This post belongs under the tag “mental-spatial corridors.” It is about how two places got connected in my mind—two places that I have never been, but were introduced to me by persons from those places, while we were visiting two other places. The two places I was introduced to are Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Braddock, Pennsylvania. The two places in which I found myself a visitor when getting these introductions are Ox-Bow and Sundance.
By description, Benton Harbor and Braddock are mirror images in comparison to Ox-Bow and Sundance, on the levels of institutional nature, class wealth, popular reputation, and racial composition. It is strange to be comparing municipalities against a private art school and a private resort, but they are all places—pieces of the earth, named and demarcated. Had I traveled to Benton Harbor or Braddock I probably would have visited particular places within the city. Instead, I only have the names of the cities—and what I have read and been told about them—to think of as places. With Ox-Bow and Sundance, by contrast, I have the real experience of having been to them, and more or less fixing them in memory with specifics of time, place, and sensory input.
But Benton Harbor and Braddock are places where people actually live, raise families, grow old, and die. People work at Ox-Bow and Sundance, and visit. Nobody really lives there. They are mostly places for employment and for retreating from where the visitors actually reside. So while I made it to neither Benton Harbor nor Braddock, I met people whose lives had been shaped by those places as children and who still maintain ties through family. To put it another way, Benton Harbor and Braddock host societies while Ox-Bow and Sundance are society hosts. Meeting somebody from Benton Harbor or Braddock is meaningful in a way that meeting someone “from Sundance” does not even make sense.
But these four places—two and two—were linked in my experience.
I was at each by invitation.* Given that my times at both Ox-Bow and Sundance were made possible by professional opportunities, I am realizing how my mental maps are often determined by the concretely capitalized opportunities of which I avail myself. Put another way, what does it say about our structures of creativity that I or any artist could associate Benton Harbor and Braddock not for their Rust Belt similarities alone, but for having discussed those deindustrialized cities while participating in programs at two notable pockets of the highly privileged? In the case of my 2012 summer, a Rust Belt corridor of poetic travel tying together Benton Harbor and Braddock became visible to me through real travel enabled by the wealth of the elites.
Benton Harbor has been on my mental radar ever since Alex Kotlowitz’s book The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma was published in 1999. It was one of those books I never got around to reading but heard about plenty through the public media echo chamber, especially in Chicago, where I was living at the time and where Kotlowitz is a local literary star. In the last year or more Benton Harbor has been in the national news for the appointment of an unelected emergency manager to run the city. One of the controversies had to do with a land grab—related or unrelated, depending on who you ask—in which a jewel of a public park bequeathed to the city by a prominent Benton Harbor family many decades ago would be partly privatized through a golf course development. Rachel Maddow brought the story to a national audience, thereby shining a spotlight on the vultures that descend on broken cities, an increasingly common happening across the Rust Belt. There was a local resistance movement, led by a Reverend Pinkney. This was about all I knew of the story when I got to Ox-Bow, though the pattern sounded all-too-familiar.
A staff artist at Ox-Bow, Jerry Catania, a lifelong resident of Benton Harbor, offered me his perspective. He declined to criticize the emergency manager, spoke harshly about the decades of corruption and city mismanagement, and expressed relief over the city finally moving forward with some real changes, even if that meant having to accept the appointment of an emergency manager. Jerry described his years of frustration with the city commissioners as a small businessman, artist, and youth art educator. He pointed out that the new mayor, a youngish new-blood African American leader who is not a part of the old guard, cannot get the commissioners to co-operate with him, either. He also downplayed the land grab, describing the park as having been neglected for season upon season over decades, to the point of it being woefully underused and ignored. He was glad to have some reinvestment in the city, exclusive though the golf course may be.
I have no basis for evaluating any of Jerry’s opinions and testimony. All I can say is, he was sincere, informed, and committed to living and working in Benton Harbor, and is fully invested in its future. Far from a corporate type, or a conservative of any stripe, Jerry’s views are shaped by his experiences and first hand observations rather than an ideology. His vision was limited to the conventional, however. Jerry privileges tourism as the answer to Benton Harbor’s ailing economy, and did not seem to consider his city in the regional or global context. Such contextualization would not necessarily change his feelings about recent developments, but might open his imagination to a radically different lakefront of the future—one dependent on neither philanthropy nor private recreation, but on changed human relationships. Nonetheless, being immersed as I am in the daily struggles of public schooling through my daughter (and that is in Madison, a very well-funded system), I completely understand how everyday, all-the-time challenges push out visionary thinking—as I am sure the youth education Jerry is doing in Benton Harbor has its share of difficulties.
While at Ox-Bow I also became acquainted with the affable artist John Bankston. He spent his days there roaming the studios, including using up a couple of afternoons hunched over a woodblock in the print shop where Isak and I were teaching. Turns out John, too, is a native of Benton Harbor. Though San Francisco-based and influenced (see this video), John still has family in his hometown. I asked him if he stayed abreast of Benton Harbor news. He proceeded to run through the controversies with the familiarity of one who has the city’s history in his blood, but with the distance of a once-a-year former resident, long ago having left for higher education and a career. John did not have the same passion as Jerry, and instead spoke as one whose memories of the place ceased accumulation upon young adulthood. Taken together, Jerry and John brought a personal counterpoint to the reported stories I had heard and read, thereby inoculating me from quick conclusions about what is happening in Benton Harbor, and what an artist and activist like myself might have to say about it.
Fifteen hundred miles to the southwest of Ox-Bow is Sundance, the luxurious and spectacularly beautiful resort property owned by Robert Redford. It was the site for this year’s Creative Change Retreat, a gathering of cultural workers, donors and foundation people, and political organizers to which I was lucky enough to have been invited. My fellow artists in attendance included LaToya Ruby Frazier, a conceptual documentary photographer who hails from Braddock. Just as with Benton Harbor, I had heard and read about Braddock but never met anyone who actually grew up there as a native. What I knew was what most artists had heard—that Braddock was a mini-Detroit, that artists were moving there for the cheap property, and that controversies surrounded the town’s young activist mayor John Fetterman, a guy who ran with the idea that ramping up the arts could help revitalize the town. Most notoriously, he supposedly struck a marketing deal with Levi Strauss that in effect represented the town to the rest of the world, but paid fees straight to Fetterman’s non-profit instead of to the town’s treasury. The advertising campaign stamped Braddock as a "frontier," a place from where people fled and left empty. Frazier's family (and many others) never left.
LaToya added quite a bit of additional information from her perspective as one who has witnessed this latter-day influx of homesteading artists, most all of whom are white and many of whom come with some financial security of family assistance and/or upper middle class upbringing, and none of whom have the sensitivities or intimate knowledge needed to navigate the fraught terrain of competing local agendas, old divides, and the long-standing inequalities of power particular to the town. LaToya is in a delicate position, knowing as she does the nuances of the town’s politics while gaining art world recognition for her work. At the same time, she feels the burden and challenge of having a greater investment in the town’s future than the newcomers, if only because her relatives and longtime neighbors live there, and are not moving to the next hip town that catches an online buzz. Listening to her, I learned something about the complexities and unintended consequences of using arts as a catalyst for economic change. Also, she made me think hard about what it means to belong to a place, to be rooted so deeply that one’s work in some profound sense always will belong to that place.
And again, I felt like I had been introduced properly to Braddock without having gone there. That it was at Sundance that I had the opportunity to come face-to-face with the passionate commitment of a person fully invested in the town, and not at the town itself, begs the question, what exactly is this system of circulation we artists travel? What is the connection between Benton Harbor and Braddock, as represented by encounters with these people, when these encounters are engineered through the peculiar mobility afforded to contemporary artists?
The larger point is, the fact that these voices were delivered into my hearing through the vehicles of privilege that are Ox-Bow and Sundance underscores the complexity of any analysis I might offer of Benton Harbor’s political situation or of cultural politics in Braddock, and the contradictions of any position I might take. Based solely on the corridors of connection—the multifaceted, multi-directional streams that connect these four places for me—a democratic opposition equal to the forces of enclosure now at work will necessarily take forms far beyond the familiar. The contradictions cannot be resolved, so it will be a form that inhabits the contradictions, rather than ignores them. That is another way of saying, perhaps indirection of movement in today’s chaotically organized world is the fastest way to not only be genuinely introduced to a place otherwise superficially represented in media, but also to be reminded that the threads tying together places like Benton Harbor and Braddock, or Ox-Bow and Sundance, or any combination among the four, exist precisely because of the proximate flows of people, resources, and ideas—complex, yes, but ultimately organized according to the profit-generating logics of capital. This is not to be reductionist, but to acknowledge that living in and through these flows at times offers opportunities for relationships with places and fellow human beings that fall outside of the spectacularized relations constantly served.
Sometimes eighteen hundred words need some help. Consider the two views below, both hand drawn by me.
First is a conventional (if minimal) mapping of the four places. The direct scaling down of spatial relationships results in an image not at all compelling. In fact this map obscures the relationships that made the whole experience, that is to say, the relationships that brought all these thoughts into being.
And second is a poetic mapping, an indirect representation, one that takes into account the irresolvably different scales at work: individual personalities, the places one visits or is from, how information travels between people but also across space, and the global system that made these connections possible. If nothing else, the second map/image was a lot more fun to draw.
*These summer encounters only happened thanks to the amazing management at Ox-Bow and the visionary organizers from the Opportunity Agenda, who put together the Creative Change Retreat.