intricacies and flavor of it all, but as we drove past Comerica park, the abandoned train station, vacant lots and urban sprawl, I couldn’t help but think that I had made a connection to the city. I’d found places in the city that were spots of hope. They may not be fixing everything, these polka-dot houses, apple orchards, and morals, but they were doing something. They were small, but poignant. I knew it wouldn’t be my last time in Detroit. I had built a bridge.