DETROIT LOST – A Photographic Trip Home

From time to time I go back to my hometown of Detroit to work on a project. This is an excerpt from a project I did a few years back:

I grew up in Detroit. Southwest Detroit. I moved to Philly when I was 10 and hadn’t returned to the neighborhood, friends or house that I had left behind. I would visit Detroit a few times a year to visit family but we never went back to the old neighborhood.

A little while ago my mother and I decided that we needed to go back. I had such great memories as a child growing up and I felt as though we had abandoned a place that had provided us with such a solid social foundation. At 32 years old I had been feeling as though my life had jumped the tracks at some point and was hurtling down a road that I never quite envisioned for my life. A reclamation was needed and a trip back to the place that had brought me and my mother up was necessary.

I started forging an art exhibit that could be hinged on the old neighborhood. I decided I wanted to tell the story of the vulnerabilities that kids are exposed to from the time they leave school to when they are under the care of an adult once again. I grew up as a latch-key kid in that neighborhood so it only made sense to interview latch-key kids about their experiences and create an illustrative, found-object visual narrative.

I was able to get in contact with the Boys & Girls Club that I had attended as a kid and made the connections necessary to set up an interview with a handful of kids. Plane tickets were bought, plans were set, all good.

We were in Detroit for three days and two nights. The experience was something that was so overwhelming that I find it difficult to organize it all and communicate a linear story. I have decided to share the thoughts, feelings, photos and stories over the course of a few posts. I have set up a new “Detroit” category on the site and will continually add to the section as I get it together.

For now I want to share a selection of photos from our first day.

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The “Bloomer” Club on Livernois Ave. It was much smaller in size than I remember. Or maybe it is the fact that I am 150 pounds heavier than the last time I was there. One or the other.

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I met with five kids from the old neighborhood who attend the Boys & Girls Club. Their ages ranged from 7 to 15 years old. I will be constructing my April 9th solo show at the AhPeele around the stories that were shared during this interview.

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This is a shot from inside the main doors to the club. I thought it spoke well about the damaged and lonely environment that awaited the kids outside that was sharply juxtaposed against the vibrant energy that existed inside the club.

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This portrait of a house lost to ruin is a good example of the hundreds and hundreds of burnt out houses that littered every single block in every single neighborhood.

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If the houses weren’t burnt up or boarded up, they were just gone. Entire city blocks that were once ripe with life and activity are now empty lots. In most areas it truly felt post-apocalyptic.

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It was extremely common to see vacant houses butted right up against houses that are clearly loved and well taken care of. There is an undying sense of pride that Detroiters continue to hold firm. Even in the face of such devastation, people continued to be extremely polite and friendly wherever we went.

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On a Saturday afternoon the streets were empty. On occasion we bumped into a handful of children playing in the snow but for the most part nobody was walking the streets at all.

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It wasn’t just the houses that were burnt, boarded or demolished. The businesses, office buildings, fire houses, police precincts, community centers, schools…. it felt like everything. It became clear that survival in this environment was unlike anything I had seen here in America. There were no grocery stores or bodegas. Only a collection of fast food joints and the occasional Coney Island diner. Simple things we take for granted  like purchasing anything healthy was next to impossible.

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Dogs were an extremely common sighting in Detroit. They seemed to be ubiquitously used for protection and in some cases companionship. Most often I witnessed them in the open, wandering around attempting to scavenge. Feral dogs seemed to be in the streets and around every corner in some neighborhoods. We came across one dog that had died and was laying right on the sidewalk in the snow. Someone had wrapped him up in a blanket. Elements of human compassion were strange to see in such grisly scenes.

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The last house I lived in was on the second floor of the brown duplex you see in this photo. I lived with my Aunt during my last summer in Detroit. About half of the houses are still inhabited on the block. This charred shell of what was once a house that housed many families over many years now was littered with gang graffiti and spray paint markings that were reminiscent of the markings on the houses during Hurricane Katrina. Gang graffiti was prolific. It was on almost everything including houses, schools and churches.

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I have been lucky enough to call a few places home in my life but Detroit will always be home to me. I have a lot to share from this trip and will post on this from time to time. I would love to hear your thoughts, feelings, questions and ideas about Detroit and what it has become, what it was and what it can be. The good people of Detroit are rock solid and resilient as hell but it is going to take a lot of major change to get our beloved Motown back on track. Let’s keep the conversation going….