Detroit (Part 1)

March 12, 2021

Back in 2019, Carra Martinez began an epic year of travels as part of Fusebox’s new collaborative research project and festival Live in America. Carra visited a constellation of communities across the U.S. and its territories, meeting with local Live in America facilitators, artists and culture-bearers in those communities; sharing food and conversation; and learning about the place they call home, and their performance and cultural practices. Carra’s trips took her to the U.S.-Mexico border; Detroit, Michigan; Northwest Arkansas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Sumter County, Alabama; San Juan, Puerto Rico; New Orleans, Louisiana; and beyond.

This new series “Field Notes on Live in America” is a record of Carra’s journeys across America’s diverse cultural landscape. The inaugural Live in America Festival will take place in October 2021, presented by The Momentary.

Detroit Scenes

From August 2019

Get in from the airport and go to Leyya’s. And she is: “Are you hungry now.” And I am: “Yes.” And she is: “Let’s change the schedule up and go to Dearborn and feast and then end the night in Detroit proper with music.” I am: “Yes.” And so my first day in Detroit is grounded in the riches of Arab food and parsing the city through a kind of very-real physical high one reaches only via a combination of Arab coffee and the rosewater-sugar wonders that pour forth from what Leyya proudly proclaims is “the world’s most famous Arab bakery,” otherwise known as Shatila.

Leyya’s mission in driving us around the Detroit area the next few days is to stay off the highway and drive through neighborhoods so that I get a sense of how large Detroit is, how its low-rise architecture spreads unhurried across the landscape. And as we head to Dearborn, she asks me to clock how many businesses there are and just how many of those business storefronts sit empty. Detroit proper at its peak housed 2 million folks but now sits at 700,000. My eyes begin to note the reality of that economic shift in the rhythm of the storefronts themselves: open, closed closed closed, open open, closed closed closed closed closed, open. Most of the “opens” are mom-and-pop joints, and the empties are also mom-and-pop joints. My god, look who is surviving and thriving, and my god, look who is gone.

Those empty storefronts. The kind of spaces that read as instantly artist-transformable to someone from Austin, whose dearth of art space (and dearth of arts funding) makes me sometimes wonder why artists choose to stay. And being a greedy colonizer, I quickly fall prey to avaricious thinking: “Oh wow, we could have an incredible space in Detroit, a space that will/could never happen in Austin–let’s all move to Detroit.” Over the next few days, as my deep appreciation for Detroit grows and grows, I come to better understand the prices paid by those who have remained in the city through its toughest years and the support that tough-hustle community needs, which does not include an onslaught of hipster art-makers who just want to collaborate (but inevitably only with each other) in the fashion of New York or Portland or Austin.

Get in from the airport and go to Leyya’s. And she is: “Are you hungry now.” And I am: “Yes.” And she is: “Let’s change the schedule up and go to Dearborn and feast and then end the night in Detroit proper with music.” I am: “Yes.”

As we head towards the coming Arab food-orgy, Leyya gets a call from a realtor who wants her to know that an owner is open to thinking about the offer Leyya made on a beauty parlour that sits next to Leyya’s cousin Mike’s performance/studio space, Entropy Stereo. Maybe the beauty parlor becomes a dance space or a dance residency or both, just needs the right wood floor. The beauty parlor sits in South Redford near Brightmoor, a hip-and-flourishing-more-and-more arts kinda community. Leyya and I talk about ripping out the sinks and the plumbing and all the accoutrements of beauty. The dance space is a potential good investment. Not get too fancy with the scale of the design, live within the means and the rhythm of the city. I am falling in love with a possibility that does not belong to me.

We arrive at Hamido’s in Dearborn. Holy god, I did not understand the blessing I was about to receive. You grab your preferred beverage outta the cooler by the door before heading to the table–fruit juices and colas and aloe water and at the very very bottom of the case some regular ole water. Hamido’s does a ton of take-out business, and so the cooler speeds up the take-out process for the waitresses. Plus there’s trust. No one is gonna steal a drink. Help yourself. Get what you need. So with guava juice and mango juice in hand, we head to the table. And a plate of crisp, dark green pickles quickly appears from a waitress that’s serving every table in the joint. And there’s already an IHOP-style-syrup-bottle full of olive oil on the table and a basket full of packet after packet of Syrian bread, which feels to me like a tortilla but with a kind of pleasurable chewiness. It doesn’t melt; you gotta work it with your molars. Then comes a pile of fattoush. Fattoush: a crisp green salad spiced with oil and lemon and sumac and with lots of fried Syrian bread chips mixed about. Then, oh god, the “vegetarian” plate–stuffed grape leaves or wedek diwali; falafel; vegetarian rice or heshwa (rice with lamb); and tabouli. Then the actual meat plate: lamb kafta or spiced ground meat; kabob or chunks of lamb with onion and peppers; baba ghanouj or so smoky smooth eggplant. I can’t describe the level of food-based ascendency that I reach. As Leyya laughs, I just kept chanting: “Oh my god, I didn’t understand, I didn’t understand.” Two realizations from the meal: grape leaves themselves have an incredible flavor, and it may be that I can never again eat lesser falafel. Why would anyone ever eat lesser falafel?

After attempting to devour every morsel and after a thorough discussion of Lebanese men’s fashions and what those fashions say about generational wealth and performances of Arab masculinity translated through U.S. lens, we head to a Yemini coffee house in case we need to stay up late and drink. The potent caffeine will serve our late-night adventures. The smell of Yemini coffee will go down as one of the single best smells I have ever experienced. Rich, dark, warm, layered, unpretentious sophistication, and the coffee itself is a journey: Yemini coffee with cardamom and ginger; coffee husk coffee with cardamom. Having decided to buy some extra coffee husks, I would never describe the service we receive in that particular transaction as “delighted to serve you.” Leaving the coffee shop, I ask Leyya what that fifteen-minute-wait-as-others-are-served-quickly was about, and she responds: “With my short hair, he probably thought we were interloper Lesbians though he knew from my eyebrows that I was Arab. Or maybe he was shy. He could be shy. Or shy and also thought we were lesbians.” Regardless of our relationship status, we nabbed the coffee husks. We’ll make coffee husk coffee for guests who are visiting Leyya’s on Sunday.

Our next stop again involves food, and I don’t feel bad about that at all. Food is a vehicle that translates nuance, layers, complexities, joys, thriftiness, and the exuberance of space and place–like the best of performances. We head to Shatila Bakery on Warren Avenue. Leyya is very proud that Shatila is considered, as she reminds me again, “the best Arab Bakery in the world.” And I think about what that title signifies, an Arab community that has maintained such a particular sense of identity and practice and largesse so far away from the homeland. That community continuing to develop and grow and reach new heights in baked delights. Shatila is a large, very large bakery with soaring ceilings and a circular flow. The center of the space is anchored by a two-story high cluster of fake palm trees (complete with small American flags jutting out from the rough bark) and then café tables flow around that exotic cluster of well-lit flora. On a Friday night, the final hours of Islamic holy day, families gather to take pleasure from the counters of delights that encircle the center gathering space: a large corner counter dedicated to ice cream and boasting a Saveur Magazine “Best Ice Cream in America” award, a twisting line of locals awaiting these treats; the long, so long counter full of lush Mediterranean sweets–knafeh, katayif, baklava, mamoul, kashta, awameh, ghoribeh; and then a sizable American-style bakery counter with every conceivable form of cake decoration sprawled across its wares. Leyya curates our order while I wander the counters with wide eyes, my mouth hanging open. She points to large trays of an unrisen dessert that looks to be covered in a brightly-colored shredded wheat. We’re here for this, knafeh, but partaking of knafeh will wait until the next day. Instead, we sit beneath a palm and sample a more time-sensitive pistachio and rosewater pastry and talk about the celebratory nature of Friday nights in Arab families. I ask: “Are any of the young folks here on dates?” Leyya: “Unlikely, dating is not a thing.” Me: “Do folks come every Friday night?” Leyya: “Yes, this is a ritual celebration.” Me: “Did you come here as a kid?” Leyya: “Yep, only then Shatila was in a small storefront not too far from the Yemini coffee shop.” Me: “Where are these folks from?” Leyya as she looks about: “Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, maybe some Syria.” Me: “Why are folks buying so much?” Leyya: “You buy some for tonight and enough to cover the rest of the week.” Me: “Is that man pouring a literal cupful of rosewater sugar syrup over his dessert?” Leyya: “Of course he is.”

Detroit is happening. It’s been happening. It never stopped happening. It doesn’t have the luxury to stop.

By this point, my sugar high is taking off, and we decide to head out while fuelled with false energy. I pick up the box of pastries Leyya has secured for us, and it has the heft of a sugared hand-weight. We’re headed into downtown Detroit next, and again we stay off major thoroughfares. And the buildings continue with their rhythm of ash-ash-grow. I start to obsessively key on the cars rolling by, muscular sports cars in red/yellow/white. The kinds of cars you most wanted to drive as a teenager–Mustangs, Camaros, convertibles of various makes and models. I have never ever seen so much American sports-car-realness in one place. Then Leyya shifts my focus: “Get ready, we’re coming up on strip club row.” And then so many strip clubs, with bright colors and black silhouettes of vaguely-exotic bodies decorating the outside. And the muscle cars roll by us and the empty buildings and empty blocks where houses should sit but don’t and then some sort of literal motorcycle gang and then come condos that scream gentrification and finally we arrive in downtown. Childish Gambino’s This Is America loops through my head: This is America/ Don’t catch you slippin’ now/ Look at how I’m livin’ now/ Police be trippin’ now/ Yeah, this is America.

Our final stop for the night is a sort of large, roomy DIY venue that sits in a very hip building not far from the Eastern Market area. My colonizing subconscious wonders again about rent and art subsidies and supplemental incomes from in-house record stores and bakeries. But I also simultaneously clock that I’m not sure that anyone from Leyya’s Dearborn community other than Leyya is in tonight’s audience. Ahhh, and there’s the contemporary performance rub, the very white rub. Frankly, the audience feels a bit like an Austin, world-music crowd: largely white, lots of high-wasted jeans, a few pairs of All-Birds, some Docs, someone is in an all-silver outfit, the smell of weed in the air, and bodies moving in the most contained fashion but in the hopes of one day shedding containment. There’s some punk, but there’s also some white-people dreadlocks.

Ears suffering from the profound blank loudness pouring from the speakers, we decide to head home. Again the rhythm of cars and space and hustle and grit and possibility. Detroit is happening. It’s been happening. It never stopped happening. It doesn’t have the luxury to stop.

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Read Part 2

Carra is a collaborative theater artist, scholar, and educator based in Austin, Texas. She is the Director of Live in America at Fusebox Festival. She holds a PhD in Theatre Historiography.