Excerpts from my journal while in Detroit, moving backwards (not always), last to first.
About deindustrialization, depopulation, residential and commercial vacancy, corruption of capitalism—and the rise of urban gardens, local resistance and activist organizations—ending with news about the US Social Forum, Allied Media Conference, and the first public national gathering of anti-Zionist Jews in the United States.
In several parts, with periodic photos and videos.
The lands have a mixture of sand, and in the neighboring forests there are bottoms almost constantly under water; however, these very lands have produced wheat eighteen years successively without the least manure, and you have no great way to go to find the finest soil in the world. With respect to woods, without going a great way from the fort [Ponchartrain] I have seen as I have been walking such as may vie with our noblest forests.
—Frances Xavier Charlevoix, a French settler and priest,
early 18th century
The Detroit area was a major crossroads for many indigenous tribes, including; Huron, Ottawa, Potawatomie, Wyandot, Iroquois, Chippewa, Ojibwa, Delaware, Shawnee and Miami (Poremba, 2001). The Native Americans extensively managed the lands of pre-European southern Michigan. They burned prairies and planted fruit trees and other crops, suppressing woodlands from large swaths of land and keeping hunting grounds open.
…By the end of World War 2, Detroit would produce over 90% of the vehicles used in the war, almost 90% of the bombs and helmets, and about 50% of the engines, tanks and machine guns (Poremba, 2001a). 500,000 Detroit men and women were enlisted in the services and participated in war efforts. Detroit was given the moniker ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ for its major industrial contributions to the war.
—Michael Yun, “Alternative Uses for Vacant Land in Detroit, Michigan”
As part of the Allied Media Conference , I attended a tour of Detroit called Another Detroit is Happening, A Look at Detroit’s Industrial Past and Visionary Future. Indicating the sentiments and perspectives of much of the media community, this tour was clearly oversubscribed, some 100 people, very eager to learn. We overwhelmed the tour leader, Rich Feldman. The trajectory was brilliantly composed: 1st the Packard automotive plant, abandoned since the 1950’s and left alone, 2nd, the General Motors Poletown plant as a form of transition between old and current, and finally the Feedom Freedom (Feedom is intended) growers, which is an urban garden, and the Heidelberg project, street art from junk.
This provided ample opportunities for photos and videos, plus background on Detroit which I’ll now list in no particular order:
Detroit is French for by the river. The city was founded by the French in the late 1770s, sits along a river connecting two Great Lakes, Huron and Erie, and was an Underground Railroad terminal into Canada. French urban planning loves boulevards, also parks. This explains the wide roads, and contradicts my earlier theory that they were built by auto manufacturers to encourage automobile use. No parks, or very few. What happened to the parks, did parks once exist at one stage of Detroit’s evolution? Are the numerous vacant lots the contemporary form of parks, a corrupted concept of park?
(Checking my map I learn that by the river borders the Detroit River, Lake St Clair on the north, Lake Erie on the south, indeed—by the river. Windsor Ontario is the Canadian city on the opposite side of the river.
The land area of Detroit matches Manhattan and San Francisco combined, roughly 240 square miles. The population in 1900 was approximately 1 million, 50 years later, about 2 million, and now has shriveled to around 900,000. While the current combined population of Manhattan and San Francisco is more than 9 million.
City owned Detroit vacancies (in black)
Some 1/3 of homes and lots are now vacant. Between 1978 and 1998 only 9000 building permits were issued for new homes in Detroit, while the city doled out over 108,000 demolition permits. Which indicates the scale of destitution and abandonment.
Related to the auto industry, Detroit hosted the first urban mall and the first interstate highway. This led to white flight, a major contributor to Detroit’s demise.
Possibly originating in Detroit, Devil’s Night is or was a tradition of deliberately burning houses on July 4th, Independence Day, perhaps an offshoot of fireworks. A citizens’ group rose up and protected certain regions. On one street, Humboldt I believe, during one particular July 4th, no homes burned, protected by neighbors, whereas on other nearby streets many homes were torched. In that region Devil’s Night became Angel’s Night.
Clicking on the image will produce a clearer version
of the demographic map
Detroit is segregated. The tour explored the East Side; I’m living in the west. I do not know the demographics of Detroit, maybe I can learn during my final week here.
The Studebaker automotive company bought Packard, then someone bought Studebaker and abandoned the plant. People now store boats on the property. One small side note: as I was photographing I noticed one woman of our group sitting against a graffitied wall. I photographed her, noticing out of the corner of my eye that she’d hiked her skirt on this hot day. I tried to get her attention before photographing, using the Lou Jones technique for asking permission [incrementally entering a scene, step by step, gradually photographing, observing body and oral language]. Either she didn’t notice me or didn’t react. After that exposure, she rearranged her skirt. I made one more photo, continued making photos of people against buildings, partly because I was interested in the theme, partly to demonstrate to her that I’d not singled her out because of her exposed panties.
On the tour I observed a large, brown-skinned woman on the school bus photographing with a large Canon camera. While holding coffee. While holding papers. She didn’t use her neck strap—the cool look of the day. She seemed to be photographing randomly out the window. Accidentally we shared a seat on the school bus. At one point we exchanged information about who we were. She told me, as a photojournalist I worked at [such and such] for years, until I made a discovery and my life changed. Your discovery? The truth. The truth of what? Who I am. And then I caught on: she is a man, or was.
During this conversation on the bus, while she was trying to photograph, she dropped her coffee. A large brown pool beneath her feet, spreading. Coffee had splattered her brown skirt which she then dried by holding its lower portion to the window.
2nd, the Poletown General Motors plant. This represents a form of transition, from old to new. Displacing hundreds of people, requiring a large infusion of money with promises of many jobs, the city helped build the plant. It works, sort of. Some jobs, some return on the investment, but not much in the eyes of our tour guide.
Unfortunately we couldn’t get in so we stood around for a long period in the sun listening to expert Rich fill us with all he knows about Detroit. Gifted in language, expert in history, deep in personal involvement, he lacks one crucial gift: brevity. Compression. Reading the audience. Ho hum, let’s get back on the bus.
I made a discovery about yet another way to show our crowd: sitting near the front of the bus with my woman-man colleague, I saw that people entering looked like they were rising up, floating up, as if resurrecting. So I used video to try to show this. I don’t think it worked, either because the backlight was too strong, washing out the faces, or too many gaps appeared between entrances, or I had to move to accommodate my late-returning partner.
3rd, the Feedom Freedom Growers. I quickly spotted a promontory, a 5-foot high mound of earth that became my camera platform. More video [to be edited and posted later], more photos. While the founders of this enterprise, Wayne Curtis and Myrtle Thompson, knowing each other more than 10 years, partnered in this enterprise, recently married, explained the operation. A community garden based on socialist principles, from each, to each, includes a book club and peace zone. The garden helps assure food security, and is a clever and growing (no pun intended) method for reclaiming the vast stretches of burnt out, bombed out, left to rot territory.
Myrtle Thompson and Wayne Curtis
And 4th, and finally (last and final call as train conductors are fond of announcing), the Heidelberg Project—junk turned into art, another form of reclamation. This is resurrection. Apparently in black urban communities teddy bears are a wide spread symbol of mourning. When someone is killed, a family member or friend places a teddy bear at the site, making a shrine, the bear a sign of innocence. So one house had a multitude of bears adoring its walls. Founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, a very persistent fellow because the city had torn down 2 previous manifestations, he returns, reconstructs—an indomitable spirit reminding me of Palestinians who rebuilt their homes demolished viciously by Israel. Rich explained that the neighborhood opposes the art. Reconciliation is in the works.
(I’d seen an earlier version of this on my previous visit to Detroit, around 1997 or so during my photo exhibit with Billy Ledger at the Swords into Plowshares gallery.)
During the tour I made more videos, further attempts to show Detroit as seen by our peripatetic community.
Rich Feldman told us some of his story. In the early 1970s he took a job with an automobile plant, painting the under chassis’s of cars. For some 10 years, specifically to foster the revolution. Then work with the union which he continues to this day. He is also part of organizations creating the new Detroit. Or trying. He has good politics, from my point of view, toward the revolution, from the bottom up, ML King’s revolution of values perhaps. He would be a good ally if I began a photo project here, if I could curtail his talkativeness.
Then the closing ceremony of the Allied Media Conference which was mostly selected workshop tracks exhibiting and talking about the workshops—dance, video, skit. I learned another technique for engaging a large group: the telephone exercise. One person on the end of each aisle spoke a word indicating what they could do without. Passed it to a neighbor, who passed it to a neighbor, etc, until the end of aisle. Then on cue all a the far ends shouted out one word, what we can do without. Misery, poverty, prejudice, etc. And then, cutting this short because of time, all shout out what we need. The facilitator, that young man or maybe woman (one can never be sure at this gathering) who I’d met in the Palestine Education Project workshop, said, I can’t hear all your words but they seem to say love. Which was exactly what I shouted out. Yes, we all need love. Love. Love. Love. All we need is love.
Of the right sort. Which is?
The Assembly of Anti Zionist Jews overlapped the media conference. The organizers of the Assembly heard complaints from the participants about too much talking and are adjusting the schedule and methods. More lively interchange, shorter presentations, more interactive like the Media Conference. One high point for me was hearing from a young Hampshire College student about the expanding student Anti Zionist network, a youthful level of the larger IJAN, the International Jewish Anti Zionist Network.
Between dinner and Assembly Karen and I stopped by the Unitarian Universalist church to try to view the Nakba photo exhibit, Our Story: Commemorating 60 years of Dispossession. I remembered that I might have contributed to this, invited by Hillary Rantizi months or years ago, not remembering hearing back from her about the final disposition. We couldn’t enter the exhibit—I plan to return—but looking thru the glass door I saw one of my photos from Gaza, women by the wall picking thru garbage.
One novel exercise I learned at the Allied Media Conference that I could use in my workshops, especially those upcoming at the US Social Forum: turn to a partner, answer what brought you to the gathering, what do you bring to the gathering, what do you expect to gain from the gathering, and one more. Each time to and from a different person. This from the Assembly, and applicable to my upcoming hydropolitics workshop.
During the workshop presented by Climbing PoeTree, called Hurricane Season: Unearthing Solutions in an Era of Unnatural Disaster, I noticed the loving couple watching the performance. Sitting immediately behind them, videoing them and the performance, they became part of my movie. Two women locked in an embrace, unsurpassable as an expression of mutual love. How long will they be together?
At the opening session of the Anti Zionist Assembly, commenting to Marla from Cambridge, I realized the Assembly might be like the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, kicking off the contemporary women’s and peace movements: an historic moment, small beginning of a large movement. I understand that a few women, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucritia Mott and one other, all Quakers, gathered in someone’s kitchen, hit on the idea of a conference or convention bringing together women and their male allies to fight for women’s rights and those of enslaved Africans and their descendents. From such small beginnings do large oaks arise. Could be the same with IJAN.
One very vivid dream: I was launching a large airplane and an attached structure—as a kite, for kids. 1st I had to launch the plane into the air, held by a few guy wires. I enlisted the help of a young man as an assistant. Once the plane was aloft, I ran to tie the main guy wire to a contraption I’d either found or invented, a large metal structure that had affixing points for the now multiple guy wires. We had to keep the wires taught, as when flying a kite, or the plane would crash. No one was on the plane.
The plane nearly hit the ground when a wire became stuck in trees. We rescued the plane. I placed the wire’s end in a socket on the contraption and signaled the waiting children that the ride was about ready to begin.
What ride? I’d arranged for kids, about 20 of them, around 10 years old, boys and girls, to ride on the contraption pulled by the kite-plane. Either I asked a head teacher for permission to do this or she’d already checked with parents and authorities and all was OK. Despite the obvious danger. This was my 1st launch ever.
Kids exuberantly scampered thru mud—it was raining—slipping and sliding, and headed for the contraption. When the dream ended.
I don’t recall ever having a dream like this, with the machinery, my role, the kids, and I can’t think of a real life kick off event that might have inspired it. Purely imaginative. Maybe somehow a gift of the media conference. Makes life worth living.
TO BE CONTINUED
A thesis submitted for a Master’s degree by Michael Yun
Detroit Fights Devil’s Night (photos + of other Detroit topics)
In 1981 the neighborhood was cleared to make way for the construction of the General Motors Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant. The city of Detroit relied on eminent domain to compel the displacement of the 4,200 people who lived in the area, along with their 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and one hospital.
Feedom Freedom Growers, “Moving Detroit Forward via Milwaukee,” by Myrtle Thompson-Curtis and Wayne Curtis, Michigan Citizen, Sept. 26-Oct. 2, 2010
Seneca Falls Convention (July 19-20, 1848)
“Detroit’s Renewal: Can It Inspire the Social Forum?” by Sarah van Gelder in Yes magazine