The Landscape of Detroit

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Over a year ago Eminem released the song “Beautiful” along with a video that roots the song in the de-industrialization of Detroit.

The history and political backdrop to the city been a source of cultural definition and hope for its people.

The Great Rebellion of 1967 was a turning point in the city of Detroit.  After years of attacks by the police, and being relegated to the most grueling, lowest paying jobs with no chance of promotion, black and poor white folks revolted, shaking the foundations of the ruling establishment in Detroit.  Both before and after the rebellion, there were a number of important organizations which were key in cultivating the means and spirit of revolt, such as the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs) along with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Republic of New Afrika. But the organizational weaknesses of these groups coupled with the relentless onslaught by the city elite left the people of Detroit open to a new wave of attack that resulted from the collapse of the Black Power movement.  The city, afterwards, would not be the same.

All the wealth that black and white workers had created was looted from the city by the capitalists and moved out to the suburbs or down to the southern United States.  Along with that went the tax base of the city, and forty years later the city is falling apart due to an emaciated infrastructure.  This story is shared by other cities where brown and black folks rose up to take their city back.  Gary, Indiana and Newark, New Jersey are only two more examples.  I’ve heard Detroit described by visitors as resembling a war zone — well that’s what it is; it’s the American Third World.

Growing up in Detroit you learn to appreciate the hidden beauty of a city gutted by white supremacy and capitalism.  The resilience of the people there, despite all we’ve endured, is one testament to black civilization and oppressed peoples everywhere.  I have friends from the east coast who say that Detroit and much of the Midwest has its own unique form of scathing charm that is normally attributed to the tough personality types of New York.  To survive in a war zone you gotta be tough.  The working classes of New York live in a city which some of the most brutal capitalists in the world call their home, and everyday they go head-to-head with these capitalists.  In Detroit it’s a little different.  We were left for dead, and despite that, and all the odds stacked against us, we remind the bosses, the crackers and the cops that we’re still here.

One of the things i’ve always loved about the city is how green it can get during the spring and summer.  Again, because the city can’t afford to keep the trees up, and because families living in a city with a 33% unemployment rate have more important things to worry about than how high the lawn or the bushes get, wild vegetation has started to take back some of the city.

The photography of James D. Griffioen captures this in a very profound way.  His work evokes a sense of sadness, serenity, and rage all at the same time.  The scope of his work explores the many details of life in Detroit giving us a wider view of the devastation.  He shows us entire neighborhood blocks that don’t have a single house on it, book depositories with brand new text books that are going to waste, and miles of unused factories and store fronts that have been eviscerated and left to rot.

Griffioen’s work is not without hope, though.  There are several photographs that focus on colorful murals and graffiti tags that have chronicled a city, a culture and a people that have refused to die.  And because the only thing that has been rebuilt in the city has been Tiger Stadium, there are buildings from at least four different eras of architecture that clash and chronicle the patchwork/DIY life that many of us have lived while straddling the line between death and rebellion.

The Heidelberg Project, the work of Tyree Guyton, is another shining beacon of our resilience.  What Guyton has done is a perfect example of an insurgent art movement.  Known best for the dots that are scattered around the city and the crucified stuffed animals and baby dolls, the 1+ sqaure blocks that make up Guyton’s artwork, the Heidelberg Project, brings to the Surface all the contradictions that developers, the city elites, and white-supremacists try to gloss over.

In 1986, Tyree Guyton, along with family and friends, began cleaning up vacant lots and then used the refuse they collected to create pieces of art that sometimes encompasses the entire outside of a house along his block, including his home.  When Guyton speaks about his art with you, he conveys a sense of urgency and desperation that sums up the historical experience of Detroit.  He is one of those insurgent personalities, that has had his fare share of battles.  Twice, in 1991 and 1999, city officials have bulldozed pieces of Guyton’s art.  They claimed that art, focusing on the city’s trash problem, diminishes neighborhood property value and makes the city look bad.  that hasn’t stopped the Heidelberg Project, though.  In fact, he returned with his own political jabs at the Detroit elite arguing that it was strange the city had money to bulldoze his art, but they did nothing of the abandoned factory not far from Heidelberg where kids get hurt on a regular basis.

Guyton has been one of the few groundbreaking artists that I’ve had the chance to meet in my life.  The first time I spoke with Guyton he told me about one of his artworks that displayed the US flag.  He said one night he heard gunshots, and when he came out in the morning someone had emptied a few rounds into the flag.  He loved it, and considers this interaction with the rest of the city a key part of his project.

The Heidelberg Project from Laura Kuster on Vimeo.

Guyton has expanded the Heidelberg Project to include fashion shows, and a youth program in which kids regularly expand the project creating their own art.  As the documentary explains, freedom is being daring and having the courage to do what we think we can’t, and the Heidelberg Project challenges the people of Detroit to just go ahead and try it.

…philosophy by other means.

A colossal sanitation problem is just one ecological issue outlining the challenges facing the people of Detroit.  These issues are a result of the short-comings of past movements, the assault by white supremacy, and the de-industrialization that is common throughout much of the Midwest.  What will happen to the future of cities like Detroit throughout the rest of the American Rust Belt, and the crises of urbanization can only be speculated.

These artists, however, help me think about how a recycling program, an urban gardening or a clean-the-streets project can be transformed from a seemingly reformist, and sometimes moralistic mode of organizing to one that pulls hard on the chains of our oppression and the social forms that continue to destroy the environment.

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2 thoughts on “The Landscape of Detroit”

  1. “These artists, however, help me think about how a recycling program, an urban gardening or a clean-the-streets project can be transformed from a seemingly reformist, and sometimes moralistic mode of organizing to one that pulls hard on the chains of our oppression and the social forms that continue to destroy the environment.”

    I was hoping you could expound on this for me, jubayr. How does it do that?

  2. yeah, i kind of left that thought unfinished.

    well, the social crises in Detroit are rooted in the historical processes during the era of Black Revolt.

    i think artists like Griffioen chronicle that. obviously it requires a little more investigation and explanation than an amazing array of photographs, but it prompts the question: why does our city look like this? how did it go from being “the greatest manufacturing city in the world” to where it is now?

    Guyton’s meditations take it a step further by doing a few things. first, he doesn’t let the city elite sweep the experiences of thousands of Detroiters under the rug. they’ve tried to present themselves as the enlightened saviors of a backwards people — as exceptions to the rule — when in fact they’ve been the handmaidens of death.

    not only does Guyton expose them, but he proves that the masses are not backwards, but vibrant and brilliant philosophers of their own experience. inner city culture is far from being in decline.

    the history behind all these tensions are sometimes buried, but can easily be seized upon by organizers and revolutionaries.

    the community programs that have developed through the Heidelberg project are instances of the self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed.

    historically these communities have often been the well springs of new, radical thought and forms of organization.

    i know a lot of times radicals and revolutionaries hate on artists because “art is not activism” and on the surface i would agree with this, but are can be important teaching tools if it is attached to a fighting organization or program of action.

    i’d also add that Guyton’s work is radically different from the alienated artists who have almost no contact with their communities or workplaces. he’s giving his community an attempt to express and understand themselves.

    more could be said…

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