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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit in June 2017—or writing later. 

Omnipresent yet evanescent, block clubs are sometimes the major outlets for community organizing in the city—especially in neighborhoods otherwise lacking in political strength and clout. 

—A review by Amanda I. Seligman of Chicago’s Block Clubs, How Neighbors Shape the City 

Chicago's Block Clubs

PHOTOS

June 13, 2017, Tuesday, Detroit

Kim Sherrobi, bless her, invited me to a meeting of neighbors called the Birwood Block Club Association which exists in a cluster of neighborhood clubs. Apparently not focused on changing the system that led to the miserable state of Detroit, they focus instead on remediating some of the effects. As I wrote S.F. yesterday (very appreciative of her letter, delayed because she mistakenly assumed she’d written a response to my first Detroit letter—age related memory slippage?):

weatherwise, like in your area, we are hot! but with relatively low humidity which partially mitigates the pain. there is an ozone alert so for this and other reasons, i’ve minimized my bike travels. this evening i visited neighbors, in part to find leads for grass cutters. the grass in my place is more than 1 ft tall.

the international water conference [which I attended for the first 4 days of this trip] has been a mixed experience: lots of important info but little opportunity to participate. it’s the old top down, banking model of education. we are the experts with the info you need and probably lack, so sit in your seats and pay attention. we heard many painful stories from flint folks, the younger ones visibly suffering medical effects from contaminated water. i met a woman at the conference with water shut off experience. she agreed i could interview her next saturday.

today i attended a meeting of neighborhood activists who’ve formed a cluster group to improve their neighborhood. even in warm weather kids tend to remain indoors playing video games so one project is to teach outdoor games like skip rope, hide and seek, hopscotch, etc. imagine growing up without that play. another project which i hope to attend this saturday is to board up abandoned houses. another project is a bike parade which unfortunately i’ll miss because of timing. tomorrow evening i may attend a neighborhood meeting with local police. this is truly the grassroots.

tomorrow i attend an editorial meeting of a new publication called riverwise, all about and from the roots of detroit. and in the afternoon, maybe, i’ll finally gain access to the local elementary-middle school, noble, to interview some 8th grade girls who’ve completed a photo project about detroit. on wednesday i hope to visit flint for the first time and begin photography there. a friend has lent me her car thru friday.

one huge challenge of my detroit work is balancing the photography with house maintenance. K., the house owner living in ann arbor, expects me to do at least minimal house work. i swept and dusted, cleaned the tub, fixed some fans, look into grass cutting, and with her moved furniture back after she’d had the rugs torn up and new wooden floors installed. this cuts into my photo time but i wish to help. i pay her as well.

hoping your weather cools off and your work and rc and friendship circles flourish.

Birwood Block Club Association

The block club granted me permission to photograph freely so I plied my usual trade of listening with my ears (and eyes to pick up nuances of language), while using both eyes to search for photographable situations. I find when I tune to the photography, my hearing shuts down. And when I tune to hearing, I tend not to notice ways to use my camera.

The meeting was lively, interactive, synergistic, and productive. Fun as well. It was their first meeting of the summer, which will continue monthly, if energy can be sustained. The dynamic is opposite that of the water conference. The energy reminded me of Global Village Squares that I attended in 2015 in Bethlehem, organized by a team of Israelis and Palestinians, including Eric Yellin. One might argue the purposes of the water conference differed dramatically from those of the neighborhood meetings and Global Village Squares—to provide info. But I suspect forming networks and sharing knowledge and experience, beyond that of the presenters, remains a key ingredient. Or could be.

Birwood Block Club, Kim Sherrobi (R)

Birwood Block Club

Kim has invited me to other meetings today, which I wrote S.F. about. Weaving into today might be a drop-in visit to the Swords into Plowshares Gallery and Clara, its director, to test my laptop connection with their TV. And a visit to the office of We the People of Detroit to meet Sisley, the office manager, and gain more leads for water justice photography.

I reached Kate Levy of We the People, a local videographer and photographer whom I spoke with before coming here. She strongly advised me to not photograph suffering people but instead concentrate on water being shut off, water centers, hotline, etc, and activists. I wonder about this, understanding that too much media concentration on suffering can debilitate a movement but suffering is one of the ventricles at the heart of water injustice in Detroit. Another is opposition and renewal. I think about Eugene Smith’s monumental Minimata, how it skillfully blended both ingredients. The single photo that has risen in prominence from that series is of the mother bathing her daughter in a bath. Yet images of the struggle, especially the meetings with company officials, tend not to be seen as often.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, photo by W. Eugene Smith from Minimata

I will accept guidance from others, We the People in particular, notably one of its founders, Monica Lewis-Patrick. Perhaps also Kim Redigan if she returns my call.

Free Water Distribution by We the People of Detroit

Yesterday was fiercely hot and for the second day I was mostly indoors and off my bike. Today I hope to drive. George and Wink plan to drop off her car here this morning, any minute now, as they head for a vacation in Canada.

The invasion of the Quotidian

As I wrote S.F., I struggle with balancing photography with housework. K. wants me to find someone to mow the foot-high grass. Last evening I checked with Johnny who greeted me warmly. He told me to ask a neighbor who has the contact info for a grass cutter. I spoke with her, a reasonably long, congenial, and detailed conversation. She claimed that K. has refused to pay Gloria for the grass cutting she does, or maybe she refused to pay a higher fee that Gloria requested. So Gloria no longer mows the grass. I promised to speak with K. about this, but how to do it in a respectful, encouraging way? Perhaps with questions first rather than accusations. And I promised not to disclose my info source.

K. seems to experience a dichotomous relationship with Detroit and the house: holding on to the house which suggests some impossible-to-sever tie, and resisting being here and doing much with the house.

My home (as a short-term guest)

 

My kitchen

In the evening I put out the trash, including the pile I’d insisted on making when working with K. Old cords, phones, pre-vinyl recordings, water pipes, etc, and will recycle cardboard boxes. This represents some of the very little that K. has trashed. Among the still huge collection of useless items that if cleared might clear the brain as well.

Both Kim’s, Sherobbi and Redigan, seem driven. Kim S. told me yesterday she’s trying to slow down, drop some of her projects. Kim R. is known as a highly committed and hard-working activist. Incentives or quests, other than the obvious and political, for this bruising pace of work might lie in their personal stories, something not satisfied. Is it for a partner, a loved one? Does this also motivate me?

Photography

I worked further on my first set of photos, portraits from the conference. I struggled hard to develop something worth viewing from the series of people speaking against the large screen which projected their images from other events. The differential in color, contrast, and intensity of light is nearly impossible to bridge. Using a combo of decreased exposure and decreased contrast (contrary to expectation) led to the best I’ve been able to do so far. I sent S.F. my first image from this current phase, of Maureen Taylor, fiery leader.

Maureen Taylor

My new iPhone is useful: unlimited phone calls, texting, maps, hotspot, compass, current location, and instant info are among the most useful tools for me. I am less easily lost, more easily in touch, perhaps less easily confused.

This is regardless of the endlessly vexing problems I’m having with Internet speed and hotspot use.

Despite the heat, despite my uncertainty and worries about my project, despite the noxious house tasks I should take on, despite questions about SF, I try to retire each evening to the large soft chair in the front room and the hassock to read more in the current issue of Sun Magazine. This calms me and readies me for a long sleep on the cushions on the floor in the sunroom.

While speaking with K. yesterday about the house, in particular about the heat, the absence of openable windows, the possibility that I could keep front and back doors open, with barred gates locked, to blow cool air thru the house, I mentioned my vision of someone knocking on the door, pointing a gun at me, demanding entrance. What would be my options? Duck and hide? Open the door and be robbed? Resist and be shot?

She tried to placate me suggesting this would never happen. I remain unconvinced. Thru the night I kept the doors closed and locked, fan on low blowing on me. This morning I opened the door to the cooler outer world and turned fans on high.

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

“With few resources, block clubs find ways to stabilize and rejuvenate communities across Detroit,” by Aaron Mondry, December 2017

Interview with Kim Sherrobi, Hanan Yahya 2, 2015

Birwood Block Club FaceBook page

Littlefield Community (near where I stay)

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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit in June 2017—or writing later. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

—Chinese proverb

PHOTOS (from another neighborhood near mine)

June 12, 2017, Monday, Detroit

First phase 

The water conference is over. Now I need to develop my own contacts and find my own people to photograph. I can’t rely on intrinsic contacts that the conference provided—the speakers. Today [June 12, 2017] I plan to contact We the People of Detroit, trying Kate first, then Monica, then Kim Sherrobi. This could prove difficult.

Kim Sherobbi

Kim Sherobbi, 2017

Weaving into this photo process, the house process. K., the generous owner of the house I borrow,  texted yesterday evening that she expects to arrive here today “b4 12,” using the language of texting. During a long phone conversation earlier, we had discussed the grass, bushes, plumbing, fans, cleaning materials to buy, etc. The grass remains uncut, the bathroom plumbing is clogged, I repaired one large floor fan by attaching an electric plug, and discovered a loose fan blade on the other floor fan that had caused the rattling. I haven’t found a way to fix that.

I attempt a delicate balance between photography and house, between my Detroit mission and my Detroit residence. The latter demonstrates for me life in Detroit, a comparatively privileged life albeit, but touching lightly on matters many Detroiters face regularly with more severity.

I began my first Lightroom (LR) post production work last night, on the first conference batch of photos. Quickly I realized I apparently hadn’t remembered to reinstall the LR catalog to my portable drive. So I use the old one on the laptop. K.’s phone call interrupted me but I returned to the process. Even tho late in the evening, tired, I managed to import about 25 photos into LR for work today.

As expected, Internet speeds vary greatly depending on location. Near the school, it is upwards of 10 MB/S (megabytes per second). Near my house, about 5. On my porch about 2. Inside the house about 1. So for some purposes I might sit on the porch for Internet.

Logistics and friends

Since yesterday was so hot and an ozone alert was in effect—plus I needed to give my crotch some healing time and I felt lazy—I did not once ride my bike. Not even tempted. W. arranged to deliver her car here tomorrow; I can use it thru Friday. My central hope: get to Flint. Best if thru contacts, but even without I plan to drive the 70 or so miles and roam the city looking for elements of the water crisis. What might be visible? The Flint River, for one.

To check water use I read the water meter yesterday, after my first week here, giving me two more weeks to monitor water use. It reads 134.91, units mysterious.

I also checked the yards for possible seed planting. No luck, also no garden tools. So I scratch that idea. Instead, I’ll tend the tea roses, cutting two sprigs and bring them inside to grace my dwelling.

Washburn House_6392

My Washburn Street house, Northwest Detroit, 2017

For the first time in this trip I walked this morning around the Noble School grounds, about four blocks away, and maybe one half mile around. I recall other walks when I first thought decided to meet the principal and ask permission to photograph. This process so far has been fruitless. I recall walking in November with snow on the ground. I recall photographing the old dying tree that I photographed again this morning, this time against the rising sun.

C. finally returned my email, writing that he’s been busy with work, family, and house, but he’d like to take me out for lunch, maybe with one of his kids, but he wrote nothing about our movie and photo projects. I suppose I can conclude that they are all off. At least our friendship seems to continue.

Today I promised K. I’d talk with Gloria and Johnny about who can mow my lawn. Who might they recommend? Johnny keeps his lawn well shorn, as does Gloria. I reiterated to K. who sounded desperate last night that by not living here (she grew up in this house when it was an all-white neighborhood), not having someone as caretaker or reliable tenant, increases the burden. She constantly complains about the high cost of maintenance. Altho she has done remarkably well improving and maintaining it—storm windows, fridge, washer, sun room doors, (my favorite room, where I love to sleep on the floor, pilgrim style), and most recently the wooden flooring—she is often despondent about the value of the investment. She also seems to do little to rent it. Only twice in my 7 years, Jimmy, and then some students at a local college.

Neighborhood_4145

Outside my window, Buena Vista Street, November 2014

How would I house myself if not for K.? Or what even with K.’s place available might be better housing? Share with Barbara H.? Ask others? Rent? Buy? Squat?

My neighbor Gloria and local stories

After I’d settled on the porch for lunch, Gloria, my neighbor across the street, sat with me yesterday. She told me the following: young kids have torched the corner house across from mine three times. Johnny once owned it. Her water bill varies between $25-50 depending on whether she is alone or joined by her daughter who has heart problems and her grand daughter. She has cared for a handicapped man who recently bought a house down Washburn across Buena Vista. For 6 months he lived there without water and I presume heat. She brought him food, water, and used clothing. A woman with kids and a mother squatted in a house on our block. They used the backyard to crap, creating a fierce odor that disturbed neighbors who had them evicted. The streets have not been cleaned in recent memory, despite city-installed signs that declare street cleaning is imminent. Trash goes out Monday evenings, tonight, for pickup tomorrow morning. Large stuff pickup is bi-weekly on Wednesdays. The city might fine folks who put out containers too soon. She didn’t know of a plumber to call after I’d mentioned my clogged pipes.

Gloria-Detroit_portrait_9202

Gloria, 2011

Gloria is a good source of local info and a reliable and helpful neighbor. I would formally interview her except her style is not suited for an official interview, too giggly and repetitive.

Aerial Washburn Bunena Vista far SM

General area of my neighborhood in northwest Detroit, 2017

Aerial Washburn Bunena Vista close-marked SM

My neighborhood closer, my house marked with a pin, 2017

LINKS

“In northwest Detroit, residents have been revitalizing their neighborhood for years,” by Melissa Anders (September 2017)

“2 shot, killed in northwest Detroit June 2017,” by James David Dickson (June 2017)

“Requests For Proposals for northwest Detroit neighborhood include 100 houses, 257 vacant lots,” by Kirk Pinho (July 2016)

Statistics for my NW Detroit zip code (2015)

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