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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

September in Detroit, Part III Friday 19 September

"September in Detroit" is a multi-part post, part of the continuing series of musings on Detroit as I sit here, absorbing my own experience in the city combined with others' tales.  This particular 4-part series is best read from Part I below and then upward, if you can make it through...  I call it a "musing" as I attempt to make sense of what I see and experience each visit, part of my in-progress photo exhibition/book exploration of my birth city.

Same routine: 7:30 am shuttle but this time, a bit more awake and we are now chatting with each other on the bus, making friends and talking Detroit.

The short third day opened with conversation from the first woman CEO of a major automotive company, Mary Barra of General Motors who speaks to GM's past and present involvement with its native city, primarily in terms of GM's corporate and employee commitment to education and lately, neighborhood cleanup and "re-tooling" for skilled workers.

The conversation shifts to what was heretofore discussed as the "elephant in the room," the classic concerns of many Detroiters, the regular people: diversity and opportunity today combined with the changing face of the city.

Included within this: objections to the very type of convening we are attending, especially among those who now live in Detroit.  Among the objections: Many of the speakers are the developers who have their own agenda for Detroit that may not address other needs of those who are presently here and feel they are not being heard.  How does one balance the Gilbert/Illitch type of development, often with some extremely favorable tax credits, against the sinking tax base of the city in general? One example: this current post in the Metro Times during Detroit Homecoming.  There are questions raised when the residential mortgage issue is brought up - the great difficulty of obtaining them for Detroit residents eager to purchase, even when their mortgage payments would be less than the rent they are now paying - especially since Quicken Loans itself is Detroit-based.

Along with the information from Detroit Homecoming, it behooves us to absorb the varying arguments for this city but also, over time, to understand that one of the symptoms of Detroit's decline was the aspect of denial and complaint that resulted in a gridlock that prevented change from happening over way too long a period so that residents gave up and left.  Detroit must change. Detroit Homecoming is taking one approach.  Yes, of course there are others and it is our responsiblity, when we join in, to understand them them all.

A major closing panel - successful Detroiters or former Detroiters who are from the business arena,  men and women of color, Black and Latino primarily - addresses some of this: Will there be displacement when all these "new" ""young"[primarily] white businesses and people arrive and prices go up?  What will happen to the old neighborhoods and the strong historic Black middle class possibly first established here in Detroit? And most significant, "Is there a place for me in this new Detroit?"

Among them: Frank Venegas, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Southwest's Ideal Group and the grandson of a Mexican laborer who came to Detroit in 1917 responding to the "$5 Dollar A Day" allure of Henry Ford, became successful by surveying his own neighborhood, the long-standing Mexicantown and cornered the market on industrial/automotive construction, much of it by employing those around him, including the Mexican gang members who then stood on street corners but who now have become managers in his firms.  For him, the Southwest remains a vital source of cultural and economic opportunity.

Gregory Jackson, CEO of Prestige Automotive Group/car dealerships in the greater Detroit area, one of the largest black-owned dealerships in the nation, reminds us that a strong city consists not only of a strong downtown but also of the neighborhoods and that those neighborhoods also need places and services for residents to gather to market, to have a cup of coffee, to dine.  Detroit's recent good news is centered on downtown Detroit but to create a strong city, he says, retail and business services need to be encouraged back to the suburban streets.  A recent example: the re-growth of the "fashion" boulevard, Northwest's 7 Mile and Livernois.

Ron Parker - not a Detroiter but President of the Executive Leadership Council with deep contact with those in Detroit - points out today's demographics for Detroit (2013):

White      10.6&
Black       82.7%
Asian       1.1%
Hispanic  6.8%
White (not Asian or Latino) 7.8% T

The need for better and comprehensive education, primarily early education leading to later and greater opportunity, continues to be a theme among the panelists here as well as one that runs through the entire 3-day session.

Here in a specific diversity panel, emphasis is on "developing the pipeline," ensuring that there will be powerful black and other ethnic leaders for a city - and a country - that should no longer have its future decided only by "middle-aged white men."  He makes a call out to the city leaders - the government, business and foundation leaders - to ensure that this does not remain the norm, a "disruptive force," he says to ensure that Detroit's rebound is all-inclusive.

One of the most powerful statements of this conference:  "If you are not planning, you are being planned."

Accompanied by pitch competitions of five Detroit startups, we expats are finally and directly brought to the point of being here: "No Free Lunch" and thus lunch is about solutions, ideas and a request to each of us to make a real commitment to do something for Detroit.  Led by a nationally recognized TEDx motivator, we are asked to stand up and vocalize our ideas, formalize our thoughts on paper that is then pasted on the walls of the lunchroom and we gather under those ideas where we feel we can best make a contribution, whether it be financial, emotional or innovative.  It is decisive and it is clear.

Out of this, Detroit Homecoming hopes to explore investment and other concrete solutions in this first of what is hoped to be a continuing and expanding outreach to those connecting with Detroit. For expats.  For residents.  It is more than a good idea; it feels like it will work.

We end with a surprise guest, a product of  Detroit: Michael Posner, a young but already nationally noted songwriter/recording artist, who brought us his newly constructed ballad, "Buried in Detroit."  Ok... playing on our emotions but hey, why not.  It makes sense and Michael is a beautiful songwriter, a little of Dylan and Springsteen and my music roots love this ending to a well-spent three days.(and ok, I can photograph but put in into video mode and I really suck... Listen to the music, don't watch).

Returning to Detroit after this year's break, I wavered between my strong desire to be out with my cameras  and wanting to connect and hear the overall picture of what is happening today in Detroit.  I am glad I concentrated on the substance provided us by the latter.  My great thanks to Detroit Homecoming, Mary Kramer who is Publisher of Crain's Detroit Business and Jim Hayes who is the retired Publisher of Fortune Magazine, for taking this from concept to fruition and providing us the opportunity to connect and interact with so many speakers and ideas, an innovative approach for helping one of American's great cities.  As always, Detroit represents for me not only the beginning of my own story but an example of what American persistence can do.  It is happening here and we expats gathered here leave ready to enter into the "play" and frankly, play we must, for the story of Detroit is a North American story and outside of emotional or connective, it is a story we all must finish.

And oh... btw, I suppose a very tiny part of me could reasonably be "buried in Detroit" - although I had always thought that if not the Pacific Ocean, a bit of Jackson Hole or Paris or Tuscany might do - as a result of a surprise gift from Mary and Jim to each of the 150 of us gathered here: a 1/150th portion of a lot in Detroit's Virginia Park neighborhood.  What we do with this - including pay its taxes and keep it clean - it is hoped, will reflect symbolically on what we feel is our connection to and responsibility for Detroit.

And since we were now Detroit landowners, the final treat for those who had opted for this: batting practice over at Comerica Park, led by retired Tigers pitcher Dave Rozema.  While joining the others  ostensibly to take photographs I ended up batting which meant, for me, that I managed to connect the bat to the ball three out of ten tries without hurting myself or others.  Visually it was an experience to be on the grass in this silent park, right in the middle of downtown Detroit.  Keeping my eye on the other batters who were better able to connect with the ball, I wandered the diamond.

The day ended with a stroll down Woodward Avenue capturing a wedding party stopping for their photographs by the iconic Fox Theatre, my visit to the depths of the Book Cadillac and sunset on Michigan Avenue, a snippet of the dueling Coneys by Lafayette Park.  A tourist but a Detroiter.  Perfect but... not over ...

See Part IV, the 20th.

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