One Afternoon in Detroit

Or ‘What I Want My Kids to Know About Detroit’.

Because the thing is I NEED them to know about Detroit. To feel like Detroit is familiar and comfortable and holds good memories. Because that is what Detroit is to me. Detroit is my home.

And I know, I know, in all technicalities I was born and raised in Oak Park, a small city on just north of Detroit.

But I was raised on 10 Mile. 2 miles north of 8 Mile. And spent a good portion of my life either at Eppert Oil (my Grandparents company in the city), the museums in Midtown, Belle Isle and the East Side. And then as soon as humanly possible (at 21 yrs old) I moved to Hamtramck (the only city inside the city of Detroit, so like the Vatican City to Detroit’s Rome).

I guess what I’m saying is I feel I can claim Detroit for my own. I’m no poseur folks.

And it’s very important to me that my girls have the same fond memories and comfortable feeling in Detroit that I have. I want it to be theirs as much as Lansing is. I want them to know all the cultural and architectural gems. I want them to have a sense of urban connection and street smarts, as well as an appreciation for the city that may look a bit rough and lack a cosmopolitan edge but has more charm and heart than any other city in the country.

So whenever we get a chance to spend a full day roaming the city we do. And we found a really great excuse a couple of months ago to spend an entire day bouncing around and taking our own impromptu kiddo Detroit tour.

It was an absolutely beautiful day, sunny and warm but not muggy hot (Detroiters call anything above 40% humidity ‘muggy’), so we decided to find something outdoors.

First off we had to eat, and while we were thinking of hitting up something in Midtown or the oh-so-chic Corktown, we opted instead to take the kids to Eastern Market. While it wasn’t a market day it was still quite busy with produce and meat vendors accepting deliveries and all the popular eateries around the market busting at the seams.

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We decided on Russell Street Deli, and while it wasn’t the best Deli ever, it was decent and satisfying and fast. Though it made me long for corned beef at Bread Basket Deli or even (gasp!) Grandy’s in Hamtramck. But the girls had fun and as soon as we had full bellies we headed off to our next destination…Belle Isle!!

Perhaps if we hadn’t been so spontaneous in our plans we would have known the island had just hosted the Grand Prix races a day before we arrived on the island to special spots like the point you can see the best view of Detroit AND Canada, the Scott Fountain and the Casino were all inaccessible that day. So we decided to go to the playground, a spot we used to play when we were kids. And though the Super Slide, we spent many a summer day on, was closed for the day, the Playscape area was a vast improvement from what we used to play on when we were kids. Accept for one thing…it was filthy.

Recently, during the bankruptcy and ‘save our city’ process, the State of Michigan park service has taken over Belle Isle under the state parks system. Many were skeptical about this decision but most thought it was a great idea, particularly if state funding was used to get the park clean and maintained. I don’t know what we were expecting when we got to the island, but less filth and more amenities maybe?

While the playground is massive and well visited, it was covered in garbage. Covered. Much of the equipment was damaged and either covered in grass clippings or dead leaves or spilled food and drinks. The swings at this main play area were altogether gone. And while the kids certainly had a good time, and there were plenty of kids there to play, we were disappointed by how shabby it was.  I remember when this playground was new and we would take Kylara to play when she was my girl’s age. It was impressive and cool. Now it’s just thousands of dollars of equipment wasting away under garbage and compost.

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But do you think the kids noticed any of that? Nope. They had a ball. Once we were done playing we drove around the other end of the island for a bit, and headed for our final destination of the day…

The Heidelberg Project.

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If you haven’t heard of Heidelberg and artist Tyree Guyton please click on the link above and check it out. Essentially, one talented modern artist, Tyree, created an art gallery from his neighborhood in a down-on-its-luck east side Detroit neighborhood. He’s usually recognized for the colorful polka dots on abandoned and burned out homes all over the city, but his true masterpieces are the neighborhood homes where he uses found and discarded objects to create 3-D art installations and sculpture that remind us not only of the things we leave behind, but how they can be transformed into something new and interesting and powerful.

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When I was first starting out in the film business I worked on a local feature called ‘Detroit’ and we used Heidelberg St and the street behind it for a week long shoot. I remember talking to Tyree then and how hopeful and encouraged he was by the influx of people and energy in his hood. But now, 14 years later, the neighborhood and Project have been rocked by multiple arson fires, in an attempt to wipe this art from the planet. It is a shame but that’s not how Tyree sees it.

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It is not ‘art’ in a traditional museum sense. It isn’t classical painting. It is modern and raw and disturbing and thought provoking. There is a sense of loss and a sense of wonder but never a lack of visual interest. It always has been art in it’s most uninhibited and transformative state. And now it’s quite literally The Phoenix of Art. Rising from the ashes of those that don’t understand it or don’t care about it’s impact on the neighborhood and the city.

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We were SO fortunate that Tyree was out that day. Just hanging out on ‘Heidelberg TV’ as he called it.

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And I was fortunate enough to talk with him for about 20 minutes about the transformative quality of art. The Magic of art. How all things change and grow and become things we don’t recognize, but that change is life, change is art, art is Magic, life is Magic. I say Magic capitalized because that is how we spoke of it, as something real and tangible and experienced.

I talked about how bringing forth life and watching children grow was Magic, he talked about how watching his life’s work burn and then rebuilding it was Magic. He was not sad y’all, he was not angry at the arsonists. Disappointed? A little. But accepting of the fact that life goes on, terrible shit happens sometimes, and we rebuild. The Magic of life is in the constant forward movement.

The Magic of art is in it’s constant reinvention. And in that way Life = Art and Art = Life and it’s all Magic.

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God I love talking to artists.

The girls were absolutely enthralled by the ‘Heidelberg TV’ and the main house that has recently been recomposed after being burnt to the ground. Seeing toys and objects they recognized. Finding things in hidden corners. It was Magic to them.

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To me Heidelberg is something essential for my kids. As essential as the Detroit Institute of Arts, or the Field Museum in Chicago. Something we must see often. Something I can’t wait to take them back to. It’s important, not only for the city of Detroit, but for our children and future generations to see and imagine what is possible to make from things that we throw away. How things can be transformed. The Magic and interest of everyday objects and discarded things. The Magic of art. Because…

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I couldn’t agree more.

As we walked back to our car, a slow rolling minivan passed us. In years past it might have been a drug dealer or undercover cop. But it was a tour bus. Something called ‘Show Me Detroit’. And while Tracey and I chuckled to ourselves and thought it was completely absurd, particularly seeing as we were on our own sort of tour, it struck me much later. This is the city of Detroit at it’s finest. In the throes of bankruptcy, dwindling population and a lackluster economy but hosting tour groups and with the New York Times forseeing (years ago) that it was the next ‘Like Tribeca back in the day‘ and Fortune magazine calling it the ‘New Brooklyn’. It IS absurd. But that’s what makes Detroit such a fantastic and interesting place to be. And why I will ALWAYS call Detroit home.

So if you had one day in Detroit where would you go? If you’re not from Detroit, what would be on your ‘Must See’ list? Detroiters, any special places I should take the girls on our next day out?

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