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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.

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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.

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Gloria Milligan (photo from 2011)

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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

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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.

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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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Along Grand River Ave

Johnny, my next door neighbor

Eastern Market

Felicia in an urban garden, part of Team 313

Excerpts from my journal while on the road for 3 weeks to the hinterland of the USA, with photos to show and photos to make.

PHOTOS

We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.

—Grace Lee Boggs

June 22, 2011, Wednesday, Detroit, K’s

Warm, low 70s, partly cloudy, turning to overcast, hazy, still—after an evening and night of heavy rains, with electricity. could rain again today.

This morning on my morning walk 3 dogs greeted me as I strolled south on Washburn toward Grand River. They lumbered toward me, I continued toward them on the sidewalk, I hoped they’d diverge. They didn’t. They challenged me, they snarled at me, they came very close to my legs. I thought they might bite. I tried talking sweetly to them. They didn’t listen. They weren’t like the Palestinian dogs who give ground when approached, despite their vicious appearance. I startled, turned away, watched them, prepared for them to bite.

Would I kick them, flee, or—as I ruminated later—whack them with my camera on a strap, really laying into them to hurt them, drive them off? I gave them the sidewalk, took the street, and they lost interest. Were they trying  to protect some turf? Were they simply mean? Perhaps from a background of abuse? I wish I could ask them. The little shits.

Remarking to Anne about my use of McDonald’s I noted to her that McDonalds’s and other large eatery chains can help remake blighted areas. They have financial backing and experience to open a store in a neighborhood that is not friendly to such enterprises. Like the one I live in with its McDonalds’s. My McDonald’s is thriving, its drive-thru service open 24 hours, the main part from 7 am to 10 pm. There is always a large group eating when I’m there working with the internet (my main reason for attendance), and many are also conversing together across tables. Occasionally a large group sits around one table. Good for business and good for the neighborhood? Yes. Good for the world? Not so sure.

Returning from McDonald’s yesterday I stopped at the Grand Price Foodland store for bananas, orange juice, greens. I noticed the produce person looked Arab. I noticed another worker looked Arab. I noticed the man at the customer service booth looked Arab. The cashier was black, she looked to be the only black employee. Does this signify a change of ownership? Are Arabs the new Koreans, taking over local businesses? Part of urban renewal? If so, how are they received by local people? I should ask my neighbors, Johnny and Gloria.

Biking home yesterday on a hot muggy day, not too long before the rains hit, I came upon a movie being made: Have A Little Faith. Perfect title for Detroit. At the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr and Grand River, using an old dilapidated church as a set, well over 100 people were preparing a scene. The scene might have been about roof repair because a truck with a large crane was parked in front of the church, the roof definitely needed repair, and they were rehearsing with a crane-mounted camera. I was amazed at the amount of equipment, people, and preparation for what might be only a few moments of film time—and the cost.

Trying to find a good position for my camera, honoring the restriction of barriers, I set up, only to be confronted by 2 large black security guys who insisted I move off the sidewalk and down the street. Is this not public property? I asked, pointing to the sidewalk and street. It is but we rented it and have full rights to its use. Which may be correct or not. I’d like to check. Initially I resisted, just stood there after my brief conversation, and then relented after I’d made a few photos and thought maybe I could find a better spot. More security men insisted that I move again. With the same rationale. I managed to make a few photos from a distance, unsure what I was photographing. Was the camera merely recording the condition of the church? Or rehearsing for an actor perhaps to repair? I learned that one of the stars from Matrix is in the film.

I compared this operation with our recent movie-making in Gaza. Gaza very simple: small crew, one camera, one boom mike, no tracks or cranes. No security either which seemed to make up a large portion of this crew. One take, virtually no scenario. Will Have A Little Faith be a better movie because of its elaborate infrastructure and financing? Will Eyewitness Gaza be a better movie despite the lack of infrastructure and its slender budget, or partly because of it?

Yesterday’s 4 hour plus bike ride on a miserably hot and sweaty day brought me several gifts: urban art in the form of Mr. Dabls who paints and applies broken glass to abandoned exteriors—and constructs an outdoor museum which rivals Heidelberg, the better known one in Detroit, and even that of Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. Also Felicia who I met digging thru the soil near Mr. Dabls, planting and weeding a patch about 10 by 10 meters. She told me she is part of Team 313 (after the local area code), serving the people of Detroit, all the people she stressed. She is also widely traveled, living in South Africa for some years and other parts of Africa.

Mr. Dabls accepted my portrait invitation, but smiled as he peered at me while on his ladder. Felicia believes that she is not photogenic so she initially declined my invitation. As I was walking away she said, but an action shot would be OK. I photographed her weeding the onion patch.

Dabls means beads and his Mali ancestors were beaders. He is also and uses them in his constructions.

In photographing the outdoor museum with its many mirrors I noticed myself in one distorted mirror. I wanted to believe that my chubby, varicose-veined legs were a product of the mirror. But I suspect what I saw reflected what others see: chubby, varicose-veined elder legs. Not at all the appealing legs I once had. Years ago biking transformed my legs from sticks into strong and muscled works of art. And now? Deterioration.

Leaving yesterday morning for McDonald’s, Johnny greeted me as he often does, asked where I was headed on my bike. He allowed me a portrait, what I think might be a good start in this neighborhood series. Next, Gloria across the street.

My main goal yesterday was to explore the Detroit Eastern Market, and finally I did, taking once again the wrong path but thereby extending my exploration. Turning left onto Rosa Parks Drive (liking the name) from Grand River Ave, having located MLK Boulevard and might take that east to the market, I thought I was heading east. No, I was traveling north, away from the market. Into a zone of new housing, amidst old abandoned churches.


Belatedly I discovered my mistake, reversed, and finally found the market. What makes navigation tough for me is the Detroit’s skewed layout: often a grid, the streets are usually not oriented north-south and east-west but north is more northwest. The basis is the river, northwest-southeast, not east-west and north-south. In addition some streets like Grand River radiate out from the city center. Grand River is west-northwest, not northwest as I once supposed. Complicating the mess is that some streets are north-south, east-west, like Wyoming St. And then there are the maps. The bus map is absurdly unreadable, the tourist map doesn’t list all the main streets, the AAA map cuts off just when I need it.

The market was not exactly thronged on a Tuesday, that happens only on Saturdays so far. My first stop was an outdoor grocery where I made no photos but bought walnuts and dates. Next a flower shop, outdoors, myriad flowers, and I happened in while a postal worker was choosing her plants. This allowed me to photograph her and the proprietor, a well-tanned fellow (I’m here 24-7, he told me when I remarked about his skin tone.), with curly hair graying slightly and a gray goatee. Noticing the small fridge inside the building I surmised that he might sleep there to protect the plants.

I also surveyed the Gratiot Ave market (pronounced gra-shit) for possibilities, found none, lousy lighting, and I’d have to struggle for good person access. Maybe later. Best on a Saturday, but both my remaining Saturdays might not be good. Next Saturday is the Allied Media Conference, and the following Saturday is the weekend of July 4th. Which might be perfect—or might be a rotten choice. I will check.

My bike is perfect for such perambulations. Around and around the vicinity, stopping and dismounting easily for any possible photo. Much easier than walking surely and even driving. To exit and enter a car many times a day is tiring. Much simpler to jump off the saddle onto the sidewalk. Photo and remount, zoom off.

I used my big SLR camera for the first time on this trip, and the wide-angle lens might have been perfect for the outdoor art photos. For the movie set I missed my telephoto lens.

Where to bike today? River and refinery area maybe too far. It also looks like rain. What might work that is closer?

Dreamt: I had set down my small khaki shoulder bag with many of my valuables as I walked around with a few friends. I was to leave on a long trip the next day. Where had I left the bag? Would I be able to find it? Was it in that wooded spot we just visited?

A young man invited me to speak briefly to a large group of young adults who were making pasta with noodle machines. I was naked except for garden work gloves. The young man noticed and mildly inquired, why naked? I had no answer. I felt deeply troubled by the potential loss of my bag—coming one day before I was to leave. I desperately needed my wallet, notebook, date book, maybe even the camera if it was in the bag. While waiting for the group to take a break to hear me I wandered off to a large lecture hall where I vaguely remembered we’d visited. It held classes about medicine. No bag. What to do?

I woke, thankful that this was dream.

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

Detroit Eastern Market

Team 313

Dabls bead museum

“Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape,” by Rebecca Solnit

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

Eyewitness Gaza Preview

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