Swoon in Detroit

Posted by jdg | Monday, January 31, 2011

A bunch of artists recently came to Detroit through Juxtapoz Magazine and stayed for a month or so with the Powerhouse Folks to transform a bunch of abandoned/unoccupied houses on a block of Moran Street to the tune of a hundred Hamtramck ice cream trucks. It was definitely one of the more interesting things to happen around Detroit lately [and here is a great article/interview about it]. I got to see a little bit of the work going on and a couple of the artists contacted me about exploring abandoned buildings (I've been trying to shed my reputation as someone who still does that, without much luck). I didn't end up showing anyone around, probably because my e-mails responses all said, "Yeah, I think they're filming a movie in that building right now. . . and Matthew Barney drove his Trans Am around inside that other one a few months ago. . . and that big one is cool but, you know, it's been on the cover of Time Magazine. . ." We may have finally reached the point where exploring Detroit's abandoned buildings is totally passé, even for out-of-town hipsters. 

One of the Juxtapoz visitors was New York-based street artist Callie Curry (a/k/a Swoon), whose work I've always enjoyed a lot more than some of her more-famous contemporaries. I saw a bunch of her wheatpastes all over Braddock, Pa. a few years back and she also hit the Cass Corridor in Detroit about four years ago. Here's a link to a short talk she recently gave for Tedx Brooklyn. On Moran street, she put up a bunch of wheatpastes in an abandoned house and that interesting process was documented in this short video (and there are quite a few pictures here). But. . . she also went out and put up a few surreptitious wheatpaste drawings around Detroit and Highland Park that she said were inspired by some of the Bangladeshi kids in the Powerhouse neighborhood, and I haven't seen them in Juxtapoz or on flickr or anywhere else. On a cold winter afternoon the kids and I recently drove around to see how many were still up. This was our favorite:

Too bad it was pasted on a garage door in gang territory, because some kid already marked it up with a GD pitchfork: 

Just around the corner we spotted these kids:

This next one may not be long for the world: an old man pasted on a burnt-out house with a demolition notice stuck to his shoulder.

This one is probably safe: it's in the alley next to a successful organic bakery in one of the city's nicest areas: 

I might have missed a few, but that's all we could find. There are still a couple installations up from her earlier trip to Detroit, and these two are my favorite:

He Flogs Dead Horses, Doesn't He?

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On this site, the idea that Detroit does have grocery stores and outlets for fresh produce (despite a national and local media repeatedly stating otherwise) is kind of a dead horse. Well, today I am kicking the shit out of that dead horse over at Aaron M. Renn's excellent Urbanophile blog. Aaron's blog consistently has a fresh and interesting take on urban affairs and policy that's neither too fussy or academic (nor focused on easy answers like the corporate media). It's always a worthwhile read and I'm honored that Aaron asked me to write on a topic of my choice, in this case finally putting to rest the myth that Detroit has no supermarkets.

The heart of my argument is this, and if you're at all interested be sure to follow the link:

The myth of a city without supermarkets is hard to kill, even faced with [overwhelming evidence that Detroit has them]. Ultimately, the myth perseveres because the mainstream media and its audience are steeped in a suburban mentality where the only grocery stores that really seem to count are those large, big-box chain stores that are the only option in so many communities these days, largely because they have put locally-owned and independent stores like the ones you find in Detroit out of business. It is true that the big chain stores have forsaken or ignored Detroit, for any number of understandable (and sometimes despicable) reasons. But in their absence, a diverse system of food options has risen to take their place, and the tired old narrative that Detroit has nowhere to shop for groceries needs to be replaced by a more complex truth: with a diversity of options ranging from the dismal to the sublime, Detroit may be one of the most interesting places in America to shop for food.

In that vein, I am also sharing one of my favorite vintage kid's books over here (even though I just put up the post about the Lutheran Sex Ed Book a few days ago). This one is called Night Markets and shows all the hard work that goes into getting food from farmers and distributors into the stores, restaurants, and homes of a big city (in this case, New York). Detroit's Eastern Market operates much the same way, and it is frequently ignored whenever someone repeats that falsehood about Detroit as a food desert with nowhere to shop for groceries.

I hope to have a new post up here at Sweet Juniper soon.

The Big O

Posted by jdg | Thursday, January 20, 2011

As a few commentators on the last post and a lot of e-mailers have noted, that is me on page 157 of the February issue of Oprah Magazine. What's some guy who just makes things out of junk doing between a New York lawyer who's devoted her career to helping homeless mothers and. . . Miranda July? A few of the projects and activities we do around here caught the attention of some editors at O and before I knew it I was whittling a 500-word story down to a tight 200 and getting whisked off to a Brooklyn warehouse for a photo shoot with William Abranowicz. I haven't seen the physical magazine yet, but they've put the article on Oprah's website here. I was relieved when I saw the picture today, because my mother-in-law saw it a few days ago and told my wife they'd photoshopped a wizard hat on my head. I must admit that's been gnawing at me a bit.

If you're visiting here for the first time after seeing the article, here are a few links to some of the projects referenced: (1) the dog wagon (and part two); (2) the pizza box pyramids; (3) the improvised ice rink (with part two); (4) the Robocop costume; and (5) the wooden Pegasus. You might also like the Popscycle, the Mies van der Rohe dollhouse, any of my other DIY projects or my wife's amazing crafting. Otherwise, this blog just documents our efforts to make our lives here in the beautiful city of Detroit interesting and fun. Thanks for stopping by and checking it out.

* * * * *

As a reminder that we're participating in the American Cancer Society's More Birthdays campaign, I've written about contributing artist Andrew Bannecker's wonderful illustrations over here.

* * * * *

One more thing: if there are any interested readers in the Atlanta area, I have a few photos in a show opening at the Kiang Gallery tomorrow night, called After the Suburbs (curated by the wonderful Karen Tauches). The show runs through March 19 and there's a special lecture at Georgia Tech on February 2 by Julia Christensen (author of Big Box Reuse) that I wish I could attend (not just to pitch an idea for a follow-up: Pizza Hut Reuse). Be sure to let me know if you go.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We took a field trip to the Michigan state capitol when I was ten, stopping at the Potter Park Zoo in the afternoon. This was what one might consider a major formative experience of my provincial youth. I can distinctly remember staring out at what seemed like the hustle and bustle of downtown Lansing and thinking I am destined for bigger and better things. Just like this. I was listening to Starship's Knee Deep In The Hoopla on my generic walkman, and staring out the schoolbus window at the impressive skyline from I-496 I turned up the volume for "We Built This City" and thought: yes indeed, this city was built on rock and roll.

Ten years later, cue The Verve Pipe. For the life of me, I cannot forget a winter night spent at a house on the Lansing River. My friend was back from graduate school so a bunch of us met up there and drank a few cans of beer and after midnight we decided to take his dogs for a walk. On that walk a few of us crossed the river and hopped the fence at the Potter Park Zoo, where we ran around laughing at the stupid animals at night. Then I noticed my old roommate's brother had jumped over a moat into one of the habitats and found himself staring down an Eastern Black Rhinoceros, wide-awake. Time may have graced this memory with some embellishment, but I can still picture him standing there on a rock, taunting the beast like a bold matador might mock a wounded bull. The next day's headline ticked across my vision: Rhino's Revenge! Local Man Gored at Zoo, and I knew right then I was going to be explaining this incident to potential employers for the rest of my life. You'd think we were drunk or on PCP or something, but the fact that we'd had but a couple beers only shows what kind of total degenerates we actually were.

I knew I didn't want to get arrested better than I knew the guy on the rock, so I made a beeline for the fence. In my peripheral vision, I saw him casually hop back over the moat, laughing, with a can of beer still in his hands. In my haste, the blue jeans I was wearing caught on the barbed wire and when we met back up with the dog walkers I was the one who looked like he got away by the skin of his teeth.

* * * * *

People often ask why we chose to move back to Michigan after "escaping," and I try to give an honest answer. I'm just a Midwestern guy, and I got tired of pretending I wasn't. And truthfully, I have an affection for many of the things I was supposed to want to escape. I like being back here, even if it means occasionally running full-bore into memories that make me wish we'd chosen instead to move somewhere where we had no history. Like Mumbai.

But sometimes those memories are just the spark I need to keep ordinary events interesting. Like taking the kids to the Potter Park Zoo and laughing at that stupid, lazy rhino who didn't gut my friend. Or walking in Ann Arbor past that bar where I literally got kicked out on my face by a bouncer.

Ann Arbor always held an even greater appeal than Lansing to this ambitious hayseed. When I was sixteen, my Coogi-sweater-and-Birkenstock-clad German teacher took our class to Ann Arbor as part of his program to expose us to what actual culture looked like. He let us explore the city for a few hours before meeting up at a dimly-lit German restaurant that was the pretense for the whole trip. If he had let us run freely around Detroit, of course, he would have promptly been fired. But Ann Arbor was safe enough for such adventures. Book stores outside of a shopping mall! Clever panhandlers honest enough to just ask for beer money! Record stores staffed by snooty bass players! Risque t-shirts! Here we discovered actual New Yorkers: PhDs like Roman patricians governing some dreary provincial capitol, with a cadre of shopkeepers, merchants, and artists catering to their elevated tastes and vying for their coin. Look, we whispered in amazement walking down Liberty Street: I think that was an actual Jew!

A few years later, I moved to Ann Arbor for law school and met plenty of actual Jews. And actual coastal WASPs who'd gone to Philips Exeter, and actual Chinese-American cello virtuosos. I encountered a whole host of other fancy people rolled out like Vaudeville stereotypes with bloated resumes and ivy league pedigrees. To my great disappointment, however, most of these people behaved much differently than they do in books or movies. They didn't sit around discussing great literature over cognac. Ann Arbor, I feared, while elevating me to a stratosphere I'd once only dreamed about, was making all these fine people drink watery American lager and watch football in public. Often in sweatpants. Every few weeks, the law school rented out an undergraduate bar where (for $5) you could drink unlimited pitchers of lite beer, and with a Dutchman's respect for the deal I always partook. First let me dispel any notion that this scene was anything like those parties they showed in that Facebook movie, with hand-picked hotties grinding up against brilliant young men from the Michael-Cera-school of nerdiness. It was always much, much sadder than that, with a lot of DMX songs and bad lighting. Second, if you were to tell me that elite parties in Cambridge or New Haven aren't really like the ones in the Facebook movie either I'm putting my fingers in my ears and hollering lest I regret this new plan to spend the next fifteen years raising my children using the ancient techniques of Chinese mothers.

One of those bar nights was held at a tavern with referees etched on the windows and a dozen televisions tuned to multiple iterations of ESPN. It was called Fumbles or Interceptions or something like that. I was standing on these steps inside listening to a Korean girl from San Francisco prattle on about how the food in Ann Arbor is terrible and don't they know about wasabi peas in Michigan? Just as I was probably asking her, So: what's up with kimchi? some barback in a referee shirt was rolling a keg of lite beer by me on a dolly and he bashed my leg HARD and I gave him a look that was the eyebrow-scrunching equivalent of what the fuck, you uncouth motherfucker. A minute later, as this hayseed was digging himself out of a hole for ever questioning the deliciousness of fermented cabbage you have to dig out of a hole, he found himself surrounded by two heavyset gents in referee shirts and the barback he'd just given the stinkeye. "That's him, alright," the latter said, and the two bouncers lifted me by the arms and dragged me to the door. Surely among my colleagues, many of whom had professed a sincere intention to devote their lives to protecting the innocent against the tyranny of the unjust, one of them would come to my aid! I looked to my roommate, who just shrugged and kept talking to the weasel-faced girl he would end up bringing home. And with a quick kick to his ass, this hayseed found himself out on a cold Ann Arbor sidewalk where he'd once walked in awe as a child.

I stood out there waiting for someone to go in so I could ask the bouncers for my coat (with my house keys) that was still inside. They ignored me for several minutes, until inspired by the lager I retreated to that great refuge for scoundrels of my ilk. Shivering, I threatened to sue: You can't throw somebody out for a dirty look, I slurred. That's against the fourteenth amendment. What's your name, pal, I'll need it for my lawsuit. Eventually someone emerged with my coat. As I walked away, I heard one say to the other, "God, I hate law students."