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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016—or writing later.

Quakers to Refineries (photos)
Added November 23, 2016

Johnny’s Neighborhood (movie)

I find myself at a crossroads with this project, nearly 7 years since I began it. Now I cannot decide what to do next—consider the active photography ended, make small changes in my direction, or make major changes like devise a new strategy. Do I have too much brick and mortar, i.e., buildings, and not enough blood and guts, i.e., people? I wonder, for you the viewer, of the dynamic I have studied and tried to photograph, what comes thru?

To gain some clarity I’ve joined a group exhibition at my Quaker meeting in Cambridge Massachusetts. In my portion of the exhibit, referencing the exhibit theme “Hope Springs Eternal,” rather than show only finished exhibition size prints  I chose to show a set of thumbnail prints, each about 1.5 by 2 inches on 13 by 19 paper.  I ask you, the viewer, to vote by noting file names of photos that interest you, and sending me the names. My late mentor, Andy Towl, once asked me, when you view an exhibit, Skip, what stops you?

What if anything in my array of these small photos from one of my six sessions at Motor City (rapidly becoming Bicycle City) stops you? Please let your eye dance across the images, with as little conscious thought as possible. What strikes you?

If you click on the array below, you’ll see a matrix or grid. You can then click on the array, individual grids will pop up, and you can use the arrow keys to run thru the set. To enlarge the image so you can read the file names of individual thumbnail sets, please click on “view full size.” You can easily comment in the space on the lower left of the unenlarged grid. (A little complicated, I realize.)

Feel free to comment to this blog, write me at skipschiel@gmail.com or phone me at 617-441-7756.

I plan to return to Detroit in June, mainly for urban agriculture and events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising.

Here’s my general statement:

Searching for the Seeds of the New Detroit Miracle

An examination of the shifting dynamics in the country’s iconic post-industrial city

I have been photographing, making movies, and writing about Detroit since 2010, when I attended the U.S. Social Forum that summer, initially awed by the abandoned and scrapped buildings and the enormous swaths of vacant land. Later I learned about burgeoning urban agriculture, the arts movement, numerous civic projects, innovative reuse of buildings, the rise of bicycling, Big Money pouring in to build sports stadiums and commercial and residential housing, etc.

The inner core, some 20% of the land thrives with the injection of Big Money, largely from local billionaire entrepreneurs. Paramount among them, Dan Gilbert, the founder and chief of Quicken Loans, and the late (died Feb. 2017 at 87) Mike Ilitch, founder and owner of Little Caesars Pizza. Together they might own more than three-quarters of the newly developed property such as sports stadiums, office buildings, and luxury housing. Black and largely economically suffering people, many suffering from the recent bankruptcy of the city, inhabit the remaining 80% of the area.

I was raised on Chicago’s Southside from 1940 to 1955 when my family ignobly was the first to flee African-Americans searching for new housing. I have always been ashamed of this part of my family history and recently realized that by returning regularly to Detroit, living in a Black neighborhood, part of the 80% land mass, I have returned. I’ve made friends among my neighbors, developed a portrait series about them, and I’ve interviewed some about changes in their neighborhood.

Influenced by mentors Robert Frank and his book, The Americans, and W. Eugene Smith with his Pittsburgh Project, I hope to reveal aspects of Detroit beyond what’s now termed “Ruin Porn” and ultra beautiful and expensive development. I hope to portray the dynamic between Big and Little Money, development and gentrification of the urban core fed by Big Money, and the effects on housing, education, water access, urban agriculture, and economic development in the periphery, resulting from Little Money. This includes reduced pensions and health benefits of civil retirees and, to a lesser extent, police and firefighters.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of what some call “The Uprising,” others “The Riots,” marking a new phase in Detroit’s demotion from what had been named “The Paris of the West.” And now? I intend to continue my photographic exploration. As W. Eugene Smith has stated, “Truth is my prejudice.”

I ponder: will Detroit become the model for post-industrial urban resurrection or self implode?

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

Anniversary of Uprising

Turning Derelict Buildings into an Urban Farm in Detroit

Riverwise magazine

James and Grace Lee Boggs Center for Community Leadership

 

 

 

 

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

PHOTOS

September 6, 2013, Friday, Detroit

Very cool, high 40s, clear, still.

Yesterday [September 5] was primarily a long bike trip to Dearborn: in search of the New Yasmeen Café and Bakery and a bike store and possibly to touch in on the Arab community here. I succeeded in the first two, failed in the third. At the bakery I loaded up on stuffed grape leaves, Baba ghanoush, yogurt, and sweets. At the bike shop, Eddie’s where I’d been before, owned by a cigarette-smoking, short, older man, probably Arab (judging from the TV playing), I bought a bike bell and rear view mirror. A black man helped me install them. And told me about Slow Roll, the weekly bike parade thru Detroit that I hope to join some Monday evening. I felt in good company. He told me biking is way up, especially downtown, and folding bikes like mine are newly popular.

On this journey I am primarily a street photographer, not a photojournalist. I work randomly, spontaneously, without much planning, certainly with minimal contacts. Contrasting with photojournalism where initial design is more important, and research, and solidifying contacts.

I discovered the huge Ford Motor Company complex. World headquarters of Ford, the Henry Ford Centennial Library renamed for Ford which I visited, and nearby the Ford Museum complex which I once stopped in at but never entered. Maybe this time, including a Rouge River plant tour. (I recalled that Ellen, a Quaker who took my photo workshop at Friends General Conference many years ago, works or worked for Ford. I will try to contact her for an inside tour.)

The library is large, spacious, airy, with good views out to the green zones and the conflicting huge Ford headquarters, and features a partial second floor looking over much of the first. It exhibits mundane paintings, and a spectacular mural slightly resembling the USA . Well endowed, I am covetous of this museum, a counterpoint to the conventional image of an impoverished Detroit. Of course this is the town of Dearborn, cousin to Detroit, in many ways far better off—as Windsor Ontario Canada is to Detroit, just across the river.

MuralDearbornLibrary_8617

MuralDearbornLibrary_8618

Mural in Ford library

The biking exhausted me, I am thankful for the cool weather. Cold at night. I believe the folding bike is less energy-efficient than a touring bike so I need to work harder to gain the same amount of distance. However, I am pleased with my bike, and consider bringing it to Ann Arbor this weekend when I visit Anne and Fred and Karen.

My photographic work is inch-by-inch, millimeter-by-millimeter. Perhaps yesterday’s main discovery was the Ford complex. Too bad it did not result in photos. Main work the day before was AW and Johnny, with photos showing AW. Today, who knows? The weekend, ditto. So it goes. As Gertrude Stein stated, “I write a little bit each day and in that way a lot gets written.”

Reflecting on my dream last night of exhibition failure I suspect the fear of not being shown is equivalent to what Primo Levi wrote about Auschwitz inmates—their nightmare that when released and home and safe, no one wanted to hear their stories.

A horrifying dream in which my photos apparently did not make it into a major exhibition, whereas the art work of “my partner” did. Mine were large, mounted on stiff board about 3 by 4 ft., in a box that resembled a bike box. I felt humiliated. Merging with this dream another in which a Black man chased me. I fled and hid in the cavernous exhibition space I just mentioned. And this dream melded into another that featured the death of a man. Others discovered his decaying, stinking body. Alex K, dressed as a priest, was to officiate at the funeral. He and I tried to squeeze out thru a narrow hole in the wall.

Working at my neighbor Gloria’s last evening (for the internet) she told me about her “grand baby” (now 10) who won a bike by diligently continuing her studies over the summer. Grandma Gloria pushed her so when the good news of the bike registered, her grand-daughter said, Grandma, you deserve this bike! At 7 years old she finally rode without training wheels, with the help of Gloria, but now, because of the bike’s complexity, she is again afraid to ride it. I offered to work with her.

Gloria-Detroit_portrait_9202

Gloria Milligan (photo from 2011)

Jaina-Detroit_portrait__1

Jaina (photo from 2011)

I note in passing how obese many African-Americans are here. (Gloria is a clear exception, as are Johnny and AW.) More women than men. The food they eat—fatty, sugary, with little nutritional benefit—must play a gigantic role. Also depression and other effects of living under the gun of racism. Would they be slimmer if less oppressed? Is there a correlation between suffering and obesity? (Since I work every morning at McDonalds because of the internet connection and notice the plethora of adverts for fatty sugary food, I hope to make a series of photos to show this.)

mcdonalds-Big-Mac

Karen’s house is working well for me. And the neighborhood, so far. More than on other trips I seem this time more tuned to crime, worried that I’ll be robbed or the house burgled. Last night as I drifted into sleep a loud sound startled me, probably a car horn. At first I thought, oh shit, someone’s breaking in! Gloria mentioned that Johnny is a sort of neighborhood watch. He might serve to dissuade local robbers. But what about my meanderings around the neighborhood? Say on a walk or bike ride. Will someone attack me? How would I nonviolently resist?

My (temporary) home in west Detroit

Door-Detroit-8615

George-house-Detroit-housing-

George, my guide, informant, and driver in front of Karen’s house

I make the house my own in many ways: setting up my meditation space this morning with a candle and candle holder I found in the ante-room, ash tray to hold the incense, bow to the fake Xmas tree because I forgot to bring my midget Buddha, and sit on the hassock rather than zafu and stool in the front room. Or shitting. Or cooking delicious beans last night and eating breakfast at the dining room table where I write. Or visiting with Karen when she arrives late afternoon today.

I ponder how rapidly this house could self-destruct if abandoned. Paint peels, water creeps further in, plants erode structure, birds may enter, varmints as well, people even. Someone tosses a rock thru a window. Or sets fire to the garage. Before long the house is junk. Maybe someone attempts to clear it of furniture. Piles it up outside the house, a clear sign of abandonment as is so frequent in this neighborhood. I wonder if I should photograph the interiors of abandoned homes, a form of meditation. Or has this been done sufficiently? Surely with major buildings like the Michigan Central Train Station.

House-Detroit-housing-8758

In my neighborhood

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

Henry Ford Centennial Library

Abandoned Houses: One Block in Detroit,” by Danny Wilcox-Frazier/Redux

 “Duggan neighborhood plan targets abandoned house, scrappers,” by Matt Helms [Duggan is a mayoral candidate.]

Investments in Detroit homes

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