Excerpts from my journal during a 3 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late winter 2014, searching for the seeds of the New Miracle of Detroit


March 21, 2014, Friday

Cool, mid 20s, still, clear.



Yesterday [March 20, 2014] was a major day for photo achievement, the first of what I hope will be many. As I wrote at my office (in a neighborhood McDonalds with free wireless because my home does not have it) the phone rang: Bill Wylie Kellerman, the pastor of St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown. He invited me to a tour he would give about the Rivera Ford Motor Company mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), same day, 1 pm. He’d written about the mural in the context of Detroit, “Reading Rivera, Resurrection and Remembering in Post Industrial Detroit,” a fine article. Perfect.



I struggled to arrive on time by car-bike. Having pioneered mall lot parking a few days earlier I didn’t bother searching for parking near the DIA but headed straight for the mall where I’d parked on another day, and used the same exact parking spot. On my folding bike I huffed to arrive at the DIA on time, 1 pm, to find no one there for the tour. Wrong day? Eventually Bill showed up, only Bill, no one else. He nervously fingered his beard. Where are the others? he rhetorically asked me, I would have canceled this if I’d known no one but you would show up. I need the time to rehearse a story I will tell at the African-American museum on Friday.

As he made some phone calls, I looked at the suits of armor in the hall adjacent to the Rivera mural, thinking, this is a curious juxtaposition, men of war with a mural of relative peace.


Bill Wylie-Kellerman second from the right with out tour group

Eventually about 8 people showed up, mostly or all from Christ Episcopal Church. A range of people, ages, skin color, interest level. All seemed to have at least a modicum of knowledge about the mural, some much more.

Bill began by asking us to examine the mural and notice one thing, a technique I often use in my teaching. I observed bodies, the range of arms and faces. On the north panel men worked together, many with uplifted elbows, nearly all their faces were visible. On the south panel, the opposite—men did not labor with such obvious strain and Rivera had revealed few faces. Others in the group noticed colors, placement, symbolism, etc.


Bill suggested the layout of the main walls referred to the classic arrangement of cathedral walls: east as birth, west as judgment, and I’m not sure what if anything he said about the north and south walls. Using my big Nikon for the first time on this trip I photographed and videoed the tour, relatively happy with results. Surely I saw much more during and after the tour, thanks to Bill. I bought a second collection of mural postcards, this one to give to other friends helping me with this project.


Near the “birth” wall

Before we parted I raised the question of photographing the Rouge River as a way to depict Detroit. No one had heard of such a project. Most exclaimed surprise and confusion about the extent of the river, how widespread it was, where it might be actually red (rouge), if anywhere. I continue to believe this might be a useful approach to Detroit. Maybe today I’ll examine the Rouge where it enters the Detroit River.


Rouge River near the Henry Ford Estate (not the confluence with the Detroit River)



As Bill pointed out, the only completed automobile is at the vanishing point of this image, the little red object.

After the tour I lingered awhile longer in the museum, studying the rest of the armor exhibit, marveling at what humans will perpetuate to settle their differences, medieval Europe with its Christian iconography, a few other halls randomly selected, and the museum space itself that I find bewildering.


Then, related and in contrast, the Heidelberg Project, which has suffered something like 8 arsons since last spring. Bicycling up I noticed a man sitting in a pickup truck, then the same man raking debris from the roadside. This was Tyree Guyton, the founder and director of the project. Long suffering community and city resistance, his project is now at much greater risk. Who is destroying it and why? After photographing some of the wreckage—much remains and probably is not subject to fire, such as the installations not attached to houses—I approached him and asked, are you Tyree?


Tyree Guyton in the background raking

I am.

I am so sorry about what is happening here, I hope to show others thru my photography. I introduced myself after he’d asked who I was and then I stated, whoever is burning this project is probably insane.

I disagree, he said, not insane.

Do you mean strategic? I asked.

I refuse to speculate, he wisely replied, I will simply move on. This reminded me of the Leverett Peace Pagoda folks after their first temple burned.

May I photograph you?

No, sorry, no photos please.

Thanking him, wishing him and the art well, I bicycled further, to continue my photography and video from my bike—2 passes on Heidelberg St.  A carload of young women, perhaps university students, also photographed. One seemed to know Tyree.




 Hummer buried by Code Pink activists & others during the US Social Forum  in 2010

Between exploring the Rivera mural and the Heidelberg Project, in the midst of many vacant lots, old buildings, some of them elegant and well maintained, others crumbling, side-by-side—2 museums, 2 uses of art, sharing much—I photographed an elderly housing complex in the midst of vacant land. Name of the complex? Paradise Valley.



In the former neighborhood of Paradise Valley



Reading Rivera, Resurrection and Remembering in Post Industrial Detroit by Bill Wylie-Kellerman

“Resurrection City” by Bill Wylie-Kellerman

The Heidelberg Project



As part of my two continuing journeys to Detroit and Palestine-Israel, during this 3 week trip to the Detroit area to photograph Detroit Down & Up, I will give photo presentations in Ohio. If you live in this area I hope you can attend one of my shows. Or if you know people living in the region of Toledo and slightly south of there, perhaps you can circulate this information. Thank you and special gratitude to local hosts and organizers.


March 22, Sat, Hope Lutheran church, 430 pm, Bethlehem slide show

March 23, Sun, University of Toledo, 1 pm, Eyewitness Gaza slide show
maybe meet informally with Quakers that evening

March 24, Mon, 8 am, Tiffin University, Timeline slide show, to a class
12:30, Tiffin University, Hydropolitics slide show, to a class
6:30 pm, Fremont, Eyewitness Gaza,

March 25, Tues, 9:30 am, video interview about Gaza
11-11:50 am, Heidelberg University, Eyewitness Gaza slide show, to the student body
12:30, lunch with Catholic sisters, my choice of program, probably Gaza

Toledo Ohio area




Civil WarThomas Nast in 1864. The image is captioned, %22The Campaign in Virginia, - On To Richmond!%22

“The Campaign in Virginia, – On To Richmond!” by Thomas Nast, 1864

Excerpts from my journal during a 2 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late summer 2013

PHOTOS (in two parts)

September 15, 2013, Sunday

Cold, upper 40s, 70% cloudy with altocumulus, still.


President Lincoln on the Battle-field of Antietam. October, 1862. Albumen print photograph by Alexander Gardner.Gardner_v1_pl23

President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam, October, 1862, Albumen print,
by Alexander Gardner

Yesterday [September 12, 2013] a long long bike ride to Historic Fort Wayne (in Detroit, a confusing title) to observe the annual civil war re-enactment. Johnny, my next door neighbor in Detroit, spurred my interest in this (altho he did not participate, nor did any Cavalry—someone explained many choose to participate in only the major enactments because of time and cost of gas). The North routed the South (who were greatly outnumbered by a ratio of about 3 to 1) in a “battle”  complete with cannon, rifle fire, various maneuvers, lots of orders, a few drawn sabers (more to indicate direction than to assault the “enemy”), a few smiles, some quizzical expressions, a bunch of fallen “dead” (no wounded that I observed), prayers over the “dead” by a “minister,” and lots of attention by a crowd of about 40 spectators, many of them in period costumes.




Civil WarConfederate Water Battery (Columbiad Guns) - Warrington, FL at the Entrance to Pensacola Bay - February 1861

Confederate Water Battery (Columbiad Guns) – Warrington, FL at the Entrance to Pensacola Bay – February 1861

Civil WarCaptain Rufus D. Pettit's Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, in Fort Richardson - Near Fair Oaks, VA

Captain Rufus D. Pettit’s Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, in Fort Richardson -
Near Fair Oaks, VA

Civil WarDead Confederate Sharpshooter in the Devil's Den - Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

Dead Confederate Sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863 – Alexander Gardner

This struck me as silly. At first. Then as men fell to the ground, as serious. And finally when an officer announced “all rise,” the event had turned supernatural and profound. I wonder if such war enactments not only entertain—the first level of interpretation—but elicit feelings of sorrow and mourning, a warning that such human activities should be only a phenomena of the past. Maybe that’s just my interpretation, not shared by most audience.



Civil WarDead Federal Soldiers on Battlefield - Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

A Harvest of Death – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863 – Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Civil WarConfederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road - Antietam, MD, September 1862

Confederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road – Antietam, MD, September 1862

A Burial Party. Cold Harbor, Virginia. April, 1865 Photographed by John Reekie

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia. April, 1865 by John Reekie

I recalled that during some of the early actual battles, those near the Washington DC capitol in particular, Washingtonians would often assemble at nearby battlefields like Bull Run in Manassas Junction to watch the action, convinced the war would be short and end in favor of the North. I wonder how many observers of those actual battles considered the folly of such activity and wished this would be the last battle anyone could watch. They could not have anticipated the length and brutality of the Civil War, nor the American Indian wars, nor the Spanish-American war with the slaughters in the Philippines, nor World War’s One and Two, nor the Korean, nor the Vietnamese, nor the Iraqi, nor the Afghani, and now—to bring this up to date—a possible new war or at least violent assault of Syria.

A nation and its people obsessed with violence.

Civil Warandersonville-civil-war-prison-life-2

Andersonville Confederate prison, Andersonville Georgia

After the enactment a man spoke powerfully about the need to maintain the historic fort. He listed all the accomplishments such as replacing roofs, opening interiors for visits, the various sport events held at the fort/park, and suggested that improving the park was a sort of sumud, steadfastness (in Arabic), to indicate Detroit’s ability to “stand fast” (a command an officer might give to order his troops to not retreat—as we the audience were ordered to hold our ground when the now combined North and South armies marched toward us with rifles ready to shoot).



I toured the fort—inside the star-shaped walls, and outside. About 1/3 of the structures looked renovated but the remaining 2/3s reminded me of the Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp during World War 1 which L and I visited about 8 years ago: a museum in process. Fallen plaster, broken stairs, open windows and roofs, and vegetation growing thru cracks remind me how tentative such structures are. They are not built to last, or they are but the natural world is a more powerful force. “God bless the grass, it grows thru the crack,” in the words of the folk song by Malvina Reynolds.

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

Outside the American Indian museum


The so-called Indian museum looked dilapidated even tho a map indicated its presence. Outside the museum a gigantic carved wood eagle. Not too far away the Indian mound dated to about 1000 CE. It was fenced off.


I roamed the grounds on my bike, a handy tool for such explorations. I kept my eye on it even when in the thrall of cannon fire, a challenge to my awareness. Before the battle, scouting for photos among the resting “soldiers,” I happened to observe a drumming lesson that a young “union soldier” gave to another “soldier,” all about different rhythms and the need to practice. The young man and some others musically accompanied the “battle.”

On the bike ride home (one hour each way), in the distressed neighborhood of Delray, I observed yet another shrine to those killed in other wars, not simulated, but real, in our own neighborhoods, outside our doors.

Shrine to a murder, less than one block from Historic Fort Wayne

One might ask, why renovate and maintain this park when many Detroit parks are abandoned? I speculate that it is one example of grass-roots activism led by one inspired individual, in this case Tom Berlucci (read his interview below). Tom has the vision, others share it, the city is self destructing, radical change of direction is possible, not massively but incrementally. Hats off to Tom and the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition.


One might ask further, why reenact war? Curiosity, spectacle, catharsis. Harmless or harmful? I’m not certain.


I return to Detroit in March for 3 weeks. Please stay tuned.


Civil War Days

Why Detroit’s Fort Wayne is Important to Native Americans

Detroit’s Historic Fort Wayne Honors Military History, Serves Community (with photos), by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, 2012 (including an interview with Tom Berlucci, chairman and cofounder of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition. The organization has collaborated with the City of Detroit Recreation Department to run and maintain the site ever since its reopening in 2002.)


Civil WarA New York Herald Tribune Wagon and Reporters in the Field

New York Herald Tribune Wagon and Reporters in the Field – September 1863 – Timothy O’Sullivan



Directed by Tom Jackson of Joe Public Films, the 60 minute movie strives to open eyes and hearts to the reality of life in occupied Palestine. We dedicate our movie to the youth of Gaza, infancy to young adulthood, in hopes that they will soon experience, freedom, peace with justice, and the reality of “All we want is to be ordinary,” in the words of Mahmoud Darwish.

Eyewitness Gaza is a recent documentary movie about Gaza thru the photography of Skip Schiel. Between 2004 and 2010 he visited Gaza five times, shortly before and after Operation Cast Lead, the vicious Israeli assault on a virtually defenseless people trapped in the Strip and under siege since 2006. Because Israel justifies its ongoing attacks by citing the rockets fired by Gazan militants into Israeli civilian areas (Schiel opposes any attacks on civilians, and generally any use of violence by any party for any reason, an element of his Quaker and Christian beliefs), Schiel visited one of those towns, Sderot. less than 1 mile from Gaza. During two recent trips he has gained first-hand experience of life among Israelis, assessed trauma, and supported Israelis who contest some Israeli policies.


The movie is  downloadable (maybe not with the same quality as on PEG Media, noted below) on YouTube.

And on Vimeo.

To order DVD copies of the movie.

Three minute preview

Thru PEG Media Public Access TV stations and producers can download a full version of our movie, Eyewitness Gaza. First register as a user. Then find the fastest and most stable connection possible, though­­ otherwise it will take forever and if the connection is lost, one must begin again.


Eyewitness Gaza download

About the movie (with a preview).

In addition to this movie, Schiel has published a book by the same title. And maintains a website and this blog. He is also available to tour with his slide shows and photo exhibitions. You can usually reach him at skipschiel@gmail.com and 617-441-7756.

Photos from the movie:







EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.297 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.174 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.268 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.269 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.310 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.321 EyewitnessGazaMyPhotos.184




An analysis based on my most recent sojourn in Detroit Michigan, September 2013

Dedicated to Dan Turner, another chapter in our Book of Mysteries



After an arduous bicycle ride into Detroit’s East Side (equivalent to Chicago’s South Side where I grew up?) of more than one hour, I found the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (a title which cogently summarizes the Center’s mission). No markings of any sort. Residential neighborhood. Ordinary house. No one outside. Searching around back I saw a political sign inside on a porch and guessed I’d found the correct spot. Rich Feldman, a community activist and board member of the Boggs Center, arrived, greeted me warmly, and invited me in for a quick look around. Other people appeared, including the founders of the Freedom Freedom farm. Succulent odors of food drifted from the kitchen. The meeting space is on the 2nd floor, Grace lives on the 1st.

Boggs Center-from On Being

Boggs Center (right) This set of photos courtesy of On Being, a radio show

Boggs Center-from On Being-2 Boggs Center-from On Being-3 Boggs Center-from On Being-4

James Boggs, Grace’s late husband, was the cofounder of the Boggs Center

Boggs Center-from On Being-6

Boggs Center-from On Being-7

I was impressed with the diversity of the people assembling for a meeting—ethnicity, age, gender, perhaps a cross-section of Detroit activists. Some of the principles of the Center are reimagining work (the difference between a job which is often low paid, dead-end, and boring, and work which meets societal needs and is meaningful for the worker), converting war zones to peace zones (often thru urban agriculture), redefining education (basing it more on indigenous cultures rather than white traditions), building the Beloved Communities (that Martin Luther King Jr advocated) and Cities of Hope, and fostering the Next American (R)evolution (a revolution of values, again from the teaching of King). Grace in her astute analysis which combines the teachings of Marx, King, and Malcolm X with grass-roots, multi-faceted activism. She offers an overarching view of conditions not only in Detroit and post-industrial USA, but generally in the world. This leads the Center to propose a shift of strategy from overturning political leadership to transforming the system, beginning with one’s own consciousness: toward love, away from raw political power.

A few years earlier I heard from Grace Lee Boggs herself during a panel discussion about the Next American Revolution at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2011. Grace Lee Boggs and Vincent Harding in a video from the Allied Media Conference, The New Positive, the New America.


Here’s another example of grass-roots activism:

At St Peter’s church in the gentrifying Corktown I attended a class or meeting about colonialism, education the main topic this time. About 10 people, including Bill Wylie-Kellerman, the church’s pastor, attended. (Later I noticed 2 other meetings in process. A busy church community center.) Antonio ran the meeting and had designed the curriculum. The week before immigration was the topic, next week the students will discuss activism. Two guests presented on the topic—an older, gray-haired Black woman, veteran of many Detroit movements, on the folly of EAA, the Educational Achievement Authority, which runs many of Detroit’s schools. A Black man with graying dreads followed with a slide show on the values of Afro-centric education.

Antonio opened with a statement he read from his computer screen and then, using popular education pedagogy, he asked a question: what were our best and worst educational experiences. One man had only bad formal education experiences, graduating from high school; he had no further formal education. Some spoke of field experiences as their best time educationally. (I said my worst was Catholic catechism when I was forced to memorize Catholic doctrine and my best was probably my first trip to Israel-Palestine in 2003.) I prefaced my statement with an observation that most any experience I could recall had good and bad aspects. Catechism led me to Buddhism and Quakerism, and the Israel-Palestine trip showed me suffering and injustice, horrifying observations. His closing question—requiring writing which we handed in—was: describe an experience of educational colonization, and one of decolonization.

Detroit-9623 Detroit-9620 Detroit-9633 Detroit-9635 Bill Wylie-Kellerman in the background Detroit-9649 Detroit-9657 Detroit-9665 Detroit-9654 Detroit-9667

Some speculate that Detroit (and Ann Arbor, its neighbor less than 50 miles away, home of the University of Michigan) could become the Silicon Valley of the Midwest because of the high-tech nature of modern automobiles. Will employees be drawn from the local population? Unlikely, given the poor state of the current school system. Even if this Silicon Valley speculation proves false, the industry is clearly rebounding.  Which means money. Which means investment. Which means influence.

I experienced more than 200 of what some might term the New Hipsters on a mass bike ride, held every Monday evening during the summer. Titled Slow Roll, I joined one evening. Noticing the high heel shoes, party dresses, and tuxedos, I puzzled that maybe this is the new biking style of the New Hipsters. Only to learn later that each week has a different theme and this one’s was Prom.

Slow roll




Detroit-bicycling-9377 Detroit-bicycling-9424 Detroit-bicycling-9447 Detroit-bicycling-9461 Detroit-bicycling-9481 Detroit-bicycling-9522 Bike week

I might make it back to Detroit for the North American Bicycle week beginning March 27, 2014.

Big money, the third force, is highly active. Beyond Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, as of 2012 Quicken moved its corporate headquarters from the Detroit suburbs to downtown. Compuware established a new large campus in Detroit. Ilitch Holdings announced new plans for a large-scale project that would develop a new entertainment district. Included in this $650 million development would be a new sports arena as well as residential, retail and office space. They’ve also invested money in Comerica Park, Motor City Casino and Fox Theatre which they claim has made Detroit a destination for play over the past decade.

Some analyze urban evolution using the model of FIRE: finance, insurance, and real estate. And feel this complex rules cities, shifting emphasis from production to financial services. Might be, might be in Detroit. (Paradoxically, fire often rages in Detroit, consuming abandoned buildings, frustrating the declining number of firefighters who because of budget restrictions are poorly equipped.)

Oil refineries illustrate one remnant of the old production model. When attending the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2010 I learned to my dismay that Marathon was renovating their distillation facility to process the most destructive and expensive form of energy, tar sands, from Alberta Canada. Horrified, I periodically scouted the refinery district to photograph it and visit the neighborhoods in southwest Detroit most affected by the process.

Pipeline Network Map

Canadian and US oil pipelines (including a pipe branch to Detroit) Click image for enlargement




Marathon Refinery expansion to process Tar Sands oil

Click image for enlargement

Rouge River

Click image for enlargement


Recycling bricks from a demolished house in a neighborhood near refineries


Marathon refinery during the upgrade to process tar sands oil, 2010

Detroit SW-SM Detroitareamap






Southwest Detroit

Obviously the major question is what next? How will these 3 forces—capital, grass-roots, and a middle segment, Gentrifiers—compete and perhaps destroy each other and the city, or hopefully but less likely, synergize and lead to Detroit resurrection. I hope to interpret this photographically in the upcoming years of struggle.

As Grace Lee Boggs stated, “Every day, we endure attacks from a corporate elite determined to remake our city into a place where the wealthy can live, work, play, and be served by the rest of us.” She counters with this vision: “In order to grapple with the interacting and seemingly intractable questions of today’s society, we need to see ourselves not mainly as victims but as new men and women who, recognizing the sacredness in ourselves and in others, can view love and compassion not as some ‘sentimental weakness but as the key that somehow unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.’ (Martin Luther King)”

Boggs Center-from On Being-5

Grace Lee Boggs interviewed for On Being, a radio show. Photo courtesy of On Being.

Or wisdom from Rebecca Solnit, one of our most visionary authors, from “Detroit Arcadia”:

A pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street…is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is also a stronghold of possibility.

Detroit-bicycling-9323 Detroit-nawara_lucille_steves-place

Steve’s Place by Lucille Nawara


Requiem for Detroit? a movie by the BBC in 2010

Becoming Detroit: Grace Lee Boggs on Reimagining Work, Food, and Community - See more

A Lifelong Search for Real Education” (Grace Lee Boggs’ views about education) by Julia Putnam

From Devils Night to Movement City and Bioneers,” by Grace Lee Boggs Nov. 2-9, 2013

American Revolution, the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (a movie)

EMU education dean leaving EAA board” by Shawn D. Lewis, December 3, 2013

Detroit’s Grassroots Economies,” by Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd, March 2011

“Resurrection City,” by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | May 2009

Detroit Bankruptcy Bankrupts Democracy” by John Nichols, December 4, 2013 by The Nation


“We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes”

The struggle we’re dealing with these days, which, I think, is part of what the 1960s represented, is how do we define our humanity?

—Grace Lee Boggs

An analysis based on my most recent sojourn in Detroit Michigan, September 2013

Dedicated to Dan Turner, another chapter in Our Book of Mysteries



Three power forces operate in Detroit: capitalist, mainly the resurgent auto industry and investment capital; grass-roots activism as exemplified by the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership; and an intermediate population that I’ve heard derisively termed the New Hipsters (aka, millennials, social entrepreneurs, bourgeois Bohemians, Bobo’s), people, mostly young, who have money but sometimes pretend they don’t. They might also be termed the Gentrifiers. This third force comprises elements of the other two—moneyed, perhaps from employment in the corporations, largely apathetic (with numerous exceptions), and with sympathies, maybe tenuous, with the grass-roots. 

We must remember that the first two forces date back to nearly the beginning of 20th century Detroit, the city long a crossroads because of the Detroit River which connects Lakes Huron and Erie, later the international hub of the auto industry. Corporate power vs. worker power. Some of the first successful auto union actions were in Detroit. Did a third force operate then, similar to the New Hipsters or Gentrifiers?

Detroit between 2 lakes

1763 Siege of Fort Detroit by Frederic Remington.

Siege of Fort Detroit, by Frederic Remington

The_City_of_Detroit_(from_Canada_Shore) Steel engraving 1872

Detroit from Canada shore, steel engraving, 1872


1889, Calvert Lithographing Co.

Many realize Detroit suffers: one-third of the area is vacant; the population has shrunk to some 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s, with a consequent severe decline in tax revenues; Detroit is the most dangerous city in the United States based on violent crime statistics; city services like street lights, street maintenance, bus service, garbage pickup, parks, schools, and police and fire protection generally is dismal. (On my last trip there in September 2013, I feared bicycling at night, despite the wide streets and scant traffic—very few streetlights, long stretches of the equivalent of bumpy country lane.) Most importantly, the emergency financial manager, appointed by the right-wing Republican state government, under a recently passed controversial law, has filed for bankruptcy. This would be largest metropolitan bankruptcy in US history.


ca. 1910 of the Cadillac main assembly plant at 450 Amsterdam Street and Cass Avenue
Cadillac main assembly plant at 450 Amsterdam Street and Cass Avenue, 1910 ca.


Ford plant


Michigan and Griswold, 1920 ca.

More bad news:

The city lost 40% of its manufacturing jobs in the 1960s; the unemployment rate for Detroit proper peaked at 24.9% in 2009 (now down to 16.3%), compared with the national average of 7.5%; Detroit and Las Vegas are among the emptiest cities; in 2010 the Motor City experienced vacancy rates of 20% for rentals, 4% for homes, and 30% for commercial properties, compared with the national average of 2.7% home vacancy for last 3 months of 2010 and 9.4% for rentals (downtown vacancy rates have dramatically risen, with corporations moving to this central location); personal wealth has moved to the suburbs, among the most affluent in the country; and Detroit is more than 80% African-American. To put Detroit into more context, half of all jobs lost in the entire United States over the past decade were lost in Michigan.



Moreover, relatively few (compared with the large number noticing Detroit’s economic decline) have remarked on perhaps a more ominous fact—the attack on democracy because of the emergency manager law. Curiously, candidates competed to become the next mayor while I was there. When I asked friends and other residents what’s the point of a mayoral campaign when the city is under complete control of the emergency manager, most shook their heads, unsure why there is an election. A few explained that the next mayor can influence daily decisions and the emergency manager’s 18-month term ends in September 2014, but the budget is completely controlled by the manager. For the record, Mike Duggan, who as the CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, the city’s largest employer, is credited with turning around its finances, was elected mayor in early November 2013, the first white mayor since 1974. Duggan beat Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon who is black.


Mike Duggan (left) & Benny Napoleon

From Wikipedia: The emergency management system and emergency financial manager (EFM) position was first created in Public Act 101 of 1988 only for the emergency in Hamtramck. Public Act 101 was amended by Public Act 72 of 1990 allowing an Emergency Financial Manager to be appointed for any local governmental unit. PA 72 in turn was replaced by Public Act 4 of 2011, which renamed the position to Emergency Manager (EM) and gave the Manager additional authority.[1]

(right) Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing address the press after an announcement that the City of Detroit is pursuing municipal bankruptcy, July 18. (Tanya Moutzalias | MLive.com)

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr (right) and former Detroit mayor Dave Bing

Eight other Michigan cities have been under the control of the act, most since 2010 and under the current governor Rick Snyder. An earlier form of the law was contested in the Michigan Supreme Court, and resulted in a revision, now the current law.


The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice leads a campaign, Democracy Emergency, to reverse this law and restore democracy to Detroit. In the announcement of their campaign they quote the State of Michigan itself who admitted in its own internal analysis of Public Act 4 that: “This bill allows the emergency managers too much power and control over local units of government. Emergency managers can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the local nut and will use the enhanced powers granted under this bill for their own gain. Stripping local officials of the powers is anti-democratic.”

Furthermore, Barbara Barefield, a Detroit-based activist, hopes “…that Duggan, who is extremely savvy and experienced, will have influence with the Emergency Manager and the bankruptcy proceedings. It is extraordinarily tough to see our city assets being robbed by consultants and bankruptcy attorneys; set up the city in a way to make Detroit a land grab for the wealthy; and privatize city services and weaken unions and destroy/eliminate services and departments within city government. But after the EM leaves, we need intelligent, experienced leaders ready to reassemble the city and attempt to reinstate democracy, work with unions, and turn things around.”

Contrasting with this dire picture, few seem to realize the influx of young people, artists, entrepreneurs, and urban agriculturalists among them, some or many in the realm of the so-called New Hipster. Much activity is centered in the cultural/midtown district, the base of Wayne State University. Detroit has become the center of urban agriculture, cleverly utilizing vacant lots, increasing food security, and fostering neighborhood peace center. On the Amtrak bus between Detroit and Toledo where I was to catch a train home to Boston, I met a young white woman who lives in a cooperative house in the heart of Detroit. With 2 PhD’s, one in social work, the other in political science, she is fluent in Creole and regularly works in Haiti. She teaches at a college in Ann Arbor, commuting between home and employment. Most importantly she lives in Detroit, with a group, in a black neighborhood, in a house they’ve renovated that was long owned by a prominent Detroit black family, the Nixon’s.


The organization Greening of Detroit oversees the development of the MGMGrand market garden on Plum Street near downtown Detroit. 


Lafayette Greens



Built on the former site of the historic Lafayette Building, Lafayette Greens is a nearly 3/4 acre garden space in Detroit’s downtown district. Organized by Compuware.

Numerous visionaries float proposals to encourage urban agriculture, the arts, education, rescuing homes, and renovating neighborhoods such as the Urban Innovation Exchange, “an initiative to showcase and advance Detroit’s growing social innovation movement.

Two examples of social innovation: “Ponyride is a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities. Using an ‘all boats rise with the tide’ rent subsidy, we are able to provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks. We purchased a 30,000 square-foot warehouse for $100,000 and offer space for $0.10-$0.20 per square-foot, which includes the cost of utilities.”

“An approach to designing a self-maintaining garden modeled after natural ecosystems, Permaculture maximizes the distribution of rainwater by aligning it with exposure to sun and wind.”

A center of this innovation is the midtown neighborhood, anchored by Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the main public library. From a recent analysis, 7.2 Sq Mi, a report  on Greater Downtown Detroit:

Like city-centers globally, downtowns are owned by everyone—welcoming residents, employees, visitors, and tourists. Greater Downtown contains high-rise and low-rise living, our richest cultural assets, the center of Detroit’s business world, the region’s sports and entertainment hub, some of the city’s most storied neighborhoods, and some of Southeast Michigan’s leading educational and medical institutions. 

Square Miles: 7.2 SQ. MI. Population: 36,550 people Density: 5,076 People/SQ. MI. Per Capita Income: $20,216

Midtown Detroit

It is the crucible for the interplay of Detroit’s 3 major power forces: big money or capital, grass roots activism, and that curious middle ground, the New Hipsters.



Emergency Manager Law - State of Michigan (PDF)

“Michigan’s Hostile Takeover,” bPaul Abowd, Center for Public Integrity, 2012

Images from a trip up Detroit’s infamous River Rouge, one of the most heavily industrialized rivers in the world, with writerJoel Thurtell and filmmaker Florent Tillon.


Excerpts from my journal during a 2 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late summer 2013


September 17, 2013, Tuesday

Cold, low 40s, 50% cloudy with altocumulus, still.

Ah, Slow Roll, what pure joy. Easily 200 bikers, all forms of bikes (mine the only folding that I noticed, and no one commented to me), thru the downtown area, whistling, hailing, shouting, boom boxes booming, along the river front (stopping for a group photo, some holding their bikes over their heads), and around the near East Side. Light waned, bike lights blazed, spokes lit up, bikes glowed in ways I’d never seen before. I only hope my photos show a portion of this magnificent extravaganza.


Blacks and whites together, all congenial, or seeming so, mostly young, me perhaps the oldest (altho I felt young and gay), bystanders gawking and laughing and smiling, into the evening and back to where we started, St Andrews (which might be an old hotel, now restaurant). Earlier I’d eaten fish and chips (delicious) at the Greek restaurant where I’m sure I’ve eaten before. I ate outside (the only one outside) in the chill air (so I could guard my bike).


This might have been my longest day yet biking. My butt is sore, perhaps I’ve grown blisters there again, and my knees ache. Arriving home around 10 pm (started out a little after 1) I was exhausted. Brush teeth, dive into bed, think, oh what a grand day. Tomorrow I will rest. (maybe)

Lit bikes-Detroit-bicycling-9523

In the afternoon, near the river I met the only other folding bike rider I’ve met so far: older, black, somewhat heavy, with helmet and other gear. He told me he bikes to increase blood circulation in his legs where he has problems. Bikes alone, would never join Slow Roll, rides an Adventurer bicycle (which I’ve never heard of), guaranteed but with multiple problems that caused him to return the bike for replacements twice. He bikes only on sidewalks, and usually only along the river—and definitely always alone.

The only other folding bike I saw in my two weeks in Detroit (other than mine).

My bike-Detroit-bicycling-9279

My bike, a Dahon

Beginning my long adventure I noticed a small garden along Grand River Avenue that I’d not seen before. Stopping, I photographed it amid the debris of Grand River.

And biking home last night I noticed men entering and leaving liquor stores, their forms dark against bright security lights—for me an ultimate image of desperation, despair, and suffering. This might make a good photo, I thought. So I tried several times, standing as much as possible in shadow to not be noticed. I constantly checked over my shoulder to make sure I was not about to be ambushed in the dark.

Along Grand River Ave on my way home.

Coda: a few days ago while preparing the photo set about Slow Roll I discovered that the theme of the ride had been Prom Night. The following week, September 23, the ride theme would be Literacy and the ride would tour to selected literacy training sites in central Detroit. I also learned that Boston (I live in Cambridge, near Boston) this summer initiated a mass ride called Boston Bike Party, on top of a pre-existing and highly controversial ride called Critical Mass. Unlike Slow Roll, allegedly Boston’s Critical Mass often deliberately creates road chaos and alienates motorists. Not so with Slow Roll—disciplined, respectful of motorists and pedestrians, well received by most.






Slow Roll

Mass (as in Massachusetts) bike

Detroit liquor stores


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