The Best Car Decades

The other day I was walking downtown to work when I passed this beautiful example of Detroit’s former handiwork in front of Kittie’s Cakes. This vintage convertible—which I think was a Lincoln, from the distinctive greyhound hood ornament—was freshly polished and waxed, glinting and gleaming in the bright sunshine, just waiting to be admired. It was like a mobile piece of art.

For my money, American car manufacturers designed and built their most beautiful and eye-catching cars in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In that era there was an attention to detail and gracefulness in the design of sedans and coupes and other passenger vehicles, and a kind of recognition that a car is important and says something about its owner, and therefore is really worthy of careful creation. The cars of those decades are sleek and pleasing in appearance, with lots of rounded curves, but powerful in performance, with plenty of horsepower. They look like they would be a lot of fun to drive.

Cars from the ‘20s and earlier look like antique curiosities that—unlike this specimen—could never hold their own on a modern highway. By the ‘50s Detroit was in the throes of its Fin Fixation, giving cars a look that hasn’t worn well. The ‘60s saw a brief resurgence in design, but didn’t fully recapture the classic combination of grace and power seen in the ‘30s and ‘40s. By the ‘70s, with its series of dismal, uninspired, boxy rust buckets, Detroit hit rock bottom. Since then, the focus has been on functionality, minivans, and pickups, and the days when car manufacturers would try to build a graceful, elegant, and powerful passenger car are now far behind us.

In retrospect, the ‘30s and ‘40s are the glory days. It’s great to see one of the products of that era still on the street.

Belle Views

Belle Isle is a great example of how a good park can make a difference in a metropolitan area. It offers a beautiful view of downtown Detroit, lots of green space for picnics and dog walking, great roads for biking and jogging, and features like a beautiful white fountain and pond ringed by cherry trees.

There’s also a conservatory and a nifty little aquarium — both of which are free to the public, although a donation is encouraged. That’s a great benefit for a family that is living on a budget and trying to stretch their paychecks. And, in fact, Belle Isle was packed with people today, who were enjoying the amenities and some beautiful weather.

How many American cities offer these kinds of free benefits anymore? Not many. It’s one reason why the Detroit boosters are confident the Motor City will bounce back.

Many Americas

Recently I was up in Detroit, gassing up the car at a service station at an exit just off one of the freeways, when I noticed this provocative sign on a tire business across the street.

Commerce doesn’t lie.  The business owner obviously thinks that theft of wheels from parked cars is a sufficiently widespread problem that advertising about the ability to help victims of the thefts will generate additional sales and revenue, and you have to assume that there’s a factual basis for that belief.  I thought:  “Really?  Wheels on cars parked on public streets are being stolen, and police haven’t caught the perpetrators of such brazen criminal activity?”  The sign, and the real message it was sending, made me uneasy.

The sign was just one more bit of tangible evidence that we don’t live in one America any more, if we ever really did.  Instead, there are lots of different Americas, dealing with lots of different issues.  Where I live, we thankfully don’t have to worry about coming out to our car and finding all of the wheels taken by wheel theft gangs.  In this particular neighborhood of Detroit, however, there is obviously a different reality.

This shouldn’t be a revelation, of course.  Read the news and you quickly understand, intellectually, that there are pockets of the country where the heroin epidemic is raging and leaving families devastated, where the local economy has been bottomed out and there are no jobs to be had, and where the relations between police and the local populace has been poisoned, and there are parts of America where people are concerned because housing values are too high, where companies are concerned because they just can’t hire enough high-tech workers, and where people are lining up to spend a thousand dollars on a new cell phone.  And don’t get me started about how different places like Hollywood, or Washington, D.C., seem to be from the rest of the country.

And yet, when you live in your own world, it’s easy to view everything from your own personal experience, and wonder why people could possibly have different perspectives on the issues of the day.  The next time I feel that kind of self-absorbed conceit, I’ll think about that unsettling sign in Detroit and try to remember that there are a lot of people in this country dealing with lots of issues and problems that I’m not even aware of — much less affected by.  America is a diverse place not only in terms of its population and demographics, but also in terms of personal experience.  We shouldn’t forget that.

 

The Family Weather Differential

It’s cold in Columbus this morning.  It’s not really cold by absolute standards — at 32 degrees, it’s just at freezing, and a mere chilly precursor of the truly icy days that inevitably are coming this winter — but it’s an arctic blast by relative measurements, since only a few days ago the temperature was pleasantly in the 60s.

ios_weather_icons_1xWhen I checked my weather app to see exactly what the temperature was, I noticed that it’s a heck of a lot warmer in San Antonio, where Richard and Julianne and their dog Pretty make their home.  Down there in south central Texas it’s a fine 66 degrees right now, and I can imagine walking out into the San Antonio surroundings, clad in t-shirt and shorts, and thinking that 66 degrees is a nice cool start to the day — good for a stroll on the Riverwalk or, in Richard’s case, a jog.  Up in Detroit, Russell’s waking up to 36 degrees and a forecast of snow flurries.  And if you add in siblings and uncles and aunts, we’ve got Heidi out in Huntington Beach, California where it’s 54 degrees and the forecast is for partly cloudy skies and a high of 67, and Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack down in Savannah, Georgia, where its 50 degrees and the week ahead on the weather app features temperatures around 70 and lots of those bright, unclouded sun icons that you always like to see.

So, right now, Columbus is the coldest place in the family, a solid 34 degrees more frigid than San Antonio.  That’s why the weather app offers both the bitter and the sweet.  It’s not great to be here at the coldest location, but one advantage of having a trusty weather app and a a family that is spread out from coast to coast and from north to south is we can live vicariously through whoever is getting the best weather right now.  Later today, I think I’ll take an imaginary walk on Huntington Beach.

The Detroiter At Buddy’s

Last night we had dinner at Buddy’s Pizza, a Detroit institution for decades and also home to rectangular, “Detroit-style” pizza.  Russell and I split a “Detroiter” — pizza loaded with meats and cheeses, with the cheese placed on top to maximize the meaty flavor and avoid charring the pepperoni.  

The Detroiter was fantastic.  That should come as no surprise, because Buddy’s is frequently identified as one of the very best pizza establishments in the U.S. of A.  The crust was perfection itself — light and crunchy, without the doughy gumminess you find in many “deep dish” pizzas — and the cheese on top approach really does enhance the flavor.  We also enjoyed a pitcher of Buddy’s beer, a very refreshing lager with hints of citrus that went well with the pizza.

I’m pretty sure there will be another trip to Buddy’s in my future.

Planting Season

Yesterday we spent some time over at the urban farm, where it’s planting season.  So far this year Emily and Russell have planted a number of black currant and raspberry bushes to join the apple trees and strawberry plants that remain from last year, and there’s a new beehive where the bees are busily doing their thing.  You could say things are buzzing at the farm.

It was a fine day, clear and not too warm, so we tried to put it to good use.  Russell and I spent most of our time shoveling dark, steaming topsoil from a huge mound into the back of his pickup truck, then transferring it onto the rows to be available for even more planting.  Thanks to the squatting, lifting, and twisting, I felt like I’d spent a few hard hours at the gym — except the farm effort also helped to produce two more furrows that are ready to go and made a noticeable dent in the topsoil pile.

Not surprisingly, I slept pretty well last night.

Gardening As A Gateway

Russell’s friend Emily Staugaitis is one of those people who seems to be a kind of natural difference-maker.  Where other people see challenges she can identify opportunities, and she’s not afraid to tackle a big project — like trying to set up an urban apple orchard in a depressed part of the Detroit area.

https3a2f2fcdn-evbuc-com2fimages2f223578392f1807581212702f12foriginalOne of Emily’s projects is Bandhu Gardens.  It’s a collective effort that uses gardening to help Bangladeshi immigrants in the Detroit area use the green thumbs they developed while growing up in south Asia to connect with each other, and with local restaurants that are interested in fresh, locally grown foods.  It’s also a way for Bangladeshi women to make some extra money, achieve more autonomy in their households, and get a taste of the business world in our capitalistic society.

Last year, the Bandhu Gardens group collectively sold 120 pounds of greens, beans and peppers and 25 pounds of squash to restaurant accounts.  They’ve also hosted “pop-up” dinners, including some at local restaurants owned or operated by women, have begun to offer cooking classes, and this year will be selling their produce at a large public farmers market in Detroit.

It’s a classic American immigrant story, of how people come to our country and begin to make their way forward, drawing on their traditional experiences and know-how and applying them to realize opportunities in their new home.  Sometimes, though, it helps to have someone who can help to point out the openings and make the potential opportunities into realities.  Congratulations to Emily for helping to serving in that important role for some of the new arrivals to our land of immigrants!

Emily Appleseed

One of Russell’s friends and fellow Cranbrook Academy graduates is interested in urban farming.  Emily has started a fruit farm in the middle of Detroit on some derelict property, in hopes of bringing fruit and a neighborhood resource to families in the area who don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s an incredibly cool idea that shows that, once again, one person and a dream can really make a difference in America.

Emily’s efforts are being chronicled in a Detroit Journal video series called Emily Appleseed.  You can watch the first episode above.  Russell himself makes an appearance in the second video, below, helping to clear the property and following a tractor to turn the soil.  He looks like a natural farmer.  His grandfather, Bill Kishman, who was a farmer for many years, would be proud.  The rest of the series can be found on YouTube.

Blowing Things Up

Let’s face it:  many of us like seeing things get blown up.  The entire Die Hard movie franchise is, effectively, based on that one crucial assumption about movie audiences.

When it comes to buildings being demolished, we might rationalize that we like to see the engineering wizardry, precision of the placement of the charges and the careful timing that allows the toppling building to fall just so — but really we just like to see things get blown up and collapsing in a huge, billowing cloud of gritty dust.

So it is with the implosion of the abandoned Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit, which was demolished a few days ago to make way for the new Red Wings arena.  As the hosts of SCTV’s Farm Film Report would have said, “it blowed up real good!”

Detroit, On The (Cutting) Edge

Russell decided to stay in Detroit, in part, because he felt a certain energy there, and in part because it is so affordable.  After living for a few years in Brooklyn, he knew how ridiculously expensive living the New York City artists’ life had become.

IMG_5170As always, Russell has a pretty good set of antenna for a developing trend.  A few days ago the New York Times carried an article about how NYC artists are moving to Detroit for the same reasons Russell has long articulated.  Why not?  Detroit is a cosmopolitan city.  There is still a lot of art-buying wealth there, as well as space galore and buildings available at prices that New York City artists couldn’t even conceive.

There’s a certain vibe to Detroit, too.  The article linked above refers to “ruin porn” — an apt phrase that captures the kind of slack-jawed wonder at the decaying cityscapes that we have noticed in our visits there and reported from time to time on this blog.  The dereliction not only makes you ponder how a great city fell so far, but also what can be done to raise it back up again.  Part of the allure of Detroit for young artists and other risk-takers is the chance to be part of what could be a great story of urban renaissance.  For an artist, that sense of frontier-like opportunity not only is bound to stoke the creative fires, but it also gives the city’s art scene a certain cachet that may well attract attention — and art sales.

I’m rooting for Detroit.

Urban Entrepreneurialism

IMG_5361The downfall, many problems, and staggering challenges of Detroit have been abundantly chronicled, here and elsewhere.  During our visits to Cranbrook, in the Motor City’s metropolitan area, Kish and I have been awed by the magnitude of Detroit’s predicament.  With entire neighborhoods falling apart, acres of rubble where once there were productive, tax-paying employers, and burned out and abandoned houses and derelict commercial buildings and former factories around every corner, where do you start?

It seems clear that local government can’t lead the recovery process.  The task is too overwhelming, and the city of Detroit simply doesn’t have the money or the manpower.  If there is going to be a renaissance of sorts, it will be led by by individuals who are willing to commit, invest their own money and sweat equity, and take the personal and financial risks that inevitably come with being the first in on the urban renewal effort.

IMG_5359Russell has decided to become part of this risk-taking process. He’s leased studio space in a gritty building in Highland Park, one of the Detroit neighborhoods that is struggling to recover.  His studio is in what was a manager’s office of a formerly abandoned industrial building that once was home to squatters.  The factory was purchased by a sculptor from New Zealand named Robert Onnes, who saw artistic opportunity in the building’s high ceilings, open spaces, and many windows.  Onnes will be using some of the vast interior space as his metal-working studio, and now Russell and some of his Cranbrook classmates are also part of the vanguard.

The building is very much a work in progress, with lots of work to be done in improved weatherproofing and power supply among many other issues, but a look at what it was when it was first acquired shows that it has made progress already.  When we moved some of Russell’s materials in to his space over the weekend, the owner was there supervising work on the building.  Russell and the other can-do artists no doubt will be supplying some elbow grease to improve their studio spaces, too.

It’s just one building in a vast and deeply troubled urban area — but perhaps it’s a start.

Cranbrook Open Studios And House-Warming Party

This weekend it was back up to Cranbrook for the Open Studios event, where all of the artists open their studios to the public.  It’s a great chance to see what the students are working on — and it’s also a reason for them to straighten up their cluttered spaces, too.

IMG_5229This is a very busy time for the Cranbrook kids, and particularly so for Russell and some of his fellow graduating students.  They not only are showing their work at the Open Studios and in the Cranbrook Art Museum, but they’ve also decided to stage a group exhibition of their artwork in downtown Detroit.  Called House-Warming Party, the exhibition features pieces from Russell and 11 other Cranbrook artists.  The show, located at 2170 Mack Avenue in Detroit, is open on Saturday and Sundays from 1-6 p.m. and by appointment between now and May 10.

I know Russell has been burning the candle at both ends on this last big push before graduation, and I hope he gets a chance to rest a bit.  But his artwork at Open Studios looked great and seemed to attract a very interested crowd.  And I think the notion of Russell and some of his classmates venturing off the picturesque Cranbrook campus to stage an exhibition and engage with the artistic community in the city is very cool, indeed.  The grit and grime and spunk and comeback spirit of Detroit clearly has  influenced Russell’s art, and having a show is a good way to make a payback of sorts to the Motor City.

Kish and I will be seeing House-Warming Party when we go up for graduation.  If you are in Detroit between now and May 10, I encourage you to visit the Cranbrook Museum and the House-Warming Party to see what some up-and-coming artists are doing.  You can get more information about the latter at housewarmingshow@gmail.com.

IMG_5221

Russell At Cranbrook

IMG_5215Russell’s time in the master’s program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art is drawing to a close.  In a few days some of his new work will be shown as part of the graduating students’ exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum, followed shortly thereafter by an open studios event and then by graduation in early May.

IMG_5182Kish and I are excited to go up and see Russell’s new pieces as displayed in the museum and also to see what is underway in his studio.  In the meantime, we’ve been reflecting on Cranbrook, the institution.  It’s an interesting and physically beautiful place, with a fascinating history that finds deep roots in notions of American exceptionalism and the uniquely American ability to find a better approach to education, creativity, and craftsmanship, unbound by traditional notions of class and status and settled ways of doing things found in European cultures. Having a Master’s art program on the same campus as a secondary school, sharing grounds that feature lovely buildings, art objects, and carved expressions of sentiments about the importance of constantly seeking beauty in your daily life, is certainly an unusual concept not found in every educational institution.

Cranbrook has also been, I think, a good fit for Russell.  Returning to the Detroit area — Cranbrook is in Bloomfield Hills, a Motor City suburb — after living for several years in Brooklyn has allowed Russell to really reconnect with his Midwestern roots, in ways that have found expression in his artwork and artistic interests.  Cranbrook’s multi-disciplinary approach, in which students in the painting program are interacting regularly with student metalworkers, ceramic artists, architects, sculptors, fiber artists, and photographers, has also allowed Russell to experience different perspectives on art and experiment with incorporating some aspects of those approaches into his own artwork.

It might just be the Dad in me talking, but I think Russell’s willingness to experiment and embrace and understand what other students are doing has been true to the vision of a different, open approach that led to Cranbrook’s founding in the first place.  I think the people who started the Art Academy would be as proud of him as we are.

IMG_5194