Near my house, West Side, vicinity of Grand River and Wyoming Avenues, early morning
Rasmea Odeh, tried and convicted in Detroit for a fraudelent citizenship application
A wrap up of 3 weeks in Detroit, searching for those seeds. November 4 thru 26, 2014.
Despite the catastrophic conditions in Detroit and the possible impending failure of the bankruptcy agreement, I detected in myself and in others in Detroit a nearly jubilant spirit. Maybe equivalent to gallows’ humor, but tangible nonetheless.
MGM Grand Casino
Motor City hotel and casino
Of course this feeling of joy and hope depended on where I was. Downtown—no problem, eat chicken shuwarma at Mike’s Kabob Grille, or stroll thru the MGM Grand Casino wondering if I could hit it big. Or Midtown, AKA Cass Corridor—snacking at the Cass Café or Avalon Bakery, pumping up my bike tires at the Hub of Detroit and Back Alley Bikes, or lugging my bike over the new light rail tracks along Woodward. Or the East Side—bicycling the many streets empty of homes, or examining the burned-to-near-annihilation Heidelberg Project, or stepping in open bags of shit while photographing a recently burned and leveled house near the Boggs School. Or my neighborhood in northwest Detroit, near Wyoming and Grand River—some vacant lots, many liquor stores, a rapidly expanding Grand Price supermarket owned by Arabs who probably live in Dearborn. Or further northwest in Brightmoor—said to be a district under renovation but to my eyes nearly as desolate as the emptiest regions of the city. Or Dearborn itself with its mix of Arab-Muslims, Arab-Christians, Christians and many others, and its plethora of bakeries, restaurants, and supermarkets. Each region with a different feel, different history, perhaps different destiny.
Slow Roll, group bicycle ride
Back Alley Bikes, Midtown
Detroit’s East Side
One block from my house
Brightmoor, shrine to someone murdered
As I wandered these varied Detroit landscapes and cultures I searched for the seeds of the new Detroit miracle: Detroit Down and Up, where and what are those seeds? Using my two cameras as tools, I made 2,180 images, requiring 31.9 GB of memory. Roughly 100 per day, equivalent during film days to about 3 rolls.
Here are a few:
New work new culture, a movement for meaningful work rather than just a job and a culture based in love and respect rather than competition and obsession with money, in short, the Beloved Community of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The movement organized a conference in October 2014 which drew more than 300 people from across the country; so surprising that they temporarily ran out of food. The movement is based on the thinking of Frithjof Bergman, an Austrian philosopher who taught for many years at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. The James and Grace Lee Center to Foster Community Leadership spawned it. I attended several of its meetings and celebrations and heard directly from an excited conference participant who happens to be the sister of my son-in-law, Phil.
Planning meeting for New Work New Culture
Grass roots activism generally which includes urban agriculture (Detroit may be among the leaders); opposition to the bankruptcy settlement which many believe favors the financial and corporate industries; opposition also to large-scale development putting dollars before people; Detroit Summer based on Freedom Summer of 1965 in the south, a project spawned by the Boggs Center which continues to bring young people to the city to build morale and leadership and contribute to the community; and several remarkable schools amidst a generally debilitated school system.
Recycle Now, established by a grass roots movement, now with city support
Reverend Ed Pinkney, convicted of petition fraud in a campaign to recall the mayor of Benton Harbor, accused of siding with local corporations rather than the citizens
At a support meeting for Rev. Pinkney
Detroit Friends School
Detroit Friends School
Boggs School, observation of the neighborhood
Grace Lee Boggs with students of the school (photo courtesy of the internet)
Big money-driven development such as emanates from the billions of dollars invested by the mogul CEO of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, and the founders of the Little Caesars Pizza chain, Mike and Marian Illitch. The Illitch’s also own the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, Detroit Tigers baseball team, and Motor City Casino. The combined net worth of these Big Three is $8.1 billion. Gilbert has exploited cheap downtown real estate, and the Illitch’s clear land and will build a sports stadium. Also the automobile industry; some feel Detroit may become the Silicon Valley of the Midwest because of high-tech automobiles.
Light rail project along Woodward Ave in Midtown,
AKA, Cass Corridor
The hipster movement has come to Detroit, largely the downtown and Midtown areas. Consisting mostly of young people, in their 20’s and 30’s, they are also called the “creatives” because of their new ideas. Broadly speaking, Hipsters are young, well-educated, energetic, politically apathetic, bring more resources than most current residents have, and most importantly they transform—gentrify—the character of the neighborhoods they reside in. I’ve heard local Detroiters derisively refer to them as Outliers or New Hipsters. I wonder myself as I pedal thru my Black neighborhood on my fancy folding bike whether I’m suspected to be one of those, at least to be shunned, if not attacked.
My folding bike
Contrary to my worries, so far I’ve been roundly greeted with waves, smiles, friendly questions, and for a few neighbors near my house, invited in for food and conviviality.
Artists, often part of the hipster movement, thrive here as they do in Brooklyn and some other cities like Chicago and Boston. These folks paint murals, not only downtown and in Midtown, centers of White culture, but in Mexican Town, honoring the indigenous ancestors. With a friend last spring, Colin, we discovered an arts center in an abandoned police station, the artists using the cells for studios and shops.
Mexican Town (click image for enlargement)
Grand River Arts Corridor
Urban agriculture spreads; Detroit, one-third vacant, offers much land for this form of development. Dating back to 1893 during a depression, mayor Hazen S Pingree wisely encouraged Detroit citizens to grow vegetables in unused plots—Pingree’s Potato Patches. Unfortunately because I was in Detroit in late autumn, well past the growing and harvesting seasons, I found little agriculture to investigate and photograph.
Put to bed for the winter
Investors have also discovered Detroit, a preponderance from China. As of June 2014 the China Daily reports that “a total of $1.1 billion from China has been invested in Michigan since 2000, the vast majority of it in the automotive and aviation industries, according to a January 2014 report by the Rhodium Group. From 2000 to 2008, Michigan received $232 million from Chinese investments. By 2010 that total rose to $714 million.”
In addition the China Daily also claimed that “according to the National Association of Realtors, Chinese spent $8.2 billion on US property in 2012, generating approximately $492 million in commissions for US Real Estate Agents that year. Preferred destinations for the Chinese throughout the US include New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and San Diego.”
Along Woodward Ave, Midtown
CONTRADICTIONS, COUNTER INDICATIONS, UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES
As I search for the seeds of the new Detroit miracle I also investigate exceptions to expectations about power dynamics. There are three primary power sources: Big Money with cash to transform reality, Grass Roots with people to transform reality, and Hipsters with ideas to transform reality. Big Money has the resources to eradicate blight; it might also foster wealth and income disparity. Leaders arise from the Grass Roots and may become corrupt, as was allegedly the case of a former Black mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, currently serving a 28-year prison sentence. (He recently lodged an appeal.) Hipsters can tune to their neighborhood, and like many in the congregation of Bill Wylie-Kellerman, pastor of St Peter’s Episcopal church in the gentrifying neighborhood of Corktown, they may open a soup kitchen, host meetings of community activists, and risk arrest for political actions.
Colin Connaire, a police officer in the nearby suburb of Grosse Pointe Park, formerly served with the Detroit police force. On two different trips he toured me to sites in both cities he’s had contact with, telling me stories and inspiring my photography. The police station series we toured and I photographed last spring is one example, and most recently the beginning of a series about private security in an upscale Detroit neighborhood called Palmer Woods is another. We looked at several crimes sites in his own city, as well as that city’s attempt to curtail access from Detroit.
Colin Connaire at the scene of a crime that occured during his days on patrol in Detroit
A SURPRISE: THE TRIAL OF RASMEA ODEH
I experienced an unexpected confluence of my two major photographic themes, Detroit and Palestine-Israel: the trial, conviction, and jailing of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian activist serving her community in Chicago. I attended most of the trial and rallies outside the federal courthouse, as well as attempting to visit her in the Port Huron county jail, as she waits sentencing in March 2015.
The jury convicted her for a fraudulent application for citizenship. Judge Drain prohibited her defence attorneys from arguing that alleged Israeli torture and rape elicited a false confession and subsequent imprisonment for her alleged bomber operation in 1969—influencing her current conviction. The trial was in Detroit because this is where she first settled and applied for citizenship. Many feel she has been attacked by the FBI and Homeland Security—the intelligence apparatus generally in this country—because of her support for Palestinian rights and Arab-American women generally. In Chicago she has been in the forefront of encouraging Arab-Muslim women to fight for their rights not only as human beings but as women. This counters two cultures, an Arab-Muslim sexist one, and another denying voice and rights to Arab-Muslims.
Convicted of one count of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization, she plans to appeal. Until recently she languished in the Port Huron county jail, in solitude for many days, with health and dental problems, no visitors and no letters. After an international campaign, Judge Drain finally granted release on bail and so, assuming her community can raise the needed $50,000, she can return to her family and community in Chicago until sentencing.
Rasmea Odeh during her trial
The book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, by Thomas J. Sugrue is a seminal analysis of Detroit. Altho published in 1996, I found its history and general insights about Detroit’s problems useful in leading me to sites, people, and ideas I can photograph. In the summer of 2010 I attended the US Social Forum, perfectly located in Detroit. I attended workshops and a tour (led by Rich Feldman who offered an excellent introduction to the city and its history and struggles and has provided invaluable leads), remained in Detroit an extra week, explored the refinery district, learned Marathon was upgrading to process the highly toxic and polluting tar sands oil from Alberta Canada, and immediately visualized the water body I’d grown up near in Chicago, Lake Michigan, flooded with oil from a major pipeline or tanker spill. That same year, heavy crude oil leaked from an Enbridge pipe into the Kalamazoo River in July, and in April the Deepwater Horizons oil rig operated for British Petroleum exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, both desecrating vast swaths of earth. Marathon and tar sands oil helped inspire my Detroit project.
MY HOME & NEIGHBORHOOD
While in Detroit, thanks to Karen, a very generous and compassionate woman living in Ann Arbor Michigan, I stay in her unoccupied but fully maintained house near Wyoming and Grand River avenues, in a reasonably intact black neighborhood. Living there for nearly of 2 months each year since 2010 I’ve gotten to know some of the neighbors such as Gloria across the street and Johnny next door. For the first 3 days of my recent trip I had no water. Johnny provided facilities, fed me dinner, and we watched a boxing movie together on his enormous flat screen TV. Later at his urging I photographed him in his Civil War Buffalo Soldier uniform. Gloria lets me use her Internet connection, at times feeds me breakfast, and several years ago arranged for me to make portraits of other neighbors. With his gun Johnny claims he will run off neighborhood criminals, and Gloria watches the house when no one lives there.
School nearby—every other morning I circumambulate its grounds
WHAT’S NEXT, FOR DETROIT AND FOR MY PHOTOGRAPHIC PROJECT?
I’m convinced a new spirit permeates Detroit, a mix of forces embodying new ideas, energy, cash, and will. Perhaps Detroit will resume its status as the Paris of the Midwest, or become the Bicycle Capital of the United States, or the Urban Agriculture Model for the world.
Or sink into oblivion, harbinger of failed post-industrial American cities. Or forced to bend its knee to massive corporate power as seems to have happened to much of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Detroit Down and Up. Searching for the Seeds of the New Detroit miracle (or Bust). I plan to return next summer during the growing season.
Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus
(Latin: We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes)
TO BE CONTINUED
“Six grueling demographic indicators of Detroit’s decline (and some pictures)” by Philip N. Cohen (December 2014)
“Can New Economic Model Save Detroit From Financial Collapse?” by Terrell Jermaine Starr
Advocates of the “New Work New Culture” economic model think so.
“Detroit Pushes Back With Young Muscles”
An influx of young creative types is turning Detroit into a Midwestern TriBeCa. by Jennifer Conlin (2011)
“Detroit Urban Agriculture Movement Looks to Reclaim Motor City” on Democracy Now (2010)
“Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters To Survive, It Needs Black People” by Ashley Woods (2014)
“Detroit Rink City: Ilitches’ grand plan to supersize the entertainment district” by Bill Shea (2014)
A gargantuan 3-year plan: 5 new neighborhoods, a $450 million hockey arena and an accelerated timeline to complete it all
“Judge orders Palestinian American Rasmea Odeh freed on bond” by Ali Abunimah (December 8, 2014)