Tag Archives: art

Rambling report

February 27, 2015

The most recent ramble began at Public Pool in Hamtramck, January’s weekend destination of picnic fun curated by Picnic Club Detroit in conjunction with their exhibition “Picnics in the Polar Vortex”. A mix of ramblers, picnic-clubbers, and random gallery-goers down for whatever chatted, looked at the art, and bravely set out into the 35-degree sunshine.

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We strode east on Caniff amid conversations of the neighborhood’s history (allegedly having been called Ducktown when it was populated in the 1920s — nobody knew why). Scenes of tranquil domesticity abounded — the house with its shoe rack kept on the porch; another with a lush, moss-like carpet over the walkway; a sidewalk painted with wild patterns in celebration of the residents’ wedding day.

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At Mt. Elliott, these gave way to a more barren industrial feel that would characterize the heart of this ramble. We boarded the long hidden pedestrian ramp that would take us to the bridge spanning the rail yards, encountering a woolly but passive beast along the way.

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After the noise and grime and scenic views afforded by the bridge, we made the best of the dull stretch of Mt. Elliott before travelling east again into our destination, the I-94 Industrial Renaissance Zone (more info). The character of the ramble shifted to that of a nature walk as we followed a little path cutting between hills full of brush and burrs.

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Yet all around this outpost of wilderness, the land had been bulldozed clean to make room for decades of promised industrial park, now alleged once again to come to fruition, or at least pavement. The large pink diamond that Picnic Clubbers had found so photogenic was covered in snow. We explored the zone independently for a while, investigating its quirks and borders, lighting smoke bombs in tribute to past picnics, and drinking tea. Our time in the zone felt short despite the wind and overcast sun.

Searching for the pink diamond.

Searching for the pink diamond.

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Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Leaving the zone, we checked out some small abandoned churches and stopped to right a toppled street sign in front of one. Crossing Mt. Elliott, a mile south of where we’d initially veered onto it at Caniff, the neighborhood again changed drastically. Miller and the surrounding blocks felt much like Hamtramck, with its dense population of neighbors going about their business and some variety of hustle and bustle happening by a school prominently situated at what feels like a town square. We popped into an unpretentious bakery tucked into the corner of a strip mall for some cheap tasty snacks.

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Checking out the remote location of What’s Fowling and admiring a deluge of ice under the train bridge, we hiked north on Conant, tacking randomly across Belmont to return to Gallagher, and to more warm beverages and cookies, art and books, waiting at Public Pool.

Thanks to everyone who came on this special ramble! Much thanks too to the picnic clubbers who sat the gallery and made sure there was enough picnic magic to go around. Please join Picnic Club Detroit on their next adventure — you can keep in touch via their blog, mailing list, or, God forbid you join the twenty-first century without me, Facebook page.

Speaking of the twenty-first century, although Facebook owns everything, Detroit Area Rambling Network is now on Instagram @detroitrambling. Bonus #darnrambles photo documentation and Detroit #walksnaps every day! It’s beautiful. Check it out.

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Detroit Toolkit

January 23, 2015

The observant pedestrian may notice that there aren’t many street sweepers in this city. To some, this lack of city service is a benefit. The streets are full of things, and the things are full of stories. These stories get spilled out of dumpsters, filtered through holes in pockets, run over by cars, kicked to the curb — ultimately left for dead. As much as garbage can resemble treasure, these things might, to the right roving thing-finder. I’d halfheartedly taken up and discarded collections of them in the past, always ultimately throwing out the knife blades and the eyelash curlers gleaned from downtown alleys, the sockets and wrenches rusting in outlying streets. Instead, for one month, I humored my thing-finderly tendencies and let the items accumulate.

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The result is the December 2014 Detroit Toolkit. The toolkit is currently at Public Pool in Hamtramck, honored to be part of Picnic Club Detroit‘s retrospective of its inaugural year of picnics. The toolkit represents the resourcefulness of Detroiters, the mindset of always doing the best that can be done with what can be had. More than I realized, this was a study in the extent to which the objects sought influence the objects found. While the toolkit came into being because of all the stray items I regularly see, December yielded an unusual number of knife sightings. (Pro tip: the shrubbery outside Comerica Park is a hotspot for crappy pocket tools of all stripes, probably discarded by forgetful attendees who didn’t want to make the trek back to their distant surface lot to leave the item in their car. Did they mean to retrieve them after the game? Who knows. Dogs will sniff out their own conclusions.)

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Not all tools were ideal candidates for the collection. The obsolete cellphone, broken jingle bell, ugly silverware — I carried them into the gallery in a cardboard box, looked at them, and carried them back out to the dumpster. The toolkit is as complete as time and place permit. My only regret is that I rarely saw syringes when I was out alone, and no walking companion would let me pick up one of them when we were together — Detroit’s needle to go with the thread.

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Visiting hours for the Picnics in the Polar Vortex exhibition are 1-6 PM every Saturday, with varied dreamy picnic programming going on each week. This Saturday is about “Ideas for Creative Leisure,” a workshop for generating “both inspired and mundane ideas for recreation.” If I’m not out rambling the daylight away as usual, this is where you’ll find me. It’s also a great chance to browse the Picnic Club library and spend some time with the photos and artifacts in the gallery. If gallery hours aren’t enough, the toolkit is for “sale”! Have you always wanted a bunch of miscellaneous hand-selected garbage and to take me on five walks of your choice? Yes? Let’s talk.

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#detroitstayclassy

September 28, 2014

Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.

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Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.

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The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.

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Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.

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What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?

In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.

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The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.

Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?

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Timely reading:
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”

Wild west

July 27, 2014

Until recently, Detroit had a reputation for being a sort of urban ‘wild west.’ There was a certain pervasive lawlessness — the ignored traffic signals; the flourishing of large colorful Heidelberg dots on collapsing homes; the knowledge that if called, no police would arrive for days. There was a small undercurrent and large stereotype of anarchy and sometimes violence, of fierce frontier people eking out the best living they could. There were vast stretches of prairie, beekeepers, urban farms, and hardly any security cameras downtown. You could go to Belle Isle anytime you pleased. So could everybody else. There was a feeling that anything could or was happening here, very distinct from the kinds of anythings about which Dan Gilbert dreams.

With its wild midwest atmosphere, it’s about time Detroit has a proper ranch, but I was still surprised to see animals out grazing on grasses and chicory in the Cass Corridor. Actually, they weren’t quite animals roaming the lawn but the anthropomorphic forms of radiators, letting off steam on a cool afternoon.

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The radiators have a bright petting-zoo color scheme and a silky finish. They seem friendly and well-adjusted — the small red one I approached didn’t bite. They’re much quieter than most radiators I’ve met, none of the usual hissing and clanking. In what is clearly their natural environment, they’re happily thriving.

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Most radiators have free range on their patch of grass, with no fencing to keep them off the sidewalk. One young orange radiator, lanky and skinny-ribbed, is isolated in the security of a chicken tractor. A stenciled sign is accompanied by a charming note from the rancher instructing passersby not to feed the radiators. A ranch is pretty self-explanatory — there are animals; they are tended — but, being a city person unfamiliar with ranch operations, I had some questions. What do radiators do in the winter? Do they try to migrate? Do they stay outside in a shelter or coop like chickens do, maybe with a heat lamp? Should I bring them a dish of water, or does dew suffice? What are their names? The rancher was unavailable for questions.

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On another fortuitous occasion, it was possible to meet the rancher, who turned out to be Aaron Timlin, of Detroit Contemporary fame. Installation of the new ranch was done with the help of a young niece, Timlin said, figuring that painting was a good project to share. The radiators have been out for a few days, but, occupied with other matters, he hasn’t been able to keep a close eye on them. He seemed relieved that neighbors were looking after them.

Timlin says ideally by winter the radiators will be nice and plump, able to endure harsher conditions. It will probably be mating season for a while, he laughed, looking at two heat exchangers that have been shamelessly going at it next to the sidewalk since they were let loose earlier this week. I hope the gestation period of radiators — one thing Wikipedia doesn’t know — is short enough that a healthy crop of radiator offspring will grow big enough by fall.

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As a fellow rambler and I stood admiringly on the sidewalk, talking with a friend we’d run into down the street and convinced to come check out the ranch, a neighbor walking by stopped to talk. “They’re cute as hell!” He had his eye on a certain blue radiator, evidently inspired by Timlin’s example and interested in becoming a rancher himself. “Do you know how long they’re going to be out here?” he asked us. “I want to take a picture, but my phone’s broken!” This neighbor had barely left when another visited. “If I stay inside, it’s boring — so I just come out for a walk,” he said apologetically, excusing his lengthy explanation of his own collection of old things, which turned out to be antique dolls.

Something exciting is happening on every street — and if it isn’t, good neighbors will make it happen. (Except maybe on mine, where, despite the best neighbors, it took a fatal shooting this week to get everybody together, assembling in something like a really macabre block party). Although Timlin mentioned concerns over potentially negative new-neighbor perceptions of his ranch, this project is just how being neighborly should be done. As more of Detroit becomes the playground, as Chris Ilitch so plainly put it this week, of wealthy “investors,” it is all the more important to defend as much as we can of our playground, our wild west, from the encroachment of bland development’s manifest destiny. Preferably, as Timlin is doing, with creativity and humor.

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Visiting the water lilies

March 28, 2014

When not covering new territory in the city or on a trail each day, what purpose does a daily walk serve? There are the obvious answers — commuting, physical health, stress relief, dementia prevention, community watchfulness, meeting the neighbors, practicing for when you get a dog. At the end of this line of thought one is left tracing the same tenuous path as the previous day, or coming up with variations in a familiar pattern.

When I was younger, I’d take a similar walk every day after school, in the evening. The moon would often be coming up. Flowers would appear and disappear on plants, leaves on trees would spring forth and die back. The air would become humid, then crisp. The light did all sorts of crazy things depending on the season, the weather, the day.

These sorts of walks invariably make me think of Monet. When he moved to Giverny in 1883, a ways outside Paris, he sat out in all seasons enjoying the garden. He acquired land across the road from his house a decade later and expanded the gardens, digging a pond and building the water garden with its famous Japanese-inspired bridge.

For all the emphasis on novelty and adventure, there is some great virtue in doing the same thing again. Viewers find Monet’s Nymphéas relaxing, serene blurs of plants melding into sky into mist, shadow, reflection. Like many pursuits of beauty or happiness, this one was tempered by an ambition that may have uprooted what looks like self-evident tranquility. (Actually, to me, a number of them look rather maniacal. That’s nature for you).

Monet's Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

Monet’s Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” Monet wrote in 1908. “It’s a continual torture to me!” Squinting at his lilies, rummaging through half-finished paintings to find the one precisely matching the conditions of the day, obsessively devoting canvas after canvas to the same damn thing — was Monet really happy? He put more and more of his energies into the garden — enlarging the pond, exchanging rare plant varieties with his friends, commissioning the bridge. He hired a gardener to boat around the pond in the morning, cleaning soot from passing trains off of the lily petals. He financed paving the road to eliminate dust that would leave an unsightly patina on his plants. He trimmed the lilypads themselves. “All my money goes into my garden,” he complained. Yet, “I am in raptures,” he is quoted as saying on the official website for the estate.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

In the moment of doing, it’s hard to tell which work is important to be done. I have jobs, guys, and poor time-management skills, and none of those jobs could be described as neo-Impressionist painter. What does Monet have to do with walking, if all he did was sit there in the garden? Many other artists and writers have had equally solid, and highly perambulatory, preoccupations with the outdoors. But I think of Monet at these times because of his exquisite attention to the passing day, his willingness to sit and document the scene before him, and more importantly, record the less palpable things it evokes. For Monet, as one art historian said, “Memory, rethinking, double-backing and moving through space all become part of the act of seeing.”

For Monet, his obsession with the garden and the painting of it paid off, at least by external measures if not in his own joy. Of this, how much reality, how much shimmering myth?, I wonder as I walk around town, waiting for gardens to enliven. To actually see the water lilies, of course, you’d be better off making the 88 hour walk to Chicago, where you can squint at haystacks and poppy fields and a few of the famous floating plants as the master himself did.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Channelling Monet, I embark on my little segments of the thousand miles I’m determined to walk this year. As writer Craig Mod discovered when he experimented with tracking technology, finding himself scuttling through the night to bound up and down staircases in pursuit of his goals, we do funny things when someone’s watching, even if the someone is none other than ourselves.

It would have been great to do this experiment like science — spend a year recording without any particular resolution, establishing a control to see what a normal number of miles is for me in this city — not an average abstract number, but something personally relevant.

Walking with a generous friend into the frigid twilight earlier this month, watching the sky go blue as the snot in our noses stung and froze, he asked me about the nature of these walks. “We could be sitting inside,” he pointed out. Why were we walking? Was it for exercise? They make gyms for a reason, went the thought unsaid.
“I didn’t really think so much about it being a physical thing,” I told him. “I don’t think anything will happen to my body if I walk three miles a day. I picked the number because it seemed reasonable.” Walking a few miles a day hardly seems like a marker of any level of fitness, when the rest of the non-sedentary world wakes early in the morning to run 5 or 10 miles.
“Yeah, what’s that, 45 minutes?”
“About an hour. You see things, get distracted, take pictures, run into neighbors, friends… And that’s the point. It’s lovely. So it ends up taking a lot longer, when you factor all that in.”

Still, on grey days that alternate between drizzle and hail that bends the eyelids in half, I wonder if I’m just, so to speak, gilding the lily.

Smile!

March 8, 2014

“Cheer up, honey, you’d look so pretty if you smiled,” they’d say. “Why so serious? Put on a smile, baby!”

I started hearing these kinds of comments a few years ago, often from older men I see out around town. It was baffling. Had I suddenly lost it, been replaced overnight by a grouchy, snaggle-faced crone? I was smiling, I thought. Their comments felt preemptive. Should I try harder? I started scowling instead. I’d long considered it something of a job, to go around proudly walking and smiling and making days brighter, humming along the sidewalk like some audacious ambassador of happiness. Eventually it became apparent that other women were dealing with this peculiar phenomenon too, and were, unsurprisingly, weary of it.

Brooklyn oil painter, thinker, and muralist extraordinaire Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is one of those individuals. She got so sick of the “tyranny of the smile” and related harassment that she’s talking back to not just one gentleman here or there, but to everybody, through a series of snappy street art pieces. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a potent antidote to these grating reproaches.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Fazlalizadeh has done a meticulous job of interviewing women about their experiences getting hollered at, drawing their portraits, and formulating a concise message beneath each portrait. She pastes these on blank walls and other surfaces of public domain as a way for women to speak back against harassment, without encountering further, potentially endangering, harassment.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Most of my initial experiences with harassment here were on a bike. Detroiters have built an increasingly lovely, inclusive biking culture in which I’m lucky to participate. But harassment often takes a different shape on foot than it does on a bike. It’s obviously no breeze when cycling — come on guys, I barely heard you as I whizzed by. Isn’t it obvious I’m way too fast to ride you like that? On foot, the interaction is prolonged. The comments stick around, get uncomfortable under the skin. When I ignore catcallers, they raise their voices and repeat, or snicker to their friends about what a haughty bitch I must be.

It’s scarier as a pedestrian, too. When an interaction goes awry, sometimes there’s a large angry man screaming at my back, lobbing damning, obscene phrases for the next block. Talking back forthrightly has shown little benefit — when asked, “Hey baby, how you doin’?,” the vexed response of “DO I LOOK LIKE AN INFANT TO YOU?!” rarely goes over well. It’s more infuriating when it’s young men trying to catch my attention — shouldn’t they know better? If we’re from the same generation, don’t they know what’s offensive? Older men shouldn’t be excused, but outrage is tempered by the belief that back in some day, these were actually compliments that indeed garnered a woman’s smile. And chivalry is charming, right?

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

After a while countering harassment with art in her native Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh took the project to other cities through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Next week she’ll be in LA, as per the STWTS tumblr, doing more portraits and wheatpasting events. Despite Detroit being on the original itinerary, a visit here seems to have fallen by the wayside, and my email inquiry went unanswered.

Detroit seems an ideal location to bring a project like this — a city full of art spaces, fierce frontier women, spare time, an unhealthy dose of crime, lots of abandoned walls — but not a whole lot of pedestrians. Maybe it’s the case that Detroiters are so “dynamically creative,” as reported a recent video harping on the irksome “strong woman” stereotype, that they don’t need some New Yorker’s art project. “I feel like everyone that I know that’s a woman in Detroit, they do more than one thing creatively. Like, you can’t be a woman who just paints. She has to paint, dance, teach yoga and, you know, she makes everything that she wears,” one interviewee infuriatingly uptalked, as though running through a mandatory checklist for being female in Detroit. Surely these are the preoccupations of your other stereotypical Detroiter, struggling to balance time between job-searching and raising a family in a neighborhood where “nobody” lives anymore, an applicability far beyond the brave new women in the video moving “down to Detroit” to get a “harder edge,” because it’s cool and because they can.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

I asked a thoughtful female friend, someone who more or less approximates this “strong woman” stereotype what she thought about starting up a wheatpasting contingent here. Prints of STWTS’ images are kindly furnished to groups of five or more committed wheatpasters. Perhaps an organization like the Feminist Collective of Detroit would be interested, I suggested. “Maybe,” she said unenthusiastically. “But I like smiling. I don’t want to not smile. Isn’t that message a little… extreme?”

And it is. Maybe the discord is simply semantic, or maybe we are more tenuously attached to the feminist cause than we thought. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a catchy phrase, but others are more apt. “What about ‘women are not outside for your entertainment’?” I asked. “Isn’t that brilliant?” “Sure,” she replied uneasily. Is the forcefulness of the project’s name necessary? Fazlalizadeh seems to think so, as do legions of women now padding around college campuses sporting t-shirts instructing their fellow students not to tell them to smile. Perhaps after interviewing women here, Fazlalizadeh’s posters for this city would be different than the ones we’ve seen before. Detroit likes smiling; Detroiters are friendly folk.

This unsmiling emphasis on friendliness intertwines curiously with a few other public art projects visible on Detroit’s streets, walls, and outdoor objects. The long-dormant project Cheer Up! Detroit encourages viewers to up their optimism with slogans like “Today will be the best day ever,” “Keep those bad thoughts out of your head” and, succinctly, “Boom shaka laka.”

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Some of these are undeniably oriented toward the physical level, but turn a blind eye to gendered expectations, such as the one that reads, “Your moustache looks really lovely today,” in looping, multicolored script overlooked by a bushy blonde moustache (Let’s wonder for a moment, though — how many Detroiters actually have blonde moustaches?).

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

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A more recent appearance of happiness propaganda is the “Smile More” sticker. The associated website, itmakesyouhappier.com educates visitors about the perils of stress, and recommends smiling as a countermeasure. Stress, it says, causes angry outbursts, overeating, social withdrawal, headaches, and heart attacks — smiling lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and promotes healthy breathing. Also found to be beneficial in combatting stress are reading, creating, exercise, hugs, prayer, and being helpful.

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While their simplistic estimation of how even phony smiles make the brain a better place may miss some of the subtleties that work like Fazlalizadeh’s aims to address, it’s hard to argue that more people smiling is a harmful thing. So, if no one is to ask or tell anyone else to smile with impunity, how are we to compose our faces? Are we supposed to stop stopping smiling, or stop smiling? Although it’s a funny injustice to pick at, it’s yet another insidious double standard to say that men must be polite-faced to women, who are entitled to sail by with Bitchy Resting Faces unperturbed.

Yes, a face is a personal thing, but you’re in public. Do we want Detroit to be another cold city where no one will make eye contact or ask how your day is, whether or not they fancy getting in your pants? As the city expands, intermixing new perspectives and habits into the existing culture, do we have to forfeit the high level of friendliness and courtesy that has made our community feel as tight-knit as a small town? Smile, humans of Detroit. What do you have to lose?

Incidentally, today is International Women’s Day. Happy that! Here is one more cause for a smile. It’s embarrassing to chime in with what may seem to be mixed praises of women and their doubtless achievements, but affirming above all our shared humanity is to me in keeping with the UN’s theme for this year’s celebration, “Equality for women is progress for all.”

Little lost

March 1, 2014

Sorry, Detroit, but New York’s walking culture is always on its toes. Perhaps that’s what happens, among other things, when you cram 8 million people into a space just a bit over half of Detroit’s footprint. One of these eight million is Yoonjin Lee, or Zoonzin, a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Recently Zoonzin became what the Atlantic Cities referred to as the “unofficial curator of lost stuff” when she started a project addressing the sad plight of our most useful quotidian paraphernalia, such as the ubiquitous lost glove. Lighters, lip balm, candy, metro cards, hair ties, and even a sunny yellow paperclip are among her other subjects.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

After locating a forlorn item hanging out alone in a public space, she creates a small note and affixes it to the object, leaving the tiny thing suddenly noticeable to passersby. Her messages are sometimes poignant, others, petulant, and the whole project is tremendously candid — how admirable it is that she’s not deterred by having kind of gnarly handwriting and only rough scraps of cardboard at her disposal. One can only cringe imagining how sad the lost stuff is as snow starts to fall and their weepy black magic marker voice spirals toward the dank oblivion of storm drains.

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As Zoonzin said in an email interview with the Atlantic Cities, “I wanted to humanize everyday objects that we do not think much of and leave them on the streets. When people lose their favorite lip balm, it really annoys them but it does not ruin their life. If you change the perspective, falling out of someone’s pocket and being left useless on the street is life-changing.”

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Zoonzin’s kind of empathy, curiosity, and whimsy should be among the essentials we pack with us on any outing, among other more tangible trappings. It’s a wonderful world in which someone else cares enough about the possibilities, the varied life stories of these mundane little objects, to document them in such a small and transient way. It’s like craigslist missed connections, but without all the blundering “m4f hot waitress at Applebee’s” and dismal misspellings. (She does have the caps lock on pretty hard, though).

Where would these things be now, if they hadn’t fatefully plummeted to the sidewalk? We’ll never know, but Zoonzin isn’t hesitating to make it up. See more of her humorous assertions on the Little Lost Project website, facebook, or tumblr.

Ghosts: remembering

December 9, 2013

Note: This is the second installment in a series about public awareness of pedestrian fatalities in Detroit, once one of the most dangerous cities for walking. Read part one of “Ghosts”. Seriously, we’ll come across something heartwarming soon, even with lower attendance at a very chilly Noel Night, its signature whimsical handheld neon letters clamoring on the DIA steps spelling out “not for sale,” and it won’t be another Heidelberg house catching fire.

The dearth of memorials in Detroit for pedestrians killed by vehicles warrants a look at what other cities are doing with this conundrum. Death in this manner is tragic, and an added offense is the idea that a person will recede from their formerly vibrant life without a public trace. When something of profound collective gravity happens in a certain location, it should not pass unnoticed. As other cities show, history’s natural erasure can be easily shifted.

Although ghost bikes originated in San Francisco, and Los Angeles infamously suffers ill repute as a treacherous and unlikely place for walkers, it’s the half of the country with less clement weather that’s more active in memorializing the dead. The ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, Missouri as a symbolic tribute a year after the San Francisco art project began. New York has a number of activist groups for pedestrian and cyclist safety putting their mark on the territory. Advocacy groups Right of Way, TIME’S UP!, and Citystreets have been doing stencil markers at pedestrian fatality sites since 1996. A more recent development is the Streets Memorials project, which aims to honor each pedestrian with an often personalized plaque.

Right of Way traces the beginning of the stencil project to December 1996 and has memorialized over 270 lives to date, in addition to their analysis of traffic statistics and active organization of demonstrations to keep local roads safer. Citystreets and Right of Way were allegedly once the same entity, but split due to cyclists’ objection to the stencil project as focusing too much on pedestrian issues. Citystreets founder Harris Silver credits his group with the first of such pedestrian stencils after the death of Alice Wang in 1997, months after Right of Way began stencilling. Silver doesn’t describe how he heard of Wang’s death, but says that it touched him — it could have been him, or a friend, anybody. He says he then worked with an advertising art director at a prestigious firm to create the simple outline stencil darkly dubbed “Flatso” now used, it seems, by all three groups. TIME’S UP! shares the same medium with a more vocal and inflammatory stance, declaring that “Cars and trucks not only destroy our environment, but they can destroy each of us instantly!” Each group’s status seems to have fluctuated between periods of dormancy interspersed with their usual activity. The apparent lack of communication means that one group or another is working to establish memorials, but how they avoid overlap is unclear.

The stencils are abstractly human-shaped, and look as though they are dancing in place on the asphalt. According to Right of Way, which offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ on stencilling, they last several months, unless placed in parks, where they vanish overnight. They’re colorful and surprisingly cheerful, the dotted line reminiscent of children’s toys or craft projects, maybe even sprinkles on a cake. While death needn’t be somber (and one suspects many of these cyclists and pedestrians would have chosen against something drab), the memorials lack a sense of finality. Doesn’t it look like she might just be stretching after a nap?

A more recent development in pedestrian memorials in New York are the Street Memorials plaques installed on fences and posts near the scene of a pedestrian’s death. This group, founded about seven years ago by members of TIME’S UP!, Transportation Alternatives, and the anonymous art collective Visual Resistance, seems to benefit from better funding than previous efforts, and credits the ghost bike movement as their inspiration. A member of Visual Resistance said that while installing ghost bikes around the city, they had a “large response from people saying that they wish we could do for pedestrians what we do for cyclists who are killed.” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many others involved in the memorials, she said, “It’s oftentimes the same issues, where pedestrians are killed by cars and the drivers are usually not held responsible,” a polite phrasing of the belief guiding the instructive headline “How to get away with murder” on TIME’S UP!’s site.

This project has significant advantages over the stencils — a more concise deployment, perhaps within greater legal favor than what is tantamount to graffiti. It also looks more dignified, a seemingly undeniable tribute to the pedestrians who died. It’s something enduring that will not be run over thousands of times a day, with the possible irony of being hit again and again by the very car that killed the person.

Photo from Mode Shift

Photo from Mode Shift

Detroit certainly isn’t without memorials. As pictured in a recent article connecting Detroit’s streetlight woes, by now a national joke, to the summer’s high-profile pedestrian deaths on Gratiot, Dreadlock Mike has a memorial wheelchair. The collections of flowers and stuffed animals, crosses and hearts, that spring up worldwide in reaction to personal tragedies from shootings to car crashes are visible here, too. These memorials are potent, curated by family and friends, those who best knew the wishes of the deceased person.

They don’t, however, draw attention to the fact that a person died at a particular place while walking, the most simple, basic human activity that unites just about all of us. They don’t tell the full story. As long as something persists unknown, there is little chance of improvement. As another Visual Resistance member said, “I’d like to see the need for this really dwindle to nothing, but that’s not going to happen until there are changes on the streets.”

Watch for the third post in this series in the coming weeks as we consider these changes and measures we can take in the meantime.

Cumulus of change

November 24, 2013

Everywhere you go around here, there are pennies on the ground. Doesn’t anybody stop to pick them up anymore? All reports indicate the answer is no, not usually.

The summer before last, a guy walked around taking inventory of some 13,000 trees on city property, providing data to the U.S. Forest Service about the species and their health. On foot, he noticed many small features that others miss. As he told the Environment Report, “I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently.” This is really a small wonder when, for those without a bank account, many financial institutions refuse to cash them in, a population at a certain intersection with those who might be out collecting change in the first place.

What to do with these thousands of pennies?

The Heidelberg Project’s “Penny House” burned down a few mornings ago. Incredibly, ridiculously, it is the third Heidelberg house to be destroyed by arson this year, first the “Obstruction of Justice” house, followed by the “House of Soul” last week. Of course, this isn’t the first time the houses have been threatened, recalling the mayorally-sanctioned demolitions that have occurred twice in its history.

"Dotty-wotty House" and penny car.

“Dotty-wotty House” and penny car.

When Tyree Guyton was planning the “House that Makes Sense,” he aimed to collect 384,000 pennies, some sent in by kids all over the country, some collected by Guyton himself. Today, he was walking around the block in a jacket with an orange dot on the back, holding the most perfectly ordinary hammer in his hands. “You heard it here,” he said, “We will not not stop. We will rebuild this bigger and better. The hard work is ahead.” I asked if he was still collecting pennies. Yes, he replied, although he has no idea how many the Heidelberg Project possesses now. Fortunately, he said, with staff to handle the numbers, he is able to focus on creating. “I still pick them up, too, though,” he said. “And we’re about to put up some more pennies on the ‘Penny House’ right now.”

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As accustomed as we are to its presence, as much as we might scoff at its attractiveness to the 275,000 visitors who come to see it every year, garnering a revenue $3.4 million for Detroit, it’s a serious, meaningful piece of art that all who live in the city are lucky to have. If it’s a tourist trap, it’s the best around. The day after the arson, WDET producer Laura Weber Davis was talking with Bankole Thompson on the Craig Fahle show when she compared the cultural capital of the Heidelberg project to that of the DIA, asking, “Should people be more outraged?”

They should, he agreed. But as Guyton himself said today, “We’re over it. We’re moving on.” To help secure the project and continue construction of one of the most unique public art projects in the world, you can donate here. When you’re out walking, you can start picking up all the pennies you see dotting the ground.

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“Tyree took stake in his community, and as a result, not a single serious crime was reported within a two block radius of the project for over 26 years.” Who can object to such artful living? This is why we’re here, this network, to watch out for each other, to make our communities better by being present.

Don't let these candles burn out.

Don’t let these candles burn out.

Donate to the Heidelberg Project’s fundraising campaign here.

A railroad is like a lie

November 13, 2013

The intersection of walking and art is never far away. Few can get there faster than Steve Panton, artist, engineer, and proprietor of the gallery 2739 Edwin in Hamtramck. Panton has been exploring the city on impressive, intimidatingly long walks for years, accumulating insight on his surroundings, at one point cataloging 120 former bank buildings. His excellent essay on walking appeared in Model D. In testament to his enthusiasm for the subject, he curated a show of eight local artists’ work in Walking Distance (pdf) in 2009.

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Panton’s most recent exhibition is part of the show working title, on view at Alley Culture in Woodbridge Farm from November 1-23. This Sunday evening Alley Culture will host a special presentation of Panton providing background for his piece, historian Martin Hershock discussing the transformation of landscape and culture during the expansion of the railroads, and a screening of the film “Who is Bozo Texino?”

The piece, titled A railroad is like a lie, consists of steel forms carefully selected on railroad track walks and notecards typewritten with a historic timeline, photos, maps, figures, and quotes, giving context to the rusty artifacts. The fragments are arranged with the smallest at the beginning of the timeline to the left, and the larger ones occupying a second tier below. The arrangement unintentionally lends the pieces a kind of momentum, not unlike a train picking up speed.

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Panton has been collecting the shards for several years, taking just one during each walk he makes along the tracks between Joseph Campau and the area between Third and Rosa Parks, depending on his destination. Because his rules advise against putting a piece back if a more appealing one appears, some walks yield none. He doesn’t keep track of the chronology of his selections; there are too many, the ones on view at Alley Culture only a part of the whole collection.

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During a recent Saturday afternoon’s open hours, Panton himself was sitting the gallery, outfitted in cycling apparel. He bikes a lot in the summer, he says, but can’t wait for winter walks, his favorite season on foot. An open book was lying facedown on a stool next to the woodstove. Panton was chatting with a friend, explaining the end of common-ground cattle grazing on the farms that the train tracks cut through. He picked up notecards as reference, pinpointing locations on several small maps.

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The deceptively simple metal pieces seemed to attract tactile investigation. A visitor touched a particularly wild form of metal spiraling on itself, one of the few that extended beyond the second dimension. He interjected, “Did you see any cattle skulls lying around?” Panton, smiling, said, “No, not between here and Hamtramck.”

When asked about the research phase of his work, Panton laughed, recounting how it had all been carried out in a three-week period prior to the opening of the show. The walks came first; all else followed. While his command of history and willingness to engage in any aspect of the topic were admirable, what’s striking is how much of the actual human experience vanishes into academic context, the way photographs displace memories and become what’s “real.” Perhaps this is Panton leaving the introspective quiet of his walks in the personal realm, or mirroring the way that locomotive machines overtook the land.

Does knowledge of the historical context of his walks cause him to perceive them with greater awareness? “I definitely do see it differently, now. It’s less of a convenient and fun way to get from one point to another but a part of history,” he said. “You can see how Detroit grew up around the railroads, how Hamtramck especially exists because of the railroads.”

Don’t miss the rest of the story during “A night out on the rails” this Sunday, November 17 from 7-8:30 at Alley Culture Detroit. Alley Culture is located in the red building off of the alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, just south of Willis.