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ship and dragon plaque fw

This weekend — with its unbelievable 60 degree weather, a healthy serving of historical adventuring and a rollicking season finale of Mad Men — was one of the best ever. The Hounds Below got down with their howly selves at the Majestic Cafe, we took in a month’s worth of accumulated recyclables, we witnessed the bowel-shaking power of the colossal pipe organ at Old Mariner’s Church and watched a 100-year-old retired sea captain ring one of the eight tolls of the bell to commemorate lives lost on the Great Lakes, and part one of our self-guided itinerary from History of Detroit for Young People (published in 1933) was a success.

I took lots of pictures and will share them soon, BUT: I must warn you that I am taking more decisive reigns at this blog and moving to a self-hosted server, which will give me more autonomy in the way the site looks and feels. BONUS: I am doing most of the technical work myself, and teaching myself how to do it, from building a custom header to exporting my existing database. So it may look a little wonky for a while.

I didn’t want to make this move until I had a solid sense of what I really thought I was doing, blogging here, but now that I’ve spent a month or so clearing up my voice and trusting my instincts and chasing what excites me, I think it’s become pretty clear. Thanks for slugging through the uncertainty.

This week: downtown and Campus Martius, then (from the treaty at Fort Lernoult to the razing of City Hall) and now (where is Oliver Hazard Perry’s cannon?); Farmington’s Pernambuco Hollow; more of the usual scratching around in old cemeteries.


it's complicated

It’s been a heady week in Detroit, which is part of what’s kept me from the blog for a few days — it’s hard to find quirky historical perspectives on the tense lead-up Devil’s Night and an FBI raid in Dearborn and Detroit that killed a black imam — allegedly an armed, criminal separatist radical, although details of the organization’s intents are murky, no charges of terrorism will be pressed, and the reliability of undercover informants has been questioned. In other news that I didn’t feel like writing about, Detroit made Forbes safest cities list after making the most dangerous cities list in April,  Red Dawn keeps blowing stuff up downtown and my dad can’t stop bitching about the traffic problems it’s causing, the Book Tower is being sustainably renovated and (fingers crossed) peopled, and regularly scheduled cultural life is on hold for Halloween which, to page through this week’s alt-weeklies, seems to be scary only for those terrified of clubbbbs, girls in bikinis or shelling out a couple hundred dollars to go to a masquerade ball.

As for me, I have directed much of my spare time and effort to a., getting a job and/or lining up some freelance work and b., planning a tremendous upcoming week of blog content, to this week’s detriment. I know that’s not really how this shill is supposed to work, but perhaps you can find it in your heart to bear with me, at least in these early days of my new bloggery life.

To sate you, meanwhile, here are two somewhat related items that are worth spending some time with:

Race a challenge in Detroit’s urban agriculture movement

The Michigan Messenger reports on the social divide between blacks and whites in the city and their efforts toward urban farming and food activism:

Many black Detroiters have a negative perception of white people who come into the city and start projects in neighborhoods regardless of these groups’ good intentions. “What matters is how do their intentions come across?” [Monica] White [WSU sociology professor] asked. “A common perception is that this is a pet project to make them look and feel socially responsible,” she said of how some native Detroiters look at incoming whites who jump into the urban farming movement.

In general, according to the article, urban farming and garden programs are theoretically open to everyone, but participants tend to be fairly segregated according to community, which tend to be fairly segregated according to race. And that can lead to some friction.

Some of the assumptions the writer seems to make in regards to race perceptions in the city are unsourced, but I’m glad the Messenger is addressing this issue. Urban agriculture often slides through uncritcially as a feel-good solution for struggling communities, and while community gardens and food sharing programs can educate us, put us in touch with where our food comes from, empower us with a sense of autonomy and build strong community relationships, it may not ultimately be a sustainable alternative to having a good, accessible grocery store nearby. And we still need to solve a huge array of other problems at hand — crime, drugs,  housing, city infrastructure and, yes, race relations — so some of us might need to take a break from digging in the ground for bell peppers and do something else that builds social captial in Detroit.

Bonus: cute pictures of goats at the end of this article.

Privilege, sacrifice and not feeling so great about yourself

Of course, like anyone else who loves good writing, photography, Detroit and life in general, I love Sweet Juniper and I read it every day and whenever anyone asks me what I’m trying to do with this “blog” business I always use it as the perfect example of the power of blogs that aren’t just topical top-ten lists and link farms and blah, blah, blah.

For an assignment with Assignment Detroit, Mr. Griffioen stayed up all night with a private security guard, and on his blog he writes about the complicated feelings he has about their conversation:

I don’t tell him that I went to law school, or quit a good job on purpose, or moved to Detroit because San Francisco seemed too nice. All of these things that seemed to make so much sense suddenly sound so ridiculous. Instead I wear a mask. I pretend like we actually have something in common, which of course we do (and all that truth would just get in the way of it).

… Someone once commended me for the sacrifices I’ve made. But, I think, I’m so privileged I don’t even know the meaning of sacrifice.

I can’t tell you how many people think I’m doing a “good thing” by moving back to Detroit, or that since I moved back to Detroit, I naturally have grand designs on “saving” it. I don’t. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to explain the guiltiness I am sometimes charged with, and often feel, when I explain that I live in Farmington. I don’t know why I feel so defensive all the time. People want to know if I’m buying and refurbishing foreclosed homes, or teaching neglected kids how to read, or joining the patrols that comb the streets of the hood for homeless teens, or — of course — getting into urban farming.

All of these things need to be done, but I want to spend some time figuring out what, exactly, I can do, and where I can do it to make it count the most. It’s a struggle, and it’s so wrapped up with who you are when you live in or around Detroit that it’s hard not to feel paralyzed by that expectation.

I read this post and I just nodded. And then I read it again. And now I read it whenever I need to be reminded that it’s okay to feel confused about my relationship to this city and my own self-righteousness about living here, coming back here, being from here, knowing about here, and all of those complicated things.

This is what I love about working on this podcast: meetings of great minds. Illustrator/live artist/smart guy/mystery man Dwellephant dropped by the WMSE studios to talk to Mark Metcalf about art, advertising, graffiti, working on a book with Justin Shady, setting goals for the future and why he trys anything once.

Mark reveals himself to be an anti-capitalist anarchist, Dwell reveals himself to be a little OCD about cleanliness, and everyone has a really good time.

You can listen online at ThirdCoast Digest or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

More interviews with illustrators and artists to come in the next couple of weeks!

We didn’t make it to the Library of Congress last weekend, but the next best thing, I’ve just discovered, is the Library of Congress on Flickr.

I can’t stop reading this headline, from the January 3, 1909 edition of the New York Tribune. It’s so wordy! Somehow erudite and trivial at the same time! And the selection of historical luminaries is curious. Why are these centenary celebrations all birthdays except for Josef Hadyn (d. 1809)? Moreover, if we’re counting death centenaries, too, where are Thomas Paine (d. 1809) and Merriweather Lewis (d. 1809), and why include British P.M. William Ewart Gladstone (b. 1809) instead?

Also: it is now 2009! Which means these centenary celebrations are now packing an extra century. Much was made this year, of course, of the shared 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, but Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn? Oliver Wendell Holmes? I had no idea! Happy birthday, fellas.

(Aside: I was impressed to learn at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday how many 19th-century luminaries held a number of pursuits, professions and hobbies throughout their lives — Oliver Wendell Holmes was a doctor and medical reformer, an early stethoscope advocate, inventor of the word “anesthesia” and proponent of the germ theory of disease. Sanitary surgical instruments? Thank this guy!

Likewise, telegraph inventor Samuel Morse was a notable American painter; sewing machine inventor and entrepreneur Isaac Singer was first an actor, as evident in this indulgent portait:


And are an unusual number of great men (and women) celebrating their first centenaries in 2009?

Wallace Stegner, Carmen Miranda, Maybelle Carter, Francis Bacon, James Agee, Benny Goodman, Eugene Ionesco and Johnny Mercer were all born in 1909.

And Geronimo died. His skull is still MIA.

For one, that Grace Coolidge had a pet raccoon.

For two (after a discussion about the world’s cutest rodents), that raccoons are pretty biologically isolated – they’re not cats, dogs, bears,  marsupials or rodents, but belong to the family procyonidae, which includes kinkajous and coatis and olingos and other nonsense animals.

We also learned about Chesapeake oysters, cod liver, whaling, lifeboat technology and container shipping; that James K. Polk sent his cabinet secretaries home one summer and answered all the mail himself; that Dwight D. Eisenhower took up painting after asking a portrait artist if he could try his hand at the brush; we considered moral relativism as it relates to the presidency of Andrew Jackson during the National Book Festival and the health of the academic press industry at lunch with the director of Georgetown Press.

We learned a lot in Washington D.C., and also drank a lot, walked a lot and visited with a lot of our friends.

More to come, but rest assured we’ve arrived home safely.



May 2018
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