Detroit Transmogrifies Itself

How could Detroit be high on anyone’s list of vacation destinations? High crime, dilapidated everything, and an abundance of people wearing Bill Laimbeer jerseys? No. Thank you.

My good friend Pat invited me to a beerfest in Ypsilanti, Michigan, between Ann Arbour and Detroit. Pat’s a Great Lakes man—a culture that doesn’t get enough mention in the Great American dialogue. The world is built on port cities, but since Chicago graduated into a major financial market and all of the industry left Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Gary (to name a few), these cities don’t seem to get the credit they deserve. They’re either sites of major crime or sports blogs jokes. No one goes to Cleveland on vacation.

Pat, however, loves these places. He grew up in Buffalo, a city that—again—I mostly associate with sports jokes. He spent his college years in Chicago before skipping across the lake for graduate school. Relentlessly positive without a hint of phoniness or turning-a-blind-eyeism, Pat’s exactly the kind of guy you want to invite you to a beerfest in Somewhere, MI. He’s also the kind of guy who can help you see through prejudices: Sure, his house is an old creaker in a neighborhood where you wouldn’t want to leave anything in your parked car, but hey, he has a porch where you can listen to baseball and drink beer with your friendly neighbors. Me, in glamourous Chicago? I have a creaker apartment a fourth of the size, in a neighborhood where you wouldn’t want to leave anything in your parked car, no porch, and neighbors I can’t name. Just because Pat’s hardwood isn’t freshly polished and the garden isn’t groomed like Ward Cleaver’s doesn’t mean it can’t be paradise.

Lost in the admiration of the porch and jokes about all the trash in the alleyways was beerfest. We were here for a purpose: Get as sloshed as college students in the middle of a field on 100% Michigan-brewed beers. As it turns out, Beerfest would fade into the background when we marveled at the mighty creative spirit of the Detroit underground.

The Farmer’s Market

First thing after a pot of coffee, we hit the gigantic farmer’s market where Pat’s girlfriend Liz works. Liz is a tough woman who rolls up her sleeves because she’s genuinely passionate about urban gardening—someone who loves both the culture and community of big cities and the pure-edged life of nature. Take a minute and think about how difficult it has to be to garden in a city that literally has a bridge to Canada. That’s what Liz has made her life’s work.

This particular farmer’s market was absolutely massive, spanning more city blocks than I could process. We spent most of our time on the first floor of an expansive yet abandoned building marveling at fresh vegetables, baked goods, locally raised meat, locally caught fish, potted plants (cacti! In Detroit!), and handmade African jewelry. None of it had the stink of any kind of corporate sullying—banner ads, compromised quality, and phoniness were nowhere to be found.

It may sound like I’m describing a typical indulgence of the privileged class, but don’t forget: This is Detroit. What about Detroit makes you think privilege? And yet this market was absolutely thriving. There was even a public karaoke machine, where the greatest Prince impersonator ever (not counting his voice, but yes to the blouse, gold-button suit, and luscious jheri curl) captivated around 80 people for ten minutes.

After leaving, we drove around to look at some of the community gardens Liz is involved with. These are blink-and-you-think-they’re-weeds gardens, put in the middle of barely-occupied neighborhoods or abandoned lots between irreparably graffitied warehouses. Maybe I don’t know a lot about gardening, but they didn’t look like the massive cornfields and cow pastures of my youth. You can’t see the tomatillos and peppers and herbs, but they’re there. They’re everywhere, in fact, including the corner of Trumbull and Michigan—the old site of Tiger Stadium. In an era where sports stadiums are torn down at the whims of owners (lest the teams be moved away) so that brand new, multi-million dollar arenas can be built with public funds, a garden on the remains of the old Tiger Stadium seemed poetic: organic growth on top of the ruins of wanton financial frivolity.


Later, we took cabs to Ypsilanti and the main event. We went out, drank our body weight in brew, and left only when shepherded out by boring sober people. But it was more than just a big party.

There was nothing but Michigan beer, and they brought out the specialties. There was a palpable sense of pride in this fact. Half of the tents didn’t charge us; they only wanted us to remember what we were drinking. Despite that being the most counter-intuitive thing someone slinging alcohol can say, isn’t that the most pure form of art? The idea that you created something, made it, and regardless of what you receive in return, someone will acknowledge your creation as beautiful and remember it? That’s the driving principle behind having kids, but having kids is typical and square. Art is extraordinary.

A more offhand example of that pride was our cab driver. He’d been engaging us more than the Chicago cabbies I’m used to, but he was still gruff and short. As we pulled up to the festival, he casually said, “drink all the Michigan beer.” Somehow, it meant more than just “go drink beer and call me for a ride home.” It was “have fun at the Ypsilanti Beerfest,” “drink a lot of beer,” and “drink this amazing craft beer, better than anything you’ll find anywhere else and made in a state so ravaged by economic distress that it’s really our best export—a fact I’m simultaneously sad about and proud of.” It was both desperate and irrationally confident at the same time.

The Heidelberg Project

The crowning moment came Sunday morning, when we drove to the Heidelberg Project. Officially incorporated in 1988, it was started by artist Tyree Guyton as a way of coping with losing three brothers to the streets and the death of his neighborhood’s vitality. Instead of vacant lots and crumbling buildings, the block became a massive art project with an outreach mission.

Installation art can be hit or miss. Outreach missions can get heavy-handed. But when you consider Detroit’s history, the Heidelberg Project becomes incredibly inspiring. Here’s a place that “used to be a diverse, working class neighborhood [and] over the years became a community characterized by violence, racism, abandonment, despair and poverty.” How does that not describe America transitioning from the 20th to the 21st century? Yet Heidelberg is not an allegory for America. It’s too personal for that kind of grandiosity. It’s as simple as painting a jungle gym an understated lavender-and-indigo mix, but not having any kids play on the jungle gym. It’s as casual as throwing polka dots on a white-paneled house while the residents are still there. Then, you somehow convince the residents that piling a bunch of trash (literally, rusted barrels that say “USA”—it’s excellent) in front of their front yard will eventually be good for property values.

What kind of attitude does that take if you live in the about-to-be-dotted-house? You have to have a sense of resignation, but not nihilism. And you have to believe in the healing power of art. It’s not a rational explanation, but you can feel how personal these art projects are. You can feel, even without knowledge of its past vitality, how much pain this neighborhood has experienced and how much this art is an expression of that pain.

One particular piece, a glass board painted to resemble the American flag with a Detroit Tigers logo instead of 50 stars, made this explicit statement:

“Detroit currently only has primary care resources to meet the needs of approximately ¼ of the 200,000 resident that are uninsured. I’m not the only one who this is happening to . . . my dad was in the hospital for an aortic aneurysm and had to sell his motorcycle to pay the hospital bill $ $ $ “They have to treat you but they don’t treat you like they should. Once you’re done, it’s see you later. And like me, I have cancer, it’s a whole big runaround. It hasn’t hit me yet, but when it does, what am I going to do? Even if it isn’t full coverage, a visit here and there could help you see something, ya know? Preventative . . .”

If you’re me, you can’t help but think of:

  • The poverty that has struck Detroit since the automotive industry left.
  • The fact that George Romney was a major figure in said automotive industry and a Republican Governor of Michigan. He instituted the state’s first income tax, supported the Civil Rights Movement, and was later Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the federal government. At some point, Romney gave birth to a son, Willard.
  • Willard “Mitt” Romney instituted statewide universal healthcare while governor of Massachusetts.
  • Mitt Romney is now running for president, with a campaign promise to destroy universal healthcare in the United States.

I can’t walk through the Heidelberg Project and not support some degree of government safety net. The HP is an example of the kind of hard work it takes to pull yourself out of economic depression. When the chief industry of your city is packing its bags for cheaper pastures, your schools get their funding slashed, your broken roads don’t get patched, and it feels like you’re the victim of forces you can’t control, what can you do? You raise whatever voice you can find and encourage people not to lose hope. It sounds naive, but Tyree started the Heidelberg Project in 1986. Gradually, it grew from, “Don’t walk there, not even in daytime,” to “If you go to Detroit, go see the Heidelberg Project.”1

Detroit Transmogrified

My friend Anuj told us about a theory that economic sanctions are immoral. Sanctions affect civilians more than anyone else. Governments, particularly those of oppressive dictatorships, are too wealthy to be hurt by reduced trade and less-than-warm-receptions at international summits. The rich stay rich while infrastructure crumbles, the lower classes turn to drugs and violence as a means of escape/income, good people starve, and children grow up angry. You see it in almost any Third World Country. But you also see it in some U.S. cities, too—Detroit, Baltimore, and New Orleans being some of the most famous examples.

One dark joke we kept making all weekend was how Detroit is a land of lawlessness—due to the high crime rate and a limited police force, traffic violations aren’t so much “violations” as they are “Oh cool, that guy just treated a red light like a four-way stop.” I’ll admit that I didn’t worry as much about parking regulations as much as I worried about the likelihood my car would be broken into.

Sure enough, while my girlfriend and I were walking on the second block of the Heidelberg Project, an older couple asked us if we drove a white car. Damn if I didn’t start sprinting. I wasn’t a victim this time, but someone in an unlicensed car had driven up a relatively crowded street, smashed the window of another car, grabbed a duffel bag from the backseat, and driven off. Everyone expressed sympathy. No one acted surprised.

That kind of poverty is absolutely crippling on a personal and a municipal level. It takes true determination and a real collective effort to even begin to pull out of those depths. We kept making  jokes about Pat and Liz rebuilding civilization, but they weren’t jokes—that’s exactly what they’re doing. You take an empty lot and put a garden on it. Turn a neighborhood into an art project. Whatever it is, you transform. Right now, no one is doing that better than Detroit.

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