A Detroit Road Trip: Death and Re-birth of an American City?
August 11, 2014
Tomorrow, Monday, I'm heading to Detroit for the week after close to more than two decades away. My son was born there in 1990 and we moved probably when he was about 2 or so. I'm heading back to a city I once knew well, or at least thought I once knew well. Clearly at the moment Detroit is going through a lot of change with the bankruptcy trial and proceedings, and it's much talked about regeneration, but what does that mean and what does it look like?
I'm also going to be staying with and visiting friends and family I haven't seen in ages. I'll also be shooting and filing along the way for Getty Images…the goal of which is to create an entire image package of Detroit that conveys the wide ranging current state of the city and its environs, from old icons and public art to new buildings and areas that are still in need of revitalization. Some buildings still need to be torn down, some need to be renovated, some new building has taken place in the past 20 years, and clearly some neighborhoods need all the help and support they can get.
I was the Director of Public relations at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during a time of terrific revitalization for the Orchestra: Neeme Jarvi was appointed music director and began a series of recordings with an orchestra that could at the time only be described as virtuosic; the Orchestra left that ghastly acoustically disastrous Ford Auditorium to return to the acoustically superb gem Orchestra Hall (which was then called the Paradise!); Orchestra Hall had been restored to its magnificent visual splendor; fabulous orchestra leaders in Deborah Borda and Mark Volpe were taking the bull by the horns and building new programs and rebuilding relationships, administratively cleaning house…and there was a general sense of enthusiasm as the communities and areas around the Hall on Woodward Avenue were beginning to develop and thrive.
What's happened in the intervening years? Has casino gambling had the economic impact enthusiastic supporters had hoped it would have in stopping the hemorrhaging? Have burned out homes and vacant lots been rebuilt? Has record unemployment and crime declined? Has "white flight" been halted, slowed to a trickle, or not at all? Will Dan Gilbert's Post-Post Apocalyptic Detroit be realized? Will the bankruptcy proceedings have the impact all hope it will?
I'll be posting a few key images here every day on what I find this week, and the bulk will be posted and available for media purchase daily or nightly on Getty Images as I download, edit, caption and file.
It's not often I get to embark on such a wide ranging trip such as this: visiting friends and family, seeing a city I once fell in love with two decades ago, shooting a package for work, and shooting creative work for myself for "other" submissions. I'm trying to both reign in and unleash my enthusiasm for this project…there's much to see, much to shoot, and much to witness this week. I'm trying not to plan how I will see, am trying to be open minded about what I'll encounter on the streets. Vivian Maier is much on my mind at the moment tho…her ability to see and capture a moment is uncanny. My shot list extends to over 130+ locations…feels a bit overwhelming and ambitious at times…but there it is…off!
Oh and most importantly, my ever wonderful wife Nan has been both supportive and encouraging while I've been in the manic planning and research phase of this process, and for that I'm deeply deeply grateful…I'll miss her lots during this run…as well as my ever faithful constant companion "Mr. Pooch" Mac as well!
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Shooting Day 1
August 13: In the Ashes
Day 2 Shooting
In the Ashes
I've covered a lot of ground shooting images for Getty and for my own future use in the past couple days, my time here has been extremely productive. Have visited with some folks, family, sort of, whom I've not seen for quite some time, and get to see a very good friend Thursday for lunch I don't see nearly enough of these days, there will be lots of catching up to do.
And I'm sitting here this morning trying to decide where to begin shooting today as there are lots of holes and gaps to fill in as three days aren't nearly enough time to get to everything on my list. I have a lot going on in Boston these next few weeks and absolutely need to hit the road on Friday and head back. As I have been engaged in this particular project it's a bit of a challenge to get and stay focused, there is almost a neck snapping effect as I head to my locations throughout the day--there is so much here to see and shoot and document and my eye and camera gets pulled way too easily.
Wednesday as I was about done, an armed security guard outdoors at the Bank of America location on Woodward said to me "I've seen you now a dozen times, what on earth are you doing running around shooting with that camera?" When I told him about the photo package and the bankruptcy proceedings etc and said I wondered what it meant to the average guy on the street, his response was "It don't mean nothing to the average proletariat like me on the street carrying a gun and guarding a bank!" Just then a friend of his drove up to the bank and together they started telling me about another area in the city where I really needed to go to shoot what he called "Vietnam after the bombing." His friend does home demo in that area and said it was indeed a shame as the homes had so much craftsmanship that had gone into them when they were built in early part of the century. So, yet another location to get on my already burgeoning shot list for the day today.
All of which leads me to two of the images posted here today from Heidelberg Project I shot yesterday. I shot a lot there and spent an hour or so with the founder of it, Tyree Guyton. As I drove up he was out there by himself, sweeping up the street, cleaning up and generally taking care of this massive display.
I posted the two images here I did for a reason. Our first few bits of conversation centered around how I thought it was awful that there has been an arsonist setting fires to the homes recently, and he firmly replied that no it wasn't, we need to learn to forgive, God has a plan, etc... Tyree is clearly a man driven by something to do something. And he's skeptical, at first he wasn't going to let me shoot on the street saying he was tired of being part of the media circus, he's been taken advantage of before he says, and I should put the camera away, and above all no pictures of him.
After a bit he might have seen he and I have more in common than one might think on the surface of things and he relented and said sure, go ahead, walk through, shoot. I wandered through each of the individual set-ups throughout the block, and ended up at the burnt out shell of what was once someone's home. It was gradually, in it's still smoky acrid smelling charred shell becoming an exhibit. And in it and around it were the remains of the pieces of someone's life: clothing, old license plates, kitchen utensils, shoes, all in various states of ruin, and added to it all were being added new pieces of other people's lives that were the emerging and growing art. And in it were the previous owner's bible, which had been soaked in the rain pictured here, and the valves were all that remained from their trumpet, also shown here.
Pieces of who we are and consequently how we define ourselves remain despite the trauma we sometimes endure throughout the course of our lives. And often those pieces which remain are the most important bits.
As Tyree and I talked some more and got to know each other, he realized I had no agenda other than to document all of this, and he became more comfortable with my presence and my camera. He then said he would agree to pose for a shot but it would have to be in his Heidelberg TV setting, and I said absolutely, despite the awful lighting conditions with the harsh sunlight...that shot is also here...
Much of what Tyree has done is built on the ruin of what remains on the block as there are numerous missing homes and burned out homes, and maybe I do have a bit of an agenda here and that is that perhaps those who object to what he is doing should reconsider and leave him be, what is their objection exactly, what does it matter to them that he does this? And I hope that his indominitable spirit continues to carry him through what seems to a rough patch and that he continues to do what he does. What remains here is in fact the essence of Detroit, it is Tyree's work, but more importantly it is the lives of the people who have lived here and built this city and remain committed to it.
August 14: Contrasts
Shooting Day 3
Contrasts. Detroit is a city of immense contrasts. I started out on the morning of my third and final day of shooting intending to pick up some signature important iconic locations that I missed in the previous two days which I knew would be of critical importance to Getty. But as in the previous two days it's really hard to shoot here without invoking a bit of attention deficit disorder…shooting at any one location always involves more than a bit of neck snapping . Literally, one shoots something that's been lovingly restored, is a tourist destination, then turn your head and wow…decrepit grimy graffiti laden dangerous looking dirty old empty factory building on the next corner.
This was the case with the Ford Piquette Plant where Henry Ford built the Ford Model T among other models. Beautifully restored building and museum, loads of tourists entering, a parking lot full of Ford Mustangs (including some Shelby Cobra iterations!), all in the midst of abandoned factories and homes and churches.
After some time shooting these signature locations throughout the course of the day, I began to realize that they were in essence the Detroit of the past and it's difficult to envision what exactly is the Detroit of the future.
Except when you begin to talk to people on the street and people in the know who are intimately tied to funding and development and building and transportation projects around the city and its environs. There is a hope and an optimism in them that would belie the seeming lack of hope and elements of decay one finds on the street.
In their view, critical economic and retail and business mass has been achieved which is in turn spurring light rail and commuter transportation projects. Dan Gilbert and others are buying up old buildings downtown and either renovating them and bringing in new business and jobs or at least holding them for future use. There is successful community and government pressure to not tear down beautiful old ornate buildings and build more parking lots. While I don't know the numbers, casino gambling is bringing in busloads of people who are leaving there money in Detroit. Walking on the streets of Greektown was extremely difficult as there were so many people getting off buses and walking around. I called my wife to lament that I couldn't get uptown as I was stuck in ballpark traffic this afternoon.
I have to say, this is not the Detroit I remember from more than 20 years ago. While there is still what locals refer to as the "donut hole" effect along portions of Woodward Avenue and other portions of the city, there is serious and real change here. As a relative recently expressed to me after their trip to Detroit this summer, I too never really felt insecure or uncomfortable walking around with gobs of expensive camera gear. (Well being in and around some of the old abandoned factory buildings did creep me out a bit.) And I did venture into a few areas some might call more than a bit dicey. But pretty much to a person everyone I met expressed a kind of optimism and enthusiasm that would indicate they perceive somehow the city is on the verge of some sort of change. And the people who are making those changes are doing it because they believe in the city. And believe in it deeply.
I lived here and worked here and was deeply engaged in the cultural life of the city 20 years ago, and feel now as I felt then. It's a city easy to fall in love with. I shot a lot on this trip. I also left a lot of work still to be shot on the streets for perhaps another trip. I saw some really important and dear friends whom I need to a better job of keeping in touch with in the coming years.
Alex's passion for the city is akin to his passion for his family, and Dean makes the most awesome pancakes, especially at 5am!