Motown on the Move

When I was in kindergarten, I played t-ball for the Tigers: same logo, same colors, as the major league Detroit team.  It was all I knew about the city, and I was proud to be affiliated with a place in America that is considered to be one of the most undesirable. I was completely oblivious to the trauma Detroit had incurred over the past fifty years, and it was not until years later that I finally understood what Detroit had become: desperate, destitute, and decrepit. Until recently, what I knew about the city came from blurbs in newspapers and broadcasts about the bankruptcy. It was only this year that I really started to learn about the city and what it contained, both good and bad. Even then, learning about Detroit in a classroom setting is far different than actually visiting. In documentaries, for example, filmmakers can take a certain position and often try to convince the audience of some important cause. When I visited Detroit, on the other hand, I could formulate a view of the city on my own: that Detroit has potential to be something, to be born again from the ashes.

Upon exiting the bus at Earthworks, the first thing I noticed was the chain-linked fence surrounding a large section of the urban farm. Then I noticed the surrounding houses, many of which were abandoned and victims of arson, and the obvious lack of pedestrians and passing vehicles. The area had a distinct appearance that was not quite urban, and not quite rural, but definitely not suburban. The best way I can describe it is as a neighborhood, but I can’t even really call it that, as there are very few neighbors to claim the area as their own. As I was looking around the neighborhood, Robbie appeared, a tall, lanky man in his twenties, far younger than I expected. He stooped when he walked, giving the impression that due to his height he might hit his head on an invisible ceiling if he stood up straight. Well-spoken and clearly passionate, Robbie not only made me excited for the future of urban farms in Detroit, but elsewhere as well. Robbie spoke of how urban farming benefits the community, and one quote in particular stood out to me. He said, “The land holds the memories, and the trauma, of the [automobile] industry.” By farming, the community is giving back to the land, attempting to rebuild that which was destroyed.

Ashes to ashes

As we were walking back to the bus, I remember saying that I was starving. Then I realized how poor my choice of words was. I was in a city where the majority of its population lives below the poverty line, and many are literally starving every day. “Hungry,” I thought. “I am not starving, I am hungry.” We went to Belle Isle next for lunch, and it was there that it started to sink in how lucky I was. Belle Isle, one of the more beautiful places in the city, was almost completely abandoned. Residents of Detroit don’t seem to visit it often, like my great grandparents did so many years ago during the height of the city’s prosperity. Most Detroiters have far more important things to do than visit a park, such as feeding their families and paying the rent on homes that fall far below the standard for living conditions. I felt almost bad being there, enjoying myself, at the expense of the people in the city who can’t.

Stepping off the bus at the Heidelberg project, I felt like I was no longer in Detroit, and no longer in America, for that matter. I was in another world. There was something enchanting about the project that can’t quite be explained. Certain works of art, particularly the ones incorporating dolls, were hard to look at, but I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from them. Shoes clung to a fence like Detroit clings to life. Stuffed animals stared emptily into space from the houses that they were tacked to. Objects normally found in junkyards lay stacked on top of each other in seemingly random places: the middle of yards, on porches, and even on top a speedboat. Brightly painted polka dots, sidewalk murals, and vibrant colors contrasted with the disturbing toys, gray sky, and black asphalt. Despite the dark subject matter, people in Detroit have found a way to reuse creatively, to recycle objects that were once abandoned. This is what needs to occur with the rest of the city, but on a larger scale. I don’t mean to imply that every neighborhood should look like the Heidelberg; that would eliminate the magic of the project altogether. I mean that in order to rebuild, Detroit must be innovative with the resources it already has. Instead of creating a new city altogether, Detroit must reuse and recycle.


One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

Similarly to the Heidelberg Project, in the Detroit Institute of the Arts I felt like I had been transported out of the city altogether. The bright lights and white walls contrasted heavily with the decrepit, abandoned buildings and the sunless skies outside. The Rivera murals, massive in size but small in number, were some of my favorite pieces in the museum. They depict a much different Detroit, but retain some truth about the city today as well. Although the paintings portray the booming industry of the early half of the twentieth century, there are still people in Detroit today who are willing to put hard work into the city, like Robbie at Earthworks.

After leaving the museum, when I was on the bus, a girl handed me a flyer labeled “Defend the DIA” that advertised a protest organized by the Socialist Equality Party. In short, the party was protesting the auctioning off of art in the DIA to raise money for the city. The thought of the city even considering selling the art was devastating to me. I grew up in a family very involved in the arts in my own city, Sacramento, and I believe museums are extremely important to our culture today. Selling the art in the DIA would be another devastating blow to the crumbling city. The sale would not only affect the inner city, but the surrounding suburbs and cities as well. A student, Sylvia Sankaran, said, “We used to come to Detroit for field trips all the time, and went to the DIA at least once a year.” The museum is a reminder of what the city used to be, particularly the Rivera Murals, which have immortalized the industrialism that was once so important to Detroit.

We passed the Michigan Central Station once on the way into Detroit, but seeing it from the road didn’t compare to seeing it up close. Surrounded by an ugly metal fence and barbed wire, it appeared both foreboding and forlorn. Nearly all of the glass was missing from the windows, the stone was worn down by weather, time, and neglect, and we were the only people in sight, albeit a few passing cars. According to my dad, my great-grandparents used to arrive at the station when they visited Detroit, and I can only imagine the type of city they arrived at then. It’s strange to think that something once so beautiful and majestic could change so much in half a century. It is still beautiful in a way, but also dreary and depressing. Traffic in and out of Detroit is so slow, and so infrequent, that a once major American city is now considered unworthy of even a train station.


Michigan Central is stationary

Despite my lack of knowledge about Detroit before, I feel like I now have a better understanding of the city. I am far from an expert on the current situation, and I won’t pretend to be, but I truly believe that Detroit has potential. From hearing about Robbie’s clear hope for the city, to viewing the awe-inspiring Heidelberg Project, to even experiencing the city itself, I’ve determined that Detroit is a place like no other. Documentaries have showed me this, and magazine articles and blogs have told me this, but I was not convinced until visiting the city myself. It has a long way to go, but has the ability to lead the future once again. Detroit is, unfortunately, the guinea pig. Nonetheless, however cliché it sounds, history repeats itself, and when another American city is hit with a crisis much like the one Detroit is experiencing now, the Motor City may become an example of how to resolve it.


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