After a two-week long detour in shiny Toronto where I was wined, dined, entertained, and thoroughly spoiled by my loving friend, Detroit tends to look even more run down, decayed and sometimes, even inhospitable.
My accommodations are comfortable enough though rather grimy, and I’m enrolled in an unglamorous Artist Residency program that some of my peers may even call dubious. The neighborhood is one of the hardest hit in terms of “blight” with numerous vacant buildings in various states of decay. Empty, nature filled lots in between every two to three houses creates a semi-rural landscape. You don’t come here expecting a white wall art studio and a full fledged residency program. That I understand. Maybe in a few years though. Strangely enough, this is exactly what I wanted.
Thanks to the radically self reliant efforts of a small group, local folks, students of alternative urban planing and social equity activists, this community seems to be on the path to recovery. My host Jason Lindy, being a leading member in this movement, keeps a vigilant eye on the hood, knows the houses within miles, their history, their owner, their current state and residents. Almost everyone on this block knows each other, keeps an eye on things and helps out. If you’re interested in experiencing the forefront of community activism in Detroit, this is one of the best places to be.
A walk around the neighborhood reveals several urban community farms. A very well established one called Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is only three blocks away. A narrow path within the planted plots take you to a small gathering space at the center of the OAU Farm where you can sit and delight in the irony of it all. The neighborhood is called North End.
I am beyond happy that there is a dog in the house. Dogs just make life so much more fun! I take her on exploration walks during which we’re both equally delighted by rabbit and squirrel sighting. I hear there’s even been some coyote and fox sightings.
On the night of my arrival, the beginning of an unseasonably sweltering week, I learned that the newly renovated income-contingent art loft that I had applied for months before, and, had made all my long-term plans based on, is rejecting my application. Apparently, with my two gigs a year teaching job and supplemental teachers unemployment benefit, I exceed their income limit! The news was quite a blow and threw me into a spiral of desperation until, wait for it…the weather cooled down! Yes, I’m blaming the heat. Not used to it. Don’t like it. I find temperatures over 65 degrees to be oppressive. There, I said it. Any attempt at creativity proved futile. Working with charcoal while the fan is on? Not a good idea. All of my already packed belongings waiting to be shipped from SF had to be put on hold, including a bin full of art supplies, as I figure out my long term plan.
To clear my head, as is often the case, creative process began with cleaning and organizing. Sometimes it takes days of mental preparation before I can focus on the actual doing part. That part usually moves forward pretty smoothly since every scenario has already been imagined and worked out while doing other activities, i.e. cleaning and organizing. Jason has generously offered the entire house as my canvas. The first charcoal drawing has already started on my bedroom wall. Strategically not a good idea but structurally rather interesting. After covering the entire room with tarp, the project has been progressing without a hitch.
The short heat induced waiting period worked out really well. In particular because it focused me on finding my material directly from the environment. Couple of nights before I start the drawing, there was a “speak easy” held at a neighbor’s backyard. A monthly gathering organized by my residency for introductions, performance, story telling, spoken word, music, and general community building. During the event, Jason did a ritual burning of leaves and twigs over a fire pit as he read our collective future with tarot cards. The charcoal for my drawing was supplied the next day by the fire pit.
While everything that I appreciated during my first visit is now observed with a critical eye, there are aspects of Detroit life that I continue to be touched by: People making eye contact, waving hello as they drive or ride their bike past your house, the DIY spirit, the general warmth and the easy rhythmic flow of casual conversation, urban farms…
To me, a jaded San Franciscan, there is a sense that the ground is fertile and anything can take root here. And, remarkably, most everyone seems welcoming and open to it. Question is, where do I fit in?
Side note but not entirely unrelated, places where I’ve felt most at home: museums, concerts, cafes, and sitting by my computer working, connecting with the world that I know, and writing this blog.