On Sight, In Detroit
Over the past decade I have made it a point to travel, live and write about those spaces we forget in our definition of America. From my second home in Albuquerque, where indigenous culture and history are a daily reflection, to New Orleans, living in a bus for weeks in the ninth ward, where the divisive map of race and privilege fluxes not just block to block, but house to house. America remains hidden for the majority; what we often half-know is topsoil, gleaned through the prejudice of storytelling. Exposing America to yourself is the only way to comprehend its multiplicity of histories.
I spent 72 hours in July 2016 in Detroit with my partner, lisa. Not long enough to uncover deep stories, but enough to listen and see.
Driving into Detroit I am immediately struck with a sense of loss. The sensation, as I was told to expect, is arrival in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. We drive through northwest Detroit aimlessly for hours, trying to find our where here. The first things we notice are the bounty of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and liquor stores dotting the tarnished landscape but not a single supermarket.
Our hosts have turned their three-story family home, where they raised four children, into a makeshift bed and breakfast. In what was once an affluent neighborhood, off Livernois across from Russell Woods Park, enormous houses have been abandoned and trees and grass have taken over. Affluence fades quickly when the earth reclaims — this the defining feature of the city.
Walking through downtown Detroit, the eye contact is unshakeable. This is a city where eye contact is the resilience of the populace; everyone sees you and you see everyone. The eye contact is not analogous to the Midwestern wave which is an empty gesture born from the same niceness that kindles disgust, this eye contact is deep and it says, “I see you. You’re here. You exist. Thank you.”
To make eye contact is to be conscious, to passage into another through light.
“Say nice things about Detroit” reads a staircase at the Heidelberg Project — an urban art installation that takes up an entire city block, built entirely out of recycled objects and the detritus of what has been left behind: TV sets, shopping carts, suitcases, and so very many stuffed animals. Immediately I am taken back to the art district in the Republic of Uzupis in Vilnius, Lithuania — an art utopia with its own constitution — where the installation, built around houses and a gallery, is a colorful hodge-podge of folk art.
Although corollaries could be made between Vilnius and Detroit — both cities have been repeatedly squashed by a superpower — the distinctly Americanness of the Heidelberg project is heartbreaking, whereas the gallery in Uzupis merely whimsical. Of the hundreds of hand painted clocks, on wood panel and cardboard, each signifying a different time, one feels the abandonment of not just this block, but all of Detroit. Artist Tyree Guyton, whose project has been demolished by the city in 1991 and 1999, and by arson on numerous occasions, continues to pull from the wreckage to create an opportunity to see, to have visions of this city, and to imagine the potential of every neglected neighborhood.
After visiting the Heidelberg Project I see the trees growing through homes as assiduous activists, promoting a transition for the city — an urban refuge fostered internally. I do not find “ruin porn” intoxicating — the empty warehouses, the burnt out homes — what I find miraculous is nature’s reclamation. I envisage each separate narrative that forced families out of homes: the 1967 riots, the white flight of the 1970’s, the loss of industry in the 1980’s and 90’s, and the recent bankruptcy, among other migratory prompts. The trees that now grow through homes are a reminder that all our monuments are ephemeral. What compassion we lack will be mitigated once we disappear, and the earth will heal itself.
“Why would you want to go to Detroit?” the repeated question, which also came as a lament, from my parents in Kansas. The concept was offensive. “There’s nothing there. It’s too dangerous. You’ll be disappointed.” I wondered why these dissenting voices cared so much about this journey. What was waiting for us in Detroit that they feared we would see or experience? After visiting, I get it. Our white history wants to cordon us from certain narratives; it is built into the self-preservation gene of our DNA.
A city can function on multiple levels and it can capture you to face what you hadn’t seen before. A city is a reflection. A city is designed, and in the vacuum of its design are its hidden motives. To spend time in Detroit, to listen and see in Detroit, is to not ignore. Detroit was not a tidal shift for me but, like what so many sacred spaces do, it opened a cavity.
Four weeks after visiting Detroit, I found myself in the living rooms and kitchens of Topeka, Kansas, my hometown — a place I have spent my adulthood running from. Returning home, at this moment, after Detroit, I found myself in pain and anger; angry at myself for not recognizing my blindness, having ignored the hatred from which I was born, my home; how privileged I have been to be the optimist, with the resounding denial that “it will get better”.
As a child I heard it from my grandmother, her spitting vitriol toward non-white bodies, her judgment spread the moment she left the church doors every Sunday, and I thought we all heard and knew, as her lips formed tight around those words — perhaps she held them so tight for she knew there was no god there — that we were here, in our evolution, to eradicate her hate. How did these phrases from grandmother become the unconscious acts we regulate daily with our codified acts of denial? Do we believe we have progressed? Do we believe we have god in us? We do not.
At a moment in our American story when the divisive language of our political celebrities intends to destroy our patience and compassion, we must hold on, take care, and reach for those painful places: give them words, sounds and vision. There is a painful growth that comes from recognizing one’s intrinsic racism. But it is necessary, and what our holding on to is for — to really feel the pain when you experience the injustices, to really feel the anger, to know that in this pain and anger there is solace in a way of seeing, of telling and touching others. To make eye contact. To passage into others through light by repeating this: I see you. You’re here. You exist. Thank you so much.
I want to tell everyone to truly visit Detroit, Albuquerque and New Orleans, not as a tourist but as yourself coming from a home. I want to tell you to arrive in these places and not gawk, to quiet yourself and listen, to be open to the story we have all participated in and propagated.
And when you return home, say nice things about where you’ve been, in this way a new story can emerge.