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.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

September in Detroit, Part IV Saturday 20 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.


At Grand Circus Park with view of Broderick Tower

I am spending one additional day in Detroit to see friends and wander a bit more, hoping to return for a more intensive photo shoot in October.  

I breakfasted with my "family by house," the Faust family of siblings whose parents had owned my family home in the Northwest and with whom I try to visit each time I am in the city.  Mary Hammons Faust, Veronica Faust and Maurice Faust represent for me the regular people of Detroit, knowledgeable about their home city, experiencing the ups and downs of everyday Detroit, ready to discuss it all.  And discuss we do, especially since I am brimful of information and enthusiasm after the past three days.

Of particular interest: neighborhood.  I mention one of the civic neighborhood initiatives already in practice: providing lawnmowers to residents who promise to care for their properties. There are families raised in the decades of decay who have watched their neighborhoods disintegrate before their eyes.  Unused to the concept of order and what it means not only for neighborhood beautification but for safety and land value, they have forgotten home pride.  

The simple gift of a lawnmower is bringing order back but, as Maurice points out, it requires that residents be trained to take care of their property, something to be undertaken by the block as a whole to ensure that this type of neighborhood pride and resultant enhancement takes hold.  A simple idea that can be suggested coming down from civic leaders on high but that also requires encouragement and guides rising up from each block. 

A great block club example is the previously noted Henry Jolly Memorial Block Club, where Veronica Faust is on the Board.  In 2013 I photographed another terrific block in the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood where the boards of what abandoned houses remained were brightly painted by residents with the words of W.E.B. DuBois, an abandoned lot had become a community vegetable garden and park, and all populated houses and yards were inviting and immaculate. While the streets  around this Wabash block were sad examples of the decay too prevalent in the city, this block shone and I would like to return soon to see what's happening today. 


Similarly and as a part of the requirements for renting a home there, the Penrose Art House and Garden development for low income families requires not only home maintenance but has also established a neighborhood agricultural center and art garden for community meetings and childhood afterschool education and activities, all beautifully designed and founded by Detroit friends, landscape architects (note Lafayette Park downtown by the Book Cadillac) Beth Hagenbach and Ken Weikel.  I've spoken about this before.

Readying for pumpkins 2013

The concept of a block club or a neighborhood community mission has been around for a long time - I am on the Board of a similar resident dues-paying organization out here in my California canyon - and it is there in Detroit (http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2012/05/plan_would_let_detroit_neighbo.html) but it needs to be reinforced and expanded.  Wherever I travel in the city, the individual residents are eager to improve where they are.  It just takes a bit of effort to organize and do so.

And right on point today: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20141006/NEWS01/141009858/duggan-in-bankruptcy-court-weve-recruited-top-corporate-team-to-run  "...  The mayor described the city’s progress rebuilding services including streetlights and buses, as well as police and fire protection. One focus has been on persuading residents to begin repairing their own blighted neighborhoods."

By coincidence my young friend David Selsky, a fellow photographer and son of great friends from my music industry days, contacted me as he was about to attend a conference in Detroit, asking for thoughts about what to see there.  Our conferences were both ending Friday and we arranged to tour a bit on Saturday.

A challenge: what does one show a city about which one is also still just learning?  I am past just showing the devastation, definitely not the full story of Detroit today, tourist or otherwise. David already knew about the Packard plant, the Heidelberg project and several other known spots so we arranged to meet in Eastern Market, where I wanted to visit with Megan O'Connell and Leon Johnson whom I met in 2013 at Salt & Cedar Press, their amazing letterpress, art, conversation and farm to table food event venue.

Our great luck: Leon's intensely thoughtful exhibition, Ark: Field  Dressings just opened at the press.  This year Leon was awarded three highly regarded fellowships: a Kresge Arts Fellow and two residencies as the 2014 Martha Daniel Newell Distinguished Scholar at Georgia College and most recently, a Bemis Foundation Fellow.  Our greater luck: to see Leon and Megan's son, Leander, hard at work packing to take Salt & Cedar Press to the NY Book Fair as well as his own zines.  It is always so invigorating to see this creative family investing in and living a Detroit that is here.  

Knowing David would be here another day and wandering on his own and that my time was limited to getting out of the city for my afternoon flight, David and I went took the "little tour," i.e., not the grand ruin but the small recent history, all of which provides a tale of Detroit today and is, thematically for this post, about neighborhood.  We drove through the beauty of Boston Edison, an leafy elegant upper middle class residential area where signs of blight are few but still are there as evidenced by glimpses of tacked on wood at windows and unmowed lawns, hopefully lessening; Highland Park, a separate city surrounded by Detroit and the site of Ford's historic factory and where, finally, the fire department building has been rebuilt although its memory as an, ironically, burned out hulk standing in sad solidarity with the police and civic hall buildings in 2011were some of the saddest memories of my first 2011 visit, but also where one could see examples of what I wrote above: one block filled with trees and children playing in the street, the next where houses stand isolated from each other by vacant lots. Finally, we drove northwest to my "own" Pinehurst block so that I could take my each-visit photograph of my Pinehurst family home and David could see real Detroit living in the suburbs today. 

Ending this visit with my home photograph seems right.  As one Detroit Homecoming participant commented when I gave him my business card with my winter photograph of my birth home, "This is just right for Detroit, for this is what the promise of it was: a modest home."

So much of this visit seemed directed to trying to bring this back.

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