Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Being an artist (and a citizen) in and of Detroit

Memorial Day flags at Historic Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit
Other artists and writers I am sure can relate to the feeling of being "stuck." For me, this was a stuck week. Some of it has to do with having lifelong depression (which can be oft-quelled but never shooed from the yard for good), some of it the fits and starts of both long-term and short-term projects and the sometimes huge cycles of not-doing that have to accompany the frenzy of doing in turn. And perhaps some of it has something to do with being in a lurch of life, not knowing where I will be making my living and being more than a little at loose ends with myself at a strange crossroads in middle age. Being stuck. Becoming unstuck. Jolting myself forward from stuckness to renewed creativity. What is your formula? My formula is pretty simple. My formula is to drive around my city on mini-vacations, road trips 15-minutes at a time, location-scouting and eyes-open wonderment of somewhat varying amplitude and oscillation...something like this: 
"Sumafasores" by Gonfer - en wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Today, for the sake of this post, my wandering was blue.

And today found me in one of my favorite spots in the city, inside the gates of Historic Elmwood Cemetery. For me, cemeteries in general are a place of sublime quiet and reflection. I like a cemetery full of mixed-up architecture, more than a little historical intrigue, some shady spots for sitting and thinking, and one that is a good cross-section of the area where they are located. And I always seem to end up there when I need to get grounded, no pun intended.

After a rainstorm this afternoon in which I ran errands, the sun started to come out and I decided to hit the road to see my old friend the cemetery. But, me being me, I was running a little on my own clock (cue Steely Dan's "Time Out of Mind" as the soundtrack here, but ignore the heroin references, kids). And, thus so, I arrived at the front gate at seven minutes til 7. The security guard was getting ready to lock the place down. "You know we close at 7?" "Yes," I answer sheepishly, "I was just hoping to get some photos of the Memorial Day flags on the graves." "Well, OK," he answers, a little begrudgingly, "but I want you out of here by 7." So he let me through the gate for a quick drive. 

Inside, the place is much more vast and circuitous than you could imagine from the road outside. It ranges up and down a few small hills and has some quite nice in-ground mausoleums. But I was on a mission. Flags. Photographs. 7 p.m. And then I found the above photo, right next to the road, festooning the resting place of a WWI veteran and in front of a lovely line of monuments of varying age. It was bright, it was hopeful, it was what I was looking for. The intersection of life and death in a place remaining still where things are moving at a crazed pace all around. Less than a block away, 2,000 bicycle riders from Detroit Slow Roll were filling police-closed streets before riding the heretofore unridden by cyclists en masse track of the Belle Isle Grand Prix which takes place this weekend. It is a huge deal. And, in true oppositional form, two blocks in the other direction is the scene of a recent local tragedy. A young mother was discovered, unthinkably, to have the bodies of two of her own children locked in a freezer chest while refusing to admit they were even missing. Celebration. Tragedy. Bounty. Devastation. Detroit never seems far from having dichotomy in every single situation.

And, letting this wash over me in the quiet of the otherwise empty cemetery, I feel the jolt of rebalance. But within this sphere of thought, I can't help but wonder what is next up for Detroit. There is a huge land-grab going on here by entrepreneurs from L.A., NYC, Berlin, Sao Paulo, "otherwheres." They all want a bite of what artists and musicians have found to be true here in an affordable and very supportive community of hive-minded individuals working our tails off to unblight a vibrant infrastructure and to prolong the history of all arts in a city rich with texture and talent. But living here is something that has to be experienced and "earned" in both street-cred and hard-knocks. It is the secret handshake of the property crime. It is the slitted eyes of we-never-had-working-streetlights-before. It is the familiar fear that the great-grandparents living in that one house on the block might freeze to death if someone doesn't check on them during the next cold snap. You have to live here to get this, to BE this. And to see property snapped up left and right to people who are hoping to build expensive downtown utopias and serve $20 hamburgers to hipsters, well, they haven't gotten the memo yet that, in tattoo terms, if you haven't paid your dues in other ink first you haven't earned that right to ask for a full sleeve. We may very well have bitten off more than the city can digest and this could be a very bumpy couple of decades ahead. 

All this, rushing through my head full-force, on my 4 minute drive back to the front gate where the security guard waits patiently in his car to let me out of the closed gate at 7:05 and call the place secure for the night. I thank him abundantly for being patient and letting me in at the last minute. "Did you get your pictures?" he asks, smiling. "Yes! It was just such a beautiful evening and I love the late evening sun on the flags. The cemetery is just so beautiful after Memorial Day!" "It sure is! Now, are you sure you got all your pictures?" "Yes. I am all set. You have a great evening. Enjoy this lovely weather!" "You too, young lady, you too. Have a Blessed day!" And with a click of the remote control gate, I am back on the road. The floodgates of art are open, the floodgates of Detroit are open, but the cemetery is all locked down overnight because, in true Detroit form, if you don't lock it up tight, someone will steal your $^%# in a heartbeat. 

No comments:

Post a Comment