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Photography

Just say Yes

Despite crime, arson and depopulation, Poletown lives in photos at the Yes Farm

Garrett MacLean’s shot of current resident Andy Kemp.
Bruce Harkness’ late ‘80s photo of east-sider Cicero Whitlow in his garden.
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Published 5/5/2010

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the scene at Detroit's Yes Farm, a tightly knit community kept up by educators, artists and activists on the east side, is positively rural. Out on the urban prairie, the two-block mini-neighborhood is surprisingly intact and attractive, with its tree-lined street and solid old homes. Between a community garden and a fenced-in cornfield sits a ramshackle-looking storefront, inside which Yes Farm organizer Garrett MacLean, 32, and photographer Bruce Harkness, 56, are warming themselves in front of a barrel stove on a brick hearth. Little details, such as graffiti art on the walls, break the illusion, but it feels like a little bit of country within the city.

They're here today to plan the upcoming photo exhibit Harkness has photos in, The East Side Stills: Portraits of East Side Detroiters 20 Years Apart. As the fire crackles, Harkness, a Dearbornite who's been photographing Detroit's urban spaces for more than three decades, explains how he was drawn to neighborhoods like this in the 1970s, when he attended art school and lived in Detroit's Cass Corridor. In fact, after learning about the impending destruction of Poletown in the early 1980s, Harkness felt compelled to document the neighborhood as it was swept away for a new assembly plant.

"I started photographing there in February of '81," he says. "I went over there three or four times a week, all the way until there was almost nothing left. I walked around the streets with a four-by-five press camera and a tripod, and I took over 500 pictures over the course of 11 months."

Harkness' dramatic photos of rows of homes being demolished caught the eye of Wayne State University professor John J. Bukowczyk, who helped him mount a 1986 exhibition at the college. What's more, the professor helped secure grants and stipends for a new, three-year project.

"Bukowczyk came up with this idea of coming to this area, seeking out residents — African-Americans, Polish, whoever we could find — and going inside their homes and doing oral history interviews with them, and photographing the interiors of the house, so that project was called Urban Interiors."

From 1987 to 1990, Harkness traversed the then-intact south end of Poletown — a neighborhood roughly bounded by St. Aubin and Mount Elliot streets, Mack Avenue and I-94 — not just finding subjects but making friends with them. It shows in his warm and dignified photos of Detroiters in their living rooms, surrounded by history.

"I just never had any preconceived notions. You just get out and discover things. Some of these people, their stories are just wonderful. The heart of it is really getting down and talking to these people and having them tell you their life story. I just met a lot of them by chance, by being open to encounters."

In those few years, the Urban Interiors project interviewed 48 people from 37 households and businesses. Harkness is now in the process of digitizing 60 hours of recorded interviews.

While shooting, Harkness discovered the neighborhood's secrets, finding the nascent Heidelberg Project, and being welcomed almost everywhere. Though it's hard to believe, Harkness used to visit the very Yes Farm building he sits in now, back when it was the storefront church of Sister Estelle Laster, her "Soul Saving Station for Every Nation."

"I also probably got into the last Detroit UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) office at Warren and St. Aubin," he recalls. "It used to be a gas station, and I have pictures showing the old pump island that was still there. We interviewed an old guy, the president of the UNIA, Arthur Thomas, who used to stand guard for Marcus Garvey when Garvey would speak. And he lived in Black Bottom, and talked about being elected president of the UNIA. It was sort of like a storefront church, with a raised platform and all these Garvey posters."

"It's very different here than it was when I was over here in the late '80s. I mean, there were a lot of homes here. ... Most of the people I interviewed are gone now, dead, but there are still a few that actually live in this neighborhood that I keep in touch with — including a Polish family over on Grandy. But, when I was working on this project, there were businesses up and down Chene. There were a few closed, but there were restaurants, drug stores, hardware store, bars. But now it's sad, so many of them are gone."

Despite that sadness, Harkness would still drive around the old neighborhood, hoping to see signs of life in the buildings. That was how he found the Yes Farm folks last year. After finding their e-mail, he got in touch and dropped in for a visit at Laster's old place. As he puts it, "I walk in that door the first time in 20 years and get goose bumps everywhere."

Harkness' story struck a chord with the Yes crew, and started a dialogue that is culminating in this show. MacLean, who helps run the neighborhood's community art space — which is only occasionally open to the public — hopes the show reflects a vision shared by the artists and the rest of the small community. Therefore, the show will combine historic photos of the neighborhood — including a slide show of old Kodachrome shots of the hood by Bob Denys — with work by MacLean, Monica Breen and other contemporaries who live here now.

"I think that's going to be a good juxtaposition with Bruce's work, showing people that were here, and that have passed, and then our work showing people that are still here, especially this neighborhood, specifically the area Bruce is talking about. That's one of the areas the city wants to downsize — you know, basically get everybody out of this ZIP code, put them in a denser population somewhere, shut off services — and these photos are showing people that are still here, living here, contributing, creating a community, and it's like, well, these are the faces of the people that you'd be kicking out. These are the faces of the people that have stuck it out, put in the hard work and haven't left."

The East Side Stills are exhibited for one night only, 4-10 p.m. Saturday, May 8, at 5149 Moran St., Detroit.

Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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