A Distressed Canvas in Detroit
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
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?”
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.”
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.
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?’”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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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