Detroiters ― They Are Not Ghosts

On July 18, 2013, Detroit became the largest U.S. city ever to declare bankruptcy. Known as the Motor City, Detroit was recognized as the major engine of worldwide automobile manufacturing. Yet, over the past few decades, Detroit’s automobile industry has had to face the competition and pressure from the global market, which soon led to the failure in the automobile industry and caused the economy to decline sharply. As a result, there has been a drastic increase in the city’s unemployment, budget cuts, and government debts. As a nineteen year old teenager who lives at the heart of New York City for half of his life, I have never had the urge or opportunity to visit Detroit. I perceived Detroit as a once prosperous, but now problematic place; I would picture that most people in Detroit live in run-down buildings and struggle in their daily lives. My field trip to Detroit, however, had completely reestablished my thoughts of Detroit and reintroduced me to this amazing city.

It was 9 AM ― I have never woken up this early on a Sunday morning, but after a wheat bagel and a cup of black coffee, my sleepiness had gone out of the window. When I went downstairs, there was a Magic Bus parked outside of Alice Lloyd; this Magic Bus, however, was heading neither the north campus nor the Stadium, but toward the Motor City.

The one-hour commuter passed rather quickly considering that it was filled with exchanges between me and my classmates on how excited we were for the adventure. It was drizzling out when we stepped off the bus; the sky was so gray that it casted a shadow over Detroit. Then there was Robbie, who greeted us off the sidewalk in his brown sweater, introduced himself as the tour guide and a volunteer at our first destination, Earthworks.

Earthworks is one of the urban farms located in Detroit where vacant lands are being re-utilized for agricultural developments. Led by Robbie, we stopped at a semi-cylinder greenhouse which Robbie called the Hoop House.


Pic 1: Inside the Hoop House

The Hoop House blocks its interior from harsh weather conditions like wind or snow and is equipped with underground piping that regulates the soil’s temperature. According to Robbie, the purpose of the Hoop House is to extend the seasons for certain plants and make sure they grow throughout the year.

We then took a stroll down the block and passed by rectangular fields filled with various plants. It appeared to be that what used to be people’s lawns and backyards are now valuable farmlands that the entire neighborhood relies on. Along with a detailed explanation of each plant, Robbie added that Earthworks has served as a great role model of urban farming in that it produces enough food for the neighborhood along with a large amount of surplus. In fact, about ninety-percent of the produce goes to the community soup kitchen, which serves anyone who cannot afford a meal. He also stated that the reason he enjoy his job so much is because Earthworks allows him to make connection to the land as well as appreciate the wonders of Mother Nature. After spending an hour touring Earthworks with our tour guide, we headed back onto the Magic Bus and continued our journey in Detroit.

Looking back, I think the key to Earthwork’s success is that they were able to make urban farming a beneficial activity for the individuals as well as for the entire community. Not only does Earthworks create jobs for the residents from surrounding areas, who are most likely unemployed, it also promotes unity by bringing together the community.

After driving ten minutes toward the northeast, the bus pulled over at a somewhat sketchy-looking neighborhood: there were beds left on open fields, dolls nailed onto trees, and shoes tied onto fences; it took me a second to realize that we have just arrived at our second stop ― the Heidelberg Project. With no tour guide this time, we were asked to explore the Project individually. Walking down the block, I stumbled upon several interesting sights:


Pic 2: Tree of dolls

After exchanging thoughts on the Heidelberg Project with some fellow classmates, it seemed like most people found the artworks dark and depressing. However, I believe that the most significant themes that run through the arts were hope and pride. The Tree of Dolls, for example, resembled not only the residents’ childhood, but also the city of Detroit at its prime. The artist wants the visitors to take a stroll down memory lane and remind them of Detroit as it was once one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.

In the other shot from the Heidelberg Project, three clocks on the tree were each pinned to the tree trunk and orientated differently. It almost felt like the upside-down and sideways clocks were the artist’s attempts to stop or even reverse the time, to the years when the city was filled with wealth, harmony and security.


Pic 3: The art of clocks

I found the artworks at the Heidelberg Project very down to earth, because they were done by artists who live in the neighborhood and reflected the thoughts and ideas of the locals. Some might argue that the artworks at the Heidelberg Project are simply trash, but I believe that they were contributions to the neighborhood as well as the city of Detroit. For instance, the two pieces of artwork mentioned above both served as reminders of the past glory of Detroit, and hint that as long as there are people live in Detroit, there will always be hope. Therefore I believe that the arts have brought the neighborhood together to collaborate and gained attention from both inside and outside of Heidelberg Street.

As we hopped back onto the Magic Bus, we were heading to our next stop ― D.I.A., the Detroit Institute of Arts. When we first entered the museum, the artworks on the ceiling and the flamboyant chandeliers have reminded me of the Grand Central station as well as St. Patrick’s Cathedral.


Pic 4: The promenade.

Wandered through the promenade to the Modern and Contemporary gallery, I found myself in love with the museum as well as its glamorous art collection. Amongst all the artworks on display, I found a particular interesting piece called: “The Chaos,” which is composed of thousands of strings outlined an oddly shaped metal ring.


Pic 5: The Chaos.

The Chaos caught my attention because it reminded me of Detroit: the declining economy and government have caused the city to deform, but the people within are still holding the society together and attempting to bring the city back on its feet. By the time we left the D.I.A., I was only able to check out two galleries due to time constraints. However, it was very heart-warming to see that paintings and sculptures are being appreciated universally regardless of the city they are in. Although it was unfortunate that I did not have the time to walk through every single gallery, I have decided to pay the museum another visit in the winter and not miss a single corner next time.

We made a quick stop at the Michigan Central Station before returning to Ann Arbor. Unlike the D.I.A., it did not remind me anything of the Grand Central Station. Bounded by fences and barbed wires, the Station seemed bleak, dull and abandoned. When the Magic Bus was parked in front of the Station, the vibrant colors of Maize and Blue had presented contrast even more.


Pic 6: Central Michigan Station

Yet, I would imagine it as the Grand Central Station of Detroit when the city was at its prime. As a landmark of Detroit from the 20th century, the Michigan Central Station perfectly exemplified the contrast between the Detroit at its prime and the Detroit today, which made the brief visit to the Michigan Central Station a notable moment of the day as well.

Before visiting Detroit, I thought that unity and pride had left the city along with its wealth. However, spending a Sunday in Detroit allowed me to see that there are people who constantly give their fullest effort in order to restore their neighborhood as well as their city. Earthworks brings people together through food whereas the D.I.A. and the Heidelberg Project are building mutual connections among people via art. At the end of this journey, I am certain to say that unity and pride never left the city but continue to spread across the streets and avenues of Detroit.


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