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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Plane on the ground, Detroit by car

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

While the plane was being examined in the workshop, we had some time on the ground. We had a few appointments in Chicago but instead of going there directly, we decided to spend the weekend in Detroit. During the 5.5 years we had lived in Chicago, we always had wanted to go but never made it there. Our image of Detroit was that of an abandoned city after the automobile crisis, but we also had read that it was slowly coming back.

What we found was a very majestic city with imposing buildings, from art-deco to modern-day, with a pleasant waterfront on the other side of which is Canada. The Ambassador bridge connects the two countries. My understanding is that the connection is quite complicated during Covid: Canada is very strict and closed. This is unfortunate because I love Canada and am really looking forward to our stops there, even though I am not sure how long they will be. Will we be able to travel a little bit and spend time with our ex-colleague and friend John Hallward? Or will we be forced to refuel and go (or sleep in an airport hotel we cannot leave unless it is to take-off?). I guess we’ll find out when we get there, hopefully somewhere in May.

In the meantime, in Detroit, we visited Eastern Market as soon as we arrived (open on Saturdays only and till 3 pm). It is a lively covered food market disseminated across several halls and surrounded by restaurants and murals.

We even recognized Hebru Brantley who we first heard of in Chicago (there is a picture of one of his works in my October 27th post on Chicago street art)

and discovered new styles:

After having checked-in to our trendy “Sonder” studio apartment -with view on the Ambassador bridge!- we did a walking tour of the city that took us though the most important sights. The tour came from an app I have been using for a while now called “GPSmyCity”, which designed our itineraries through Asuncion Paraguay in 2019, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Washington DC in 2020 and now Detroit. The app is very simple but it really helps to get an idea of the main points to know and see. The walk showed us that downtown Detroit is not abandoned at all, there are many buildings that are being (or have recently been) renovated.

The famous Guardian Building

The Fox theater (temporarily closed)

and the Fisher building in the "New"center of Detroit (not so new because from the 1920's), at the time Detroit was still expanding fast

Along the riverfront is the modern Hart Plaza, with the Renaissance Center, a group of 7 interconnected skyscrapers owned by General Motors as its world headquarters, as well as some modern and not so modern sculptures (Canada on the other side of the river!).

In Campus Martius Park, we found an open-air skating rink as well as a restaurant that reminded us a lot of the millennium park skating rink in Chicago in front of the Park&Grill. Just like in Fort Wayne, it was still quite cold and the skaters and the lights made for an incredibly festive winter atmosphere that we had not experienced during our 8 years in Argentina.

And more monumental art, right behind the skating rink

There are of course many less fortunate parts of town, such as that of the Heidelberg project, an outdoor art project in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on Detroit's east side, just North of the city's historically African-American Black Bottom area.

On the project’s website is some history:

In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton returned to Heidelberg, the street where he grew up on Detroit’s East Side, and found it in shambles, riddled with drugs and deepening poverty. Bruised by the loss of three brothers to the streets, Guyton was encouraged by his grandfather to pick up a paintbrush instead of a weapon and look for a solution.

Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became “lots of art” and abandoned houses became “gigantic art sculptures.” Guyton not only transformed vacant houses and lots, he integrated the street, sidewalks and trees into his mammoth installation and called the work, the Heidelberg Project (“HP”).

The project still lives today and Alex met Tyree Guyton who continues to takes care of it and was pretty amazed that we had come all the way from Argentina. The artwork is very unique and, how shall I say it, “special”, since the border between art and junk is not always clear. What is clear is that it keeps evolving, when we visited, there were lots of references to “time” and to the media.

Another, older, chapter of the history of Detroit is that of the Cranbrook Institute of Arts (30 minutes North of Detroit) where mid-century modern architects and artists were welcomed by the founder and philanthropists George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth in the beginning of the 20th century. Alex very much wanted to see the museum and the Saarinen house but when we arrived, it appeared the museum and the houses were closed due to renovations (and/or Covid?). We could however visit the sculpture garden and all the grounds spread out in a forest, complete with Japanese garden and Greek theater.

We also took a look at the 1960’s Lafayette park by Mies van der Rohe, so despite the disappointment at Cranbrook, Alex left Detroit full of architectural impressions.

The city left us with other impressions also, such as the “Stop Asian Hate” march that we witnessed on Sunday afternoon, and the unusual situation we found ourselves in that same evening at a restaurant near the water where all the other clients were African American and the only white people were some of the servers. During our meal, we could not help discussing the fact that we felt surprised and that maybe we shouldn’t be.

We missed the Ford museum (didn’t get to it) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (no tickets left), meaning we could not see the Diego Rivera murals there, which I really regret because I love Mexico also😊. It looks like we will need to go back to Detroit someday. Maybe we can even stay in the same apartment :)

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