Act: Detroit

May 12, 2004 at 12:00 am

It’s the first 80-degree day of the year and a curious one at that. I’m taking a lazy late-afternoon stroll down Cass, Second and Selden, Forest, Canfield and Warren, cutting through apartment complex communities and new condo parks, picking flowers up off the sidewalk, filling the petals with water from a sprinkler and sipping from them. I probably shouldn’t have reached out to touch that hot sidewalk steam vent.

It seems too early to be slurping ice cream cones, the mess dripping down the creases of our laughing mouths as the setting sun reflects off the Fisher and RenCen buildings.

I should not feel as good as I do. There are so many things wrong, both throughout the world and close enough to touch. But — damn it — I feel all right. Because on this late April early evening, after a long day of unseasonable sunshine and following a pleasant walk through the Cass Corridor, I’m inside a red garage without an address in an alley off Willis and Trumbull, looking into a painting by Kathleen Rashid of the same silver spaceship sidewalk steam vent I saw just an hour earlier, and the synchronicity of life is clicking in my head like a million little summer cicadas waking up from winter.

Rashid’s is one of many works by four artists on exhibit at Alley Culture. Her paintings are thoughtful: lamplit landscapes of her surroundings, a little red car motoring down her street, a man bundled for the cold, walking. She paints the view outside her window, the panes and ivy obscuring her back yard. She paints from the outside, looking into a neighbor’s window, green bottles glowing from the sill. She paints a close-up of the window lock, the curved groove that allows her to close off the world or invite inside a cool breeze.

The show begins with Steve Panton’s digital print of the Rouge Plant seen from the Miller Street bridge, with a Diego Rivera rendering of Henry Ford double-exposed on top. Many of Panton’s works on display present multiplicity — mosaics of multiple “empty” green fields or former banks reconfigured into pizza joints. Others are timelines, zeroing in on the city blocks of Milwaukee, Brush and Buchanan, and listing from the late 1800s to the present the businesses on those blocks. From dentists and grocers to saloons to places of worship to vacancy.

Then there are the landscapes of New Zealand’s Fiordland lakes and grassy hilltops juxtaposed with Detroit’s “Ford land” of concrete, overpasses and Malice Green memorials.

Bec Young’s stencil-on-blueprint works portray workers painting, digging and laboring, while roughly Rubenesque characters rest and sigh. The scenes recall the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Rivera mural, with recurring themes of labor and semi-passive observation of that labor.

Rebecca Cook’s black-and-white photographs chronicle common views of neglect and demolition caught in uncommon moments of meaning. The Reuters photographer has a clear journalistic eye. She explains her piece, “Richland USA, Cass Corridor 1980’s,” in an e-mail, saying that the large apartment buildings half-torn down in the 1980s were once luxury buildings that were divided into small units after World War II because of housing shortages. The buildings that she uses as imagery eventually became low-rent flophouses inhabited mostly by men. In the photos, the buildings are exposed like dollhouses, because of their half-demolished state.

“… In the rooms there are still beds, dressers, remnants of people’s lives. One half-torn building has on top a billboard that is for cigarettes. It says ‘Richland USA.’ I think that says it all.”

Her work portrays activism — a woman caught mid-yell during the Ban the Burn protest of the city incinerator in 1987 — and the unique character of Detroiters in a series of shots from Dally in the Alley.

And that character is unique. It’s characterized by institutionalized oppression, redlining, overcrowding and a stable neighborhood of doctor’s offices, grocery stores, world-class music venues and individuals’ livelihoods being paved over in the name of “urban renewal.” It’s characterized by another neighborhood full of more families, churches, businesses and history being displaced to make way for a factory for more cars to be built to speed more people north, south and west across the freeways to the suburbs.

And 20 years after that, cool city condos sprout through the cracks of crumbled decay, building a new layer over time’s tired, tire-popping brick dust, their hefty price tags threatening to displace the folks who made the place “cool” in the first place. It’s easy to get lost in the numbing gray of a debate over what is or isn’t smart development. And what will or will not help to halt tax-base erosion. But if your home is being bulldozed or your irreplaceable talents are being marginalized in contract talks, it’s nearly impossible not to scream foul.

Still, beauty inevitably emerges and activists will fight to preserve that beauty and artists will continue to add to it. This combination of work from these four artists melds into a colorful character study of a city forced into action. In a time of worldwide confusion, the artists succeed in creating a pause — forcing the viewer to step back and recognize how the past has formed the present. And that pause just might be long enough to reroute the future, at least a little bit.


Alley Culture’s “[chill] a look at this side of the fence” is up through May 22. The space is open from 3 to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and can be found in the alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, south of Willis in Detroit.

Melissa Giannini wanders, thinks and writes for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]