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Up, Down and Art in Detroit

 

Article, photos and sketches by Anne Jenkins


I try hard not to prejudge cities or countries before traveling there. I have been to Detroit many times but not since it's spectacular collapse and I couldn't help wondering what I'd find, especially since the media are pretty harsh with most reports.

 
Anne Jenkins sketch Boarding Frontier Airlines flight to Detroit
Anne Jenkins sketch Boarding Frontier Airlines flight to Detroit

 

At that time I was there a conference, aptly titled Works in Progress, by the National Main Street program was held there. The Main Street program focuses on downtown revitalization around the country and the conference highlighted the efforts to rebuild by the city.  Detroit easily is a poster child for this. It struggles with bad press and high optimism, youthful energy and cautious efforts, blight and resurgence, renewal and fear of gentrification, gain and loss. It's a prime example for what a place can endure.

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Detroit hit rock bottom recently as the biggest bankrupt city in the USA.. Once an economic power house, a rich productive city of automobile builders par excellence and a city that collected art, it fell very hard causing much pain to it's solid citizens. Only bad news of crime and poverty with startling images of a housing blight equal to a war zone oozed out to the rest of the world.

Detroit's Eastern Market area with old market stall building
The Eastern Market area with old market stall building

 

Yet young artists are flocking to the city, buying up housing at very low rates to fix them up as homes and studios. They are contributing to the city's resurgence with a vibrant creative edge.

The area around the Eastern Market is fascinating in part for the marvelous old buildings and in part for the empty spaces patiently waiting to rebound. Some businesses have operated there for over 35 years, others are brand new and some buildings await revival. The potential is obvious for some buildings, others just aren't going to make it. Without a doubt it is a work is progress.

 
Anne Jenkins sketch of a row of Easter Market top floors in Deitroit
Anne Jenkins sketch of a row of Easter Market top floors

 

The melting pot of cultures is very evident in the cuisines offered. A rich diverse legacy of European, Asian and African traditions in food abound and the Eastern Market hosts a good many establishments to get good food whether restaurants or speciality shops. If you like mussels, be sure to have a meal at Vivio's. I personally thought the jerk mussels with coconut has a sauce divine and regulars at the bar couldn't say enough good things about all their other wonderful recipes for mussels.

 
Vivio's Restaurant's bar in Detroit's Eastern Market is a good place to eat mussels
Vivio's Restaurant's bar in the Eastern Market is a good place to eat mussels

 

The heart of downtown is flush with upscale hotels, restaurants and a river walk lined with trees. Nearby in Midtown, one of the resurgent neighborhoods is the Cass Corridor. A hip bohemian enclave round the university. 

Relaxing outside a local store in Detroit's Cass Corridor signals a resurgent neighborhood
Relaxing outside a local store in the Cass Corridor signals a resurgent neighborhood

 

It is a hive of activity with lots of people riding around on bikes. There is an energy to the place with a lively restaurant scene. Thai cuisine rubs shoulders with the young entrepreneurs at La Feria, a small but excellent Spanish tapas restaurant, just a block or so from an independent book store.

Detroit wants to get the word out...it went down hard, yes, but it's edging back up the economic ladder and rebuilding as it goes. The optimistic buzz is noticeable to the visitor.

  
One of the hall ceilings in the Detroit Institute of Art

One of the hall ceilings in the Detroit Institute of Art

 

And more good news just came in. It looks as though the magnificent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will not be sold. If all goes well, it will be preserved and stay right where it is at home...in Detroit.

 
Detail of one of the Deigo Rivera massive and intricate murals in Detroit Institute of Art

Detail of one of the Deigo Rivera massive and intricate murals

 

About the only thing I ever heard about the DIA was the Diego Rivera murals, his huge, intricate and intriguing ode to the working man commissioned by Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford. What I didn't realize was the wealth and depth of it's entire collection and it's proud history as the first American museum to purchase a Van Gogh. It's bursting at the seams with Degas, Matisse, Monet, Warhol, Rembrandt, Picasso, ancient Greek and Roman works and artifacts of Asian statues or Egyptian mummies and some breathtaking modern American pieces like Romare Beardon's mosiac, Quilting Time, done a couple of years before his death.

 
Quilting Time by Romare Bearden American 1914-88  in Detroit Institute of Art

Quilting Time by Romare Bearden American 1914-88 
fabric & Mixed media in Detroit Institute of Art, it is very big and impressive.

 

Oh! and those two Rivera murals? Absolutely astounding in size, scale and imagery and more impressive than I'd ever thought possible. The only problem I had with the DIA was not the DIA... it was time, I didn't have enough time there.

Another close up of the Diego Rivera mural in Detroit Institute of Art featuring Henry Ford

Another close up of the Diego Rivera mural in Detroit Institute of Art featuring Henry Ford

 

Just around the corner from the DIA is the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. The main exhibit,  And Still We Rise, is a powerful and emotional walk through the history of African Americans with the emphasis on slavery. There are life size diorama through about 20 galleries. Every school child should visit this exhibit. It is hard to experience but it must be done. It is so difficult to walk on board a slave ship or watch people branding another human being. The exhibit is horrifying, educational and uplifting as at it's end shows President Obama's election, a testament to how far we have come but is a reminder we still have a ways to go. No photography is allowed inside, you need to see the exhibit in person.

 

Before I went I had low expectations of the place but Detroit surprised and delighted. There is much to enjoy and explore. It is well worth the visit and I hope next time I visit it will be even further down it's long road to recovery with as much optimism as it has now.

 
Anne Jenkins sketch of cold seafood platter in Tom's Seafood in downtown Detroit

Anne Jenkins sketch of cold seafood platter in Tom's Seafood in downtown Detroit

And I need to go, the alluring grand dame, the Detroit Institute of Art, has loads more for me to explore, enjoy and discover. It beckons me back.

 
Van Gogh boating painting in Detroit Institute of Art detail - just look at the texture
Van Gogh boating painting in Detroit Institute of Art detail - just look at the texture

 

 

 

BUSINESS INFO:

 

http://www.dia.org

 

http://thewright.org

 

 


 

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