A great city, battered but resilient
When I embarked on a Midwestern road trip in October, I was pessimistic about a campaign I’ve been working on for three years here in New York. Construction was about to start on the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, which would demolish the big riverside park on the Lower East Side a block from my apartment. An ever-growing group of activists have been trying to persuade or force New York City to adopt a less environmentally devastating flood control plan for East River Park. We were losing and we were feeling horrible. My visit to old friends in Detroit changed my attitude.
“Can you tell where the border of Detroit is?” asked Angela as we biked the quiet, wide streets. It was just minutes after I arrived at her house a few blocks outside of Detroit. She and her husband Mark were eager to show me their favorite places.
It was easy to answer her question. We crossed Mack Avenue, and the pavement became rougher. There were gaps between houses, sometimes many lots wide that were just grass bordered by cracked sidewalks. “Goodbye tax base,” said Angela. Some of the houses that remained were clearly deserted with glassless or boarded up windows, some with weeds and trees engulfing them. Others looked well kept but lonely. The city was decimated in the 21st century with the loss of the auto industry. Population decreased from its peak of 1.85 million in 1950—the fourth largest city in the U.S.—to today’s 639,000–now ranked 27th in population. You can click on a photo to enlarge it, then scroll through:
Angela and Mark are filled with love and hope. They showed me why they are so optimistic. We stopped at Post, a repurposed post office, now a woodworking studio and shop filled with handsome Detroit-made goods. I bought a handmade laminated wood cutting board for my niece’s wedding (that was what got me started planning a Midwestern road trip).
We biked to a favorite restaurant, Coriander, a modest, friendly and tasty place where we dined outside on picnic tables. We stopped at Detroit Abloom, a big garden full of robust and colorful dahlias. The gardener, Tom Milano, had started it on seven vacant lots. It became a nonprofit and now includes community gardens.
Angela and Mark pointed out lots where people were planting rows and rows of saplings to start forests. “If there’s a empty lot next door to your house, you can buy it from the city for $100,” said Angela. You can buy a good-sized house for $10,000, Mark said. He works in real estate and has helped people buy vacant houses. It’ll be a fixer upper, but the good old abandoned houses are a draw for creative people who need space but have few funds.
The next day we met my childhood friend who has lived in Detroit for some 40 years. Sharon and Angela took me to see the Heidelberg Project. Here in the 1980s, Tyree Guyton had painted his grandmother’s house with polka dots. Then he started hanging paintings and toys and sculptures to abandoned buildings in the neighborhood up and down Heidelberg St. on the East Side of Detroit. Soon, people from all over began visiting to see the art made from ruins. Sharon worked on the project for years, raising money and promoting the art site.
And then, the city bulldozed some of abandoned houses/artworks and vandals burned down more. Thirteen houses perished. Tyree, resilient as Detroit itself, did not stop. On the empty lots, he built sculptures made from found objects—grocery carts, dolls, toy cars. He painted clocks on plywood and hung the renderings on trees, propped them on buildings, leaned them alongside a shipping container. You can click on the first photo to enlarge it, then scroll through to get a real impact of Tyree’s work:
We wandered around with other tourists admiring this visionary outdoor museum of junk turned to art.
We visited the Detroit Institute of Arts with the room filled with magnificent murals by Diego Rivera, his best work, Angela said. There were also in the museum Van Goghs, Renoirs, Degas, Gauguin and Reginald Marsh and so many wonderful artists. Ten years ago, when Detroit was utterly devastated economically, it looked as if the DIA would have to sell off its masterpieces in order to survive at all. The city declared bankruptcy in 2013. Benefactors came to the rescue.
Today the museum and its grounds are beautiful. There were few people there because of Covid—we had the mural room to ourselves for nearly an hour—and the staff was friendly and thrilled to extoll the virtues of their workplace. The employee watering the planters lining the base of the murals expressed her pride when we complimented how beautiful they looked.
The guard in the show featuring vintage cars showed a wide knowledge of the vehicles and talked about how there should be a dedicated car museum. We had never encountered museum guards so excited and knowledgable about exhibits.
We went on to admire the 1927 Fisher Building nearby, a decorative wonder of an office building beautifully kept up that shows how Detroit was one of the wealthiest cities in the heyday of the American auto industry. The city is no longer prosperous and hasn’t been for many years, but the pride, hope and resiliency I experienced there were bracing.
Detroit gave me a glimmer of hope. The destruction of East River Park is devastating to our Lower East Side, but I see that we can face it with resiliency.
If you have the opportunity to go to Detroit, do it.