a brief visit to Detroit

March 29, 2016

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Last year my partner David Armes of Red Plate Press was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship with which he toured and printed in some of the many letterpress studios in the United States. You can see the blog of his trip (and in effect details of parts of mine) here.

Amazingly, I got the chance to visit him, landing in Detroit during his final week working at open access print shop Signal Return and received the same kind and generous hospitality from the team and their founder that they had extended to David.  On my visit to the printshop I had the pleasure of hearing readings from Anatomy of a Museum a book  written by A.Kendra Greene recently published in collaboration with Lee Marchalonis the Printer in Residence at Signal Return.  The book is an account of getting-to-know the Icelandic Phallological Museum, with letterpress printed cover and mono printed endpapers, the book is well worth the read and purchase of.  Kendra and Lee also read from  their most recently completed collaboration and talked of the nature of such wonderful things happening through residencies and time apportioned.

On a kindly lent bike I got to have a scoot around the city.  I guess partly because the city, built for the car, has a much smaller population than it once did, the roads, wide and empty, are pretty safe to cycle on (though there’s quite a lot of bumps). In other U.S cities  I hear people don’t even dare.  Attempts seem to be made to encourage it in Detroit and I did see other cyclists, especially on the Dequindre Cut, a recently installed cycle route running from the Eastern Market through downtown to the river front.  Detroit also have racks on the front of buses where you can stash your bike and hop on.  Even with oil and gas as cheap as they are in the US cycling has still got to be the most economical option for a cash strapped city.

From the river front you can see Canada, in fact Detroit is the only place in the U.S where you look south to Canada. If you carry on along the front you can cycle the wide bridge to Belle Isle Park.  A leisure island home to, among other things, a nature zoo, aquarium, many picnic shelters, a beach, water slide and the Belle Isle Conservatory, built in 1904, run by the state of Detroit and quite lovely.

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I think this was part of the Nature Zoo

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Having just left a small friendly town in the U.K. I found myself getting the same kind of reception and community vibe from the Detroiters, perhaps again, this is because the population has dwindled and folks feel more inclined. Perhaps Detroit folk have always been warm and keen to acknowledge each other. Perhaps I was just looking for it.

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I certainly passed some places where sadness dwells; empty lots next to grand locked up houses, the vast abandoned Packard factories, Michigan Central Station.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to watch, not only a big powerful city but a city called home, fall like Detroit did.  At least now, it seemed like in many of these places sadness was being met with creative optimism. On the evening we visited The Heidelberg Project  a young troupe of gymnasts were posing and cartwheeling around for a photographer.  I got an excellent walking/eating tour of Detroit Market Garden who offer apprenticeships and run a twice weekly food bank with crops grown across the city.  There are lots more projects like this.  At least in these places it felt like folk were looking to move on and put something back into the city community whilst doing so, I hope it helps.

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I took these photos as the sun went down in Hamtramck a city nearby Detroit, the most ethnically diverse and feeling-like-home city that I saw in the US.  We gawped at the backyard wonders of  Dmytro Szylak along with a little girl and her mum and read in the comments book notes from international visitors.  Perhaps a little noisy and bright for some of his neighbours, but what a joyful gift to leave the world with.