When I told people that I was traveling to Detroit for the weekend for work the reactions were polarized. I either got, “Detroit, why?” or, ” Detroit, awesome! I’m so jealous!” Sure, Eastern Michigan would not be my number one pick for a winter getaway, but I didn’t quite understand the disdain for the motor city (though I wasn’t sure why people were jealous either). Yes, it’s been through some hard times, but as savvy observers have noted, it’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance as well. So, it was with open minds and open eyes that we headed off.
The first thing I noticed was the utter lack of density. As we drove around on Sunday morning I felt often like I was driving through the struggling mill towns of Western Maine. “How did this happen?,” I asked one of our hosts. “Poor city planning,” she replied. Basically, the city was designed for masses of people who never came. But Detroit is not an empty wasteland. Far from it. Detroit artists are currently debating whether “ruin porn” is the best way to show the plight of the city (and incite action). I admit that we didn’t leave without seeing the abandoned Michigan Central Station, which has become a symbol for the city’s decline, and, hopefully, will become a symbol for its renewal if it does get restored, perhaps as a hub for high speed rail?
Detroit is a hub for art and culture that has been getting a lot of attention lately. We were sure to check out the Heidelberg Project, where the artist Tyree Guyton has decorated an entire street (and surrounding area) and made it into a “folk art” or “outsider art” or “contemporary art” destination instead of a locus of decay and despair. I loved the project for its political nature and also the fact that there was always more to look at – that’s what makes great art, you always see and feel something new as you continue to look.
We spent a whole Saturday afternoon with the Kresge artist fellows, a group of literary and performing artists who have been given a 1-year fellowship by the Kresge foundation. They were an inspiring, diverse group who are deeply invested in their community, have a sharp analysis of Detroit’s history and current events, and are making profoundly challenging work. They included a double bass player from the currently-on-strike Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a female hip-hop artist who wants to set up a foundation for women rappers, an architect and critic writing a history of the idea of the African American Museum on the Washington Mall, and a host of inspiring poets and others. As one of the artists said, “It’s no longer embarrassing to be from Detroit. I used to hide that I’m from here, but now everyone is interested in what we have going on.” These artists could teach New Yorkers a thing or two!
Our meeting with the artist fellows was held in the Detroit Historical Society, a beautiful building with lots of engaging, interactive exhibits. I kept taking pictures of all the lovely didactics and also got very excited when I saw real cars in the museum illustrating an assembly line in an auto plant. This is what working in a fine arts museum for years will do to you.
After our meeting with the artists we all went to Motor City Brewing to partake in locally brewed beers and artisanal pizza. I flinched a little when we ordered the “Ghettoblaster” beer, but wow, the flavor!
We also made it to the Detroit Institute of Arts and took in a photo show of an amazing Hungarian/French/American photographer Andre Kertesz, to the boutique Goods that features lots of hip, Michigan made crafts, and for lunch at Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes.
And despite my parents’ fears I’d be, “sleeping on the floor of a ramshackle motel,” I was, in fact, sleeping in a restored Victorian mansion that comprised the six-house complex of the Inn on Ferry Street. Featuring an incredibly delicious breakfast, working fire places and free New York Times, I can’t recommend this Inn (and Detroit) enough! Please see my Flickr stream for more pictures!