Now that planning for the second Heartland show is underway (to be mounted at the Smart Museum next fall), my thoughts again turn to Detroit.
Projects happening in Detroit having to do with urban agriculture and innovative green design are catching some deserved attention these days. I think the temptation is there for us green utopians to latch onto the open spaces of Detroit as some sort of a future promise. While I can see the point, and can easily let my imagination run in just such a way, I also have some sense for the trauma buried just below the surface of all those vacant lots. For one thing, many of those vacant lots are vacant, in fact, because of the Devil's Night fires for which Detroit became notorious over the Seventies and Eighties. At once celebratory (who doesn't like a great big bonfire?) and rebellious (yes, it was arson), I always thought of the fires as a kind of burn-testament to the legacy of violence upon which Detroit meets its post-industrial fate.
One of my very earliest memories of an urban environment, whereby I thought to myself, hm, this is something different and ah, not pleasant, is of a family car ride into Detroit, looking for a Korean restaurant on Six Mile Road. (That's what my parents did in their leisure time back then--look for out of the way Chinese and Korean restaurants to try, no matter how sketchy.) I was probably about eight or nine years old. It was in the hot summer, one of those mid-Seventies summers that looks so good in films. In the back of my head now, War is playing. It might have even been July 4, as most of my parents' days off in those times were the national holidays.
Anyway, we were stopped at a light on a thru street, with residential homes, small frame or brick--I cannot remember exactly. But an older neighborhood, something I'd now describe as post-war. I was looking out the window from the back seat, watching a large gathering of black people on the sidewalk. There were a couple dozen people, adults, teens, and children. They were laughing, yelling, and breaking into a run. They were running away from a small front yard in which there was a group of about four adult white people. The whites were yelling and cursing at the blacks, and one of the white women was hysterical and crying. They had an upset grill and maybe some other items in the yard.
What had just happened here? I wondered: did the black neighbors, coming in as a large assemblage, perhaps a family or clan group, but to the whites in all likelihood appearing as a mob, harass, intrude on, and terrorize the whites? Was this fifteen or twenty-second snapshot, which has stayed with me for the whole rest of my life, the latest chapter in some ongoing battle or contest? I never doubted that those white folks made it a point to leave Detroit--and 'flee' may not be too strong a word. But what was the full context? And the aftermath? I'll never know, but given this memory, imagining narratives outside of the expected is perhaps my responsibility.