Thursday, September 25, 2014

Inspiration & Impulse: Impressions of Detroit

We come clunking into Detroit, full of vague, half-formed expectations and fresh from Over The Rhine, Cincinnati, where we visit a bustling farmers market, snap photos of bright murals and are called to by people clumped together in stoops, idling near their neighbors on bikes, or passing in a car. They crane their necks to look at the tattoo on Tressa's thigh, they ask how we are, two white girls in shorts with bright backpacks and lost faces.

Detroit comes puffing into view, on either sides of us steely machinery sprouts up, billowing sinister pink clouds, and the freeway rolls us onward, small beneath the ruddy brown of so many tall buildings of crumbling brick and broken glass, boarded up or jagged. We are pedaled around in Mars' rickshaw, like uneasy royalty, gliding beneath the tall sky walk, bumping through orange cone road work, where a deep trench has been hacked into the road for the light rail. Mars asks a passerby what he thinks of the people mover, as they call it, and he shakes his head and says, it's a waste of damn money.  We sweep along chain linked fences and big graffiti walls, in and out of the streets, every other building staring back with a vacant gaze, and we wait for the city sound, but it's quiet, footsteps and friends calling out, here comes trouble! with affection in their voices. Parking garage attendants smile at us and business transplants roll by in identical cars without looking.  Now there's a new city hall, while the old one glowers with abandonment, like so many other old structures, regal with copper and brick and ornate paint but dark with loneliness.

Something hangs in the air, something more than the burnt smell of industry. We eat caramel apples and watch a live drummer play with a DJ at the grand opening of an abstract new mural — it's open to the public but a security guard smiles at us from his post. Yeah it's open to the public, but they're probably not letting in the crackheads, Mars says, stony and unreadable in his dark shades. He says he wasn't schizophrenic until he did too much LSD, and now he tries not to take in too much information at once. He says he doesn't trust the new girl at the cafe yet, she looks stressed as the line piles up, but she digs him out two extra pickles and knows him by name. He tells us about the bike shop and the squat he poured himself into, the greenhouse and the gardens, and the windows he made with old glass bottles and cement. He tells us about being stabbed in the shoulder with a screw driver. He tells us about his disappointment with the projects, all this potential and beauty squandered by a lack of motivation, just a bunch of stoners without the foresight to gather firewood before fall. He doesn't have much to say about home, he doesn't feel any of that in Detroit, but he's going to be here for a while, partially to build a relationship with his father, and they're going hunting next weekend, so...

Detroit feels so full of possibility; emptied out and purged and burned and battered and ready for something new, ready to burst back up from the broken glass and build something, but the question is what and by whom. Here's a place dense with history and hurt, and so much desire. What can we fill these holes with to make it whole and how can we cradle that history and build upon it without burying it? People are asking themselves, asking their neighbors.

Detroit is not a blank slate, Harry says over a table full of Lebanese food in Dearborn. He tells us about leaving in 90's, how he'd never expected to be back, but here he is, a week away from buying his home in Brightmoor, a neighborhood hit hard by heroine and crack and yet now full of community gardens, full of boarded up houses that have become murals, poem houses, theater spaces, neighborhood message boards. It's easy to come in and look at all the empty space and think — I could put something here, this could be mine — but it's harder to see all that blank space in the context of its surroundings and its history and to escape the cycle of colonization, the weird white impulse to conquer, and instead make use of that space in a way that considers its impact, that is respectful of the people that never left Detroit. Some people are saying, let's bring Detroit back, to what it once was, but that's not an option, so now there are people like Harry, the skinny white guy that walks his two dogs through Brightmoor every day, and his neighbors with their handmade chicken coop and youth garden market stand, trying to bring Detroit forward.

We visit RECYCLE HERE! where artists are welding a storage container into a workshop space in an art park with a dinosaur made of junk and cityscapes painted in rubble around a fire pit, by the overpass, filled with stagnant puddles and incredible painting. "War is over!" "Evolve!" "Dear Dad, this is my last letter." We meet factory workers next door that pose with us for a group photo, warm and laughing and present. Across the street, sooty artists laugh, too, snapping a photo of us posing for our photo in front of a the big YOU GO GIRL mural. They lean up against a planter box made of painted tires, smoking cigarettes in overalls and dirty white shirts. They are from Florida and Tennessee, here now to weld, to live in a artist communities like the Treasure Nest. They tells us about underwater caves and queer communities in their home states, they tell us we should be in Detroit for the weekend when there will be a flame thrower and green eggs and jams at dawn.

When we drive away, in the heavy honey light of the setting sun, dodging potholes and wondering about all the parties we'll miss, we are full of longing and relief and ideas and regret and inspiration and hope. We want to stay longer. We feel that empty-space impulse, too. What could we do with all this crumbling open terrain? We can feel that there is so much more, something amazing being built behind the next turn, something big being dreamed up in the hollow building two blocks down, someone fascinating to talk to drinking coffee in the next neighborhood, but it'll all have to wait. Travel is never ending, a constant unraveling of all the places you want to be and all the ways you can get to know them, all the time you can spend burrowing into the heart of somewhere. Travel is an impossibility, the further you go, the more places you promise to return to, the more you realize you can never do it all. The more things you glimpse, the more you are aware of all the other billions of things that are ceaselessly occurring out of reach and how limited your scope of experience is. All you can hope to do is really be there for the moments you are able to access, to really be in whatever space you are inhabiting now.

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