AS A VERB
Conversation with Detroit’s Alley Culture founder Sherry Hendrick
The mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, who rebuilt his city from the citizens-up rather than the SUVs-down, called it “Democracy at War.” We seem to have lost respect for ourselves as shown through our cities, for where and how we live. Those who have witnessed what is discussed in “Dialogue as a Verb” long before reading it, know the thin veneer we are being offered to live on in our new-hijacked-cities.
The dark side, or darker side, is that the hijacking business is implemented through art language, art workshops. The out of context usage of art disbands existing art, culture, history that operate on a more complex, more dense, existential discovery level than an ad, condo, urban farm, or chain store.
Every once in a while the citizens get a voice, or the city planners, or city councils strap in and appear to be addressing this hungry beast by deciding to build a percentage of these buildings as mid- or low-income. Once you have ripped out a neighborhood for the condo-thing (“with first floor retail” as the refrain goes), you can’t move the people back in. These are the people who owned, worked and shopped at the neighborhood stores. Those are bulldozed. There is no place for them except as cardboard pawns in an architect’s model.
Detroit, with all of its heavily publicized empty land, is bulldozing as fast as possible its not empty land from downtown to the Cass Corridor (known for its fertile arts community), and north to Albert Kahn’s ‘garden’ of architecture in New Center. Brooklyn is being pincushioned with a steel and vinyl-living high rise wall on the water front, and on the rock are the billion dollar Safe Deposit Box condos – empty, the bank account in the walls. Thin on city living, community building.
“A city has a soul.” Most people know this and have at least sensed the rapid loss that is in play.
as a verb
Everyone I know at some point during the past two years has approached me, as an ex-Detroiter and an artist, asking me questions like “Shouldn’t we all move to Detroit?” or “What is happening to the Detroit Institute of Art?” or telling me someone they know is going to Detroit for a “project” or to “study” what is happening there.
Of course we all know that Detroit, being the seat of the auto industry, has had financial trouble since the 1960s and 1970s. Some blame it on the difficulties between management and labor, some on corrupt city government, some on the importation of cars from outside the US. Whatever the genesis, the situation has worsened in past years to create a void both in population and infrastructure. Nature, hating a void, has filled it in with surges of people flooding into the city, each seemingly with his or her own agenda. What I am reading in the press is bizarre. Some seem to be drawn to cheap housing, some to the scene they read about is happening there, some to try and help, proudly buying someone’s foreclosed house for a pittance. Help? Hmm.
The question I keep asking is where are all the dislocated people? All the folks that lost their homes?
And what is the impact of this influx of hipsters-hucksters on what’s been a solid arts community and on the rest of the city?
The Detroit suburbs are strong and as stable as any others in the country. And although the city has lost an enormous amount of population and housing, there are and have always been real people there living very normal lives. Why then is Detroit ALWAYS portrayed as the ghetto? I feel as though the media treats it like a huge auto accident, portraying the destruction and playing to the voyeurism.
I asked my long time friend, artist Sherry Hendrick, who lives downtown and runs a gallery, a strong and vocal member of the community who has always kept her ear to the ground, if she would be willing to walk me through what is going on there now. Sherry has been there through everything and has an incredible politic. The following is from our conversations on June 7 and June 19, 2014.
where ever you go is ground zero
CH Sherry, I appreciate your willingness to have this dialogue with me about what’s going on in Detroit. What I am hearing has been bothering me for quite awhile.
SH I would like to widen the field in time and geography talking about the Detroit Question. I think what we see arriving here goes further back than a few years, and is a more global experience. Five years before the bombardment of Detroit articles, I noticed dramatic photos of sewers, in daily use built a hundred years ago, taken by young, independent explorers and anonymously posted on the web. Starting ten years prior to the sewers, photographers were also going city to city shooting architectural ruins. These above ground collections of photos became know as “ruin porn.” Majestic buildings not in use anymore, unlike the working sewers and infrastructure explorations.
CH It’s post-industrial. Looking at what’s left over from the generations before?
SH Maybe the curiosity and the photo records are fueled by the end of the century where we all began living in virtual space, and by the loss of the physicality of our industries. There was an archeology of the world’s decaying yet structurally semi-functioning cities going on over a twenty year period. As the press started focusing on Detroit, they lazily (re)used this ruin porn template on Detroit in their stories. We began seeing this more and more as a Detroit phenomenon, forgetting post-industrial is a global phenomenon. The filmmakers started coming through Detroit, followed by the NY Times, social economic engineer Richard Florida and his Creative Class template, Cool Cities (a Creative Class spin off by our governor), the art show think tank Shrinking Cities, and Amsterdam’s Partizan Publik think tank. All a kind of colonization and control from outside of the Detroit experience. Here’s Partizan Publik’s mission statement posted on their website in 2009.
Partizan Publik is a think and action tank devoted to a braver society. The Partizans explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments, which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings. As such we take part in the complex and continuous process of global social engineering.
CH Global social engineering? Engineering?
SH Yes! That makes me think of the famous hacker Kevin Mitnick. He was in prison for hacking. He said he got more – stole more – through social engineering people than hacking machines.
CH Did the Partizan Publik ever make it to Detroit?
SH All of the social engineers were riding in on different horses. As if you could engineer culture. People live through all this engineering and their response then becomes culture. Forty or fifty years ago builders and architects knew if you moved artists into an unsavory neighborhood it would come back, then they would remove the artists, invest, and build. Now these people, don’t even use artists or art, they use the idea of art.
CH What do you mean by the idea of art?
SH Sky Gilbert, a playwright and social provocateur left Toronto and the theater he had there for twenty years and moved to Hamilton, Ontario to escape being “in a condo or next to a condo.” To explain the “idea of art,” Gilbert says, “The worst crime is when gentrifiers mask themselves as artists. This one person was talking about ‘the culture industry.’ I said, I don’t consider what I’m involved in is an industry. What is the culture industry? He said, Oh, it’s like computer stores, greeting card shops. I said, those are small businesses, artists are something different. Unfortunately what happens is that artists, real artists, get kicked out by gentrifiers like this. And these people are running around going ‘I’m representing the arts community, because I represent a computer store.” I do see this moving into Detroit. They might be backed by local universities or corporations, and called culture but they are computer centers, or small craft businesses. Neither art, nor services.
CH How many of these people coming into Detroit are hands on artists? Or is this just new speak for something else, like looking for a scene, or an alternative lifestyle?
SH It seems now everyone arriving is an entrepreneur under an umbrella defined as “creative.” These are individuals grabbing the edge of all the stuff that was generated over the last six years of NY Times articles. It’s a head shrink way of looking at things that’s bringing people here.
CH I’m up to my elbows here in articles on Detroit.
SH You being up to your elbows in articles is a little frightening. I think it’s the press, whether it’s an independent filmmaker or a dependent filmmaker or the written press, that is part of the problem. It’s creating an unreal visual. The articles you are getting from the press are going to be inside that skewed loop. It creates the problem of people arriving here, but not knowing how to be here. Unconnected from the deeper aspect. Living in a magazine.
The recent moves on the Cass Corridor are a box store’s quantity, not quality. The Cass Corridor had a creative draw. That’s why it was so fertile. One found one studio at a time. Those places and people are being erased, replaced by bland condo buildings, and moving people in herd-like six hundred units at a time in a three-square block area, on a promise of more blandness and safety.
CH Are people moving there because they are reading these articles?
SH Yes, or hanging out to do their article. The stories keep getting generated. One example was a stranger who was literally running at us across the field with a pro camera rolling for his documentary. No introductions. This one was from France. We’ve had every country represented. A friend who has been in his neighborhood since the 1970’s, said he’s come to appreciate the Jehovah’s Witnesses on his porch, because it keeps the people on the corner with cameras from approaching. Late last year, going to my garden for lettuce, I found four people and a new black SUV next to the garden where Rich usually parks his van when he’s beekeeping. Rich made introductions. He told me that the man was the Dan Rather of Germany. They were at least doing a real story. They had been traveling the world looking at sustainable farming practices. Rich said, “more often than not, other broadcast shoots end up as a five minute feel good piece at the end of the news hour.” The feel good concept gives me the sense that people are unconsciously comparing their situation to Detroit. How do people survive the picture they have seen in the press? Feel good could be “it’s not us” or it could be “look how good they are doing (we, too, might survive).” Feel good pieces are also ballast – maybe paid – for the bankers and investors. It’s hard to separate the ad from the story.
CH How many people have actually moved to Detroit? What is happening to the established artists who have been in the community there?
SH That is a continuum. Here, upstate NY, in any town, there can be a carnival in town, but you’re going to be doing your art anyway.
CH That’s reassuring to hear. I am thinking of the artists who have been in Detroit all along, have gone through everything the city has gone through, remain there and have created a life there. Are they disrupted by all this influx?
SH The influx often tries to do what has already been done here, and done well, by Detroit filmmakers, artists, musicians. Sooner, or never, they find out they are piggy backing. My friend Joan, a filmmaker in Detroit, directed a definitive piece on the long established Arabic community in Detroit. In the recent influx, a person called from Brooklyn, also a filmmaker, saying they would love to come to Detroit to do a film on the Arabic community. Joan explained all the aspects of the dynamic Arabic community right where they are, in Brooklyn. Mick and I came up with the word “colonizers,” people arriving in Detroit as if there’s no one and no culture here. So much of this is going on, other’s have come up with the words “carpetbaggers” and “missionaries” to define their encounters. A person usually goes to a city to learn from it. To gather what it has. Not the other way around, with the assumption what you bring is bigger than what’s there. There have been some attuned people who realized this once they arrived. They put their imported projects aside to learn from the indigenous knowledge.
CH These people are going to come in and save you guys! Or are going to start something because they’re “brave.” I’ve seen all these pictures of people in their Detroit houses, reminds me of the students from Cranbrook who ventured downtown to set up an exhibition in the Farwell building. All the artists living and paying rent for many years were forced out of the Farwell without much notice. Cranbrook came into our spaces, with much of the artists stuff still there and made art. Real rough and tumble. Same idea.
SH Your description about what we experienced at the Farwell is a forerunner, a smaller template.
CH It sounds like pandemonium. Stories constantly. Here’s a guy who is taking a million dollars and buying up blocks of the city. How? Why? It is not happening in a natural way that is a progression of anything that could sustain itself.
SH Richard Sennett is a sociologist who focuses on architecture and sociology. One of his books is titled The Uses of Disorder. He explained how people have to be involved with the making of their own history. So when an architect creates a path or a walkway, if too many of them are pre-defined around architectural space or in a park, people aren’t allowed to make their own history. A path gets formed from here to there, here to there by the population’s destinations. That’s what’s missing from all of this pre-engineering.
Your bringing up “sustain” is important. There are many places it’s not considered – craft shops, paths, but one place that it’s not working is the selling of Detroit neighborhoods to other nations. There was a recent article on how much property was being bought up in Toledo by the Chinese. The article listed other cities and the percentages being bought. That’s a lot of absentee landlords and what follows is the deconstruction of the neighborhood. These buyers don’t lose because they only want the land.
I was trying to find the intended purpose in the pile of articles on Detroit in front of you. If you expand the picture to Washington and war, we are going to read repeatedly what Washington wants the prevailing opinion to be. You can’t have a war unless you have enough people who have bought into it. With this image we can go from the Farwell to Detroit to the US war machine. The negative Detroit press also helps the US keep the devastation that is across this country perceptually narrowed to one city.
CH Social engineering is an interesting term. Social media has flipped everything. Our “friends” aren’t really friends, most of them are people we have never met, never will. I’m sure that people a lot younger than us are freaked out by all this. Where is the grounding?
SH I wonder. Maybe there is none. But then again I have some cyber friends who are very grounded.
It was curious and unintended how Partizan Publik made itself known. In 2009, I got a call from a person from Toronto, going to school in Amsterdam and being sent to Detroit on one of Partizan Publik’s projects, “for a history on all the wonderful poetry and presses in Detroit in the 1960’s and 1970’s.” The product? Taped interviews, copies of which would be given to the Wayne State University library. There was something funny about this that seemed quick and empty. I asked, do you know what was going on in your hometown in that same time period when the National Film Board made all sorts of support available? It was rich with people working experimentally in film. By the end of the conversation she gave me the name Partizan Publik as the source of the project. When I looked them up, I found an entire section devoted to Detroit titled Detroit Unreal Estate Agency. The logo was a Monopoly house with the little chimney – upside down. The feng shui of the logo was not good. Let’s say you get someone targeting your city with an Unreal Estate label. I suppose if you own property, pay taxes, or even rent, you don’t want to be surrounded by an imported label of doom.
CH There doesn’t seem to be anyone trying to stop all this!
SH People are not taking time to, or are not able to, look at the effects, or the social and physical sustainability of the various plans being discussed or implemented. What is the footprint that will be left behind when they are gone, what are they erasing, how will they be revising history? It’s a bandwagon sandbox granting a violence of play on the city. Where anything and everything is up for grabs and can go quite wrong.
CH Sherry, You said earlier that you thought everyone is watching what’s going on in Detroit to see how this plays out. My thought is that everyone intuitively knows this country is in trouble. We aren’t working with our hands, we are post industrial for the most part. We make money, we spend money. We are not in the garden growing our food. Food is an abstract thing. Most people go to the grocery store, into the frozen food aisle. Food comes in square boxes, plastic, cardboard.
SH I also wonder how does this all keep going? If the press is to be believed, there shouldn’t be food on the shelves. There is a photographer who has hopped the fences to do a series of suburban mall pictures. Abandoned malls, plants that were growing in the atrium, dead, everything disheveled and empty. The ‘shuffle the population to the outskirts of town’ planning of the 1950’s and 1960’s that killed the cities, is now itself dying.
I asked an artist friend who grew up here the question you have been asking me. Do you notice a difference with all the influx of artists? He answered, “no difference. I have not noticed a change. Are they showing here? Detroit has always been a good draw for artists.” Pared down to that, I realized that is my experience. I don’t see them. Other than the odd article about a relocated artist selling one dollar inches of land. What I notice are the artists that are here, working. New galleries open, but most often they are opened by an artist who has been a part of the Detroit art community. A newspaper article didn’t bring them here. At every turn, I realize the expanding difference in the readers of the PR (your end) and being there as the subject of the PR (my end). Even a local, art-active person who lives in the suburbs is not going to experience what Detroit is subjected to at the center of the storm. A vast wall is being built. Although, you were savvy enough to put a question to what you were reading.
Detroiters experience the invasion of cameras on their porch working the rebranding, and the invasion of engineers trying to tell a population, that already knows, how to live. One was an architect from Germany with architectural plans for Detroit on how to put a bee hive on a roof. Detroit was built with more single family homes with yards than any other city of its size. We don’t need roof hives. And, roof hives have already been done here – in 1959 – by a teenager. A retired beekeeper told me when he had a job at Detroit Honey on 12th Street they allowed him to keep his own hive on their roof. The idea of “help” can be empty if not vetted by time and experience.
CH The thing that always resonates with me when anybody talks about Detroit and I think about going to school there and all the people that I know that are still there and the people that I know that have left, is the sensibility that we all had that it wasn’t a competitive art world per se. It was a community of people who were stoic almost to the point of being rugged individualists, independent, spiritual on some level or another. Everyone looking to make something that was real.
SH That’s a beautiful description.
CH I’ve always carried that with me. It’s my compass if you will. Is that still a strong sensibility there?
SH It is, and it moves outside of the art world, as well.
CH Since you run a gallery there you know a lot about what’s happening there.
SH Not always. This stuff is invisible, digital, ghosting. The Detroit community you described that was involved on many levels, I see it in these younger people who are working their creativity, asking the right questions. The ones doing so without being granted. We have good discussions like you and I would have. Some of it may come from the punk, or post-post punk ideology of DIY, community, feeding the homeless as equals, keeping the sounds going. Maybe it’s not in the art world anymore. Maybe the art world has lost its balance. Does the art world believe supplying answers by engineering cities and lives in Shrinking Cities, that this is art open to the questions? You and I used to say the most rewarding, and hardest, part is finding the question, not the answer. I see that in some of these young people. The ones that aren’t trying to sell something, can pick up a hammer or an idea.
CH Maybe making art has become so f-ed up that that these kids wouldn’t get involved with it. Maybe they are finding a place more sane or more pure.
SH Or, could be we don’t see their art, because in the political punk arena they appropriate, the very opposite of us doing our individual thing. Mick could come up with an idea or a line and it would be on someone’s poster the next day. There’s an attitude, what ever is out there, just take it. If you go into rap, where they are sampling and from there it goes into post-punk, and it’s full of appropriated imagery and words.
CH And into the visual arts. That’s where I first heard the word appropriation used.
SH We have come full circle. That’s the fine art world, I mentioned the rap world, then the post-punk, and if we circle back to Detroit – one version of it – colonizing the Indians – it appears empty because they can’t see the validity of the Indians, the moves on Detroit become appropriation. We could blast over what we have here and miss a lot of what’s already activated. Coming in with a new stamp is a pretty thin surface to live on.
The Wapole Nation Chief once said to us – Detroit artists, poets, musicians – you are the soothsayers, the spiritual leaders, and honorary members of our tribe. You included “spiritual” when you described the community you remembered. I believe that is the first thing to be left out in a plan. And, the unseen may be the most operative. Like the path not made yet.
I was listening to a KPFK interview with music historian Harvey Kubernik about his new book Turn up the Radio. He and the radio host, who both grew up in LA, side wound the interview into their memories of a small record store. They were talking about who they met there, what they learned there, discussions they had there. As I was listening I kept returning to your description of Detroit. The community and the sharing back and forth.
CH Maybe it’s nostalgia for something that would have happened anywhere back then and maybe it doesn’t happen anywhere now. Like if you are from Italy and move to the US and you think of Italy being the way it was when you left there.
SH There is a bit of the “times have changed” because now everything is everywhere all the time. Not only were they discussing the record store, but along with the physical place of a store, radio has the dominion of commonness because it only reaches twenty-five miles. We were all listening to similar broadcasts. That’s not the same anymore. We had this commonality through the record store stocked with weekly papers and monthly journals, and the radio. Those were our cultural informants at the time.
CH I remember the elders, when I was in Detroit, talking about a collector coming in to buy art. Everyone was in this instant hierarchy of who had sold and how many pieces. There is so much money and celebrity now.
SH At the same time people are homeless, or losing their houses or their pensions. A friend showed me an Op-Ed piece in 2009 from the NY Times. The piece was about artists coming here to get their $100 house. My friend was furious with the writer’s statement that he had “taken the plunge.” And he was meeting other artists who had “taken the plunge.”
CH Taken the plunge, what do you mean taken the plunge?
SH Taken the plunge by buying a house in Detroit. He bought one of those beautiful Mies van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park for $100,000.
CH That’s the plunge? Well, there you go!
SH We felt anyone who buys a house should search out the family that lost and pay them as well, as a part of the cost. These “plungers” are taking part in the banks’ mortgage fraud and it’s being cloaked in art talk.
CH For every house someone pays a pittance for, someone else lost their house.
SH Exactly. The Detroit Unreal Estate ghost showed up again in my life in 2012. I received an email from a person at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, an exurb of Detroit, asking for a picture of Alley Culture for his book Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, in which he will be “discussing Alley Culture.” He was writing a book on projects that rose out of the demise of Detroit. Could this be the literary version of the photographic ruin porn? He wrote, Alley Culture was a good example of something that emerged out of the downturn in property values. I wrote back, Alley Culture didn’t fit into the parameters he set for his book.
CH Yes, you’ve been doing that for a long time.
SH Yes, 1995. Sometime between then and now houses in the neighborhood were going for $300,000. Operating with that much misinformation, I wouldn’t have lent my project to the book’s content. And, not with the title he had chosen.
CH What was the gist of this book? Was it what we could call a feel good book about how from the ashes culture is springing? What was his point?
SH I don’t know, but that sounds predictable.
CH Is Alley Culture in the book?
SH I haven’t seen the book.
CH How do you stop all this stuff? It’s all around you, it seems that everyone has an agenda. They are pursuing their agenda, the facts be damned. It seems bizarre. It’s never a rounded issue, always one point perspective, towards some mission statement.
SH Exactly. If Alley Culture’s history is misrepresented in a book published by the University of Michigan, how many times do you think you come across similarly crafted stories in the NY Times?
CH That’s why I wanted to speak to you about these issues. I’ve known you forever and I trust your politics. What I am reading seems fake and a manipulation.
SH The twenty to thirty year old arrivals – some self informed, some not, the Op-Ed writer with his Mies van der Rohe, the person with his Unreal book, they are each getting something. Maybe you’re not going to question any falsifications too deeply if you’re getting something.
CH There is totally something wrong. How can all these people reading these articles not get it? Every time you hear about another influx of people coming in to do research, or to buy up a block, my first question is what about all the people already there? How is this block empty? What are these folks putting into the situation? We know what they are taking out. There was always a balance, a very fine balance downtown. There were only so many jobs and only so much to go around, it was a symbiotic thing, like any community.
SH Yes. Organic. “Community” in the commercial world is almost a pejorative word. The wayward masses. A necessary, but useful evil. Community in whole and part, is society, citizens, history (the business world only accesses the most recent moment), and created and embedded culture. If every time you address the idea of community, you include those four realities, the scales will tip. Look at the Diego Rivera mural in its entirety to picture community. If you think about a clump of compost. You start pulling it apart. There’s a lot of relation there. Things that you didn’t put in there. Bugs, fungus, worms and an old apple – all relating.
The link I sent you of a picture of a block in 2008, geraniums planted around the house, in 2010 the house next door is gone, then in 2012, the whole block is empty. The web site tied it in with real estate values. First image $85,000, then $2,000. then it’s not there. You start looking deeper and an economic manipulation emerges.
CH Who did this site? What was their reason for doing this tracking of blocks over these years?
SH They were recent transplants, from the east and west coasts. Cyber centered people, maybe on the Unreal wagon, might have been part of the group who had the two houses on Roosevelt Park facing the train station – fun houses. The fun houses are burnt, tattered and empty now. There was some cyber mapping a couple years back – Why Don’t We Own This? – of property. I’ve always wondered who the “We” was they pictured. It may be innocent, but it left me feeling get the internet out of the hood. Hit the ground. But the link I sent you of the recent mapping work that analyzes property visuals and values over a four year period is some good work.
I ran across a list of city debts Moratorium MI published related to properties that are owned by mortgage companies in the city. A mortgage company does not have to pay property taxes to the city on properties they own. The city actually owes the banks fees on these properties. When you crunch all these figures, every single house that was owned by a mortgage company was putting the city in the red. So minus the banks, Detroit would not be so impoverished.
CH Is that a Michigan law, a federal law?
SH I think it was Detroit. They were quoting from a City Council report, and an Emergency Manager Act.
CH Are these properties that the banks have foreclosed on and repossessed?
SH I can’t exactly say, but that seems right. They were owned by mortgage companies. Drained the city. Filled the bank’s pockets.
CH That is outrageous. So, you have been doing Alley Culture since 1995.
SH 1995. Two exhibitions a year. Spring and Fall.
CH Have you been doing the broadsheet since then?
SH No, actually Ron Morosan got me on that. You know how he can say, “You ought to do this. You need a news letter!” The first was in 1999.
CH Yes, I can hear him. You have written some great pieces and have had other people write as well. Cutting edge, political.
SH Thanks. An early example of what’s happening now with the varieties of newcomers, or how you measure the people who arrive here, were these students that would stay at Trumbullplex from UC Santa Cruz for a semester. It was very clear to see that one had made it to the ground, another one never allowed his feet to touch the ground. It is a language that you have to allow yourself to get for a place.
CH Every place is very different than anywhere else. Has it’s language and a way of doing things.
SH Yes. There is something in Detroit that is beyond me. I didn’t grow up here. I moved here from LA as a teenager. It comes up out of the ground. This labor history. There are stories that are extraordinary about individuals and people and movements doing things that you may never find in the news. The workers, the poets, musicians, the intellect they gained from being involved in a movement where one can speak for themselves is evident. I heard one story about this old, old guy who retired to a car dealership in Hamtramck. Back when they used to have goon squad meetings to break the unions, he told the story of renting a hotel room on Grand Circus Park directly above the secret meeting and dropping a microphone down the outside of the building in the winter to record. Hard enough to find the meeting and a recorder, but if you were found recording, you probably wouldn’t be alive to tell the story. There is a lot of experience, wit and intelligence here. Some people can touch it some people can’t.
CH It’s kind of the Detroit equivalent of Yankee ingenuity it’s own set of….
SH Radicalism! That was all going on underneath our Cass Corridor art.
CH I was alluding to that when I was speaking about everyone being independent, stoic, a stubborn fierceness. A Midwestern kind of manners on the surface, underneath a sense of strength and intellect.
SH I am not sure I get the “Midwestern manners” in Detroit, but maybe because I’m a geographic mixed breed. I’d say ingenuity and toughness and care, over Midwestern manners. Detroit might not even be Midwestern, which has always sounded so bland to me. Detroit is unique. It’s own suburbs that were birthed by the city don’t even accept it as their center.
I ran across a geographer in Pittsburgh writing critically on social engineering the image of a city. He began one piece, “Out: Portland. In: Pittsburgh.” That was last year, so what’s the city we’re supposed to be in this year? He writes on his blog, Burgh Diaspora, a city has a “soul,” It doesn’t need “Richard Florida to tell it what it should be.”
CH Yes, someone announces the next city. It’s like what happened to Houston in the 1980’s when everyone in Detroit was moving down in droves for the jobs. Wait a minute, all of you can’t go! What do you think is going to happen? Now with all this connectivity there is no lag time. Everyone just drops what they’re doing and moves to Pittsburgh.
SH There is not enough of something. In the Houston case I guess it would be population or workers or money. As a country we’re lacking something in balance.
CH What are these people doing for money? Are they getting grants from their universities to write articles on Detroit? Are they living on trust funds? Are they shipping art back to Boise, Idaho and selling it, or what?
SH The usual. Restaurant work, making apps, getting grants. Maybe some Boise action, too.
CH Are all these people coming in pumping up the economy in a noticeable way?
SH Not that I see in the cultural, democratic, or social economies. More is being taken in the opportunistic run after money. When we open the doors like this, it’s a similar devastation to inviting a Walmart into a small town. We have a lot of Walmarts hovering.
CH Chris Hedges used the term “Sacrifice Zone.”
SH It’s the who and why I’m interested in. It could be Baltimore, but they decided to do Detroit. Part of the test is they want to see how a population responds to a bankruptcy, which seems to be a quick way to turn a city into a store with no citizens. When the current governor took office he presented a list of cities that needed Emergency Managers. There were more than a hundred cities on his list. Yes, “Sacrifice Zones!” They are going to let (help) a place crash and burn, but why was Detroit chosen and why do we need someplace to do it at all? Many cities are bankrupt or just barely limping along but the focus is on one city. This focus is the whole package: take down economically, keep it in the press, brand the bad, then the invitation by branding the good – the sandbox come and play. This last part uses artists and art language – branding creativity, while the big money, sell offs and buying, are taking place in dark rooms. But I don’t see any artists or community being produced by this quick sell.
CH My instinct is that maybe it was focused on, because Detroit was one of the five largest cities in the United States and certainly as autonomous and interesting as NY or Chicago. It had it’s own industry and culture and an amazing museum. The richness of a capital city. Where Flint, OK I don’t want to offend anyone from Flint, is just a small industrial city. Even Baltimore is not as magnificent a city as Detroit. Maybe that’s why. The majesty of this city and the startling juxtaposition of what it was in the 1920’s and what it is now almost a hundred years later.
SH Yes, all of the Art Deco, and turn of the century architecture. Detroit was full of luminaries at the time. For the Spring 2011 show card “Infrastructure” I used a picture of one of three electric car charging stations that were in use after the first Detroit Electric car was shipped in 1907. The “infrastructure” of the show was that the artists were part of the infrastructure of our community, city. As the press got more rabid about the deficiency of Detroit, I wanted to point out that Detroit had functioning electric car charging stations. Detroit Electric produced electric cars for 32 years. The stations could charge 60 cars at a time. A charge ran 140 miles.
Working through this shifting ground, it seems we are either contemplating the definition of the art world or complaining about vinyl village east of our neighborhood.
CH What’s vinyl village, a record store?
SH No, laughing. No, it’s condos! It’s where the projects were. Deconstruction and construction have been going on since Judy Rifka’s show in Spring 1997. Seventeen years. When I shoot the video archive of a show, I usually include something that is taking place around. A small comparative history.
CH An inside, outside thing.
SH Yes. When Judy was here she hung big sheets of paper across the walls and began painting on them.
CH Yes, I remember those cat people.
SH Pet Boys. Laughing. The camera takes in her active construction inside, and then turn forty-five degrees to the long swing of the ball deconstructing the projects.
CH That was a tall set of buildings. What were they fifteen stories each?
SH Fourteen. Someone said tearing down buildings is ecologically unsound because what you are throwing away are materials and labor.
CH I remember those projects. When you and Mick got the house were they empty? Didn’t seem like many people were there.
SH The high-rises were mostly empty. They were only taking seniors as new tenants. A guy who lived in the high-rises had a job at the cab station across from Tiger Stadium. He would walk from the projects down the alley everyday to work. This is how Alley Culture got its name. I was roofing the alley side. Every day we’d say a couple of words to each other. He’d ask, “how’s it going?” I spent so much time on the alley side of the roof I came to see that there was a culture built in to the alley. The paths Richard Sennett talked about.
CH Ahhh. Well, the alleys in Detroit are so beautiful. It’s the back side of everything. Intimate.
SH I love alleys. They are getting rid of all the alleys in NY. When they shot the recent film “Llewyn Davis” on the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village scene, the director and the cinematographer had to look for days to find an alley in NY to shoot how the Village looked in 1960.
CH There are two I know of in Chinatown. Other than that I don’t know of any.
SH They could only find two. I heard that Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert who is buying up all the landmark buildings downtown has been paving up alleys, suburbanizing them with concrete, and closing them off.
SH They don’t want anything that’s mysterious, that’s off the map.
CH I hate that! You need mystery. You need the back side of things. Everything can’t be the front. It’s control. Keep an eye on everything.
SH It is about control. A business owner next door to one of his buildings had come out of their back door to smoke and the security guard from Dan Gilbert’s building came out and said there’s no smoking in that alley!
CH That’s the guy who is buying up blocks that I keep hearing about?
SH It’s pretty strange. A kingdom. All the buildings have names. Built by different entities around the turn of the century through the 1920’s. Now they could all be named Quicken. I guess you’ve got to look back to Harvey’s discussion of the record store and the radio station to find the cross pollination that happens being in a city. Like Magoo’s was in NYC for artists. Places where information gets passed without going through the lens of the blog, the plan.
CH Or the media, It’s an intimate thing from one person to the next.
SH Without being filtered.
CH I feel it’s really important that people understand what’s going on. Where are all the people that lived in the city?
SH I’m still trying to figure it out. Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, is 70% black. The demographic has been growing since the 1960’s when it was a white suburb. The usual answer is “white flight” and loss of auto industry jobs, but a lot of those jobs – factories, testing grounds, design – haven’t been in the city in the last fifty years. Some auto industry peripherals like tool and die shops were in the city, but those were exported from everywhere across the US in the 1980’s globalization. There are local people who are truly frightened to take one step inside Detroit. Maybe it’s fifty years of “murder city” branding in the press. There’s the time and place to find the plan. Detroit has been suffering under the “terrorism” label long before 911. Living next to the Jeffries projects in the 1980’s was a lot safer than our experiences of being on the south side of Chicago in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
When places like vinyl village are going up, we ask where are they going to find all the people to fill this forty-seven acre project? What happens when you fill a space all at once with hundreds of people who don’t know each other, as opposed to the layered changes that take place in a neighborhood? A friend from Barcelona said it’s so heavy with “places that have never been lived in” that people are fronting as the owner and selling or renting them to unsuspecting people.
CH It seems everyone has their own idea of what they can take, make or get away with.
SH Yes. The neighborhood we moved in to took work. It was a no man’s land running the length of the Jeffries projects on one side and a funded Citizen’s District Council (CDC) neighborhood on the other side. A slice a block and a half wide by six long blocks. The Federal Historic Registry had named the area “Woodbridge” in 1980 along with the CDC next door. We weren’t covered by the Woodbridge CDC next door’s $350,000 annual housing funds, nor were we able to vote in their council’s decisions. A small group of us created Woodbridge Farm, which is the name of the 1800’s ribbon farm our neighborhood sits on. We received City Historic status for our Woodbridge Farm boundaries after a six year study, which gives us our own protection along with our neighborhood Association.
Most of what we did beginning in 1985 was back off bulldozers, hold onto houses, find people who wanted them, and help the older people stay in their homes. Because if you lose your footprint, you’re gone. We lost a lot of houses to the bulldozer. The CDC at the time didn’t have the same bulldozer problem, and didn’t mind homes coming down in Woodbridge Farm, because it would create a “green belt” between them and the projects.
CH What about the house where Tommy Ford lived?
SH We pulled the red tag off the door. The red tag gave open season on a house for the bulldozers. We were working against City Planning at that moment. Someone had come out and stapled those up. We did the same to the house at the other end of the block. That’s the one that three Woodbridge Farm caretaker owners later, and then one owner, about the time Alley Culture was starting, sold for $300,00.
CH What did you do, talk Tommy Ford into buying that house?
SH No, we boarded it up, and fenced the corner off. Tommy came along five years later and wanted to buy it. The other house was sold through the city once we got it back up for auction and off the demo list. I spent a lot of time in cubby hole offices at Building or Planning advocating for a mute house. To get the house that later became Tommy’s, involved a search for the last remaining relative in a burnt out suburban trailer park, and finding him in a bar downriver. Right out of a Carl Hiaasen novel.
We used to call the mayor we had in the 1980’s the Land Banker. He just couldn’t get enough swaths of land cleared. He had a trick of “pulling the police to empty out a neighborhood.” A sailor friend and his neighbors left their Harbor Island neighborhood after twenty years. The last straw was a gang-shot car left by the police in the intersection for weeks. People are the power of the hood. If you get them out, you can take it. The neighborhood between them and Jefferson Avenue was cleared for a condo project the City wanted.
Seeing the bulldozer and red tags so early – 1980’s. And earlier – I saw slides of luxurious 1880’s townhouses with granite sidewalks on our street that had been taken down in the 1970’s. If the anointing of the bulldozer goes this far back, for what? This Shinola Midtown Real Estate Corp today? Our culture, when guided by investment and planning within or outside the city government, seems to move more and more toward the lowest common denominator. We have lost respect for our cities. No understanding of the power, beauty, history, connectivity and necessity of what is here. I said years ago to a visiting MIT architecture/city planning grad, my first rule of city planning would be you are not allowed to remove one building. See what is here before picking up a pencil. In relative time, you have been here two minutes. The only and overriding view of Detroit you can access is what you have been given for years from a distance. He said, I am doing that. I’m drawing plans with an alley [removal!] and connecting backyards between buildings. Plans that de-citify the city.
CH I remember you had pheasants there.
SH And bee hives. And German national television.
In the Brooklyn Rail someone had written a great article five or more years back on this hole across the street from him. An investor had gotten the permit to build a six story, which was the maximum allowed. The builder really wanted the profits a high-rise would bring. They had dug a three story deep basement. It had been like that for years because the builder had decided they were not going to make any more money by working on it. This pit is what you – the neighbors – will have to live with. That was Brooklyn. Isn’t this the same story?
CH Yes, it is the same story, but maybe happening on a bigger scale. It is happening all over, in many cities and towns, large and small.
SH In terms of press and dehumanization, one story was about a writer living in Staten Island. She is Dutch, writes for a Dutch paper in Dutch for consumption in Holland. The NY Times did a profile on her in 1999 and some of her Dutch writing on her Staten Island neighbors was translated and reprinted in English. The excesses and deficiencies of the Sanchez family of Staten Island were exposed by her writing. Her observations could have brought the IRS, and the INS to their door. This was another person on a “study” in Detroit. It’s that cold eye of observation one can have when they are harvesting from a place, but not becoming part of it.
In the late 1990’s, before the press and various think tanks were arriving, exportation of Detroit and the idea of artistically quantifying the ghetto was taken up by Kyong Park. He was a good friend of my friend Paul Schwarz. He was up to some interesting thinking. Almost in that space of discovery that precludes explanations. Eventually he took a cedar bevel bungalow as his project. He must have obtained massive amounts of grant money to take it apart board by board, have it shipped to Germany and reassembled for an exhibition. Then he had it broken down again and shown in France. Maybe broken down is the operative word. Can you take a house off a street, out of a neighborhood, out of its weave of history, and say this is the whole? I felt at the time, he’s exporting the Detroit ghetto, which it wasn’t. It was a home. The work leaned on the disposability of Detroit to bring it power. I got a piece of Detroit.
Why Detroit [as a focus for a history of America]? Detroit is not only the principal but the most diversified manufacturing city in the United States. It is a financial center. Unlike New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, however, Detroit has retained a sense of oneness and a sense of order. Its lines of development are clear, and its complexities are comprehensible. Over the course of a century it was involved in many major historical developments. As the world center of the automobile industry, it has exerted tremendous social and economic influence. It has been the headquarters of two of the world’s three largest corporations, and it is America’s most unionized city. Detroit is the heart of American industry, and by the beat of that heart much of America’s economic health is measured.
Robert Conot, American Odyssey, 1974
The take down of the aging American industrial cities has been in the planning for forty years.
neighbor, porch talk, 2014
Links & Notes
where ever you go is ground zero, song title from the album Year of the Snake, Mick Vranich / K-9, recorded May 2001.
These sites are much more cleaned up, harder to find some of the photos, and have news interview links along with the artist’s name, where at one time these projects were illegal and unsigned.
Cool Cities is now a moniker for cooling down your city for the environment. An improvement. Richard Florida of Creative Class is now living in Toronto in an Architectural Digest home with a pool overlooking a bluff and city lights, and is a senior editor at The Atlantic. Shrinking Cities was an art/architecture project begun in 2002 in Berlin focusing on four cities – Detroit, Liverpool, Ivanovo, Leipzig – that culminated in a 2007 traveling art/design/data show. Kyong Park may have been the first to export to Europe the “ghetto” of Detroit as art (“24260: The Fugitive House,” 2001). Partizan Publik is a project in Amsterdam that fathered the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency.
Jim Russell’s Burgh Diaspora references Sky Gilbert and the displacement/make-over conundrum http://burghdiaspora.blogspot.com/2012/12/creative-class-chic-is-dying.html
(part 1) public & paths
(part 2) labor
Rich Wieske, beekeeper and instructor since 2002, videographer, documentarian since the 1970’s.
Claus Kleber, the Dan Rather of Germany, heute-journal, http://zdf.de
Tales from Arab Detroit, Joan Mandell, director, 1995.
Detroit Electric Car Company 1907 – 1939
(help) the crash and burn
Emergency Manager insider law firm mix that removes democracy from an American city http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/03/detroits-new-bankster-plutocracy/
2008 Ponzi scheme in Detroit
Set up for giving the public water utility to a multi-national
Thirst documentary, 2004, recommended for its view of selling a public water utility and consequently not being able to afford water once the multi-national took over. The directors recently screened it in Reading, PA, “the second poorest city in the country for its size,” where a similar sale is on the table.
City Planner’s Primer
At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Peter Matthiessen, 1965, 1991, Vintage.