Yesterday and today were spent at the University of Michigan, where the Institute for Humanities hosted a conference called The Poorest of the Poor. Yesterday we heard sessions on techniques for measuring poverty and doing business at the "Base of the Pyramid." Today's lecture was about poverty and its relationship to the university.
Group responses were varied for these topics, especially the Base of the Pyramid lecture. Some understood and appreciated the presenters' ideas about promoting business in the Third World, while others felt the opposite, that nothing good could come of American business ventures in the poorest countries. Many of us fell somewhere in between.
We also visited two small photography exhibits, on homelessness and convicts who have been executed in Texas. While the lectures were good, the galleries made a more lasting impression on me. I can still picture of photograph in particular, a portrait of a woman who called herself Butterfly. She was (or could have been) beautiful, but her eyes were tired.
While we were at the University, we also had the privilege to meet with Bob Beckley, a professor and former dean at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He works with the Land Bank in Flint, and we added his perspective to what we had already heard.
Even though Detroit's reputation is of excess crime and resident apathy, one can find are two pretty good museums downtown:The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and Museum of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). We visited both this morning.
My expectations for the DIA were not high, especially after I heard that most of the museum was shut down for renovations. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the art.
We traveled to the DIA especially to see murals of the auto assembly line industry painted by Diego Rivera in the early1930's. The paintings are so large it was difficult to take in the work as a whole, but after a quick tour of the by a museum docent I think we had a much better idea of what was happening in the murals.
MOCAD was next, where we saw more of the Shrinking Cities exhibit. Housed in what appeared to be an old warehouse, the MOCAD section of Shrinking Cities was much smaller, and a little more interactive. We also caught a panel discussion while we were there, on community responses to vacant land in Detroit.
We spent the morning touring Flint's historic district, where we saw even more houses in various states of dilapidaion and abandonment. One caught our eye in a positive way; someone had painted the boards over the windows to look like real windows, with a cat or flowers painted on the windowsill.
Some of the houses were just plain scary. In one instance, somone had populated the backyard of an occupied house with skulls, skeletons, barbed wire and live goats. The windows in this house were not boarded up, but covered with camoflague and confederate flags. The house next door was abandoned, and hand-painted signs read "HUMAN SACRIFICES NEEDED" and "INQUIRE INSIDE."
That was one of the most potent images we saw in Flint. After a few more trips around the block, past the now-empty Buick plant site, and down MLK, and we were on our way to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.
From Flint, a shrinking citiy, we went to an exhibition called Shrinking Cities at Cranbrook Academy of the Arts. While there we heard a lectures by the Chief Curator and Project Director, Philipp Oswalt and a panel discussion led by Kyong Park, an artist and co-creater of the Detroit section of the exhibition.
The actual exhibition was huge, with large sections dedicated to each city. As we looked through the actual exhibit, I think a lot of us were thinking about our own impending gallery instalation. What did we like about this exhibit? What did we dislike? What could we emulate, and what did we want to avoid?
This (long) weekend is our first out-of-state travel experience. We drove the vans north to Flint, MI where we stopped for a quick bite at a downtown restaurant called The Lunch Studio and then headed immediately to a demolition site.
Flint used to be a booming center of automobile manufacturing, but as the GM plant in Flint cut tens of thousands of jobs, the population began and continues to drop. With such a decrease in population comes a surplus of abandoned houses, which the remaining Flint residents want to see torn down. We met Kevin Muma and his crew from the Land Bank (a county organization in control of government-seized abandoned properties) at 228 E Taylor to watch our first demo.
Before the heavy machinery rolled in, our group got an opportunity to carefully wander through the burned remains of the house about to be torn down. It was a strange thing to be inside a structure and then watch it be torn down. Many in our group were struck by how little emotional response they felt. Others wondered how we should feel about buildings being demolished.
We repeated the experience a few streets over (walk through the house, watch the backhoe rip it apart) and then headed back downtown to meet with Steve Jessmore, a photojournalist at The Flint Journal.
This was my favorite part of the day. Steve does a column called "Sense of Community," where he publishes a photograph of someone in the community who is doing something good, and prints their story below in the own words. Steve told us about some of his favorite subjects, including a man who says that it is his calling to walk down the streets of Flint, waving at cars and making people feel good. Steve's column is a powerful, positive kind of journalism, and it helped us understand that, even though the city is shrinking, there are still a lot of good things in Flint.
Our next stop was right around the corner, at the Genesee County Land Bank. One thing I didn't realize is that the Land Bank does more than just tear down houses and try to sell property. Dave Fadierko is a property manager, because sometimes the foreclosed properties are not only salvageable, but house renters. Instead of evicting the tenets, Dave works with them to create better living conditions.
The last activity of the day was a late dinner with author, photographer, poet and police officer Brian Willingham,, a native of Flint. He told us a little about his job, his family and his life in Flint. Like Steve Jessmore, Brian offered another perspective as to what the city is and what it will become.
Allow me to...