Detroit (Part 2)

March 19, 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

We’re sitting at breakfast. Coffee, dark Arab-style coffee with exactly seven cardamom cloves placed into the grinder with the beans. We drink coffee. And we drink more coffee. And then we leisurely make our way through hard-boiled eggs and warmed knafeh. The eggs we peel and then dip into shallow plates of pink salt, sumac, and oil, strolling our way from bite to bite. The knafeh, purchased the night before at Shatila, is a revelation. It transforms my understanding of the form and purpose of cheese. To be specific, we’re having a Nbulseya Course Knafeh. Ingredients: shredded wheat flour, Spanish cheese, mozzarella cheese, butter, sugar, water, lemon juice, red food coloring, and a heaping tablespoon of holy-fucking-Jesus. I can’t write a simile; I do not have a point of comparison.

Leyya and I sit with our eggs and knafeh and talk about how Detroit operates: the pride, the hustle, the financial crisis, immigration, cars, communities of color, food markets, food deserts, a neighborhood called Mexicantown, Detroit’s relationship to Ann Arbor, Detroit’s reading of the world’s reading of Detroit. We talk about Leyya’s father’s own arrival in Detroit via Wayne State. The conversation roams and loops and drives. We dream about what Leyya might want to program at the performance festival we’re dreaming up: a kind of layered event, definitely with music, maybe nail art, maybe painting. Beyond the performance event itself, how do you program the “why” of a piece in a way that halts cultural voyeurism and poverty porn and that feels authentic to the voice of the community? How do you write in a fashion about the art of a community in a way that uplifts the rhythms of the community? Me: “Does food change the way your brain works and thinks about ideas? Is this knafeh changing my brain and sensibilities in a magical fashion?” Leyya: “Yes.”

Beyond the performance event itself, how do you program the “why” of a piece in a way that halts cultural voyeurism and poverty porn and that feels authentic to the voice of the community?

We head back into the city to take a closer look at Eastern Market. The stretching farmers-market-of-a-sort is big and rambling and packed full of bodies. So many bodies that it’s impossible to park, so we skirt its edges talking about how to grocery shop in Detroit. And Leyya decides that we should give up on finding a space to park at and instead head to the Heidelberg Project.

In the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, the Heidelberg Project does not quickly appear as we cruise about. We drive up-and-down a few streets and spot random polka dots, markers of its former existence on those particular blocks. Leyya gets worried: “Oh no, oh no, is it gone?” Up-and-down we wander. You get the sense that the neighbors we pass, with the slight smiles on their faces, know exactly what we’re looking for. Leyya: “I don’t want anyone to think we’re driving around poverty peeping.” Like drivers who wondrously gaze upon the bright foliage of New England, poverty peepers–usually white folks–drive about the neighborhoods of Detroit most clearly impacted by financial crises in order to stare upon the ruins of once grand homes and communities. Leyya: “I need to stay in this immediate area. I don’t want to be disrespectful,” and not so much later, we oh-so-cleary come upon the Heidelberg Project.

In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton found himself once again living on his home street, Heidelberg, and there, faced with a neighborhood in shambles and suffering from an inundation of drugs and profound poverty, Guyton began to clear his neighborhood while transforming the fruits of that clearance into a large-scale, neighborhood-wide art environment. Vacant lots became spaces for found-sculpture; abandoned homes became canvases for the reimagination of place and home. Mountains of shoes, filled shopping carts, heaps of yard decor. Faces painted on old toys, old wood, old appliances. Painted cars, art cars, an old phone both. Records covering houses, chains of records hanging from a looming cross. A house covered with a jungle of stuffed animals. Polka dot houses, polka dot cars, polka dot fences, polka dot signs.

The Heidelberg project is the most intense collection of art practice that I had ever seen in a single neighborhood. Leyya speaks of its start. Its trouble with neighborhoods and city officials. Its wider support from public foundations. I sit amazed. How is all this here? What keeps it going? Neighborhood curators offer us a slow wave and those same slight smiles as we drive through. We are touring their world, and they are in control of our gaze.

Eventually we end up in a neighborhood, largely full of black folks, that can serve as a not-metaphor for all the stories of Detroit’s struggles, but it feels disrespectful to write about those homes where families and communities once thrived. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about the Packard Plant, a failed white business, which we visited on the trip. A description of the Packard Plant in its current state also points to city-wide economic complexities. The Packard Automobile Plant once housed the manufacturing of big, luxury American cars. Located on 40 acres and considered the most modern manufacturing facility in the world during its heyday, the plant closed in 1958 and has since stood as a slowly-crumbling monument to American manufacturing. We drive around the plant’s edges, which Leyya is reluctant to do. Taken with the scale of the looming brick walls that rise in multiple stories stretching out like a capitalist horizon, I keep urging Leyya to continue to trace the plant’s perimeter. Clearly an ideal location for raves, video shoots, DIY concert venues, and fucking around in a kind of collapsed grandeur, the border of the plant is also marked with a cemetery and a struggling neighborhood and drug deals and a motel that graphically houses all of the U.S.’s worst social and economic outcomes. Leyya: “This feels wrong. What I want to show you is not here. Let’s go. It feels wrong.” Me: “Okay, let’s go.” You shouldn’t stare too long at a ghost.

Leyya: “This feels wrong. What I want to show you is not here. Let’s go. It feels wrong.” Me: “Okay, let’s go.” You shouldn’t stare too long at a ghost.

Beyond knafeh, I pause right now to think about it as I write (so so delicious), the highlight of this day’s journey is a talk at the Detroit Artists Market. A contemporarily rehabbed building sitting not too far from the Wayne State Campus, the Artist Market is hosting an exhibit featuring the work of musicians who also create visual art, the I’m with the Band exhibit: a sprawl of images that range from the surreal to the graphic to the comic to the still-life. During our visit, the Market is also hosting an artist talk featuring Tashif “Sheefy McFly” Turner. Let me walk you through this event. First, you are greeted by high-level, arts-event snackage–fruits, patissiere, delicious beverages. So you help yourself to those delights and then you enter a space filled almost exclusively with black folks there to celebrate Detroit black arts and Sheefy McFly. The artist talk with Sheefy is specific to its community, rich in backstory, rich in actual conversation, rich in call-and-response, and rich in a display of follicular wonder. Sheefy’s mom, sister, and auntie come in about halfway through, and they are greeted and loved. An easel stands just behind Sheefy so that he can paint as he talks, and a DJ curates a live soundtrack to underscore the conversation as well as Sheefy’s work. and, anD, aND, AND, Sheefy’s stylist gives Sheefy a fucking fingerwave during the talk. Sheefy: “I theorize art with my stylist, so I want him here for this conversation.” The stylist rarely enters the verbal conversation, but with a nod of his head or a gesture with a comb, everyone knows what he believes about the point at hand. It is the single most effective artist talk that I’ve ever witnessed. Audience members see the event as a genuine opportunity to uplift their community; language stays approachable; there is a ton of laughter; there is a ton of “remember when.” It is the first time I witness an artist talk successfully create a space that looks, sounds, and feels like the artist’s own local practice. An uncolonized artist talk. I mean, a finger wave. A FINGER WAVE. A beautiful performance to witness.

It is the first time I witness an artist talk successfully create a space that looks, sounds, and feels like the artist’s own local practice. An uncolonized artist talk.

This day we also go to the Whole Foods to secure happy hour prep for tomorrow. Let me just say that the Detroit Whole Foods is not a bastion for salsa ingredients, and I have very particular thoughts about salsa. But we make do. At the Whole Foods, we also buy facial sheet masks, and to close the day, Leyya and I sip chamomile tea and watch Sex Education as we lounge in our facial sheet masks.

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Read Part 3

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.