Monday, August 17, 2009

Travels in place: Detroit (and O`ahu)

A dream: somewhere near a large city (I'm thinking Seattle), walking out of the small town where I was staying, thinking I could return in a large loop. Walking until near dusk. Stopped in a hotel and walked up some stairs. Suddenly emerged on a platform from which I saw high mountains (looking more like the sheer, corduroyed Ko`olaus than anything in Washington State). Beside me was a large dam. Water flowing everywhere--waterfalls on the mountains, closer by, then on the dam. I went downstairs to ask a hotel employee where my small town was and if I could get there by nightfall, but I'd forgotten the town's name.

The father of an old friend, a man who'd grown up in Germany and emigrated to the US after WWII, once told me that he no longer remembered which cities he'd traveled to and which he'd imagined.

Tomorrow night I travel to Detroit for a young cousin's wedding. Without having seen it, it would be hard to imagine Detroit, the less glamorous L.A. of the midwest, dying at the center and the peripheries, where foreclosure rates skyrocket. Two summers ago we traveled to see my cousin, who lives in Shelby Township, and my 91-year old aunt, who lives in Troy (like my dad, she grew up in Romeo, once and still a farming area, though the suburbs and strip malls approach from the south like a large generic storm). My cousins grew up in Highland Park, near (I think) the old Chrysler factory (here's something on Highland Park's Ford factory), an area that for decades lacked police or fire department, full of large houses, some of which are still intact (if weary-looking) and others that are burned out. I don't know if this was the Chrysler plant where my father worked, fresh off the farm, for a year he remembered as an object lesson in moving on (which the military helped him do when it drafted him in World War II). The old car plant is empty and, like much of Detroit, there are a lot of vacant lots, abandoned and boarded up houses, broken stuff. There had been Dutch elms until the blight wiped them out in the 1970s. Nearby was the site of Vincent Chen's 1986 murder at the hands of unemployed, aggrieved and racist auto plant workers. Mark Nowak's poem is worth a visit, some time spent. The poem alternates with photographs of the abandoned factory; one bit of graffiti goes, "FACTORY BUILT MALICE." When Chin was attacked, he was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, where he died. One of Detroit's tragic histories can be located in that sentence alone.

[Highland Park, 1956]

[Highland Park, circa 2007]

One of the most interesting places in contemporary Detroit is the Heidelberg Project area, where Tyree Guyton began making houses, vacant lots, and even trees over in the 1980s as art spaces. Twice the project was partially demolished by the city and twice it reemerged intact, if you can call it that, the beauty of recycled decay. Here are some photos:

Note the cars with crosses on them, which remind me of this church sign in the suburbs of Detroit, the centrality of cars to the secular and religious economy of the area is clear:

This sign piggybacks nearly seamlessly onto this call to prayer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team:

The graffitied houses also force us to reread history: 1967 (the year of the Detroit riots, after which most whites fled the city); OJ; Oklahoma City. The word scatter matches the conceptual scatter a spectator feels when she sees these houses. To say nothing of the panic she felt when Tyree himself appeared and demanded to know "the purpose of art!" In a city that was born and thrived for a time on use value, the relative uselessness of these houses--no one lives in them, after all--seems especially striking. Down the street a ways, my cousin Bill, his daughter, and I ran into some art grad students from Wayne State. They wondered where to find old tires for a new project; some were setting out in clunkers to hunt down their treasure. We felt confident they would find plenty. Recycling for art's sake, where art cannot be for its own. Reminds me of the alternative economy of Tinfish journal covers, the last of which was made of real estate magazines, the kind you can pick up for free around town. They point at the artifice of our (of any?) housing market, as the wacky beauty of the Heidelberg project highlights Detroit's destruction by forces beyond its control.

One of Bill's relatives offered me an embodied definition of "Reagan Democrat" when he blamed Coleman Young for the death of the city, for getting whites to flee by making it clear they weren't welcomed. What a lot of history gets rewritten in our assumptions of what it means.

We mostly stayed home this summer, which provided time to get to know this place a bit better. I became a big fan of 1970s era government studies--a study of the Kawainui Marsh in Kailua and one of what became, in part, the Ho`omaluhia botanical garden near Kane`ohe. The old photos are amazing documents. One in particular is of the He`eia bridge near the state park (which was a place where souls were judged and separated); in the 1920s photo, there is no vegetation around the bridge at all. When I ride my bike over it now, by way of contrast, I can hardly see a thing because the mangroves are so thick. It seems a reverse haunting to see what was not there as present in one's imagination of history. These reverse hauntings are everywhere in Hawai`i. That's something I learned from my brief time in Detroit.


Jonathan Morse said...

There's a wonderful photoblog about Detroit at

And oh boy is your interlocutor wrong about Coleman Young. Not that he was conciliatory toward whites; he wasn't. But the white flight from Detroit started, as you said, in 1967, long before he was mayor. And my (non-white) wife and I were treated to a hostile reception by the congregation and rabbi of Temple Israel (then of Detroit, now of nice white Bloomfield Hills) in 1974, likewise long before Young was mayor.

tyrone said...


Thanks for this-your nanalysis of Detroit is great. Did I show you my short puece on Tyree's project?

susan said...

No. But I have your book with me for inspiration. Am currently sitting on the floor at baggage claim in Detroit, awaiting a ride. Please send link or piece on Heidelberg. aloha, sms

tyrone said...


above is the link...