Friday, March 10, 2017

Getting artsy in Detroit

I won't lie. I was not exactly thrilled to have a recent day off in Detroit. It's cold, it's not particularly pretty and my fuzzy recollection of 8 Mile informs me that it's a dangerous place, especially if you are a white man of limited talent trying to become a rapper. Also, did I mention it was a bitter 20-ish degree cold?

Yet, this was my reality last Friday. I could either risk freezing and/or getting shiv'ed for referring to myself as Slim Berti or I could sit in a hotel room all day. We all know which one I chose.

I rented a car, called a friend and told him I had a great day planned for us. That may have been a slight exaggeration but I'm pretty sure that I did reveal- in a mumble and under my breath- that we were going to the hood. That is probably something that he'd want to know. But I had a good reason, nay a great reason, to visit this particular economically depressed neighborhood. I wanted to see Tyree Guyton's work before it was all reduced to ashes.
Thirty years ago, Tyree and his grandfather Sam decided that they needed to do something to change the face of their crumbling neighborhood. They began by painting polka dots on abandoned houses and decorating using found objects with the goal of turning the area into an outdoor museum. Against many odds, their plan worked. Today, the Heidelberg Project, as it is known, is a tremendous source of pride for the residents and draws over 200,000 visitors a year.  It is beloved by almost everyone. 

You know who didn't love it so much? The city of Detroit. They kept threatening to raze the whole thing to the ground as an eyesore and an impediment to development. Community groups have stepped up to defend this internationally known art installation with somewhat limited success. They managed to slow the city's bulldozers but where there is a will, there is a willing arsonist.  Mysterious fires have claimed a number of the houses. It has all became too much for Tyree who has recently stated his intention to slowly dismantle the project and transform it into what he calls Heidelberg 3.0.

This was my chance to see the original installation (or what remains of it) before it comes down. Again soon as we pulled up to the first block, I was so giddy with excitement I could not contain myself. I sprung out of the car, camera in hand and went nuts trying to capture all the many facets of this delirious fever dream.

Even as I lost feeling to my fingers and toes, I squealed at every new discovery. It was madness, to be sure, but there was a method to it.  You could easily ascribe artistic meaning to many bundles of found goods or you could just appreciate the efforts that went into compiling them.

I wondered about all the painted clock faces adorning every surface so when I saw someone picking up fallen objects, I went over to ask if he worked with the project. He did. He was Tyree! I told him how much I was enjoying his work and asked about the significance of the times displayed on the many clock faces.  Artist till the end, he responded with "What is time?" Now, I have been around enough of his kind that I could probably hold my own, waxing philosophical and carrying on about the fleeting nature of time or some such bullshit but did I mention it was in the 20's?  I just nodded knowingly and asked to take a photo with him.  He politely declined and went about picking up objects that had been knocked down by a strong wind.

I continued taking photos until my camera threatened to freeze up and then ran back to the car, where I screamed at the heater to "Work faster!!"

Once we were thawed out enough to continue. The next order of business was to follow the trail of Detroit favorite son and omnipresent alt-rocker, Jack White. We went to Mexican Town for enchiladas and a drive-by of his childhood home, where some of the early White Stripes recordings took place. Note to JWhite, who I'm sure is a regular reader of this blog, you may want to have a chat with your crackhead-y blonde neighbor. She informed us that someone was trying to kill her. Now, I'm no realtor but I think it might be revelations like that one that are hampering your family's efforts to sell this place.

Continuing on to the Cass Corridor/ hipster hood in midtown, we dropped in on Third Man Records, home to his label/ record store/ merch mart.

All the sure indicators of gentrification could be found along this block. Funky craft breweries: I counted at least two and can highly recommend Jolly Pumpkin. Artisanal coffeeshop: check. Want a super expensive bike shop doubling as a watch store (or) Super expensive watch shop doubling as a bike store- not sure which: check out Shinola

Meanwhile, across town, in the historic downtown area, there was also plenty to see. We dropped in on the truly stunning Guardian Building. It was built in 1929 to house the Union Bank and was dubbed the Cathedral of Finance. Today it is an office building with a Bank of America, cafeteria and funky souvenir shop on the ground floor.

For a day with not much to do, this was shaping up pretty well.  To cap it all off, we went to the truly impressive Detroit Institute of Art for their First Friday festivities, when they stay open late, feature live music and strategically place bars throughout the museum.

We took a tour focusing on just a couple of the museum's many highlights. My personal favorite was a hall decorated with frescoes by Diego Rivera, painted over an eleven month period back in 1932. All his usual odes to the worker were fully on display in these depictions of the Ford Motor Plant.

This room would later be the site of a an avant garde, slightly hypnotic musical performance that I really should have recorded.

Once the concert was over, we explored a bit most of the museum before braving the cold back to the car.

For a day that had promised a lot of suckitude (the cold, blighted cityscapes, Eminem, the cold), we had managed to experience folk art, art moderne architecture, a spectacular set of Marxist murals and enjoyed some quality beer and Mexican fare in the process. In less than 12 hours, my perception of Detroit had been permanently altered for the better. But my perception about Slim Shady remained. That dude still sucks.

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