Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Continuity

•August 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

 

A plaque in the Wayne State University Undergraduate Library: "Life, Growth, Continuity"

A mosaic in the Wayne State University Undergraduate Library: "Life, Growth, Continuity"

We have reached the end of the highway: I’m going back to New York tomorrow and this shall be the final post of “Borrowed City: A New Yorker Spends a Month in Detroit.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have.  The question, what have we learned today, is probably best left for another time.  In the last week or so I’ve grown nostalgic about my life in New York, and in the process completely forgotten how excited I was a month ago to go to a place that wasn’t so outrageously expensive–seriously, the stress of New York was really killing me this summer.

I’m ready to go back and be reminded of that.  Most likely, it will hit me in the face like an errant 2 by 4.  While I am recovering from the shock, though, I wonder how my memories of Detroit will change.  The city was such an inspiration to me in my 20’s, and, now that I’m in my 30’s and the city seems to have changed just as much as I have, I wonder if Detroit will continue to inspire me the way that it always has, or if a new source of inspiration will emerge. 

One thing that will always fascinate me about Detroit is the way that you can see its past in your visual experience of the city.  New York turns businesses over so rapidly that it takes work sometimes to remember that New York has a past at all, but the continuity between Detroit’s present and the different phases of its history is evident everywhere.  As far as my own growth as a person is concerned, I’m going to work as hard as I can to preserve the continuity between this moment, right now, writing this blog post in Cass Cafe, and wherever I end up in the future, forever.

Russell Industrial Center/People’s Arts Festival/J. Paul Ghetto/Progress

•August 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

 

Budweiser does its part of the People's Arts Festival at Russell Industrial Center.

Budweiser does its part of the People's Arts Festival at Russell Industrial Center.

 

On Saturday, I attended the third annual People’s Arts Festival, a massive exhibition for Detroit-area artists that that takes place in the Russell Industrial Center, a massive former factory space that is now primarily home to artists of various kinds.

 

Studio space at Russell.

Studio space at Russell.

 

 

There is something unmistakably tonic in the feeling of listening to techno and electro, music that excites dreaming about the future, in a setting like Russell, which by its nature inspires reflection on the past.

Booth of Detroit Manufacturing, a T-shirt concern, at the People's Arts Festival.

Booth of Detroit Manufacturing, a T-shirt concern, at the People's Arts Festival.

Folks wandering around Russell Industrial Center during the People's Arts Festival.

Folks wandering around Russell Industrial Center during the People's Arts Festival.

This was different than the typical abandoned-factory-rave experience, though, just because the Russell has never really been abandoned.  Last week, I got a tour of Russell Industrial Center from Eric C. Novack, the Operations Coordinator for the site, and a writer who I got to know a few years ago from his submissions to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

At the time, I was managing editor of the Neighborhood, a site which concerns itself above all with the experience of living in and writing about New York.  Just to spice things up, I added a section called “Detroit, Capital of the 20th Century” and put out ads in Detroit-area website to solicit pieces from writers there.  My thought was that Detroit and New York embody the opposite poles of the spectrum of possibilities available to a postindustrial U.S. city, and I thought it would be interesting to see how stories by New Yorkers and Detroiters, primarily about the cities that they live in, would be similar and different.

Russell Industrial Center has a complicated history, having hosted auto body suppliers, direct-mail advertisers, and many other different types of businesses since its construction (from Albert Kahn’s design) was completed in 1925.  Today, the owner of Russell Industrial Center is Dennis Kefallinos, also the owner of the restaurant chain Nicki’s Pizza, as well as a wide variety of other properties.  

Eric says that when Kefallinos first bought Russell in 2003, the vast, 2.2 million square-foot property was barely populated.  At that time, “

there were 10 artists and 30 businesses” in Russell, Eric says.

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Russell has 160 commercial tenants, of whom 90% are artists.  

 

 

 

 

 

Eric says that Kefallinos was able to fill large portions of Russell just by offering artists 1000 square feet for the low rent of $560/month.  By 2006, they had filled enough of the spaces to be able to turn a profit, which Kefallinos will still be able to do for a significant portion of time because so much of the space is still empty.

 

 

 

 

 

“Of 2.2 million square feet, only 750,000 is in use,” Eric says.  “We could keep doing this for a long, long time before we see rent increases.”

An Iggy Pop poster by Mark Arminski.

An Iggy Pop poster by Mark Arminski.

I spoke to Mark Arminski, a legendary designer of rock posters and longtime Russell tenant (Arminski is one of the subjects of a new documentary, American Artifact: The Rise of American Rocker Poster Art).  He said that Russell has become a success story due to a gradual process of tenant and landlord getting to know one another and the ways that they do things.

“When the Greeks [Kefallinos] first took over they had no idea how artists work,” Arminski said.  They thought they work 9 to 5, so they only gave us heat at those times. But they’re coming around.”

Mark Arminski in his studio at Russell Industrial Center, brandishing a new drawing that he has recently done of Michael Jackson in "Thriller" mode.

Mark Arminski in his studio at Russell Industrial Center, brandishing a new drawing that he has recently done of Michael Jackson in "Thriller" mode.

 

 

When I was at the People’s Art Festival on Saturday, I met with another old friend from my “Detroit, Capital of the 20th Century” days, J. Paul Ghetto (who would prefer that I use his pseudonym).

J. Paul was one of the best Detroit contributors to the Neighborhood back then.  He wrote a series of stories under the rubric of “The Midtown Report” about the single life, the vague rumors that a decent supermarket would open at some point, and working for the state government in Midtown Detroit.  The stories had a coolness to them that made Detroit feel like a really awesome place to be single.

J. Paul Ghetto (right) and me.

J. Paul Ghetto (right) and me.

 

We had dinner at a soul food restaurant in Southfield, a suburb to Detroit’s north, called Beans and Cornbread.

 

 

As with Eric, it was a thrill to finally meet someone who I had corresponded with regularly for a long time.  We talked about a lot of things, over the course of which J. Paul got on his soapbox with a lot of frequency.  J. Paul was raised in the 50’s and 60’s by parents who both worked at Ford, and disciplined J. Paul and his brother extensively.  He said he felt completely out of touch with the younger generation in Detroit, some of whom have been grabbing headlines for their involvement in armed robbery attempts against movie crews and the kidnapping of Matt Landry.

J. Paul said that he had just retired, but that he was not getting much work done on his novel, which is about how a fictional first-African-American President discovers an attempt by terrorists to finance the purchase of weapons of mass destruction using a new, highly addictive drug that they had synthesized.  To prepare for writing the novel, J. Paul has been reading a lot of Ian Fleming.

After we ate dinner, J. Paul dropped me back off at Russell, where I watched a DJ and grooved down.

This brings us back to the beginning of the post: that feeling of past and future, together, that certain combination of sound and space can create.  

 

Around midnight, at the end of a DJ show hosted by Motor City Blog, burlesque dancers performed.

Around midnight, at the end of a DJ show hosted by Motor City Blog, burlesque dancers performed.

 

 

One interesting thing about the set was that it appeared to be a female-dominated affair.  The DJ was a woman, and she had a crew of female friends all dancing in small open space in front of her turntables.  Then, there was a burlesque show of the winking, postmodern “burlesque” variety, that seemed designed to entice and intimidate in equal measure.

I looked around.  It was the end of my last Saturday night in Detroit.  I realized that I had been trying all month to recapture feelings that I had experienced as an adolescent, and that this moment was the closest that I was going to come to achieving that goal.

I felt satisfied, though.  I went home with the feeling that, somehow, progress had been made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Burke and Detroit Industrial Gallery

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment
Burke and wife

Tim Burke and his wife, Rosa Castellanos, at the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

In my post the other day about the Heidelberg Project, I wanted to mention Tim Burke, an artist who runs an outdoor installation called the Detroit Industrial Gallery that is immediately adjacent to the Heidelberg Project on Heidelberg Street.

The Heidelberg post got to be a little long, though, so I thought both the Detroit Industrial Gallery and the Heidelberg Project would be better served with their own, distinct posts.

I met Tim when I went to visit the Heidelberg Project.  He was in the yard in front of his house, 3647 Heidelberg St., which he has transformed into the Detroit Industrial Gallery.  He was working on a new object to add to the installation, a wooden cross, which you can see balanced on the sawhorse in the picture above.

The Detroit Industrial Gallery, 3647 Heidelberg St., on an unusually sunny winter day in Michigan.

The Detroit Industrial Gallery, 3647 Heidelberg St., on an unusually sunny winter day in Michigan.

 

Before Tim bought it, the Detroit Industrial Gallery was the house of Carl Snyder, an artist of the legendary Cass Corridor scene.  Like the Heidelberg Project, Detroit Industrial Gallery dresses up a dilapidated East Side house with a variety of artworks made of unconventional materials.

In particular, Tim likes to use metals, and other scrap materials associated with industry.  He explains: “There’s a sculpture of a flower in there, and a macho guy like me doesn’t like people to see him making flowers.  So I make it out of steel, and it weighs 200 pounds.”

Tim’s current favorite material is Pewabic tile, from the famous studio founded in Detroit by Mary Chase Perry Stratton in 1903.  “People who had money back in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, always used Pewabic.  All the People Mover stops are done with Pewabic tile.”

A portion of the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

A portion of the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

Tim’s newest project is a massive wall constructed of Pewabic tile taken from multiple famous Detroit buildings that are no longer standing, including the J.L. Hudson’s flagship downtown Detroit department store, and the the first YWCA branch in the nation, founded by Lucy Thurman, specifically for black women.

Tim first got involved in the art scene at the behest of his therapist, Ted Church.  At a house on Russell St. near Gratiot, Tim was living with his therapist after a series of personal setbacks.  “I was going  through a rough time in my life,” Tim says.  “I’d lost my job and I was walking away from a marriage with a five year old kid.”

Ted provided constant encouragement to Tim to express himself and, in the process, work through his problems.  Tim describes one day, when he and his therapist were living together, when “He brought home some nails and threw ’em on the table and said, ‘Make something out of this.’ “

This was happening around 1986, when Tyree Guyton first started building the Heidelberg Project a short distance away from where Tim and Ted were living.  

Tim became “sort of a follower of Tyree” in that period, as the combined influence of Ted Church as Tim’s therapist and Guyton’s burgeoning installation inspired Tim to think about art as a means of self-transformation.  For by that point in his life, Tim had come full-circle in the worst way: after vowing in his adolescence and early adulthood never to make the mistakes that his parents had made during his childhood, a combination of substance abuse and sheer neurosis led Tim to become exactly the opposite of what he had always wanted to be.

“I thought I could put a family together and do it better than they did,” Tim says.  “But what I did was the same thing that happened to me.”

Tim entered the recovery community.  But he continued to relapse until he found the right way to integrate the experience of going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings into his life as a whole.

“So I was going to meetings,” Tim says of himself in the 80’s, “but I had one foot in the meetings and one foot in my family.  I had to have the meetings be the main thing in my life, so I could share life with the family instead of trying to be the top dog all the time.”

As a direct result of making recovery and attending meetings the most important focus in his life, Tim eventually realized that it was possible to have relationships with people that were not hierarchical in nature.  Not only as an equal with his wife and children in his family, but also as “a worker among workers, a citizen among citizens,” was the way that Tim decided that he wanted to live.  “I don’t have that now, it’ll take me another couple of lifetimes or so, but that’s the goal.”

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

In my view, Tim’s work as an artist does not address these themes in any literal way.  Instead, the work simply is Tim, in the process of grappling with himself, at a maximum level of emotional intensity and with no end to the process in sight.

A major breakthrough for Tim both as an artist and as a person occurred after he created a sculpture of a bipedal, robotic being that resonated with Tim in a strongly emotional way.  By then, Tim had been doing art long enough that his friend, noted Cass Corridor artist Carl Snyder, had recruited him for a gallery show curated by Jill Cunningham, and the response to his work had been effusive.

“It boosted me,” Tim says of that show.  “I had about fourteen pieces of art in that show and I sold ten of them.  That told me that, people like your art, man.”

The image of the mechanical man is a recurrent theme in Tim's work.

The image of the mechanical man is a recurrent theme in Tim's work.

 

Tim showed the sculpture of the robotic figure to his therapist.  Tim was so satisfied with the sculpture that he had expected little more from the therapist than a round of applause, but, instead, the therapist told him to stand with his back to the sculpture and say the first words that came into his mind.

Tim didn’t want to do it at first; the therapist offered to leave the room, and Tim did as he was told as soon as the therapist was gone.

Tim stood in the room, empty of all humans but himself, with the sculpture behind him.

The first words that entered Tim’s mind were, “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, or it’ll kill you.”

Pure, violent terror, in other words, was what Tim associated with the robotic-form sculpture that he had just created.  “Anybody who has a little bit of therapy knows that you’re projecting” at a moment like that, he says.

Tim realized that the sculpture had emerged from a recurring nightmare that he had experienced as a boy of ten and eleven, about a figure Tim calls “the iron man.”  

I asked Tim if he was referring to Iron Man, the Marvel Comics superhero, and he said no–in contrast to the grace and athleticism of that character, this “iron man” was “this clumping kind of creature—clump clump clump.”

In the nightmare, “the iron man would be coming down the stairs to kill everybody in my family.  And I tried to protect my sisters, and these were the rules that I made up.”

That is, “don’t blink, don’t breathe, or it’ll kill you,” in Tim’s nightmare, were the instructions that he gave to his sisters to help them avoid being killed by the iron man.

After more therapy, Tim saw that the nightmare had an antecedent in real life.  One night, when Tim was a boy, his stepfather had rampaged around his street, chasing a couple of boys with a gun, and “I thought I was punkass because I didn’t shoot him.”

 

 

Since then, Tim has revisited the figure of the mechanical man many times.  There are numerous examples here, at the Detroit Industrial Gallery website.

“My art is a confession,” Tim says. “People ask me what my art means, and that iron man story, that’s what that art means to me.  Now, everyone who looks at a piece of art has their own story that’s valid.  Because you didn’t interpret it as I did, that doesn’t mean that story is not valid.  A lot of people look at a piece of art and think they have to get it, but that’s not true.”

For Tim, art derives its power not from what it means, in any absolute sense, but from what it does for creator and spectator alike in the pure spontaneity of the moment.

That’s what Tim thinks is exciting about making art outdoors in unconventional spaces, like the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Industrial Gallery: the free rein that non-museal space gives to interpretive imagination of the spectator.

timburke

“In a traditional art space I don’t think you have as much dialogue,” Tim says.  “In museums you have docents walking around, but I don’t think that those docents ask the people what that piece of art means to them.  If people are out here and I see them, I can ask them what it means to them.”

Most of the time, the responses that Tim gets from visitors to Heidelberg Street take him by surprise.  But that’s the whole fun of it: “It’s funny because the interpretation is like, wow, ‘I would have not have thought that.’  It’s OK that they’re [visitors to Detroit Industrial Gallery] saying that, but I let them know that they’re making a confession about themselves.  Then people will start to have a conversation among themselves, and you don’t see that as much in a museum.”

And the end of my post about the Heidelberg Project, I envisioned the Project growing until it gradually absorbs the entire city of Detroit, and then the rest of the world.  Talking with Tim and visiting Detroit Industrial Gallery made me think about an inverse sort of process, one in which the practice of making public art penetrates deeper and deeper sectors of an individual person’s psyche.  

Either way, the result is liberation, whether on a mass or individual scale.  I think that my exposure to Detroit’s Heidelberg Street and its artists is going to have an effect on me that will last a long time, but I can’t say how.

Cass Cafe/Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

 

Artwork at Cass Cafe by John Brown.

Artwork at Cass Cafe by John Brown.

 

My flight back to New York is tomorrow and I’m about ready to wrap things up.  But before I do, a word of thanks is in order.

The two places where I’ve spent the most time here in Detroit have probably been the Cass Cafe and the Walter Reuther P. Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.  I always feel strange about becoming a “regular” anywhere.  I’m not sure where to draw the line in terms of the etiquette.  Am I supposed to greet the people there with a sense of familiarity, like, “Hey, it’s me again!”, or just feign anonymity in a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the fantasy that we don’t recognize each other?

Normally, I try to avoid this Larry David-ish predicament by not going to the same places over and over again.  However, Cass Cafe and I ended up in a shotgun wedding of sorts because the second time that my roommate, Michelle, and I moved this month it was to an apartment with no internet connection.  What’s more, the wifi at Wayne State University is restricted to matriculated students.  

cass cafe

Cass Cafe has the combination of a speedy wifi connection and a high tolerance for weird dudes sitting by themselves for hours typing, and thus became my easiest means for adding to this narrative.

I never felt especially hungry when I was there, but I would order food items occasionally just to stay in the good graces of the staff and management.  Cass Cafe’s most popular dish is its lentil burger, which I found very tasty and filling, but the real scene-stealer, restaurant review-wise, was a bowl of borscht that I had there on Wednesday of last week.  I wasn’t even hungry, I only ordered it because it was the cheapest item on the menu, but I gobbled it right up as soon as it arrived.

In addition to a cafe and bar, Cass Cafe is also a functioning art gallery.  In general, the place feels like a headquarters of sorts for the various strands of the Cass Corridor scene, a culture with a lot of history and accomplishments to its name, but which also strikes me as elusive and ephemeral, which may be unavoidable because there are so many parts of the Cass Corridor area that are so dangerous.

 

Stage set up for a show at Cass Cafe.

Stage set up for a show at Cass Cafe.

 

Just now, I went outside to take a picture of the Cass Cafe from the street, and as I was coming back in an African American man and woman flagged me down.  The man had a pad of paper and a pen, and he asked me if I could tell him what would be the “best bad news” that I could imagine being told by a friend or family member.  I said that the best bad news would be to learn that that person had received a job offer that was lucrative and exciting, but in a very distant location, so I wouldn’t be able to see them very much anymore.

“That’s profound,” the man said.  “I’m going to put that in my book.”

The woman said that her idea of the best bad news would be if her mother, who is 50, told her that she was pregnant.  “I’m the oldest, and she’s already 50, so I know I’m going to end up taking care of it,” she explained.

In any case: thank you, Cass Cafe: I couldn’t have done this without you.

The Reuther Library is located only a few blocks up Cass Avenue from the Cass Cafe.  As the Library website boasts, “The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs is the largest labor archive in North America.”  It is mostly useful for scholars of labor history, but I went with the objective of learning about community organizations in Detroit.  There is a lot to be found on those types of organizations, especially in regard to the manner in which they organized and formulated responses to the urban renewal program in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Reading Room at the Reuther Library.

Reading Room at the Reuther Library.

Reuther, the library’s namesake, was president of the United Auto Workers from 1946 until his death in plane crash on May 19, 1970.  Reuther’s most legendary accomplishment is probably the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, in which the Ford Motor Company utilized hired gangsters, wrestlers, and a noted boxer to seriously fuck up Reuther and numerous other UAW organizers who were distributing union literature outside the gates of Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn.

“Reuther was picked up and thrown down repeatedly and was kicked in the face and body,” reads the brief narrative of the Battle of the Overpass at the website of the Henry Ford Museum.  “He was then thrown down the steps of the overpass.”  And that’s just what happened to Reuther himself: fellow UAW organizer Victor Frankensteen was “kicked in the head, kidneys, and groin” and Richard T. Merriweather’s “back was broken.”

The decision to dispatch such violence backfired on Ford, as the National Labor Relations Act had already been passed in 1935, giving FoMoCo few legal options in the situation, and grisly images from the melee were circulated throughout the national media.  

Walter Reuther (left) and Victor Frankensteen (right) following the Battle of the Overpass.

Walter Reuther (left) and Victor Frankensteen (right) following the Battle of the Overpass.

Ford won the battle, in other words, but lost the war, and ceded union recognition to the UAW by 1941.

Boxes containing files from the various collections at Reuther.

Boxes containing files from the various collections at Reuther.

 Attention must be paid to the fact that Reuther has been criticized on a wide variety of fronts, in particular regarding the way that he contributed to McCarthyism by purging the UAW of its radical left wing as soon as he became president of the union.  That said, the Library named for Reuther at Wayne State styles itself as something of a monument to the man, and I had a fun time, while I was there, reveling in the notion that I was working in a sacred space, a shrine to a hero of the labor movement. 

Plaque adjacent to the elevator in the welcome area at Reuther Library.

Plaque adjacent to the elevator in the welcome area at Reuther Library.

Also, despite the McCarthy-era purge, the Library contains the records of many organizations, individuals, and factions whose politics are significantly to the left of  Reuther himself, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, who was himself purged as a Communist from his position as an organizer in the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1948.

I would like to say “Thank you, Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.  I couldn’t have done this without you”–just as I did with Cass Cafe–but I can’t.  

The work that I did at Reuther was research for my dissertation, not for this narrative, and my dissertation has yet to be completed.  I hope to be able to thank the Reuther Library someday, in the manner that it surely deserves, but the problem with writing a dissertation is that it is a project whose true shape and meaning only reveal themselves at the very end, after it has already been written.  This is what I have been told, in any case.

Dissertation writing: the whole thing has a deeply mystical feel, like reading tea leaves or gazing into a crystal ball.  This inherent characteristic of the project may also have contributed to my feeling that doing work at Reuther was like visiting an oracle, although I’m not at all convinced that this is a good thing.

Thank you, Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs: If I crash and burn with this thing, it at least won’t be your fault.

“At least I’m still beautiful!”

•August 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When I got home last night, I was once again treated to the sight of police standing around on my block.  This time, though, they weren’t down the block; they were on my front porch.

Plus, they weren’t detectives this time.  They were uniforms.  In my estimate of the situation, the change of wardrobe meant that bad stuff was still underway.

There was a gentleman, bespectacled and with a black zip-up hooded sweatshirt, and thus something of a hipster, standing at the foot of the steps that led up to the porch.

He asked me if I knew S____.

“Yes,” I said.  “I met her once.  She lives downstairs from me.”

There are two floors in my apartment, with two apartments on each floor.  I live upstairs with my roommate, and two sets of college-age white women live in the downstairs apartments (respectively).  I guessed that the disturbance had something to do with the apartment that S____ did not live in, but rather in the apartment on the opposite side of the 1st floor, because I had been told by S____’s roommate recently that the people in the other 1st floor apartment were on the verge of eviction.

The guy in the sweatshirt was S___’s friend, and apparently had nothing to do with the police situation.  He was waiting for S___ to show up, and he looked mildly afraid; we smoked cigarettes together for a moment.

I had met A___, one of the young women who lived in that apartment.  She was very nice, and, when the block was being menaced by machine gun-toting teenagers the other week, her boyfriend ran out of the apartment with a pitbull to assist the police.

The way that things looked last night was that there was an eviction taking place.  That seemed to me to be the reason why there was all that stuff–a mattress and box spring, a bookcase, multiple tables and chairs, a Persian lamp, a glass mug full of colorful marbles–stacked with such apparent deliberation on the porch.

A____ and her boyfriend were nice, but I’ll say this: the first floor stank of marijuana all the time.  When A___ introduced herself to me and Peter a week or so before, she saw that Peter and I were on the back balcony drinking beer and provided us with this warning: “Don’t let the landlord see you out here drinking beer,” she said.  “Because if he does, he’ll think you’re also smoking weed, and then he’ll call the cops on you.”

“OK,” I said.  “We’ll keep an eye out.”

So, what I thought was happening last night was that A___ was being evicted because she and her boyfriend clearly smoked such an insane amount of weed.

But it wasn’t true.

When I saw A____ later in the night, after the police left, she was sitting on the steps of the porch waiting for a friend of hers to show.  The stack of domestic objects was still on the porch where it had been before.

When A___’s friend arrived, I was amazed: He was a dude of truly enormous size.  He had worked as a bodyguard before, and that was the reason why he was here with A___ tonight.

A____ speaks in a slight Southern drawl and is one of the most polite, courteous people I have ever met.  I asked her what had happened, and she patiently explained that A___’s roommate, “my oldest friend,” had stolen $2000 cash from A____ earlier that day.

“Why?” I asked.

“She’s a crackhead,” A____ said.

A____ had made the mistake of telling her roommate that A____ planned to buy a car that day.  She had picked it out and everything.  By that point in time, I had already developed a keen understanding of the difference between having and not having a car in Detroit, and all that that means.

Having a car dangled in front of you like that, and then snatched away, with the irreplaceable cash means of attaining that car burned up irrevocably in a glass pipe, is the most heartbreaking thing that I could imagine, at least this month.

A____’s crackhead roommate had staged a clumsy, obvious effort to make it look like there had been a break-in.  But A___’s wallet and all of her jewelry were still in the apartment, and A___ figured out what had actually happened pretty much immediately.

Figuring she’d had enough, that was when A___ moved all of her roommate’s stuff onto the porch.

I patted A_____ on the shoulder.  “I’m sorry,” I said.

She was quiet for a minute, and then she burst out laughing.  “At least I’m still beautiful!” she exclaimed.

At the foot of the stairs that lead to the porch, A___’s huge, deadly friend nodded slowly and with a smile in just one side of his mouth.

At any rate, it’s true.  A____ looks really amazing.

Love Among the Ruin Porn, Part 2: The Heidelberg Project

•August 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

 

The Heidelberg Project (detail), a massive outdoor art installation in the East Side Detroit neighborhood McDougall-Hunt since 1986.

The Heidelberg Project (detail), a massive outdoor art installation in the East Side Detroit neighborhood McDougall-Hunt since 1986.

My Mom gets a little worked up when she is exposed to urban blight.  She came to visit this weekend, and, before our excursion around Detroit began, she told me about a time when we as a family had gone to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plotless psychedelic mindfuck Cats at the Fox Theater and she had marveled at the sight of a family living inside a building that had no glass in any of the windows.

Twenty years later, she still breathes differently than usual at the thought of it (about the same way I feel about Cats).

In other words, the proverbial “fabulous ruins of Detroit” don’t have the same aesthetic power for her as they do for a lot of people.  Think of it this way: I enjoy Wayne Newton because I see him as “Wayne Newton”, but she hates and fears Wayne Newton because, to her, he is only Wayne Newton.  This is to say that when Mom sees poverty and suffering, that’s all she sees; the third eye, the eye that puts the eye in irony and has the power to give fabulosity to ruins, Mom, perhaps to her credit, lacks.

I suggested that we go to see the Heidelberg Project because it does something unique and amazing with its celebration of the weird, sad, yet undeniable aesthetic beauty of even Detroit’s most dilapidated neighborhoods.  The Heidelberg Project invites visitors to feast their eyes on an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood, but in a spirit of optimism and community instead of irony or sheer cannibalistic schadenfreude.

The Heidelberg Project was founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton.  He grew up on Heidelberg Street, in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood of Detroit’s East Side.  

 

The Heidelberg Project is a short drive on Gratiot Ave. from downtown, as this convenient map illustrates.

The Heidelberg Project is a short drive on Gratiot Ave. from downtown, as this convenient map illustrates.

Between his childhood in the 50’s and 60’s and the aftermath of the 12th Street Riot in July 1967, Guyton had a chance to witness a dramatic transformation in the neighborhood.  By 1986, there was almost no one there besides Guyton, his Grandfather Mackey, and Guyton’s wife Karen.  At some point, Guyton got the idea that all of the flotsam and jetsam scattered throughout the neighborhood’s various lots, alleys, and decaying frames could be made into art.  After the three made an effort to clean up the neighborhood, they assembled the various items that they had gathered into a massive series of outdoor installations.

Tyree Guyton.  In 2008, the then-22-year-old Heidelberg Project was selected as one of 15 projects to represent the U.S. in the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Tyree Guyton. In 2008, the then-22-year-old Heidelberg Project was selected as one of 15 projects to represent the U.S. in the Venice Architecture Biennale.

From Campus Martius, Mom, Shannon, and I drove East on Gratiot until we reached McDougal.  Shannon was funny, because she was so hungover that all she could do was lie stretched out on the back seat and ramble like a homeless person.  

Gratiot Ave. on the way to the Heidelberg Project.

Gratiot Ave. on the way to the Heidelberg Project.

After we turned off of Gratiot onto McDougall, it was only a matter of minutes before we spotted trees draped with stuffed animal representations of cartoon characters.  The stuffed animals still looked cheerful despite having been drained of color by many years of wind and rain.

 Stuffed Animals 1

A lot has been written about the Heidelberg Project. It and Guyton have received numerous awards and honors, most notably in 1991, when Guyton appeared on Oprah to discuss it, and in 2006, when Bruce Webber photographed Kate Moss in front of it.

Boat

On the day that I went to Heidelberg Street, it was raining, dark, and cold.  But as soon as we pulled my Mom’s car over to the curb and got out the rain slowed to a drizzle and the clouds turned from black to newsprint-gray, and that about describes my own reaction to what I saw there.  The way that the art crossed the borders between the lots, the lots and the sidewalks, and the sidewalks and the streets made the entire area feel like a completely isotropic space, totally removed of the invisible forces that divide up urban spaces and channel traffic through them.

New York

The area felt so free, the only thing I can think of that feels like it is the feeling of returning to a childhood home after a long trip away.  That feeling, as purely physical as it is sentimental, “OK–now I can stretch out.”  

Being there gave me the real sense that I was safe and didn’t need to hurry or hide anywhere, whether from a mugger, a murderer, or just routine traffic laws.

Smiles

Knowing what I do of the project, and the way it started as an attempt to do something good for a neighborhood that had been depopulated and ravaged by a turbulent period of time, I think that feeling of coming home might be part of the point.  I found it moving to imagine that the many stuffed animals displayed around the area were supposed to represent Guyton’s memories, from early childhood, of Heidelberg Street as a cheerful place full of all different types of people.

Elephant on Boat

I can’t know this for sure, of course.  If anyone gets on my case for identifying Guyton’s former neighbors with stuffed animals, though, please be advised that the loss of humanity from these stuffed animals, as memories, is part of what makes their symbolic role in the installation all the more poignant.  Their loss of human identity reflects the sheer length of time that it has been since the artist has seen these people in the neighborhood, and, over time, memories fade.  I responded to the stuffed animals in the Heidelberg Project because they seem to represent both more and less than just memories of people, that is, they represent faded memories of people from too long ago to remember clearly.

Mt. Elliot Ave.

Mt. Elliot Ave.

The stuffed animals are just one of many aspects of the Heidelberg Project, though; another one, for example, is a vast field of paintings that juxtapose ultra-simple representations of women’s shoes and the word “GOD.”  The truth is that you really should just go to Detroit and see it for yourself.

Shoes

Shannon’s hangover appeared to have been cured by the hangover during the few moments we spent walking through the series of blocks that were included in it.  I envisioned the Heidelberg Project lasting centuries, gradually absorbing the whole of Detroit, and then, with any luck, all of human civilization.  

Faces Friendly

That raises a valuable question, though: How could society persist in any form without infrastructure?  The Heidelberg Project is basically like an ancient city overgrown with vines and trees, after all–the only difference is that, rather than vines, trees, and wildlife reclaiming the streets for nature, here, art has reclaimed the neighborhood for the creative imagination.  Either way, the crucial infrastructural distinctions–street, sidewalk, lot, etc.–no longer exist.

The infrastructure.  Would you miss it if it went away?

The infrastructure. Would you miss it if it went away?

Ann Arbor/Community High School/Pinball Pete’s

•August 27, 2009 • 2 Comments

 

Caroline in a publicly sanctioned graffiti alley between Liberty St. and Washington St. in Ann Arbor.

Caroline in a publicly sanctioned graffiti alley between Liberty St. and Washington St. in Ann Arbor.

 

The relationship between Ann Arbor and Detroit is tough to define.  It’s not a Detroit suburb, and it didn’t grow along with them the post-World War II period when a combination of decreasing job opportunities and virulent racial hatred prompted the flight of Detroit’s white population into the ring of leafy suburbs on the city’s periphery.

Rather than a Detroit suburb, Ann Arbor is either an “outlying focus city,” about 43 miles from urban Detroit, that has its own downtown and, in the massive University of Michigan, its own source of jobs that has kept Ann Arbor economically stable despite the vicissitudes of the auto industry; or Ann Arbor is not part of Metro Detroit at all.  

I once spoke with a Detroiter who compared the relationship between Ann Arbor and Detroit to that of Hartford, CT and New York City, but I think that she was just in the mood to piss me off at the time.

The fact is that if you drive East from Ann Arbor on I-94, you immediately see factories and signs that say “FORD,”GM,” and the like (Chrysler has fallen on even harder times, even though the University of Michigan Wolverines play basketball in Chrysler Arena).  

Drive West, and you see farms.  

Independent though Ann Arbor may be, it is either the end of Metro Detroit or the beginning, the way that The Lord of the Rings both begins and ends in the Shire.

 

The area.

The area.

 

Ann Arbor is famous for its generally bohemian, left-leaning political proclivities.  In the 1950’s, Ann Arbor was one of the first cities in America to pass an open-occupancy law, which restricted the real estate industry from discriminating against non-whites.  And in the 1960’s, Ann Arbor became one of the legendary epicenters of antiwar protest and public marijuana smoking, a tradition which continues today through its annual Hash Bash.

The University of Michigan Diag during the Hash Bash.  When I was there, the whole crowd draped a single, giant canvas tarp over ourselves so that the cops gathered around wouldn't arrest us.  Then, the scattered, and we all got out of there as fast as we could.

The University of Michigan Diag during the Hash Bash. When I was there, the whole crowd draped a single, giant canvas tarp over ourselves so that the cops gathered around wouldn't arrest us. Then, we scattered, and we all got out of there as fast as we could.

If you look outside of the main downtown area, you will find that the some of Ann Arbor’s old-school lefty 60’s traditions are still carried on.  This a mix of people, to be sure: Some are committed idealists, many are simply lost in a cloud of weed smoke so thick it takes a lifetime to inhale, and the majority are a little bit of both.

It’s hard to spend too much time in Ann Arbor without the sense that utopia was once in reach, possibly in the 60’s, and that, even generations later, the better, fairer world that could have been ours after the revolution was lost not in an inexorable historical process with its roots in the deepest origins of the capitalist system–but rather in a petty cheat, a technicality, like the Italian victory in the 2006 World Cup or the Florida recount.

A photographer snapping images of a model in another of Ann Arbor's publicly sanctioned graffiti alleys.

A photographer snapping images of a model in another of Ann Arbor's publicly sanctioned graffiti alleys.

That said, I had an agenda in Ann Arbor, which was to cruise around in the Mustang making my former acquaintances jealous.

I had only received the car by accident, but it still felt pretty amazing to cruise my hometown in a Ford Mustang.  Isn’t that the kind of thing everyone fantasizes about?  

“This’ll show ’em,” is the basic sentiment involved.  “Fuck those people.”

I took the Mustang to Community High School, which is where I went to high school from 1993 to 1997.  In many ways, Community embodies the spirit of Ann Arbor.

The Mustang stands alone in the Community High School parking lot.

The Mustang stands alone in the Community High School parking lot.

Community High is unique because it is a public school, entirely free, but students have to choose to go there instead of one of the two big area schools (Pioneer and Huron) and there is a very limited number of spots available.  Pioneer and Huron have 2,800 and 2,100 students, respectively, whereas CHS has just 400.  

CHS is not for uniquely qualified students, nor is it for uniquely unqualified students; instead, students get in for reasons totally unrelated to academic achievement.  Yet to those who do get in, they are offered a utopian high school experience that almost totally lacks the traditional jock/cheerleader hierarchical social system that makes the typical U.S. high school so miserable for everyone who has to endure it.  Plus, the campus is “open,” which means that students can come and go as they please at any time of the day.

These facts made the question of how Community High enrollment was supposed to work very contentious in the 1990’s.  From its founding in 1972 until that point, the question of who got to go to Community and who didn’t was not considered a big deal simply because not that many students wanted to go there.  Community, the “alternative school” in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system, was simply viewed as too weird by most people for its enrollment policies to constitute much of an issue around Ann Arbor.

The AntiZebra, the anti-mascot of Ann Arbor Community High School.

The AntiZebra, the anti-mascot of Ann Arbor Community High School.

All of that changed in 1991, when Nirvana released “Nevermind.”  From that moment on, “alternative” equaled “cool” in the minds of almost all teenagers anywhere in the country–if not the world–and, thus, the popularity of Community High shot through the roof.

The year that I tried to get in, there was a line of people waiting outside of CHS to register as freshmen.  It became clear that the students would have to wait overnight if they were going to be among the lucky few to get a spot.  There were a lot of students there, but also a lot of parents; my mom forbade me from waiting in line overnight with the other kids, who had begun acting like hooligans the second the sun went down, so I went home and slept comfortably in my bed while she sat around CHS for an entire night trying to stay out of trouble.

The fact that my mom waited in line for me is something that I managed to keep secret while I was an actual student there, so I suppose this posting constitutes something of a confession.

In any case, I owe my Mom a word of thanks for having gone through that for me.  Thanks, Mom.

My Mom, Mary Collins Gallagher (left) and sister Shannon (right) during a cheerful visit to Detroit's most fabulous ruin, Michigan Grand Central Depot, last weekend.

My Mom, Mary Collins Gallagher (left) and sister Shannon (right) during a cheerful visit to Detroit's most fabulous ruin, Michigan Grand Central Depot, last weekend.

That may have been a lot to ask of Mom, but at least she only had to wait one night, and they let her go inside when a typical Michigan March blizzard struck.  

The next year, however, the line went over from overnight to five days.  A friend of mine named Dylan, who was still in eighth grade when I was in ninth grade, could be seen in a tent on the front lawn of Community High during an entire week when he was supposed to be in school; how he and the others got away with that I have no idea.

The year after that, the line was three weeks long.  The weather was bad that year, even by Michigan standards, so there were a lot of RV’s involved.  Community High could easily have been turned into the site of a teeming refugee camp, but, fortunately, they relocated the line to a Board of Education building on the other side of town that year.

It’s unfair, but there was a consensus among students that the incoming class that year was a monstrously freakish crew of weirdoes whose parents had resorted to spending that amount of time in front of a Board of Ed building just because their kids were too insane to handle anyplace else.  CHS has always emphasized self-motivation, especially when it came to encouraging students to design and teach their own classes (I taught a class on “Modernist Film” when I was a sophomore), but the dark side of that is that it’s easy for kids to make themselves invisible and slip through the cracks if that’s what they feel like doing.

I’m on a serious rant about this, more than I’d expected.  But what can I say–it’s where I went to high school.  That’s some deep-seated, emotional shit right there, no matter who you are.

The unexpected verbosity with which I’ve conducted this discussion of Community High also raises a valuable point about my trip to Ann Arbor in general, though.  I had not been to Ann Arbor for three years, a relatively long time considering how, before then, I managed to find a way back at least two or three times a year since my Community High career wrapped up.

 

 

 

When I talk about this with people back East, I like to say that my family is a typical Michigan story.  Michigan has suffered more net population loss of late than any other state in the union (on this score, read this article from the Detroit News), and the five of us (me in New York, my Dad in New Jersey, my Mom in Wisconsin, and my sisters in Chicago) have just gone with the flow. Even in Ann Arbor, long the healthiest town in the state from the dollars perspective, there is very little to do that is not connected to the University of Michigan in some way.

There had been a big Pfizer R & D facility in Ann Arbor, sure; but Dad had worked there and left as a result of the problems at that place, which closed down for good only a year or so after Dad got out.

For our present purposes, what the Detroit News calls Michigan’s “eight-year population exodus” had one particular negative effect: It meant that when I finally got the opportunity to cruise Ann Arbor in my badass (rented) Mustang, there was no one there to see it.

Caroline and I went to Pinball Pete’s, a mecca for teenage ne’er-do-wells and the men who love them since time immemorial.

Pinball Pete's on S. University in Ann Arbor.

Pinball Pete's on S. University in Ann Arbor.

When I was 16, I decided that the time had come to get drug experimentation underway.  I asked the kids at Community High who wore wallet chains where I should go to get it, and they said to go find someone at Pinball Pete’s who was wearing a T-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it.  

My feelings were hurt.  Even then, I knew that no drug dealer would actually wear a shirt with a picture of the drug that they were dealing.  The only reason why a kid who actually knew drug dealers, or perhaps even was one himself, would tell me such a thing was because he had wanted me to talk to a narc and get busted.  The fact that I had been told this meant that the kids with wallet chains at CHS didn’t like me, and from then I would need to work harder on social networking if I was going to insinuate myself into their world.

As my Community High career developed, though, I didn’t have to work that hard.  The bad kids came to me, and eventually other people started to think that I was sort of a bad kid, too.

But that’s one of the things that makes Community High great: kids can actually be cool there and still go to good colleges in the end.

Community High School.  Those massive psychedelic billboards weren't there when I was going there.

Community High School. Those massive psychedelic billboards weren't there when I was going there.

CHS Billboards 2

 

Back then, Pinball Pete’s used to teem with bad kids not just from Ann Arbor, but also a lot from the rural towns to the West of Ann Arbor, where Metropolitan Detroit definitively ends, filled up Pinball Pete’s on weekend nights.  Especially before the cigarette-smoking ban was initiated, it caused traffic backups on S. University that were legendary for the booming-bass hip hop cacophonies that ensued from the hundreds of speaker systems assembled so closely together.

When Caroline and I were there, Pinball Pete’s was all but deserted.  Was I really expecting the same heads who had been there in 1997 to be there today, complete with fat bellies, babies, and subprime mortgages?  

There was one guy from CHS who went to work at Pinball Pete’s after we graduated, and I thought he was the biggest loser of all time, but now he has a degree in business from the London School of Economics.

To see him there, or for that matter anyone over 21, would have been too much to expect.  What I had hoped to see was the kind of raw, nihilistic, self-destructive rage that teenage boys inflict on video games kicking up beeps and grunts from both man and machine throughout Pete’s massive underground space.  But I was disappointed–either the times we live in are too expensive even for misguided rage, or the teenage scene had moved on to a place where they could at least still smoke cigarettes.

"Celebrate Your Event at Pinball Pete's"

"Celebrate Your Event at Pinball Pete's"

Despite the fact that the youth scene had not turned out for Pinball Pete’s on the day of our visit, it still seemed that Caroline and I were too old to enjoy its most vaunted new technologies.  I used to be pretty good at old-school “Street Fighter 2”-style fighting games, and so I beat Caroline when I played her at one, but my strategy only consisted of slamming down all the buttons at once (I had never learned any of the “special moves”).  After Caroline left and went to play skee ball, I tired out my wrists from slamming down all the buttons all the time and the computer beat me handily.

We had a good time playing skee ball, and then we shot baskets on a basketball game that moves the hoop at various distances toward and away from you.  We earned enough tickets from those games to buy a small Connect 4 game that you can attach to your keychain.

Connect 4 game that is small, so you can attach it to your keychain, which Caroline and I obtained for 75 tickets at Pinball Pete's.

Connect 4 game that is small, so you can attach it to your keychain, which Caroline and I obtained for 75 tickets at Pinball Pete's.

After our trip to Pinball Pete’s, I drove Caroline back to the airport and, from there, returned to Detroit.  The strange, totally instinctive nervous reaction to Ann Arbor that I had experienced from my first moment there made me dread Detroit, possibly because the comparison between Ann Arbor and Detroit is so stark: Ann Arbor is the sparkliest, most pristine, cleanest environment that you could ever imagine outside of Switzerland.  The feelings I had as I left that day were familiar: when I had left Ann Arbor for other places, including college, New York, and even the pristine-to-a-fault places in Germany where I’ve lived for some time, I’ve always felt the same way.

Like leaving Ann Arbor is a plunge into total, violent chaos.  Like leaving Ann Arbor is going from a place where flowers are blooming into the middle of a busy street where dozens of animals’ corpses are stinking up a frenzy.  No matter what that place happens to be–at least in this respect, Detroit and New York are interchangeable.

In the end, that’s probably just how your hometown makes you feel.

I’ve also got to say, though, that I was even more sad because Caroline was leaving.  We’d had quite a time, and it made me really happy to be able to show her the unique beauty of Michigan without getting into too much trouble.

So it’s possible that I was going to miss Ann Arbor, but it’s also possible that I was just going to miss Caroline.  In any case, I returned to Detroit that night on a note of melancholy.

Nose