Photography student Matthew Doyle didn't know any residents of the historic Forest Arms apartments, but he saw a compelling subject when they were retrieving what belongings they could after the Feb. 6 fire that destroyed the Detroit building.
"You just can't help but race over there with your camera and just capture what's going on in your community," says the Wayne State University senior. "You're awestruck by this sense of loss whether or not you know anyone there. It's just kind of an overwhelming feeling."
But as he shot pictures of the victims getting their first look at their former homes since they evacuated them, he changed his approach. Instead of documenting the event, he decided he would feature the people.
He started a portrait project and has photographed about 10 of the buildings' roughly 100 residents. "It just sort of struck me that this was a really great opportunity to put these people's faces with this kind of tragedy," Doyle says. He obtained e-mail addresses from the people he photographed that day, tracked down others and posted a note outside the building about his project, hoping more people will contact him and participate.
He'd like to follow the residents for a while, documenting their lives moving forward, and when he has enough — a few dozen at least, he says — Doyle will put together a show and find a place to host it. He hopes the venue will be near or in the neighborhood south of campus where the Forest Arms is and that an exhibit can raise some money for the victims.
"Hopefully I can continue to help out," Doyle says. "This is about the loss of their homes."
Doyle is among the hundreds of people who are aiding those displaced by the early morning blaze that started about 3:30 a.m. in the 104-year-old building near Wayne State's campus on Second Avenue. It was the only major fire in the campus community in at least 30 years, says Wayne State Police Chief Anthony Holt.
The fire started in the apartment of attorney John Christian Robinson, 47, who died in the blaze. The fire was determined to be of human origin, but it's not known if it was deliberately set or accidental, says Capt. Steve Varnas of the Fire Department's Arson Divsion. Although still technically open, the investigation is at a standstill unless new information emerges, Varnas adds.
With sculpted angels over the main doorway, red and beige brick and wings of apartments surrounding an attractive courtyard, the historic building was an architectural landmark.
Its residents were a mixture of students and professionals. Amsterdam Espresso, an independently owned coffeehouse, and Peoples Records, with thousands of pieces of vinyl for sale, were in the basement.
The building, in short, was its own small community within the campus area.
The American Red Cross Southeast Michigan Chapter provided emergency housing for about 40 people and provided vouchers for food and clothing. The 31 students who lived there received housing, books, meal cards and loaner computers from Wayne State.
"Donations are coming in nicely," says David J. Strauss, dean of students. The school's Hilberry Theatre held a benefit performance of Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues on Feb. 9, raising more than $6,000. Bars are holding benefits. An event at Detroit's Atwater Brewery on Friday raised more than $3,000, says owner Mark Reith.
Brad Hales, who owns Peoples Records, says he hasn't sought any assistance but he was handed $100 at a band's performance last week. He saved about 30 percent of his inventory and is storing it in the basement of the apartment building he lives in north of campus.
"We'll get back on our feet somehow over time," he says.
The nearby First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit collected clothing, household items and cash and distributed it to former Forest Arms residents last weekend. Showtime Records collected money too.
"I didn't expect this response at all," says Katherine Hill, who had a second-floor apartment. "I don't know what else to say. I'm surprised. I feel loved."
Hill graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from Eastern Michigan University in December and moved to Detroit, hoping for acceptance this fall into a graduate art therapy program at Wayne State.
"I just really like the community," she says. "I just like the people. And now everything that's happened, the way everybody is just pulling together, I just can't believe it. It's not something you expect. I think it's amazing that all these people are reaching out, and they're doing so much."
This was Hill's second building fire. Three years ago in Ypsilanti an electrical fire started on the floor above her. But her apartment wasn't damaged. This time, she lost furniture, camping equipment, art supplies, clothes and small appliances.
"I left the fire with my cat," she says.
She's staying with her sister in Westland until she finds another apartment near campus. Last week she was looking at other places along Second Avenue, following suggestions of neighbors who have helped her with clothing and money.
"It's just random acts of kindness. I just don't know what else to call it," Hill says.
Vencent Kirkwood hasn't yet had time to look for another apartment. With his 17 credit hours and work as a student manager with Wayne State's men's and women's basketball teams, he's commuting from his parents' home in Troy.
While attending a Troy High School basketball game last week he received about $800 in donations. "I thought that was amazing," he says. All of his professors except one have called him to offer support, and the Wayne State department of communication where he is a speech major gave him an American Express gift card.
He took some of his salvaged clothes to a dry cleaner to try and get the smoke smell out, but he's not too worried.
"Everything I lost can be replaced," he says. "The memories I have in my apartment with my girlfriend, my family, they're still in my head. They're still in my heart and my mind. I was down the first two days after it but I've got all my family. I've got so many people backing me. Nothing can really bring me down when I've got all this."
Kirkwood is looking for another apartment in the area, hoping to replicate some of the character of his former residence. He's considering a nearby building. "It's kind of historic," he says. "But I don't know if it will compare to Forest Arms."
Donations can be made to American Red Cross Southeast Michigan Chapter, 313-833-2664 or Salvation Army, 313-897-2914.
For more information about Matthew Doyle's project, e-mail him at [email protected].
A two-day benefit for Forest Arms residents and Peoples Records is planned at Bohemian National Home for Feb. 29 and March 1, featuring DJs associated with Peoples and others. More info at tinyurl.com/2yjzpq.Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]