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
Touring Detroit with Colin Connaire, a police officer formerly stationed in Detroit, we visited three police stations—one abandoned and vandalized, the second renovated into a nonprofit arts center and farm and garden supply company, the third still an active police station.
PHOTOS (in two parts)
March 27, 2014, Thursday, Detroit
Warmer, low 30s, overcast, mild southerly breeze, rain-snow showers forecast, bike week begins today.
today [March 26, 2014] was another huge day photographing detroit. the police officer i wrote about earlier, colin connaire, is a special sort of guy—compassionate, committed to helping others, humane, and very knowledgeable about detroit, crime, and of course policing here. we visited 3 precinct stations, one abandoned and decrepit, another abandoned and converted into a for profit garden and farm supply center along with a non profit art gallery, the third a functioning station. he will contact the captain and request permission to photograph inside. this is more than i ever expected.
—To two friends
The tour with Colin was not what I expected, less in some respects, much more in others. I visualized we’d stroll around his old beat, his region in northeast Detroit, he’d tell me stories, I’d photograph as he did, him and the environment. Much as I did with Ibrahim in Gaza recounting his tale of near death between Hamas and Fatah. We might even meet some people he’d known on the beat, some stories of recovery or deterioration. This might itself be a major study. Instead we mostly drove, and often to sites I’ve observed and sometimes photographed myself, like the Cass Corridor. Not much juice here.
What I did not expect was the sequence of police stations. The vandalized and scrapped station was first. We explored it thoroughly, cells, intake, holding, garage, offices, etc. Lots of graffiti and vandalism, mostly from recovering materials for resale, like copper. Little that suggested anger at the police, which surprised both of us. Equally surprising was the second site, purchased, owned, managed, and maintained by Southwest Solutions, apparently a non-profit developer. A for-profit garden and farm supply firm inhabited the former police station garage, owned by 2 men, 1 of whom stood behind the counter and explained everything. (He is the strapping young man, well muscled, bare-chested that I photographed last fall.) Colin and I had noticed mounds of earth on the roof. The fellow explained, yes, a green roof. Because it’s not fully visible we plan to plant a tree.
Detroit Farm and Garden Supply
The rest of the building is devoted to a non-profit arts center—studios (some of them in the jail cells), exhibits, workshops, and a small café. The gallery is available for rental for weddings, receptions, parties, and the like. Listening to the vivacious, street talking, curly white-haired, goateed, dark-skinned Norm Kobylarz, himself an artist (sculpture, but his studio is not in the arts center), I sensed much vibrancy in the place, some traffic, a growing enterprise. I dropped in on a young woman, Ellen Coons, who explained to me when questioned, that yes, I am a hipster, maybe a new hipster. She is an artist and— self-admitted—apathetic. She graduated from the College of Creative Studies, and showed me some of her art, including animation. Her boyfriend, Joshua Mulligan is half Diné (Navajo) and himself a talented animator. She showed me an array of hers and his on video. Norm showed us a Banksy mural done originally on a wall at the abandoned Packard Auto Plant, but removed and fought for in court. The arts center now owns it and could sell it. Media are fascinated by it, as am I.
Norm Kobylarz, artist in the arts center, with Colin
The facility is officially named 555 Creative Community, and sits at 2801 W Vernor, Detroit 48216. This happens to be across from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Detroit Mexicantown International Welcome Center 14 (contradictory facilities?), which itself are near the Canada Bridge. Easy to find, near a well-traveled route.
Norm with Banksy street art retrieved from the abandoned Packard Plant
All this of course excited me tremendously: conversion, renewal, arts, agriculture, youth, many of my main themes coalescing in this one facility, or rather, the 3 buildings compared.
The 3rd was a functioning station, Precinct 11, which we visited last. The captain was not in so we couldn’t receive an answer to our request to photograph inside. But Colin promised to check today and call me [no luck, no access—yet]. I hope to at least photograph the interior of this working station, especially the jail cells, a central theme, if not some of the personnel.
Detroit police station
I explained to Colin the concept of “synecdoche,” the part standing for the whole, which is related to the question of the derivation of the word “cop”. He believed it derives from “Constable On Patrol,” I parried with “cop” from “copper” from the badges worn earlier. As usual, Colin said, oh my, I never thought of that, could be. One of his unique features is openness to new ideas, active interest, a flourishing mind. Same as his mom, the venerable dramatist, Chris Connaire, my friend from the Cambridge Quaker community and my link to Colin. I applied the notion to our station exploration: this small story of three police stations could stand for the larger story of Detroit.
At the end of the tour Colin treated me to a local favorite—fast food hamburgers in the style of White Castle, Telway Hamburgers. On Michigan Ave, not far from the 555 Arts Center. Four burgers for $2.50. Coffee that Colin claims excels most others. We were together for more than 4 hours and bonded quickly. He told me how much he loves his work, his work pals, his life. In a nutshell: born and raised in the Boston area, with roots in Michigan thru his mom and her mom; from the age of 8 wished to be a cop; joined the Detroit force after college; studied and graduated from Wayne State in law while in the police; lived in the upscale Indian Village during this time; moved to Grosse Pointe Park and joined that force; now a sergeant; owns his house; divorced, remarried, kids by both marriages, an 18 month girl with epilepsy.
Telway Hamburgers (courtesy of the internet)
I told him, this is somewhat like my story: my early wish to be a photographer, practiced from an early age, changed genres, studied, married, divorced, etc. Both of us love our work. A key question: risk, injury, death? How do you feel about all this? I didn’t get a clear answer from Colin. Except maybe when he’d stated earlier that one reason he shifted from Detroit to Grosse Pointe Park was danger. Maybe the incident when he almost shot a man. He and his partner noticed a guy in a parked car, they approached the car. The guy folded his body over and leaned down, perhaps to grab or hide a weapon. Colin’s partner had slid his hand thru a partially open window, opened the door, and was trying to pull the man out when he bent down. Colin pointed his gun at the man who then slowly rose up, hands empty. Later they discovered a Glock automatic pistol with a 30 round clip hidden under the seat.
Colin wasn’t sure of the man’s intent. Perhaps to rise up shooting. That, Colin claimed, was the only time he came close to firing his weapon.
Are you trained to fire non-lethally?
Oh no, to the chest, maximum bulk, the legs are too small for a target, shoot to kill.
Are you trained in humane methods of crowd control and other intervention?
Not really, we can pick this up on the job.
How about SWAT operations?
Yes, we are prepared for that but the approach is always maximum force, intimidation. I told him about my political arrest on Cambridge Common.
Furthermore: Colin told me he reads bodies, uses proportional force, as when he ended a chase because of the danger to him and his men, compared with the seriousness of the crime. We discussed our short hair, a convenience for him, but I suggested subliminal associations, as with monks, military, and skinheads.
He provided a perfect companion on the tour because he engaged all parties in conversation, like Norm, while I concentrated on photography.
Leaving Colin after the tour I walked briefly around his neighborhood, the “Cabbage Patch” of Grosse Pointe Park (on the border of Detroit, not quite so exclusive as other suburbs, perhaps named Cabbage Patch because of the Irish immigrants once living there) to feel the neighborhood and town—lots of cafes, boutiques, health food stores, etc. But most specially, three boys, 2 of color, 1 white, looking suspiciously Jewish, in fact like a young Woody Allen.
Grosse Pointe Park
Excuse me, young men, I’m a photographer from Boston, could I please photograph you?
This might emerge as the hit photo of the day.
To a friend:
btw. about your question, whether i feel completeness in this recent detroit foray: hardly, partially.
some disappointments like doing nothing more on the theme of greening detroit (mostly because of the season) and not gaining access to a functioning police station (we tried but the boss never responded, a frequent occurrence in my line of work). and some surprising achievements like the police officer, colin connaire, escorting me to 2 other stations in various conditions and him personally, what a fine man he is, and the enormous, busy bike shop i discovered and photographed a few days ago. on and on. down and up personally. as with my work in palestine-israel my disappointments generate a commitment to return and plumb more deeply. i hope my achievements never fully satisfy me. disappointments and achievements fuel my curiosity.
satisfying yes, satisfying no. i suspect you can relate with your drawing. could be more, thank god it’s not too less.
thanks for asking, you raised a key point.
TO BE CONTINUED