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TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Distressed Canvas in Detroit

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Tina Ragland, 75, lives in a Detroit neighborhood filled with vacant, decaying buildings, including one right next door to her home. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

DETROIT-- Tina Ragland watches for shadows on the sidewalk. She used to look for reflections in storefront windows, scanning them to make sure no one was walking too closely behind her, but lately, more stores have closed, which means more windows have been boarded up.

So, to stay safe, Ragland, 75, relies on shadows and her instincts -- both of which failed her about three months ago when she was walking in her neighborhood and a man lunged at her. He ripped a gold-plated necklace off her neck, tore open her blouse--a yellow one with butterflies--and left her standing on the street, exposed and shaken.

“In broad daylight!” said Ragland, a retired nurse and grandmother of six.

“That’s my purse now,” she said, pointing to a gray plastic bag of the sort grocery stores dispense.

“She gets mad at me for carrying this,” said her friend, Marianne Ketchel, 70, grabbing a small denim purse. “But I told her that if they want it, they can have it.”

Michael and I met the two women at Adi’s Coney Island, a small diner on Michigan Avenue. They sat at nearby tables, smoking discount cigarettes and describing a neighborhood that has grown more desperate as the economy has tanked. A yellow sign on the wall behind the register went up recently and reads: "We now accept the bridge card." They are words we see hanging outside restaurants and stores across the city, letting customers know that the equivalent of food stamps are welcomed

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A few blocks from the diner, a section of Michigan Avenue looks shuttered and abandoned. But the building at the far left is home to a photographer and a musician. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


Stubbing out a cigarette, Ketchel recalled how she had come to Detroit at age 11, pulling into a train station adorned with marble and chandeliers. Now, like many of the city’s buildings, its windows are broken and its insides gutted of anything of value.

“I can’t understand what the hell happened” to Detroit, the retired waitress said. “Why?”

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The grand Michigan Central Station has become a symbol of all that once was Detroit. The empty and decaying building has served as the set for movies and music videos. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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The city council in Detroit recently voted to demolish Michigan Central Station, but preservationists vow to fight the order. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

This neighborhood, like the automotive industry at the heart of the local economy, was hurting long before the recession, but these women and others here will tell you that the recent downturn has amplified its ills. There are more dilapidated houses, more closed businesses. More fear.

“They stole my car out of the driveway on June 13,” Ketchel said of her 1994 Hyundai Excel. It was dented and nearly worthless, she said, but she needed it to get to the grocery store and to the hospital for radiation therapy. She has Stage 3 cancer and has already undergone surgery on her brain and bladder. When we met her at the diner--she had walked there--a lime green bandanna covered the wisps of white hair that had grown back after chemotherapy.

“I told my son, ‘Will you get me a baseball bat?’” Ketchel said, adding that she wants protection in case the thieves continue past her driveway next time and on into her house. “I can break knees, you know.”

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Because of the cancer and pain in her legs, it sometimes takes Marianne Ketchel 30 minutes to walk the few blocks between her house and a neighborhood diner. Her car was stolen this summer. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Of all the people we met in Detroit, if there were any two who had earned the right to write off their city as too broken to be fixed, it was Ragland and Ketchel. Ragland lives next door to an abandoned, rotting house that has drawn squatters. Ketchel's son was killed in a shooting. But like almost everyone else we met in the city, the two never talked of escaping this place. They spoke about making it better. Ragland and a neighbor take turns cutting the lawn of the vacant house in the summer and shoveling its driveway in the winter. Ketchel (who told me that if I ever forget her name I should just think "catch hell") told us about the day earlier in the week when she wore a top hat and danced on the street during the state fair. With all the sadness, she said, there must be some laughter.

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Henry Miller collects scrap metal from abandoned and collapsed houses around the city. As he passes what once was a luxury residence near downtown, the General Motors world headquarters building can be seen in background. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

In this city, it is easy to see the ruins. But, if you look closer, Michael and I found, you will also find residents who are taking action where others wallow, who are beautifying what others destroyed. If the economic downturn has deepened the dark aspects of life here, we discovered, it has also brightened the good.

Down a row of shuttered buildings not far from the diner, Tera Holcomb, a photographer, and her boyfriend, a musician, are the last occupants on their block. Holcomb said she gardens in the alley between two of the seven vacant buildings on the block and she has noticed how the eyes of passersby flash from the greenery to nearby windows covered in brick and wood.

“They always ask me, ‘Why are you planting flowers here?’” Holcomb said. “I’m like, ‘Why doesn’t everybody?’”

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Tera Holcomb, a freelance photographer, says she loves the diversity of the city. She lives along a row of abandoned commercial structures on Michigan Ave. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Artists have long found a canvas in Detroit -- faded art can be seen along with graffiti on the broken windows of towering buildings -- but the beautification effort seems to have taken on a new urgency recently. Urban gardens have sprouted anew, either out of the need to save on groceries or out of the desire to do something with the many empty lots. (Ragland keeps a meticulous garden even though the lot next door has weeds taller than the fence).

One of the starkest examples of the new color is the house Olayami Dabls covered in pinks, greens, reds and blacks and adorned with broken mirrors and pieces of iron. The house, which sits behind the Mbad Aba African Bead Museum , was gutted and stripped by vandals last year and so Dabls got permission to make an open-air art piece out of the remains.

He said he turned the shell into an African spiritual symbol called an N'kisi and asked that it protect the area and deter anyone from further vandalizing the house. In the year since the art display has been up, Dabls said no one has taken anything from it or marked it with graffiti. Other pieces on the property, including a piece called “Iron teaching rocks to rust,” have also been left untouched.

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Olayami Dabls created art out of an abandoned building in a declining Detroit neighbhood. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“It takes a lot here just to get people to leave things alone,” Dabls said. But the artwork has gone beyond just being tolerated, he said. It draws people daily, from tourists to locals. “I’ve had folks who use illegal substances say that to see this really makes them think about ‘What am I doing with my life?'”

Michael and I hadn't planned on going to the house, but rather stumbled upon it a few minutes after we left the Lee Plaza Hotel, a once-majestic building that has been ravaged over the years. The hallways were littered with intricate, fallen ceiling tiles. In the ballroom, a baby grand piano kneeled on broken legs.

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The Lee Plaza Hotel was once one of Detroit's finest addresses, but now the Art Deco-style building sits in a state of decay. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“Living in the city, we do not see many things that break the illusion of the brick and mortar, or the situation we’re in,” Dabls said. He hopes his work will let others see that it doesn't take money to create a better city.

All around, he said, he has seen new art popping up.

“There is life in this city,” Dabls said. “Everyone did not run. Everyone is not bashing the city.”

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Detroit native Tyree Guyton was one of the early artists to use abandoned homes as a backdrop for installations. The Heidelberg neighborhood features hundreds of Guyton's and other artists' works that attempt to visually soften the effects of blight. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I were driving down another road when we saw the side of a nine-story building coated in a Caribbean blue and streaked with oranges and yellows. When we got closer, we saw Katie Craig, speckled in paint.

“It’s turning out a lot more vibrant than I initially planned,” said Craig, 25. “I’m going to put some purple into it.”

As we stood talking, a car pulled up with local musician Nick Speed. He and his crew were driving by when they saw Craig's work and decided it would be perfect as a backdrop for a video of Speed's latest song.

“I’m a colorful guy and this is going to look good on the video,” said Speed, 29. “It fits my spirit first of all and it fits the spirit that I’m trying to bring through my music”

The song was called “On Deck” and was filled with local slang.

“Detroit's spirit is strong,” Speed said. “I know we’re going through a lot, but I’m not making sad music. I want to make music that gets you up and lifts you up.”

While his crew set up a makeshift studio -- a small hand-held camera and a homemade moving stand made of PVC pipe and rollerblade wheels -- Craig continued to work on the mural. She used salad dressing bottles to splatter paint.

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Local music producer and artist Nick Speed performs during the making of his latest video. He and his crew drove by the huge mural being painted by artist Katie Craig and decided to use it as a backdrop. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“A lot of people come to Detroit to document the decay, which is beautiful, but there are also a lot of people here who take pride in the city,” Craig said.

She doesn't deny the city has problems and she's not trying to mask them with her work. The building, a former bank and storage facility, is not only her canvas; she leases it through a grant and opens it up to other artists and neighborhood children so they can have creative space. But just a few weeks ago, the building was broken into for the second time and more than $80,000 worth of material was stolen.

Her close friend and fellow artist, Sam Woody, 34, now sleeps in the building, which has no hot water, to keep an eye on the place.

“We’re trying to make the best of it,” Woody said, adding that they refuse to be scared away from a project they believe in and a city they love. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re staying here.”

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Artist Katie Craig is 80 feet off the ground in a lift as she paints on the side of an abandoned nine-story building as part of community+public arts:DETROIT. She hopes the bright colors will help with the mood of a city where thousands of buildings sit shattered and empty. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 8, 2009; 1:10 PM ET
 
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Next: Chips, Candy and Tales of Woe in Elkhart

Comments

Staggering how far Detroit has fallen... Shows there are always pockets of good no matter the situation though. Good and hope. God bless the people of the Earth.

Posted by: neeko | September 8, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

No mystery here. Too many greedy unions and bad management decisions killed the major employers. Too many crooked politicians put in office by ignorant voters. Too many single mothers not raising their children. Too many unproductive citizens living on the dole. When nothing is right about a city, of course it goes down the drain.

Posted by: eldergent | September 8, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Dear UAW,

Thanks for ruining a once-great American city.

I have fond memories of a youth in (the suburbs of) Detroit, but now I know there is no way I would ever move back.

love,
arlingtonresident

Posted by: arlingtonresident | September 8, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Why isn't this woman, Ragland, *armed*? A gun, some pepper spray, even a panic button?! Lord, if you've gotten used to watching if people are following you too closely, self-preservation should only gain strength!

Posted by: signof4 | September 8, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I heard that a group of vampires has taken up residency up there. Beware!

Posted by: johng1 | September 8, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Detroit is a union town! And it certainly shows.

Posted by: loudountaxrevolt | September 8, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Surprisingly good article! You could spend a lifetime writing about the people here. Thanks for taking the time! You know where to find us!!!!!!!

Posted by: onehotdude | September 10, 2009 2:17 AM | Report abuse

Interesting. Toyota and Honda make cars paying decent wages.
I guess if the firm invests into R&D, product development and doesn't bet on trucks, they have a decent shot at profits.

Posted by: patb | September 15, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

The Painting that Katie Craig is seen working on is for the Community + Public Arts Detroit North End grant. She has worked very hard on the proposal and recruitment of young people to be involved. She reaches out to the youth of the city with painting and drawing with her Blackbook Programs, mentoring them and providing opportunities for young people to apprentice, and learn from experience, doing a professional art installation. She has attended twelve community meetings where she was selected by the people to represent them with a highly visible public piece of art work. To receive this honor of being lead artist is very important to the city and the people. She is also a business woman and extremely visionary and talented artist. In fact, she just received her BFA from the College for Creative Studies. Yes she is young and daring, but the dedication she has to Detroit and the painting is like no other. None of these things were mentioned about her or the neighborhood she’s working in, and I would love to see the painting as a whole in the paper. It is the hard work of people like her and the crew that push Detroit to another level.
I would want to her type of artwork to spread throughout the world, because its not just art, its social engineering and Urban Studies.

Posted by: harvestmoonman | September 29, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

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