10/30/2012: As of last Sunday and for the two evenings before that, this little frame house long abandoned and brought back to the world of warm bodies by the artist couple Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner, was full of voices, movements, spirits. It was a Compass gathering. Now it is Tuesday and in the house are just I and the spiders. Even they are not much for company, static as they are for the cold season.
This latest of Detroit excursions started with my attentions on family at the beginning of the weekend and then shifted over to Compass by noon on Sunday, except for a short overlap on Saturday night. It was a bit stressful because there was no place near the D*Flux house for my family to stay, and no affordable vacancies in the downtown area because of the World Series, forcing me into driving between the city and Southfield, where the three of us stayed.
Helpfully, on this trip Rozalinda shared with me a few of her further thoughts on the social construct of nuclear parenting as it remains unaddressed in practice by the better part of the left movement spectrum. Her critique rings true, I must say especially in relation to parenting teenagers, who require very imaginative solutions to the problems posed by their needs. I never thought about it deeply before I became a parent myself, partly because frankly I never had to, and partly because the people closest to me with the divided attention problem mostly deal with small children. For better or worse, there is a popular starting point for the conversation about family-inclusive practices in relation to small children, and that is childcare (and how to best provide it, how to ensure its quality, how to pay for it, etc). I never did think about it much beyond that, even though childcare as conventionally imagined is ultimately on many levels a stop-gap. But for adolescents it is even harder because the conversation has no obvious starting point.
In any case, there were plenty of reasons for my time-segregated weekend having to do simply with scheduling and the aforementioned distances. So I only enjoyed about an hour of the full Compass effect on Friday night. It is wonderful to be with Compass collaborators in any situation, including the institutional setting of MOCAD for our screening of the Monsanto Hearings and book release, especially while the exhibition Vision in a Cornfield is up. On Sunday afternoon, after the second of the two lightly attended but invigorating public events, the group began to disperse. I missed not only the full group in its nighttime form of deep, joyful discussion lubricated by love, but also in its daytime form of group drift. In this instance the outing was conceived, researched, and scouted by Rozalinda B, in keeping with her work around Foreign Trade Zones and migrant labor justice in the Chicago area. Early Sunday morning the group ventured out to view selected Detroit FTZs, evidently containing the faceless warehouses in which is parked a considerable fraction of the world’s aluminum stocks. Who knew? Well, according to Compass research, Goldman Sachs knows this well. The London Metal Exchange is where the prices are set and the futures traded, but Detroit is where tons of the actual material is held.
By Sunday evening the group of nine melted down to five, with five leaving and one (me) rejoining. We were smaller but charged up fresh from an appearance by Cheri Honkala, the Green Party VP candidate, only about nine days before the election. Ms. Honkala, who described the Green Party ticket as "Jill Stein from Harvard, and Cheri Honkala from the School of Hard Knocks," laid into the System. She was not there to discuss the Green Party program, but rather to critique directly the deadliness of the status quo. She had as openers our Detroit acquaintences Maureen Taylor and Elena Herrada, and a special warm-up by the Rev. Pinckney of Benton Harbor. We couldn't pass up a photo op with Cheri.
After that it was another freewheeling late night Compass gab-fest. Brian and Claire burned the threads brightly as usual. Such a pleasure, although I tend to get a little lost when the property rights discussion takes off. That is because unlike responsible intellectuals Claire and Brian, I never bothered to read John Locke. And I do not plan to, not after Nick S, a grad student from southern Illinois who joined us for the weekend, briefed us on what Locke says in his three applications of the Digger Winstanley's argument for autonomy to the argument for private property rights. Got it. Sort of.
10/31/2012: More powerful for me is what I am reading, a D*Flux house copy of The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey. The event as Hersey reports it is gripping by itself, but that he could not have known in 1967 what Detroit would become decades later makes reading it alone on cold rainy nights in Detroit in 2012—in fact, on both Devil’s Night and Halloween, still notorious nights in Detroit for the long shadow cast from the bad old days—feel especially elegiac. It is as if the Rebellion wrenched open a new set of historical possibilities, but none of them were taken, and I am visiting the city that grew from the default path that ensued. The New Left proved unable to avail itself of the new or refreshed opportunities due to unresolved contradictions within the movement. Big labor certainly could not either, bound in partnership as it was to the industrial capitalism that it ostensibly resisted. The forces of Black liberation failed in the same as well, due to their unresolved contradictions. Instead, the rot of corruption, dysfunction, and disinvestment set in, hollowing out the pride that once existed in the word public. The economic and physical void left when capital flees now moves into the last of the vulture stages: the late return of speculators, this time would-be emergency management profiteers.
Because Detroit has evolved into such a visually sublime city, with evidence of a once-dense urban terrain confirmed only through absence and fade, I cannot help but read the book with massive visualizations and curiosities about what Detroit looked like in 1967. Not the famous sights of Belle Isle, Tiger Stadium, or the flagship Hudson's department store, but the seedy stretches of Woodward, the commercial strips along Grand River and Gratiot, and the small machine shops and parts factories that dotted the city by the hundreds—the cityscapes that probably nobody bothered to record. All that remain are decaying fragments here and there. The moving imagery of the Prelinger compilation Lost Landscapes of Detroit helps, but much of it is in black & white, or very grainy and degraded color. Very beautiful in its aging, but I want images that are better preserved, still and not moving. The neon palm-decorated motel sign featuring the “Africa-whispering name” as described by Hersey, sits in my head tugging at retronaut pleasures, in full color. Thanks to the wonders of the Web and a vintage motel postcard, here it is, an answer to one of my desires: to have a picture of the Algiers Motel, which even by 1969 had been renamed, two years after the police killings of the Incident.
the corner of Woodward and Virginia Park bear the trace of previous decades in
the negative, through empty spaces. The car wash behind the motel mentioned by Hersey is still there, but there is nothing but a lawn where the motel once stood.
In 1967 that and most other spaces were full I am guessing, but how healthy did they appear then? It says a lot about the illusions of our world today if Detroit entered its terminal crisis 45 years ago despite having visually apparent vitality.
The racism of the policemen involved in the incident is made evident particularly in the words of Robert Paille and David Senak. Theirs is a racism built of neither a pointed prejudice nor a self-aware loathing, but rather a pervasive and personally-felt negativity in attitude toward whole groups of people. It is a negativity that precludes any benefit of the doubt and any true witholding of judgment, not to mention forgiveness. On the contrary, it is a glacial racism of slowly accumulating resentments. Paille on the Negroes: “It just seems that the more you give these people, the more they want.” This again resonates deeply with this moment. It is a few days before the general election of 2012. The hard right hatred of Barack Obama exceeds anything that was directed at George W. Bush. The rich-poor white coalition of rural conservatives, suburban elites, and disappearing white workers is rabid. The feeling comes from resentment: the Obamas are living like kings while the rest of us are struggling, and they only got in there because of their race! Indeed the putrid slogan belies a constituency.
Hersey draws a clear picture of the troubled entry into adulthood of directionless working class black urban young males–a latent force of talented, brutalized, traumatized beings now three generations lost. For example, from all the descriptions of him, one of the three youths killed, Auburey Pollard, comes across as too quick to fisticuffs and way more intense than was good for him. He is described as a promising draughtsman and generous guy, but he also clearly did not care to consider the consequences of playing the role of muscle. These none-too-flattering leanings are conveyed through the words of his own family and friends, not Hersey's imaginary rendition. But Hersey reports contradictions and reversals as they occur. For example, one of the witnesses and a friend of the deceased, Michael Clark, comes across as arrogant and uncooperative in court, to the point of dislikeability, even by most of the other young men.
Presenting his unvarnished findings with regard to the flawed characters he found in researching this tale, Hersey's writing strangely hints at an age to come, in which the post-traumatic moral impurities, real or fabricated, of individuals are exploited expertly by the Right. The absolute injustice of the slayings–Pollard's clearly being a confessed police killing–is in no way lessened by the sometimes unsavory profiles of the young men. Hersey's research presents the criminal policemen, Officers Senak, August, and especially Paille, as surpassing the mediocrity of the victims in one chilling respect, at least: an insensitivity to their own violence.
11/01/2012: I imagined coming to Detroit to think about and travel Cass Corridor and University Research Corridor. That was the ostensible starting point for my research residency at MOCAD, but my focus quickly devolved. By noon Monday, my first day alone, I fell into the general poking around that I often do when traveling solo. That day was spent waiting for messages to get to people I hoped to see (did I bother to arrange any of that beforehand? No, that would be way too organized), so I let myself get side-tracked by the products, the interiors, and the people of Hello Records, John King Books, Dabl’s African Bead Museum, Source Booksellers, Lo & Behold in Hamtramck, the food at the Yemeni Café, and the coffee and sweet rolls at Avalon. Those are the places I spent my money, and if the opportunity presented, time in conversation with shopkeepers and acquaintences.
I recommend a leisurely browsing of all the places named above, and eating at the Yemeni Café, a Hamtramck hang-out for Yemeni dudes (but warmly welcoming to all) that serves an excellent combination platter of lamb, vegetable gallaba, and fragrant rice. I cannot judge the food for its authenticity, but it was so tasty I went there three nights in a row.
A big part of the week's equation was the crummy weather. The days forming the heart of my visit were dominated by storms, rains, and chilly winds blown through the interior by Hurricane Sandy. For three days I'd leave the house at about ten and not return until I holed up for the night starting at around eight o'clock. I stayed indoors during the day, just not in the house, but rather in stores, coffeeshops, and libraries, and driving around town. Instead of taking the walks I had hoped, I opted to stay warm, dry, and more or less sedentary. Staying warm meant leaving the house because it is heated by wood stove. The warmth is terrific, but it takes over an hour for the fire to attain a charcoaled state, and thereafter requires the constant feeding of wood. Being the sole occupant and therefore the only one working the stove, it was easier to only have to start and tend the fire at night and then let it die as I went to sleep, instead of having to keep it going during the day.
Hurricane Sandy was only one of the events that made this particular week memorable. There was also the aforementioned World Series and Devil's Night. The Tigers home games took place on Saturday and Sunday, losing both, and with that the Series. On Tuesday and Wednesday, for Devil's Night and Halloween, the city imposed an early curfew for youth.
And there was the imminent election, featuring a scion of Michigan royalty challenging the centrist African-American president, as well as a number of interesting ballot initiatives. On Monday I dropped by the Teamsters hall on Trumbull and picked up a yard sign.
I may not be a Michigan resident but the collective bargaining amendment put in front of the voters under Proposal 2 contained more than an echo of the WI Uprising.
To sum up the historic week: the Tigers lost, the storms of Sandy kept most people in and washed out the expected Devil's Night fires, and the Romney campaign pretty much threw in the towel on the candidate's home state. But rain or no rain, these were no ordinary days to be visiting Detroit.
11/02/2012: My final night in Detroit was enlivened by the appearance of the artist Åsa Sonjasdotter. We met some years ago in New York. At that time she was just beginning a new job in Tromsø, in the far north of Norway, helping to establish an art department at the university there. She was back in the States to take part in a show in Cincinnati and had a week or two for traveling around the region. She'd made her way from New York to Ohio, from there to Chicago, and then back eastbound. Being a food activist and an artist of critical engagement, she had intense curiosity about Detroit. As well, she has experience traveling and working in some of the desolate urban industrial landscapes of the post-Soviet cities of northern Russia.
We went to Windsor for Chinese food, confused the Homeland Security man upon re-entry with our convoluted stories in response to the question "how do you two know each other," and lingered into the night with discussions about art, politics, and of course Detroit. Jon gave us a tour of the D*Flux Sound House–a house around the corner from their homestead as of now entirely given over to sound installation/recording/performance experiments. The house itself is an instrument, set up currently with deep looping bass rumbles triggered by the opening of the front door. The interior paint job was executed by two visiting artists from L.A.
The next day, Friday, I left for family visits in Ann Arbor. Åsa stayed for another day or two, courtesy of Jon and Sarah, and continued her solo drift from there. In Ann Arbor I made a last acquisition in my research residency book hunting: a hardcover edition of Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. I skipped the Port Huron at 50 conference, napped at my uncle's house, and drove home with a mobile library of Detroit-related, -relevant, and/or Detroit-found titles. I resisted the urge to lift Jon's ratty copy of the Hersey book, partly because I knew I could find it in Madison. The next week, it might have even been on Election Day, I called Paul's. They had a copy for three dollars. Who really needs Amazon when you live in the mrcc?