Being lost for the fun of it. A blog post as meandering as it sounds.

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Streets keep turning up where they shouldn’t—unless my map’s the wrong way ’round. It’s useless anyway: the streets here are unlabled. Daylight’s quickly drifting off in no discernible direction.

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My viewfinder has led me here, although I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly. Traces of something…but how would I recognize it? Here, old and new run together, and, as anywhere new meets old, it tends to gobble it up. Few of these buildings seem to want to share the stories they so clearly have to tell. They collude with unsigned streets to maintain anonymity.

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“LITTLE PETER STREET!” one non-compliant edifice shouts, placing me back on the map. Now I must feign being lost. I turn my lens toward the railroad tracks, whose massive Victorian arches I follow. Red bricks, blackened with damp, and green with lichen and moss, recount lifetimes of industry, dereliction, reuse—whatever my eye will read into them. Surely there was a history here. Mundane as a train schedule, unrelenting as rain, ubiquitous as cotton thread, or: unrelenting as trains, ubiquitous as rain, mundane as cotton. No matter. Ponderous and decayed but lasting as the capitalist’s monument to himself.

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I’m no archaeologist, nor historian, nor even a photographer. I’m merely recording memories, impressions. Memories may congeal around photographs, but in the end, they are more painterly. My feet ache, my body stiffens, the light is all but gone, and I can’t stop taking pictures.

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A month ago, I was in Manchester, UK, where I presented a paper (“A Wounded Presence: The Virgin of Vladimir Icon”) at a conference (“Images, Icons, and Idols”) at the University of Manchester. I had a couple days free to wander around City Centre, which resulted in what you’ve just read above. These are also some of the photos I took. They’re dreadful photos, and heavily reworked in Photoshop. But they’re all I’ve got. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll spend some time learning how to use a camera once the weather turns nice again here in Detroit (and the daylight sticks around longer). You know, June. May, if we’re lucky.

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Here’s another photo from my Manchester trip, of “the Wheel” in Piccadilly Gardens, which is less of a garden and more of a public square with civic statues, this big Rerris wheel (which is for seeing the vista, like the London Eye), and the convergence of Manchester’s utterly chaotic bus lines. Seriously, the buses will make you want to walk even if you don’t happen to love walking to begin with.


So, this is a blog about “Poetry, God, and Detroit, in no particular order.” The above italicized musings don’t quite amount to a poem, I admit. My trip was God-related, since I was there for a theological conference. But I’ve also always wanted to go to Manchester, in part because some of my favorite music has come out of that city, but even more so because it’s often (been) compared to Detroit. Both cities are northern (in their respective countries), and both have an industrial past, complete with all the building projects wealthy industrialists like to engage in (as they’re a socially acceptable sort of pissing contest), and the ensuing economic depression from their respective industries’ inevitable declines. Both have offered their industrial ruins to photographers’ lenses. Both have working-class populations who take an inordinate pride in their cities—here’s mine; as I always say, I have a “chosen delusion” ( <–right there, I admit it’s a delusion) that when I mention I’m from Detroit, people will be jealous. And, of course, both cities have given the world plenty to dance to.

I take issue with this.

Poster on the exterior of the former Factory Records headquarters, now a nightclub called Fac51.

The sign pictured above says: “FACT: Statistically there are more rock stars per capita of population from Manchester than any other city in the world. …” Leaving aside the redundant wording, I think the facticity of this claim depends on how you define “rock star,” “city,” and “from.” There’s no need, really, to point out that in Detroit, we invented punk, and techno, which, incidentally, featured on the dance floor even in “Madchester.” Oh, and there was that record label a factory worker started out of his house on Grand Boulevard. But it’s not my intention to start a pond war or anything. There’s been some nice cross-pollination between the two scenes.

Manchester’s seen a revitalization, though, in the past couple of decades. John Gallagher includes it among the cities he compares to the D in his book, Revolution Detroit. I made a point of getting a copy of the book before my trip in order to read the section on Manchester while on the plane over. Beginning in the late ’90s, I remember hearing and reading the opinion that the music scene essentially brought about the city’s transformation, but I never could believe that would be the whole story. In Gallagher’s book, he reports a more sensible assessment: that it was thanks to creative, sustained, hard work on the part of various city leaders. And then there was that other factor…

…which my friend, who picked me up from the airport, also mentioned. “But we’re not supposed to talk about that,” he quickly added. This was something I’d never heard of till I read it in Gallagher’s book, so, well done, Mancunians. But it’s not really quite a secret, just because I was unaware. I was living in Holt, MI and working at a TV station in Lansing in 1996…how could I have possibly heard of something so newsworthy?

Don't mention it!

Polite circumlocution in the Manchester Cathedral

What that plaque is not quite saying is that the IRA bombed City Centre (very near the cathedral, I’m told) in 1996. Following that attack, naturally, people rallied to rebuild whatever was damaged, and it mobilized a lot of good energy, it seems.

I’m not qualified to really analyze all that after one week in the city all these years later. But I can report on this little bit I’ve seen, heard, and read. In my not-so-qualified opinion, despite all their similarities, Detroit and Manchester have very different stories, especially from their lowest points on up. The cities have, have had, and will have very different paths, and quite possibly the only thing Detroit can learn from Manchester’s success is that such things are possible, and they take a lot of work, and a lot of civic-mindedness.

Crap. We don’t really have that in Southeastern Michigan. We have a toxic city-suburb divide, which is largely our own circumlocution to bypass actually talking about race and class. (Except that we’re always talking about race and class, just not productively.)

The Metro Times (Southeast Michigan’s alternative newsweekly) recently published a blog post anyone fascinated with Detroit should read, titled, “Please, please, please: Stop ‘saving’ Detroit.” Just as Manchester wasn’t “saved” by a single factor (or, ahem, Factory), Detroit won’t be either. Detroit’s already a great city, just as it’s been for a long time (by American standards, that is), and it will continue to be. The good news is that the good things happening here are piece-meal, grass-roots, and idiosyncratic, just as you’d want them to be. You might not want to get lost in our streets just yet…but there’s a lot to explore here. And a lot of creative, sustained, hard work to do. Just as you’d want it to be.

You’ve made it to the end of this post. Enjoy a couple more photos from my trip!

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My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo was taken on January 10, 2015.

My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo of a street artist at work (with chalks) was taken on January 10, 2015 in Manchester City Centre.

Happy birthday, Detroit

Today was Detroit’s 313th birthday, which is significant for the arbitrary reason that 313 is the city’s area code and one of its nicknames. Arbitrary, yes; but significant enough to warrant month-long $3.13 meals at McDonalds and week-long celebrations Downtown and in the Cultural Center. And significant enough to guilt me into a blog post…about Detroit, of course. (Well, it was that, or poetry, or God, right?)

This didn't happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

This didn’t happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

I had a strange dream last night that centered around the street in Detroit where my dad grew up. In real life, I’d visited that house when his parents still lived there when I was so little I vaguely remember it at all. I have no idea where on the street my dad’s family lived, and it’s a long street. My dream last night is irrelevant, except that it got me thinking today about my family history in Detroit.

I didn’t grow up in the city. My mother’s family had relocated to Farmington Hills when she was a kid, and we lived in that city until I was 4, when we moved out to the boondocks (now exurbs) I lovingly refer to as “the woods I crawled out of.”

Said woods.

Said woods.

But I moved to the city as an adult, landing first in Palmer Park, which is at the northwest corner of 6 Mile (McNichols) and Woodward. Unknowingly, I had arrived in an area full of my family’s history.

Not far away was the hospital where I was born, where my older sisters were born, and I think where my mother also was born. The house where my grandmother grew up, where my mom also lived till she was a year old, is gone now, but was off 7 Mile between Woodward and John R, the area now known as Chaldeantown. When my grandmother was growing up, her aunt and uncle also lived next door, and her aunt played the organ in Detroit’s famous movie houses in Grand Circus Park. (Her brother, my great-grandfather, was a church musician. Such a musical family. Alas, I didn’t get those genes.)

One great story, from that ancestral house I never saw, involved my grandfather. After my grandparents married, they lived for a little while in a trailer in my great-grandparents’ backyard. My great-grandparents’ house didn’t have a basement, but they wanted one. My grandfather helped his father-in-law dig out a basement under the existing house. In true Detroit fashion (see how long this sort of thing’s been going on?), they didn’t bother getting permits. Instead, they worked at night, digging from behind the house, and dumping the dirt around the city to hide the evidence. And this was when there were fewer places to dump dirt, or other things, without being noticed. But I don’t know whether they were working so stealthily out of paranoia, or if the city was on top of such things more than it is now.

My mother has said that when she was little, after her father’s job was transferred out of the city, they used to come visit her grandparents at that house. She and her sister would be taken to play in nearby Palmer Park, or they would ride the streetcars downtown to shop. One time she was visiting me, and at the corner of Woodward and 6, she looked around and said, “I have dreams about this intersection.” It looked completely different, of course, but was apparently still recognizable enough—but not a little disorienting, either.

While we were living in Palmer Park, some friends and I bought an abandoned house in the area around 6 and Livernois. Later, I learned that my great aunt (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband had lived on a street just several blocks down.

On the other side of the family, I learned from my dad’s mother that she had him baptized at All Saints Episcopal Church on 7 Mile near Woodward. She was Catholic, and my grandfather, an agnostic who had been raised Christian Scientist, wouldn’t let her have their baby baptized in a Catholic church. My grandmother was always a good, pragmatic ecumenist. She told me the Episcopal Church is “like the Catholic Church.” Now, I had just become Episcopalian, and telling her about it was the occasion for her sharing this story with me. Naturally, I teased my dad (who is Evangelical) that he was really Episcopalian. Although we don’t actually think about baptism in sectarian terms. But still.

Now, at this point, I could venture off into the suburbs and tell you about how I grew up attending a church on 6 Mile in Northville, or how, when I was 14, my femur was broken by a drunk driver on 6 Mile in Livonia. So much of my life has happened on or around 6 Mile…and I live just off 6 Mile now. That’s where I’d rather take you, dear reader: to a place called home.

Our house came with a basement.

Our house came with a basement. Sorry, Grandpa.

No, not that place called home. This place:

f88157682…or, more accurately, this sense of belonging. Not just “you are here,” but “you belong here.”

I never felt such a sense of belonging anywhere like I did when, in my 20s, I arrived (back) in Detroit. And now I’ve been away for almost nine years, and am back yet again, and that sense of home has remained—so much that I’ve got the city’s logo tattooed on my wrist, where you find my pulse.

"If found, return to Detroit" seemed too wordy.

“If found, please return to Detroit” seemed too wordy.

There’s a part of me—probably the part that’s a poet—that wants to think the same place to which my ancestors gravitated had somehow called me too. But if that’s too mystical-sounding, I think it’s still a perfectly good metaphor for the spirit a place can have. A place, a home, isn’t just a map imposed onto a blank canvas (even if it’s drawn up on a blank piece of paper). Place, say all the scholars who work on the subject—Casey, Sheldrake, Gorringe, and others—precedes space; we’ve gotten so used to the geometric abstraction of place that we forget it’s an abstraction. Place is storied: it has a history, a name, memories, even legends. Many would say it has a sort of personality—a “spirit”—as well.

Without anthropomorphizing the city, however, it’s not hard to notice that some themes do recur in Detroit’s history. From the founder of the city on, it’s a place where people have come to forget the past and reinvent themselves. People have often flocked here for opportunity: first, French settlers, who heard of the “paradise” of fruit trees and good vegetation; then English-speaking Americans from the East Coast, who came for opportunities in the city’s early industries and in the distribution of Michigan lumber and farm products; and later, people from the US South and all over the world, who came looking for work in the automobile industry. Now people are coming for cheap real estate and the opportunity to start their own businesses; others are coming here specifically to be in a place where they can make a noticeable difference.

It’s been a contested place. Detroit’s location was chosen by the French for strategic reasons—strategic, primarily, for controlling the fur trade along the Great Lakes. But first, it was populated by native tribes such as the Hurons and Wyandots. Later, it was valued as a strategic military site, and changed hands several times (the French, British, and US flags have all flown here; and under the French and British, Detroit was part of Canada). The original French settlers were pushed to the margins by English-speaking settlers from the US East Coast. Various immigrant groups would coexist with mixed success, as in all US cities. Race riots occurred from time to time—1833, 1943, and 1967. Racist policies in government, housing, and business—not least of which involved the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—along with “white flight” to the suburbs changed Detroit to the largest majority Black city in the US. It’s also a city where you can find a Polish or (historically) French church with Masses in English and Spanish.

Early French settlers were known for what the later English settlers thought was an inordinate love of music and dancing—and, more recently, Detroit has given the world the musical genres of Motown, punk, and techno, and many talented artists in hip hop, rap, jazz, blues, folk, gospel, and rock’n’roll. Not to mention the world-famous DSO.

We’re an industrial center. Before cars, we made stoves, ships, train cars, and just about anything you could make by bending and stamping metal. Industry is an obvious part of our civic character. Currently, we’re making clothing, watches, bikes, food, and lots of arts and crafts.

Farming may be another theme. Detroit’s earliest settlers grew their food here, and, once they had enough to satisfy their needs (the land was generous, it seems), they enjoyed the good life. (The later English settlers called that “lazy.”) During an economic recession in the 1890s, mayor Hazen Pingree launched a program of urban gardening whereby Detroit’s poor could farm vacant lots. It earned him the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree,” but it worked (eventually). And now, as everyone knows, urban farming has returned to Detroit. Local farmers (in and around the city) provide produce for local restaurants and stores.

Remember the recent bad mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was driven out of office in disgrace? So was the city’s first leader, its founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (though not for quite the same reasons).

And, if you followed the above link about Pingree’s potato patches, you might have noticed words like “insolvency” and the city’s treasury being “almost empty.” I really don’t have to say more about that.

Our motto is all about things burning down, which they’ve tended to do rather frequently here. I hope that’s not part of the spirit of this place. Speramus Meliora—Resurgit Cineribus: “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” We’ve rebuilt this city before.

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal. The woman on the left is mourning after the 1805 fire that destroyed the city; the woman on the right is trying to console her with a vision of the city’s future. We haven’t added a third woman yet. It just seems cruel.

I hope if you’ve noticed other themes in this city’s history, you will share them in the comments. So far, it seems to me we can characterize this city as  a place whose people, whatever their ethnicity, whatever language they speak, work hard, enjoy the good life, make music, suffer hardships, reinvent themselves, and keep hoping and rebuilding.

Does that sound like Detroit to you?

It sounds like home to me.

313 years is still young in the grand scheme of things. Happy birthday, Detroit, and many returns.