Friday, May 30, 2008

Detroit layers and change

I came to Detroit looking for a way to answer some of my own questions and to have a more complete picure of what this city is about underneath the surface. At the end of our internship what I really have found is that the city itself is where the questions lie and there are a lot of people trying to answer those questions both in their own way and by working together with other community members.

Detroit may seem empty to some from the outside because it lacks the 'normal' amount of hustle & bustle, skyscrapers, megastores, and moneyholders that we are used to seeng in an urban metropolis, but Detroit can't be taken at face value. What matters more is recognizing, understanding, and working in the context of the many layers that run deep in the city's history, its neighborhoods, its organizations/businesses and its people.

I think that the ridiculous dreams of some, the undying love and understanding of others and the willingness to invest time, serious thought, and money from still others are the start of a combination that is going to make this city grow.

When I have more time I'll give a longer explanation about my experiences that make me believe this!

In the meantime here is something that I wrote during the creative writing workshop:

Change is the elephant in the room
Change is action
action, moving forward, leaping into the future,
sometimes before the present is even ready.

Change is struggle and pain
Pain caused by leaving behind the familiar, known
ways of living, thinking, believing, seeing.

Change grows inside of us and escapes through our
lips, eyes, ears, hands, and feet

It moves us before we are ready and takes us to places that we never meant to be.

Change reroutes the flow of rivers and streams from East to West
alters the path of birds flying North to South
it even allows new life to grow inside of a warm belly

Change starts with the ridiculous and ends only with time.


What Grows in our Garden

When we arrived as GIEU Detroit on 8 May, my relationship with the city was a smattering of blurred and isolated childhood memories: a day at the museum, a dance competition at Cobo hall, a hockey game at Joe Louis, a Tiger's game at the old stadium, a trip to the zoo. I knew token history about the city - how it was the home of automobile innovation, how it bustled at the turn of the last century, how it had been the hub of motown music, how there had been violence here some decades before I was born, how it has been experiencing white flight, and oh - don't forget - Eminem lived here, too. In the past, I found that people will often know the name 'Detroit' even if they don't really know of Michigan. The world knows about Detroit. Or does it?

Detroit carries a stigma - Detroit?! Why would you go there?! One really can't answer that question until he/she has come here. Pre-GIEU, would answer quite un-specifically, saying, "To discover the gems of this city that carries a tarnished reputation." We have seen many of these gems: the Renaissance Center, the Spirit of Detroit, Comerica Park, the Detroit institute of Art, Zeitgeist, Burt's, Eastern Market, Belle Isle, the Heidelberg Project and Mexican Town to begin the list.

As Monkeysarecool... said earlier, Detroit is a friendly city. This was certainly one of my first impressions. In Detroit, it seems inappropriate not to acknowledge another person. I especially like running along the river walk in the morning. Although the streets surrounding are devoid of pedestrian traffic, there are a number of people about the river walk walking, running or sitting and all of them are friendly. I exchange greetings with all of them, and occasionally I'll get a 'keep up the good work!' These exchanges aren't long but they stitch together a sense of community and goodwill that fosters connection and community.

I see this at the Capuchin soup kitchen, as well. The folks there are friendly and at any given table at any meal I was able to engage in gratifying conversations with perfect strangers. What I enjoyed even more, though, was the opportunity to listen to and observe the dynamics of the soup kitchen community. People know each other there, they share life together, they seek out each other to ask, "You alright?" I ate in the East Quad cafeteria for two years. Everybody knows all sorts of people at every meal, but the community at the Capuchin kitchen way supersedes what I observed at school. We've come to Detroit to explore community and how it builds. Well, guess what. Community is here and it's happening! Of course, community must grow, but it is very clear that Detroiters are a community and they are surviving. Together.

A little snippet on communication, too. Caitlin posted a beautiful creative writing response to the prompt "I am..." I particularly like the lines:
"writing and speaking--saying and clarifying,
trying to make people understand something that i can't even solidify."

Caitlin captures the complexity of communication - how do we have the courage to try and express what can't be can't be held onto and can't be infallibly organized and sorted? Somehow we find the audacity to do so and somehow we clarify and keep clarifying as things keep changing. Grace Boggs exhorted us to say, to find words to describe what we see and feel. She said if we can't find the words than make them up. I agree. It's hard to do and it can be scary. As Caitlin says,
"it's that crumbly cob ball that breaks apart every time i try to put it in just the right place."
To attempt communication is as risky as it can be rewarding.

We have been on the listening end of communication a lot during our time here. We have had the honor of meeting with and interviewing remarkable people: Malik Yakini, activist and community leader; Grace Lee Boggs of the Bogg center; the Capuchin friars; Patrick and Stacey at earthworks; Ms. G. Asenath Andrews, Principal of Catherine Ferguson Academy; Father Tom Lumpkin of the Day House; Sharon of the Day House; Lolita Hernandez, our dear house mom who we have learned is quite the local celebrity(!), and I'm sure I'm forgetting someone(s). These people are distinguished men and women who know Detroit intimately. They are respected and sought after thinkers, each with particular values and approaches to their city and our world. They have challenged us from all different angles and given us many feasts for thought. Now, it time to sift their words through our minds. We must talk with each other and the people that we will be with when we leave Detroit. By combining the words and experiences of others (from in or out of Detroit) with our own, we love the city in the way that the pastor at Hartford Baptist described last Sunday. We make the city necessary to us and ourselves necessary to the city. This our opportunity, priviledge and responsibility.

Beautiful Places


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Begin It

Begin it - not "do it"

It's not only up to him or her or me to do - only to start.

Maybe one person can change the world but maybe another has to begin that dream. Aren't we all changing the world in our own way? There are no buildings, monuments, streets named after us (who knows though - maybe some day) but we change each other and others change us and it creates a ripple effect.

Little stones ripple just like big ones. The big ones make more noise and bigger waves but the little ones change the surface and the bottom too. And a handful of little ones can make a big ripple too. Aren't you more likely to pick up and toss the pebbles anyway? I don't know many people who toss boulders. Change doesn't have to come from one big thing - the little ones build up and upon each other - they change the surface and structure. The big ones just reek havoc; sometimes that's good but other times you have to let the little ripples collide and see what comes of it.

Begin it.

Others can carry the ripple on - it's silly to throw a pebble and expect to control where and when it ends. It's just up to you to begin it and see where that ripple goes and how it handles the obstacles in its path and how it combines with other ripples and how far those go...

Begin it.

Past and Future

In response to Christine's photo from the Russell Industrial Center:

It looks like an old factory building. I could be wrong. You can see the wires and pipes but no people. It's easy to imagine them though. Like at the train station - standing on the main floor I could picture and feel the hustle and bustle that occurred there. I probably imagine it as grander than it was. What will it take for Detroit to be there again? Is that what we should even dream of? There's something about the uniqueness of this city that makes it so appealing - at least to me. Life seems slower here - there were so many people in Toronto and I don't think that made me like the city more.

What is this place? There is so much that it could have been or could be now - how does its history effect its future? How can you even know? There are stories in those walls and in the ground - stories that have been shared and stories that are lost forever. Those are the interesting ones to me - in how many ways and how many people did this effect? How important is that to moving forward? How tightly should you hold onto the past in order to move forward - without being burdened and without entirely ignoring what came before?



Come join us/ see what we've been up to
eat good food/enjoy good company

at the big garden on Meldrum Street near Kercheval.

(behind Gleaners Food Bank, Detroit).

Impossible prompts and other misadventures..except there are no other misadventures

Another response to Becca's writing prompt:

I am....

i am the prompt that is impossible to respond to. i am the prompt that makes you stare at the page dully trying to remember who is "I" and who am, is, are, were, was, or had "I" been?

i am changing every day, and i cannot find pretty little adjectives or nouns to describe how or why.

and that's the problem. 

writing and speaking--saying and clarifying,
trying to make people understand something that i can't even solidify.
it's that crumbly cob ball that breaks apart every time i try to put it in just the right place.

communication is my warm wall.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thoughts, Feelings, and some (Creative) Writing

As we begin our final week here in Detroit, the feeling of some sort of nostalgia is already looming. I miss this place already. I missed it when we were all in Toronto and the skyscrapers  started getting pretty monotonous.  I can't quite put my finger on what I'll be leaving; I feel as though I've had months of experiences packed into only 20-odd days. I know that our departure will be more of a 'See you later!' rather than a 'Goodbye' for me- and for the rest of us, I'm sure. There are so many amazing people here, amazing for their wisdom and for their commitment to their city and their neighbors. The nostalgia is for the places and the people, but a little piece of each will go home with me in the form of random pictures, notes, and fond memories of late night talks and walks around the city. There is also excitement, an anticipation to learn even more than I have already about the interconnected issues that we must face with respect to Detroit. Our short time here is only the beginning for me, and I hope that others in our little community feel the same.

And now for some creative writing!
In response to a photograph prompt of graffiti in the Dequindre cut (which happens to be posted here as well):

Empty chairs. Empty hallways. Coming back to an empty house. I used to think I liked being alone- often, at the very least. I used to tell myself, "Maybe I don't need people like other people need people." It was like cold water in the face when I'd come back to a 7'x11' room. No lights. No smiles. Just a floor made for doing homework on and a bed six feet off the ground. Sophomore slump? Then I woke up and I could see color again and breathe deeply and smile for absolutely no reason.  People do need people, and I'm one of those people. 
Places need people too.

In response to one of Christine's Polaroids of Eastern Market:

When I look at the sky, I see a constant that spans more than just a person, a city, a country, all those identifications that may either combine or divide us, or both at the same time. It's important for me to see the commonalities in things rather than what divides. I feel like we're taught those things that divide us our whole lives. 
I see bright blue sky, white clouds, and I see home. Only a man-made building or post to differentiate where, when. Only a man-made law or belief to differentiate who. Is community to finally realize that the things around us are not to be kept secret but shared? Should we start to share possessions and places like we share a blue sky?
Maybe sharing those things like we share a gray sky...

And in closing, a modest haiku to send us on our way:

Detroit Rock City
Urbanite for the cob bench
Makes people happy

I am...driven to be part of creating a future world that allows the soul within each and every person of the human race to have the opportunity to become who she or he is, and the desire to seek it. I am sure that my path in living this purpose is winding and full thick with obstacles; this is of no matter to me. I believe that the beauty that lies in truth will be my fuel as I continue forward.

Conversation, understanding, questions, and a struggle - these all signify a passion that burns.

To set aflame the burning pasion for life in each soul is what I see as my goal; I am unsure how and curious as heck to see where this drive will take me. All I know right now is that love - more like a brother's and less like a mother's - is a key ingredient. To have a world and yet lack love is to have nothing. I say to opposition and those who walk alongside me - I love you, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Is that what this is about? About making it all fit a mold that is ideal?But we are not - not like you and your boys who sit at the top. We will not fit our lives into your analysis of the current economic situation; will not fit our futures into your forecast for the world. The only forecast we listen to is the one beating within our hearts. And so you take, and you give, and you wonder why things aren't changing. You blame, and you give up. But save yourself the disappointment - by listening, understanding - that we are not you; do not want to be like you We want to live in the space between where we are and where you'd like us to be - so put down your models, your calculators, and your silly talk. Come to us, to othe people - to see who we are, and hear who we want to become.

Imagine understanding a "problem" from the ground up, and the humanity to it. We are like you, in a way, already. We have creative plans, dreams for our children, and pain and joy too share. Come to us, openly, and free yourselves of expectation, greed, and the aching thrill of power. Let your humanity connect with ours; only then can we begin to overcome.

Detroit: a Friendly City....

Detroit... Sure... it looks desolate, rundown, crime ridden, but once you get past the cosmetics, you find what is in many ways a vibrant, friendly city. It reminds me of Mimi from the Drew Carey Show; someone with really bad makeup yet nice in some way at the same time. In my wanderings around Detroit I have adopted what I call the "friendliness test;" I throwout a friendly hello to passersby and measure the number of responses. While Detroit does not rate as high perhaps as an average Southern city, the test has yielded a friendly response over %50 of the time. In contrast, Toronto scored pathetically with under %10.
The residents of the city seem intent in some small way to present a positive, friendly attitude. It does not seem to be isolated to one class or another, rather across the social spectrum. From upscale pubs to working class lounges to the soup kitchen, what seems to resonate is a distinct love for the city by its residents. Many younger people feel they may have to leave as they start to have families or find new jobs... at the same time, however, as one young professional put it, "my heart is always in Detroit, it is my home, and I will return."

I came to Detroit with no expectations, simply an open mind as to what I would find... However, after meeting many residents it is hard not to want to stay and explore. As we reach the end of our journey it is hard not to realize that we have barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. We have seen much of the good, and I'm sure there is much more, yet we have seen little of the bad.

the picture above was taken in the Dequindre Cut, it shows an artist's cot, and seems to tell a story of dedication and perseverance that characterizes so many of the residents of Detroit.
Although our stay in Detroit is concluding, its beginning is blended with excursions and experiences to seem as though we arrived months ago. On that first full day, still unacquainted with the City, I found myself getting on the People Mover with twelve unfamiliar people. The task was to explore the area around one of the stops of the People Mover with a partner. What struck me the most was not my impression of the city, but the impression my partner, Andrea, made upon me. We had stopped to buy a snack for some energy, and I was flattered by her willingness and desire to share with me wholeheartedly. Through a small act such as sharing some trail mix, I could sense her unselfishness on a larger scale. It's this kind of willingness to give that will strengthen our bonds to each other and beyond. Through food, we come together to share this necessity that reminds us that we are all human and have the responsibility and pleasure of providing it for everyone's benefit and nourishment.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roots: A Metaphor to Use all the Way

...if we really want to speak of roots, let us rely on metaphor all the way, and let us imagine the history of our food culture as a growing--not a shrinking--plant. It gradually burrows into the earth, seeking vital nourishmwnt wherever it can, implanting its rootsprecisely in places as distant as possible(soemtimes unimaginable.) The product is on the surface--visible, clear and well-defined: that is us. The roots are underneath--generous, numerous and diffuse.

from Food is Culture, by Massimo Montanari, Columba University Press, 2006

Friday, May 23, 2008

With all of the new people, places, projects and ideas we have been introduced to in the past two weeks here in Detroit, it helps to get words down on paper to help us realize, organize, and explore what we are thinking and feeling during this time of new experience.  I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we have all been journaling pretty regularly, but another approach to discovering some of the issues in our constantly turning gears has been creative writing led by wonderful writer and Detroiter, Lolita Hernandez.  Our little family has gathered a few times to receive writing prompts from Lolita and sometimes other people in our group,  and then we take off with our thoughts and our pens.  What people have been coming up with and sharing has been truly inspiring for me.  The following pieces are two of my responses to the prompts in the writing workshops.

A response to insects:

It would be interesting to tour a beehive
One of the drones would be the tour guide.
They say that the drone bees are only good for one thing, but I think their forgotten role is giving tours of their humming sanctuary.
"To the left we have some royal jelly, and to the right we have the queen who eats green jell-o for life.  
Down we have some baby honeys, and up we have a huge human in white who thinks that they are our babysitter.  We humor it.
Now we will pass through this geometric hole to the next leg of our tour, mind the sticky substances surrounding your entire body.
Ok, here we are among the lovely ladies, they won't notice you but don't take it personally.
Ok, we've reached the end of the tour, please turn left at the next honeycomb, and max will receive you at the gift shop where your can purchase.....
Horseradish, mustard, strawberry jelly and the queen bee's life cycle calendar.  
Buzz again."

This next piece comes out of a prompt giving by Becca, one of my fellow GIEUers.  The prompt was "I am". Easy, right?

I am sure that this twitch in my eyelid should not be sticking around as long as it has been.  My glassy stare must be confused about this contraction of its protector.
When something you have relied on so heavily begins to act in unfamiliar ways it's exciting.  My pupil and cornea are rejoicing.  My iris is energetic, the veins in my lens keep pumping but now at record speed. 
Sometimes I am eyeballs, but is that only because that's where the action is taking place?  
In part I am what I see but what I see does now shape the way my heart beats blood.
There is a twitch in my eye and I hope it stays because
I am always looking for a new perspective.

Monday, May 19, 2008

the core

Walk through most any Detroit neighborhood, and you can quite easily purchase a soda, a candy bar. But not an apple. For that you need a car, or, the alternative--the time to wait for a bus to the edge of the city to a suburban supermarket.
Easy access to easy food is what we as a nation leave to Detroit and to so many of our inner cities. The cumulative effects of this are manifold--from childhood obesity, to lack of choice, from the loss of a connection to culturally significant foods to an abrogation of the bond between people and place.
Walk a few blocks parallel to the major streets in Detroit and a potential solution to these concerns is visible. Through hard work, residents of many Detroit neighborhoods are answering their concerns through gardens. Breaking rough ground to plant delicate seeds is an act that requires nourishment and nurturing. The fruits (or vegetables) of this willingness to wrestle something fantastic and vital out of what has been left to decay is a creative act that, like other art forms, is often relegated or isolated as a luxury, while in fact it is central to culture.
This direct action--the creation of productive and beautiful fields that provide the nourishment of urban agriculture is not only measured through the crops produced, but the creation of neighborhood gathering places, the transformation from abandonment to visual and cultural plentitude. The problems and its solutions are systemic. The cultural changes that accompany food revolutions can be harvested if they are cultivated from the ground up.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

we begin...

May 8: our group of 12 is headed to Detroit to work in collaboration with EarthWorks Urban Farm.
We'll start letting you know as soon as we can what we're up to and when you can come visit us.