Let’s chat about Detroit. The first (and last time) time that I ever visited Detroit was for a family reunion. I was 14 years old and went with my paternal grandmother. She and my grandfather grew up there and moved to southern california before the idea of me, other grandchildren and great grandchildren ever existed. That place was the most depressing place that I had ever seen in my life. This was the 90’s, Southern cali was gang land and wearing certain colors could get you rough up or killed, but Cali wasn’t hopeless. It was tense. There’s a quite a difference and that is what I learned as a 14 year old. I had never been to a city that had weeds the sizes of trees growing out of the freeways. It felt like no one cared about this place. They didn’t even care enough to be angry. Maybe folks use to care about the place, but no one cares about it now. This was the first time that I had ever seen a 7-11 that one could not go in, and was made of bullet proof glass, put the money in the bullet proof plexi turny thing at the counter and then the clerk slides around your change and request. I visited the ‘great’ Motown museum that looked as though it was falling apart at the seams. I had the opportunity to meet my relatives and see my grandmother be frustrated and annoyed. She’s quite a composed lady so this was very rare form for her, but it was something I appreciated. It made her seem like a more dynamic person and I understood that she had made quite a concerted effort not to be in Detroit. This is the same woman who lived in NY and worked as a nurse and at one point even lived in Alaska. That’s a different story though. Let’s get back to Detroit.
Detroit felt like it use to be amazing, a long time ago, and folks kept reminding others that it use to be amazing as the the city is slowly falling apart. It was like showing up to a party 20 years too late. Since that trip I’ve been facsinated with Detroit…from a distance. It’s amazing and bazaar that a place that I have always felt represents many if not most American cities. Industry comes, folks work and live, industry leaves and the folks are stuck. Eventually trains stop rolling through, flights become few and far between, those that can leave do those that can’t or won’t stay and become forgotten. This seems like it can happen to just about any city in America. I’ve always felt that If there is a revival for the Motor City it will be spearheaded by artists and DIY folks, both insiders and outsiders. A few years ago when I first caught wind that one could buy a house in in Detroit for the cost of one months NYC rent. My ears perked up a bit and I mentioned to a few friends that we should but a few places near each other and set up shop…but I wondered if I had enough optimism to actually live in Detroit or if the hopelessness would swallow me. Well, I guess I decided that the hopelessness would swallow me and decided that it’s not my journey right now.
In the nature of artists creating awareness I recently saw to documentaries that addressed Detroit…in two different ways.
The first one is Searching for Sugar Man. It’s a Swedish/British documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul. It is about is an American folk musician Sixto Díaz Rodríguez based in Detroit, Michigan. His career initially proved short-lived with two little-sold albums in the early 1970s and some brief touring in Australia. Unbeknownst to him, however, his work proved extremely successful and influential in South Africa, although he was mistakenly rumoured in that country to have committed suicide. In the 1990s, determined South African fans managed to seek out and contact him, leading to an unexpected revival of his musical career. Their story is told in, Searching for Sugar Man, which has also helped give Rodríguez a measure of fame in the U.S. I enjoyed that Rodríguez continued to live out the themes and views addressed in his music even though his music carreer was pretty much non existant for most of his life. He worked from the inside out and is a bit of a reminder that, it’s not a race. It’s not linear. It’s life and that’s all. One more thing…he makes Bob Dylan’s music seem like elevator music. A portion of it was shot with an iphone proving that many of us have all the tools we need to create in our pockets…pretty powerful.
I saw Detroitopia and was happy to see a documentary that tackled many perspectives on the city of Detroit. Detroitopia focused mainly on the economy and was directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. ‘The three Detroiters who are profiled are video blogger Crystal Starr, nightclub owner Tommy Stephens, and United Auto Workers local President George McGregor, each of whom reflect on their own experiences and share their observations about the city, its problems, and its opportunities. Also featured are portions of Mayor Dave Bing’s discussions with city officials and residents about the possibility of geographically consolidating Detroit residents as a cost-saving measure. A group of artists, mostly newcomers to Detroit, are shown as well, particularly Steve and Dorota Coy. The Coys, who are performance artists, are featured on the poster and DVD cover for the film.’ (info courtesy of wikipedia) The artists they showed kinda annoyed me. I have issues with outsiders being too large of a representative for problem solving. I wish they were working more with the local community (or if that was shown, if they are). That’s my own issue though, and overall I was happy to see that the city was thoughtfully and sensitively documented.
Detroit may still have a bit of magic left. What are your thoughts?