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Posts Tagged ‘we the people of detroit’

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. For three days of my first week in Detroit I attended the Second International Gathering of Social Movements on Water. Here are my notes from the first two days.

PHOTOS

Detroit-water_conferenceIMG_6249

June 9, 2017, Friday, Detroit

Illness might follow restoration of water because of bacteria and other debris left in the pipes and flushed out and into stomachs and throats. I am a test case [drinking from my home water system which had been shut down for months—no apparent illness].

Henry Ford hospital had been researching this but Mayor Duggins (“the emergency manager who calls himself mayor,” quoting Rev Rowe) pressured the hospital to stop, first not to release, then to entirely stop, claims Maureen Taylor, one of the gathering organizers.

Special Rapporteur on water, Dr Leo Heller, Brazilian, via Skype to the conference claimed there has been some progress toward making the right to water a universal human right (a question I asked), citing various cases. So denying water can become illegal.

Main goal is to force low-income (and Black?) people out of Detroit, claims Rowe, which provides a strong link with water rights in Palestine: force people out.

Other links between Michigan and Palestine might be to use water as punishment in Detroit and as control in Palestine. In addition to simple exploitation of limited resources.

I should read my water meter before and after to assess my use [which I did, giving information to my house, K, to use in settling billing]

West Grand Blvd. once the city limits and site of upper class homes [now largely deteriorated].

Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, California

Chief Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, California

Power of water blessing when said in a Native American language.

United Auto Workers will help with water justice struggles, claimed Cindy Estrada, a UAW official.

Valerie Jean Blakely, water rights activist, Detroit

Valerie Jean Blakely, water rights activist, Detroit

Stories of two women who’d experienced shut offs, one had child taken but child walked home in the dark.

Possibility that city either willfully mismanages accounts to generate income or is derelict in bookkeeping, cf K’s problems.

Shut off entire neighborhoods.

Spread costs of broken mains or continually running water in abandoned houses to other customers, claims woman on Friday panel.

“Not a bankrupt city but controlled by a bankrupt system,” quoting Rowe.

Man from New Orleans exiled to Birmingham Alabama for 5 yrs before returning to city. Compares New Orleans to Detroit, gentrifying the city with mostly white, mid and high income people.

Lower East Ward [once largely Black and low-income] now filled with more affluent people.

Two young women on bus work against corporate interests in Boston, webinar coming up to develop grass-roots action.

No bottled water allowed at the conference.

What sticks for me from talks are assertions and stories?

Baxter Jones

Baxter Jones, water justice activist, Detroit

Example of Baxter Jones, in a wheelchair, who’d been jailed for his water justice activism—sumud [steadfastness].

MORE NOTES AFTER DAY TWO

My entirely different reaction: too much taking at us and not enough, barely any, participation by us.

The gathering uses the old model of conference organizing: the banking model, experts fill students with info. Virtually non-stop, running late, a fair amount of repetition (Rowe and Nicole spoke today but also the evening before). Hopefully this does not model their grassroots organizing methods.

Large number of large people, mostly women, mostly Black, but not entirely. Many infirm.

Very few travel mugs, most drank out of Styrofoam cups. Suggesting the water focus may not spread to the entire environment.

Detroit-water_conferenceIMG_6301

Women definitely predominate, organizers, leaders, and participants.

Relative absence of the organization We the People of Detroit, Nadia an exception who gave for me clearly the best presentation of her panel—focused, concise, well crafted, illustrated beautifully by a slide show despite the use of power points. (Nadia explained that and Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People is at another conference).

Kids can no longer stay in homes without water [removed by the city].

Where are the extended bios of speakers?

Did Detroit once use only private wells, i.e., did everyone long ago have their own free water? Trace the progression from personal and private to collective and public. Adding a fee structure.

60,000 + another 18,000 cutoffs.

A man plays with his computer on the large screen behind the speakers, which is incessantly annoying. Altho occasionally he shows relevant images.

Detroit’s City Charter states a right to water and sanitation (Roger Bolton). CHECK THIS

Pre-Trump (now called “45” so we don’t use his name, as in 45th president) EPA recommended a sliding scale for water rates.

Org LIFTUP worked with several cities to establish more equitable payment plans but they served only a small proportion of customers. And shoves blame for non-payment onto the nonpaying customer, rather than addressing the unjust system.

Baltimore one of the worst cities for water and sewage infrastructure. Users have to pay for repair, when once the feds would help.

Detroit-water_conferenceIMG_6315

How can the unearned income tax credit help people behind in paying water bills?

Roger Bolton (Belmont MA-based?) drafted the Detroit bill for water rights.

California the first state declaring water is a human rights—ask L.

In Puerto Rico, coal combustion produces coal dust which is then used as fill and cover but this pollutes aquifers.

Write a story about the panelists, their back-stories, what led them to this work, what they sacrifice, what they achieve?

An entirely different spirit from that of the Jewish Voice for Peace national membership meeting I attend in March. Here there is little joy, the spirit is deadening rather than enlivening. I left at end of afternoon on Friday, unable to remain for the evening because I was exhausted rather than energized.

How define affordability? What plan can work to make water affordable? How calculate ability to pay?

Philly as a possible model, something like 1-3% of annual income billable for water and sewage.

The irony of Detroit surrounded by water (Great Lakes and innumerable rivers), yet many people suffer without water.

Great lakes hold 28% of the world’s surface water.

60% of Detroiters do not have sufficient income to pay for necessities, water specifically.

Shigellosis is a water-borne disease, afflicting some people in Flint and Detroit. How many total, and what proportion of entire population and the population experiencing water shut offs?

Check out Highland Park. First with water cutoffs? Before Detroit?

CASPER is a Detroit medical survey.

If proposed guidelines (by whom?) were followed, 80% of Detroit would be eligible for help paying their water bills.

Review Ford hospital study and the story about its squelching by Duggins.

Check out the water hotline on We the People of Detroit and inform K.

Have our water tested, the link is on We the People.

Story of salmon as transformational creatures, salt to fresh water, eg, finding way back to spawning grounds. (Native woman on Fri from Calif)

Microphone as a talking stick—does this allow the native woman to talk endlessly?

Flint: the activist organization [which one?] makes broad demands, not only about water, but pipes, rates, single payer health, emergency manager.

National campaign for lead free water

Hear from Melissa Mays, a key Flint activist, and [later] her 2 sons, 12 and 14, plus an older son, all with health problems related to lead (“growing pains,” but more serious and enduring and endangering than ordinary growing pains).

Water-related illness creates “foggy brain” in kids and they are then declared “behavior kids” and suspended and thrown out.

FlintH20justice—FaceBook page.

Read People’s Tribune.

Did I pay $100 for the conference, with $5 per day for food?

State Water Legislative Working Group—bills and hearing, attend some. (Stephanie Chang)

Renewed Poor Peoples’ Campaign (without the encampment), 50th anniversary next year.

Purpose of emergency manager is to steal assets like water. Look at patterns of which cities get the EMs.

Fresh, safe, affordable water.

Watch movie, “Something in the Water” [part of the America Divided series?]

Photos of Detroit light brigade and bat signals

Detroit-water_conferenceIMG_6312

LINKS

Flinth20justice (Facebook)

Are Detroit water shutoffs and illnesses related?” Bridge Magazine, by Joel Kurth

TO BE CONTINUED

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Wethepeopleofdetroit logo

As I prepare to travel to Detroit in a few days for most of June 2017, intending to knuckle down on two main themes, water justice and public education, with good leads in both areas, I’ve written this statement. 

An examination of the shifting dynamics in the country’s iconic post-industrial city. I hope to reveal aspects of Detroit beyond what’s now termed “Ruin Porn” and the starkly contrasting ultra beautiful and expensive development.

Public schools such as Noble Elementary valiantly struggle to survive and offer high quality public education. I wish to portray this struggle. I’ve photographed the Boggs School, as one example of this struggle, and plan to again on my upcoming trip in June. I also photographed the now tragically closed Detroit Friends School.

Detroit-Boggs_School-9297

Boggs School

Detroit-Friends_School-3765

“? of the day: which would make the best model to show the structure of the inside of the earth? a. baseketball, b. solid rock, c. hard boiled egg, d. a rubber band ball

Detroit Friends School

I’ll work with We The People of Detroit, an organization co-founded and co-directed by Monica Lewis-Patrick and return to the Boggs School for their closing parade and block party.

I have been photographing, making movies, and writing about Detroit since 2010, 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 pours in to build sports stadiums and commercial and residential housing. Little Money dribbles in to the remaining 80% of the area, inhabited mostly by African-American and other economically suffering people, many suffering from the recent bankruptcy of the city.

I ponder: will Detroit become the model for postindustrial urban resurrection or self implode?

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. The white owner of the house I stay in was educated very happily at Noble Elementary School. If I can gain the permission of its principal, Latoyia Webb-Harris, and staff and parents and students, I hope to show its current life.

LINKS

We The People of Detroit

James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership

Water justice in Detroit

Betsy DeVos and the twilight of public education

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