January 2011: I am preparing for my first real visit to Detroit, the city of my birth. I am a Californian, where I have been since age one when my parents packed me into a car to seek fame and fortune in LA. It is strange to be defined by something unknown but when asked if I am a "native" Californian, I answer, "No, I was born in Detroit." It seems time to investigate what that means. So I have come "home" on my birthday to photograph Detroit.

This blog is part of an accompanying journal about the project.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

20 January: Birthday Day Detroit

On my 65th birthday, today 20 January, after 64 years I am back inside my original family home on Pinehurst Drive in the Northwest section of Detroit. I am here through the graciousness of the Faust Family - sisters Mary Faust Hammons and Veronica Faust and their brother Maurice Faust - whose parents purchased this house in 1973.

A remarkable family, with a heritage of four generations in the auto industry, from farmers in Tennesee coming to work the line to college graduates at GM. A family full of activists, teachers, artists. Hard workers, like so many they say are still left in Detroit and if not working now, are ready to do so.

I am here after two full days of wandering all over Detroit, starting Tuesday morning at the Park Avenue House, formerly the Royal Palms Hotel where my father lived from l939 until he married in 1944. This hotel, home of the famous Town Pump restaurant, and other Park Avenue businesses are readying for a comeback.

Buoyed by the morning, I was unprepared for the afternoon where my guide, a photographer and urban explorer drove me from Highland Park to Corktown, to the Train Station, to the Eastside and then the Packard Plant. I know much of this is Detroit history - some closed in the '50s - but the devastation is overwhelming and I am reminded of a film seen years ago with some German friends, the first film filmed in Germany after WWII. Then, as I viewed the protagonist enter a church with no roof and hardly any walls, my friend who had been a child on the streets during the war, leaned over to me and whispered, "These are not sets."

Neither is Detroit a set and the poignancy of these sights is overpowering. I can understand the relevancy of the books of Andrew Moore and of the Marchand/Meffre team for, not only for the sake of Detroit but for the United States at the very least, this part of Detroit is a call to action, not just for Detroit but for all of us to understand what has been happening to our country, slowly, not just in these times but over the years. It is a call to awareness.

Yet at the same time, I could not post last night as emotion overwhelmed me.

There is a reality to what I saw. There are other realities in this complex city as well and my birthday gift today was a day filled with a variety of experiences that again balance some, not all, of what I had seen. This started with a visit with attorney Dwight Phillips whose firm, PfiferWhite, redeveloped the Annis Furs Building, the workplace of my father and a beautiful architectural piece of Detroit.

This view through the 6th Floor windows with cornice pieces.

From there to John K. King Books, one of the largest collections of used and rare books and a lot of whatever else I have ever seen and where I could have stayed forever.

I ended the day with the Fausts at the bi-monthly block meeting of the Henry Jolly Memorial Pinehurst Block Club where passionate neighbors have come together for safety, beautification, plowing their street, and other community activities such as block parties, yard sales and checking in on elderly neighbors. One cannot but come away encouraged how neighborhoods and the strong reinvention of them are becoming an active and essential key to the reestablishment of this beautiful city.

They speak of neighboring block clubs who have contacted them for association. As they say, they are retaking Detroit "block by block."

Although one day remains on this first visit, I must already thank Detroit for this birthday week. The Detroit Regional News Hub has called me a "blank slate," a "native daughter" returning to Detroit with no preconceptions. In many ways that is true and how Detroit, I and perhaps others are defined in this process of exploration still remains unclear but it continues to be fascinating.

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