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25 on 25

Detroiters on the last quarter century—and the next

Baranski
Baugh
Cash
Dolata
Fogelman
Howell
Al-Husainy
Invincible
Jaszczak
Jenkins
Keenan
Klug
Leonard
Lin
McGee
McLaurin
Kai
Paiz
Slater
Terry
Triffon
Deluxxe
Uhlianuk
Vaughn
SEE ALSO
More from Metro Times staff

Metro Retro (10/6/2010)
Looking back on 30 years of MT coverage

Metro Retro (9/29/2010)
Looking back on 30 years of Metro Times

Metro Retro (9/22/2010)
Looking back on 30 years of Metro Times

 

Published 10/19/2005

Njia Kai is performing arts director for the Detroit Festival of the Arts; the 2006 festival will be her 10th year in that role. Kai is also programming and special events coordinator for Campus Martius Park, active in summer and after-school programs for city youth, the mother of four, and working on a short feature film, Mama Lee’s House, which was shot in Detroit.

Twenty-five years ago — that’s half my life, you know. I remember when I first got to college in ’72 we had just become the murder capital, and that image followed me to college where people made assumptions about my behavior. It’s kind of interesting how people perceived us. And in the last 25 years that perception has just been internationalized and established as if it’s a legitimate assessment of the city, to the point where people in the city talk down about Detroit.

A lot of times the city and the black community get a rap for the economic depression within the last 20 years in our city, and it’s “not our fault.” However, I believe once there’s a problem all of us need to provide support for the solution, and we’re going to need to look for some creative solutions. Technology and the evolution of industry are not going to let us go back to the ’60s or the early ’70s. We’re going to have to find a new way.

 

Darnell McLaurin, 37, is a lifelong Detroit resident, father of three and a 13-year veteran of the Detroit Fire Department. He runs in Rescue Squad 5, Unit 2, and serves as director of the 8th Battalion for the Detroit Fire Fighters Association.

To get people to move back into the city, you have to be able to offer citizens at least what they pay for. We should make our public services — police, fire, garbage collection, all city services — top in the country. As the biggest fire department in the state, Detroit should be leading the way in all aspects of firefighting, but we’re still working with a department where the equipment is antiquated. We should be the number one haz-mat team, technically advanced in terms of trench rescue, building collapse and river rescue. The role we play now, we just fight fires. But there’s so much more we can offer, and are willing to offer, to the citizens of Detroit.

Now we’re facing the layoffs. Some of my co-workers have been laid off, and the thing is, the people it’s going to hurt the most are the same people who pay our salaries, which is the taxpayers. They pay taxes for police protection, for fire protection, and for the city to be laying off police and firemen is totally unacceptable.

 

Trixie Deluxxe traces the history of her name back to a play entitled Drag, in which she portrayed a female impersonator named Trixie. She added the last name “Deluxxe” because she was a “Deluxxe package.” This drag queen is an icon both in and outside of Detroit; she was the host of the morning show on WDRQ (93.1-FM) for two-and-a-half years, and is the show director of Detroit’s Rainbow Room, where she’s worked for the past 12 years. A successful and avid pageant competitor, she also hosts and emcees at Stiletto’s, in Inkster, and Gold Coast, in Detroit. Trixie lives in Hazel Park.

I think I bring a lot of laughter and lot of fun to Detroit — a lot of smiles. You know, a lot of people still come up to me and thank me. It’s been close to 10 years — my radio days ended in ’98 — but everyone I meet, and everyone who comes to my shows, they always tell me, “We listened to you on the radio.” I would love to do radio again, but I would never go back on the radio to be the butt of a joke. The one thing I liked about WDRQ was that they understood Trixie Deluxxe was a character. And there had only been two female impersonators at that time on morning shows in the entire country — me, and RuPaul.

I do love the metropolitan area. There’s everything: theater, sports, art, the DIA, my family, my friends. I love my job; it’s a family-oriented bond, kind of like Cheers. All the bars I’ve worked at, it’s all the same. I got lucky. Even though being gay in Detroit, I haven’t had that many problems.

I’m free-spirited. All I knew was that I would end up doing something I liked. And I have. I’m making a living performing. How many people do you know who can say that?

 

Tom Klug is an assistant provost and associate professor of history at Marygrove College, and director of the university’s Institute of Detroit Studies. The institute brings together faculty from various academic disciplines to explore the state of metro Detroit, teach about it and promote discussion in the wider community.

People always say, “You’re a historian, so tell me what’s going to happen in the future.” I say, “Jeez, you have as good a guess as I have.” I can approach it pessimistically or optimistically. There are such divisions, such divides here, and that causes me great worry. Can this be a region that just spirals out of control? That’s the pessimist thinking there’s nothing inherent that says the Detroit region has to survive as a vital economic center. So that’s more of a question than a prediction. And then what would the optimist say? We’re all here. We have a lot of activists. We have a lot of people concerned, a lot of people who are fighting, a lot of people who want these things addressed. And I’m a believer that there are moments in history when people are just transformed.

 

Larry Baranski, associate curator for the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Department of Film and Theater, has worked for the Detroit Film Theatre for more than 30 years.

Because of the level of intellectual curiosity in the Detroit community, my past 32 years at Detroit Film Theatre have been incredible. Working in an arts organization in Michigan is extremely exciting, but it’s also terrifying. There are huge shifts in culture happening now, and people are finding sources for their culture that are completely outside old delivery systems. The myriad ways in which people can access films makes it really challenging, but Detroit audiences continue to have a wide-ranging depth of curiosity that makes programming a real joy. We have sold out showings of a documentary film about klezmer music, on Jacques Derrida or even obscure Armenian films.

Theatergoing is about a real art experience versus a virtual one. The presentation in itself is an art form, and any community blessed with a historic theater would be advised to really exploit that. Sitting in an 80-year-old theater, haunted by the ghosts of our grandparents, is a singular experience that can’t be franchised. We’ve done programs that have been the envy of similar museum theaters across the country, mostly because we have had a supportive audience who demonstrates they still feel strongly that film is a vital art form.

 

Vince Keenan is the director of publius.org, a nonprofit that supplies nonpartisan information on voting and candidates online. Keenan, 32, was born in Chicago and moved to Detroit at age 4. He’s lived in Ann Arbor, London and Washington, D.C., and now lives less than a mile from where he grew up in Detroit’s Greenacres neighborhood, just south of Eight Mile.

I remember distinctly the optimism that my parents had when they moved back from Chicago about 25 years ago or so. The Renaissance City was the theme, and it seemed like things were just about to turn a corner. But I feel in a lot of ways Detroit’s been about to turn that corner for a lot of the time I can remember.

Being a Detroiter is a labor of love. I talk to people who live in New York or London or Chicago, all these places. They want talk to you about what’s so great about their place. And it’s not that there aren’t great things about Detroit, but the thing that really binds people to this city are the intangibles that sometimes are really hard to communicate to people. If you don’t know it you can’t relate.

I think that Detroit has suffered from being a very isolated place that was known externally for very exclusive reasons, be it the automobile industry or music or whatever negative reputation it may have had. I think what the future holds is greater accessibility to the rest of the world by Detroiters and greater accessibility to Detroit by the rest of the world. I guess I would say the Internet is one aspect of it, but I think that successive generations of Detroiters are going to have friends that they correspond with all over the country and all over the world on a much greater scale than in the past.

 

Imam Husham Al-Husainy, 51, of Dearborn’s Karbalaa Islamic Learning Center, is the spiritual leader of about 5,000 metro-area Shi’ite Muslims. He has lived in Michigan for 25 years.

I have been in Dearborn for most of the time that I have lived in Michigan. When I first came here, many of the stores here on Warren Avenue were closed, with their windows boarded over, as if they were preparing for a hurricane. Things are better now economically, in part because many people here from the Middle East have opened their own businesses. Politically, I think, things are better now, too, and also socially. This is one of the main areas connecting America to the Middle East. We are like a bridge, and also a window, where both sides can see each other closer, communicate, and understand each other better. There are so many people here from different parts of the world, and we give a good example of how Christians and Muslims can live together in peace. It is happening here, and not over there.

Here we are living with each other, believing in each other, loving each other. No doubt, it could be better. The government could be making a better investment in this community, and making better use of the people in this community, not using them as its agents or spies, but working with us. This area can be a great station where all nations of the world can learn. If we use this area in the right way, to learn about each other, and test the positivity of that, we will have a brighter future. But if we abuse each other, we will have more barriers. It is up to us to learn to use what we have, not lose it.

 

Jonathon Baugh grew up in the Bloomfield Hills-Birmingham area, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in science and technology policy, and a master’s from U-M’s School of Information in information economics management and policy. He’s now program manager for the school’s Community Information Corps, which addresses issues like the digital divide, and puts the school’s principles to work in the nonprofit sector. Baugh lives in Ypsilanti, and is 24 years old.

The Detroit metro area has always been very industrial, a hands-in-the-dirt sort of a place. And you see times change, and see the auto industry kind of falter, and you see technology start to move in, and there are different places that are very much trying to move into that tech sector. The University of Michigan and other universities around the area are playing a big role in trying to bring the area into the 21st century and beyond.

You think about the rate at which computers get faster and bigger and better, and it’s almost impossible to project how that’s going to change our lives in 25 years. Twenty-five years ago you could work on any car that you had. Now there’re so many computers in cars that you can’t just do that. I think you’re going to find technology becoming more and more ubiquitous; already you’re seeing washing machines and refrigerators that are connected to the Internet. It’s hard to think what the next 25 years are going to be, but with the effort being put forth in southeast Michigan, we’re definitely gong to have a lot of that socio-technical expertise, and that’s going to be the leadership to try to push things forward.

 

Elmore Leonard is the internationally admired author of some 30 novels and scores of short stories, nonfiction articles and screenplays, many of them set in Detroit. Born in New Orleans in 1925 and settling with his family in Detroit as a child, Leonard knows the town, its history, its people and its sound. For this, he was long ago christened “The Dickens of Detroit.” He lives in Bloomfield Village, and is far more interested in talking about the Detroit of his youth than the state of “the city primeval” today.

We lived on Seward when I was in grade school, five blocks north of the Boulevard. I would walk up to the grade school — my friends lived around there — and we played in Woodward Avenue, in the street. We played “hot ass” — “hot culo,” it was called. You hide a belt and whoever finds it gets to hit as many guys as he can with it until you get back to the base. Downtown in the ’40s was alive. I don’t know how you would compare it to other cities of its size, because Detroit has always been a neighborhood town; people would go to bars in their own neighborhood. But we’d go downtown. People would go to the Statler on a Saturday afternoon and have a dance, a “tea dance,” it was called. We’d go to black clubs downtown. I liked Sportree’s, on Hastings Street. They always had jazz up on a stage behind the bar. We’d go there and talk to the entertainer, whoever it might be, then go to this blind pig with him on Orchestra Place.

I have absolutely no idea (about the future of Detroit). Casinos aren’t going to do it. Gotta get manufacturing here — that’s the kind of town it is, a working man’s town, or it always was. They put freeways in and 700,000 people left town. I’m so used to it, there’s no reason to flee. This is where I live. I’m looking out in my backyard right now and it could be anywhere in the United States. The swimming pool looks nice and the tennis court — although I’m starting to slow down a bit. I haven’t played all summer.

 

Swintayla (Swin) Cash is a 26-year-old 6-foot-1-inch forward for the Detroit Shock. She grew up in McKeesport, Pa. While playing for the University of Connecticut, she earned a communications degree and two national championships. She was drafted to the Shock in 2002 and played for the gold metal winning USA Women’s Basketball Olympic Team in 2004. Her charity, Cash for Kids, raises money for youth agencies and schools serving children in metro Detroit and her hometown. She lives in Rochester Hills.

When I first came to Detroit, I had to speak at the Ryder Cup luncheon. I was just a rookie, but I was there with guys like Joey Harrington and Robert Porsche and the mayor. While talking about my experience coming to Detroit, I just blurted out, “You better bring it. They like winners here.” I grew up in a blue-collar city and Detroit reminds me of that. I believe it’s headed the right direction with a vision for the future. When I first got here, the city was up and coming, but over the past few years, the change has been more remarkable, than I would have thought, downtown especially. There are so many opportunities at a time like this, when everything is changing.

I really see Detroit as a diamond in the rough. As a person who comes from a family of strong women, I know how important women in the community can be. Another thing that I have noticed about this city is that you run into a lot of genuine people. When I’m at a fashion shoot in L.A., I only see one face. In Detroit, there are so many different faces — I think that’s more important than we know.

 

Shea Howell, 59, is an activist who came to Detroit in the ’70s and never left. She’s the co-founder and co-chair of Detroit Summer, a program that introduces young people to community groups trying to rebuild the city. Howell is also a board member of the Michigan Citizen, the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, and Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse. Howell teaches communication at Oakland University.

I think in the last 25 years, Detroit has endured the disappearance of the industrial power of the country, and as a result we’ve had extraordinary devastation. But we have also had an extraordinary opportunity, because we are at a point where we’re able to see that the kind of mass employment that heavy industry provided is no longer part of anybody’s future, so we no longer have any illusions about the sort of new thinking that’s going to be required for our citizens to have a quality of life and be productive and vital.

We have the possibility of creating a city that would be truly self-sustaining and self-reliant, in that we could raise our own food in healthy and productive ways. Some of that is already being done through Detroit Agricultural Network, through Urban Farming. We have a vibrant arts community, particularly among young people. I think anyone thinking about the future realizes that the arts are an important part of new economies.

I had an interesting experience when the empowerment zone started. I went to a meeting for innovation funds. There were 500 or 600 people at that meeting, all with ideas, all of them based on something they were already doing. There is so much creativity in the city. With just a little bit of resources put their way, it could take off.

 

Jerome Vaughn, 40, was born and raised in Detroit. As the assistant news editor at public radio station WDET-FM, he consistently produces award-winning coverage of the metro area.

Compared to 25 years ago, I think the city of Detroit is in a remarkably similar state in the sense that we’re still at a crossroads. In 1980, the auto industry was not doing well, and it’s not doing well now. There were questions about the city’s finances then, serious questions, just as there are serious questions now. That’s what really strikes me — that we’re at this point again. I don’t know of other places like that, places that are so often at some crucial point.

Some things are better. At one point I went to San Francisco for three years, and after I came back — it must have been about 1990 or so — there was one night, about 10 p.m., that I laid down in the middle of Woodward. Literally. And I had no fear of being hit, that’s how completely deserted it was. Now, the downtown at least is on the upswing. It’s encouraging to go downtown and see people, not just from 9 to 5, but at night as well.

As for the region as a whole, something has to change for us to do well. From my vantage point, the racial divide has gotten worse. I think people are so caught up in their own circumstance, their own neighborhood, their own city or suburb, that they miss the big picture. This division we have is hurting us, and it’s not just hurting us in a business sense. It’s also hurting us on a personal level.

 

Jay Dolata, 28, is the community relations director at Brogan & Partners, a Detroit-based advertising, marketing and public relations firm. He serves on the boards of several community organizations, including the Council of Asian-Pacific Americans (CAPA), the Heidelberg Project and Create Detroit, a nonprofit organization working to enhance Detroit’s creative and entrepreneurial community. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., he moved to Birmingham five years ago, and intends to stay.

Detroit is my playground; I love to explore the unexplored. This is a raw, industrial space, and a lot of it is very unexpected. There’s always something new to see. One of my favorite things to do is to visit the new bars, clubs and restaurants. I like to try everything at least once. When I moved here, I found it was very easy to make new friends. People here are fun and easy to talk to. California was a lot more diverse, culturally, but this city will become more varied if we develop the communities downtown to attract more people. Detroit has done a great job of developing district, but I’d like to see that effort carried on to communities like Woodbridge, Lafayette Park, Midtown and the Heidelberg Project. It’s just a matter of making this area more profitable. We have so many resources. It’s a matter of collaborating regionally. Detroit is more than the city itself, it’s this region. It has so much to offer. I think that’s why I’ll never leave.

 

James Slater, 49, a native Detroiter who lives in Southfield, owns McArthur’s Place, a barbershop in the basement of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center — otherwise known as City Hall. He says he moved to the suburbs in 2003 because he found “better opportunities for less money.” Slater set up shop at City Hall in 1998, but he’s barbered with shops downtown and in northwest Detroit since 1980. Though there’ve been other barbers in the basement shop, Slater is City Hall’s first African-American cut-and-shave man.

In the past 25 years, Detroit has not made as much progress as I think it should have, particularly in the school system. It would have been better if they had concentrated on providing a better education for the students than on their own personal agendas. My biggest hope is to save the school system. I think the city leaders are going to have to put aside their own personal agendas and concentrate on re-establishing a quality of life in Detroit. Detroit has lots of problems. We have a large percentage of residents at or below the poverty line. A lot of the problems stem from lack of educated individuals who are gainfully employed.

Trying to have a business in the city of Detroit is hard to do at times. [My shop] was broken into when I was downtown, and when I was out in Northwest Detroit. That’s one thing I like about City Hall — the security. I don’t foresee anything that could get me to leave this spot. Where do I see myself in 25 years? In Florida.

 

Jeff Terry, 34, is a fourth-generation autoworker continuing the family tradition that began more than a century ago, when his great-grandparents came from Kentucky to Detroit for the burgeoning automotive industry. A lifetime Harrison Township resident, he builds gear sets, axles and driveshafts for Ford and General Motors at the Visteon Sterling Axle Plant in Sterling Heights. There, he also serves as vice president of UAW Local 228.

Detroit has regressed in the past six years. I hate to sound so negative, but Detroit is going to shrink in the coming 25 years. People will be leaving as they lose their jobs. We’re losing all our jobs, they’re all going to go to China; and without the auto industry there is no Detroit — they’re one and the same. It supports everything. What you have to realize is that without the Big Three, Michigan would be smaller than Mississippi. Without the Big Three, there wouldn’t be any Metro Times or anything.

 

Michelle Lin, 24, moved from her native Atlanta to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan in 1999. While studying environmental policy, she started working for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services doing anti-racism training. Between her environmental policy and social justice backgrounds, she was a natural to head up ACCESS’ state campaign for environmental justice, a position for which she was chosen in 2004. Lin lives in the Cass Corridor.

Learning about the city’s history shaped my relationship with Detroit now. I fell in love with Detroit not just because of how people talked about the past, but because of how they talked about the future. In terms of bringing back cities, we’ve tried casinos, we’ve tried the auto industries, and we’re in no better shape. We’re in worse shape.

We have to change our ways of thinking about cities, not wait around for people to develop vacant lots. We have to transform the space, not just physically, but spiritually. We need radical ways to redevelop our communities. We don’t want to be another New York or another Atlanta. Detroit has the opportunity to be something new and different. We need the suburbs. But we need to be respectful of each other. People get resentful when people parachute in from other cities or other states and try to take charge. There’s a huge legacy from what happened in the past. We have to figure out where the stereotypes and misconceptions are and work from there.

 

Chris Jaszczak is the proprietor of downtown Detroit’s 1515 Broadway. He got his start almost 30 years ago as a promoter at Detroit’s Eastown Theatre, and went on to operate Grosse Pointe Farms’ Punch and Judy Theatre, bringing in such acts such as the Talking Heads, Ravi Shankar and Tom Waits. Since moving downtown in 1979, he’s spent more than 25 years on the same block, and remembers when Ron Williams set up shop around the corner to start Metro Times.

Why I came downtown had more to do with what I saw happening on Queen Street West in Toronto, South of Houston in New York, Deep Ellum in Dallas. I wanted to be downtown. I wanted to live in an alternative space. I thought I could contribute to the same things happening here. Downtown was in decline. On the ground floor of the Fox building was a methadone clinic. There were no lights in Grand Circus Park. I could sit in my fourth-floor space in the Madison Theatre Building and watch the cars circling the park, looking to score, whether it was to score a woman or score dope.

But some of the “best” times were those times. In Harmonie Park, you had Detroit Artists Market; you had Paradigm, a multi-arts space with the Detroit-Windsor Dance Company upstairs; you had Bomacs and the Harmonie Park Playhouse; Café Mahogany and Casablanca; all at the same time or closely overlapped. It was a unique artists’ enclave.

The irony is, in the name of moving Detroit forward, they kicked out the artists, kicked the tenants out of the Madison-Lenox, put in a road that didn’t exist to connect it to Gratiot. They run this road right into the middle of it; they boot out the artists. So now it’s really neither an artists’ place nor an enclave, and, over time, by design or by accident, those interesting places are all gone and now we have a sports bar. So which is better?

Even though your little neighborhood may have lost its funk, it does have a multimillion-dollar parking garage that will be able to service all these restaurants and other things. In terms of the greater community, is that not the greater benefit? It probably is.

 

MadelIne Triffon is an internationally recognized authority on wine, and was the first female Certified Master Sommelier in the United States, at the time one of only two women in the world so recognized. Born in Connecticut, she moved with her family to Greece when she was 3, returned to this country to attend the University of Michigan, and settled in Southgate, where she lives today. She’s now director of wine and beverages for the Unique Restaurant Corp.

Detroit is metropolitan Detroit to me; not just downtown, it’s everything: where I live Downriver, where I work in Oakland County, where I used to work for 18 years downtown, the Grosse Pointes. That’s what Detroit means to me. It provided me a venue where I could work hard and happily and grow in my profession. It’s provided me with tremendous friendships over decades. I take it very personally when people bad-mouth Detroit, and nothing makes me happier than when people speak well of us.

One of my favorite things about this town is its combination of work ethic and good sense. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that applies to both the haves and have-nots. It’s one of the reasons I chose to stay in this area. As much as I like to travel, there’s something very grounding about Detroit. It keeps me straight. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t stopped working the [restaurant] floor — I like the people here.

This town has authentic chutzpah. I don’t think anybody’s resting on their laurels in this town. They can’t. But I think the spirit of this town deserves a break. It deserves a flowering, and I can’t imagine that not happening. We’ve paid a lot of dues.

 

Yvonne Uhlianuk is a sheep rancher, producing meat for select tables, and fine wool and woolen goods, at Mt. Bruce Station, her picturesque, rolling property in Romeo. But as Yvonne Gill, a native New Zealander who arrived in Detroit almost three decades ago, she left an enduring mark on the way metro Detroit eats. Cooking fine French food at the old Women’s City Club and the Money Tree downtown, Tweeney’s Café in Birmingham, and Farmer Jack’s gourmet take-out experiment, Yvonne’s to Go, she became known as “the crêpe lady” and “the woman who brought quiche to Detroit.”

I arrived via Canada, came across on the bus through the tunnel. I was married to somebody at the time who was involved in industry, and Detroit was the place you were supposed to go. I came through the tunnel and walked on the streets of Detroit. I had never seen a black person in my life and I couldn’t believe I was walking across the street and all these black people were walking toward me. I had no conception whatsoever of what America was about. I’d never seen television.

It was extremely strange. Later on I met wonderful, wonderful people in Detroit. But really, I wasn’t fitting in because I’m a woman. At the London Chop House, [owner] Les Gruber looked at me and said, “We don’t hire women. You can’t pick up the big sauté pans; you’re not strong enough.”

It was a meat-and-potatoes town, and really still is. But I had my — not a vision — it was the only thing I knew. You’re supposed to eat nicely. And why did the health inspector tell me I couldn’t keep my parrot on the bar? It was gorgeous. I thought everyone should have a parrot on the bar.

It doesn’t matter what you say about America, it doesn’t matter how loud you think the people are — when I first arrived, I thought “Don’t they ever shut up?” It doesn’t matter that you think they have no taste, that they eat bad food, it doesn’t really matter. Because America is the one country in the world where you can prove yourself and make money.

 

Veronica Paiz, 48, was raised in Texas and came to Michigan in 1960. She’s served as executive director of Mexicantown’s Casa de Unidad (Unity House) since April 2004. Currently a member of the Hispanic Advisory Council, Detroit Public Television’s Community Advisory Panel and New Detroit’s Cultural Exchange Network, Paiz is also a former board member of Detroit Focus, a local nonprofit arts agency. She was instrumental in presenting Detroit Focus 2000, a citywide photography festival, at area galleries and institutions.

I feel fortunate to say I’ve seen 25 years’ worth of anything. Looking back, I’d say that I’ve witnessed artists and people of color struggling to survive what would be cultural genocide.

In 1980, I was a hopeful college graduate. There was a vibrant arts community in Detroit. A fairly vibrant downtown, at that time, as I recall, with gallery openings at Detroit Focus and Detroit Artists Market, political demonstrations in Grand Circus Park and Kennedy Square, late-night discussions at Lafayette Coney Island, and jazz everywhere. Fellow artists moved to New York and I stayed, defiantly believing this is the place where it all could and would happen.

Five years later I found myself on a bus to New York, joining the others. After 13 years, I returned to Detroit in hopes of reconnecting with those who had toughed it out here. Some of the toughest were, and are, in southwest Detroit. Casa de Unidad was born 25 years ago by hundreds — hundreds! How many organizations can say that? — of people coming together as one voice, a voice no longer to be co-opted by others.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the doubling or tripling of the Latino population here. Latinos searching for a better life in escape of the civil and political unrest of countries including El Salvador and Argentina. I’ve witnessed that we are no longer the “other.” What I see happening in the southwest Detroit area, and among Latinos throughout southeastern Michigan, is this: The struggle to be the interpreters and presenters of our own lives, the struggle for access to life, not just survival. I’d like to see this city on its way towards being the utopia we — or our parents — hoped for when we planted ourselves here.

 

Charles McGee, 81, is still going. The artist, who founded Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit in 1979, has a solo show this fall at the Scarab Club. His work is in collections locally, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, and internationally.

I’ve been here since 1934. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, Detroit Artists Market was the only contemporary forum. Today, Detroit has a plethora of galleries and other forums for exhibiting art. But just because there are so many more places doesn’t mean the quality is better or worse.

I prefer not to be associated with a gallery. I like to show my work in places that are community-oriented. I just had a show in a library in Huntington Woods. I’ve shown in New York, Paris and Barcelona, but everything and everybody inspires me, no matter where I am.

We need to lose hierarchal positions because they mean nothing. Sometimes I walk around Detroit, and on my way to the studio I have to stop and look at the sidewalk — really look at it. Man may have made it, but nature gave it its patina. That’s why I have students who are 40 or 60 years old, and some children. That creates a much better place for art here than everyone having to go through these academic rigors. The important thing is tomorrow. We can make a mark on tomorrow if we are careful today.

 

Randall Fogelman, marketing director for the New Center Council, oversees its annual Comerica TasteFest, billed as “the premier street festival in metro Detroit.” The under-40 dervish also is founder and president of Detroit Spice Co., selling a variety of hot sauces and mixed herbs and spices with Detroit on the label; director of the Pure Detroit Art gallery in the Fisher Building; and the author of Detroit’s New Center (Arcadia Publishing). He also serves on the board of the Michigan Opera Volunteer Association, and was founding president of Michigan Opera Theatre’s Encore, a fundraising arm for young adults.

I’ve been down here for 12 years, when I moved to finish my undergrad at Wayne. There wasn’t any 24-hour drugstore or a Blockbuster in the neighborhood. And I’ve definitely seen a lot of change. But I don’t like some of the designs of these new shopping areas. They’re very suburban, very strip mall. When you have cities like Novi, Troy and Southfield trying to create downtowns, they’re tearing down strip malls and trying new urban-ish developments. We’re not taking the lessons they learned; we’re building strip malls and being very excited about it. It’s great to have the amenities, but it’s a very suburban style design, with a giant parking lot.

I used to have this theory that sushi is a sign of civilization. Up until two years ago, you couldn’t get sushi in Detroit. I’d travel to other cities, especially as a student, and that was something you’d sort of splurge on. In Detroit, you had to travel to the suburbs.

We need to be the best Detroit we can be instead of trying to be Chicago, Cleveland, New York. We have to come up with a concept that is what it is — a combination of pedestrian and auto. We’ll never have the transportation these other cities do.

 

Johnny Jenkins was born in Louisiana but raised in Detroit’s East English Village. After graduating from Western Michigan University, he came back to the city and in 1996 founded the group Detroit Black Gay Pride Inc., now known as The Black Pride Society. He also produces Detroit’s Hotter than July, an annual black LGBT pride festival, which just celebrated its 10th year, making it the oldest black pride event in the Midwest. He’s also a producer and co-host of the PicNap Poetry Series in Detroit’s Midtown.

When I got out of college I wanted to come back and throw myself back into Detroit and learn it from a different perspective as an adult. When I came back, I guess God decided it was time for me to learn and explore my sexuality, and that’s when I got involved in Detroit’s black LGBT community. Looking back now, I realize now that we lost a whole generation of people to AIDS and HIV. A lot of that knowledge died off with them, and over the past 25 years we’ve had to start over from scratch, documenting who we are, documenting our history.

Despite the epidemic I think the LGBT community has gotten stronger, more progressive. There’s a lot more integration between the white and black communities, so it’s a lot more diverse. Both are willing to be more visible, to come together for a common cause and fight for political equality.

The gay community here is spread out, in pockets — Ann Arbor, Palmer Park, Ferndale. But in Detroit, we’re a lot closer ... now than we were 25 years ago. Everybody’s talking about African Town and an Asian Village. I don’t know if you can have a world-class city without having a visibly out gay neighborhood or community. I don’t know of too many global cities that don’t have one. I think our city would be pretty sterile without one.

 

Invincible moves. The Detroit hip-hop artist is involved with sundry grassroots organizations, and has been known to restore homes in Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods. She runs the queer youth media center out of Detroit Summer, a Cass Corridor nonprofit, and she teaches children. She stages poetry workshops, raps with her partner Finale, and tours worldwide with Platinum Pied Pipers. She did a cred-earning stint in New York City, and penned sketches for the MTV show Lyricist Lounge. The one-time Ann Arborite is fiercely loyal to the Motor City and sees “infinite potential” here “if we choose to use it.”

Detroit’s long history of resistance and transformation is a testament to the will of our communities to create change in the face of despair. You can call it ingenuity, or forced resourcefulness; it’s the innovative approach to everything from organizing to making music that sets precedents worldwide.

Touring with Platinum Pied Pipers and Bling 47 allows me to witness firsthand the love people everywhere have for music from the D. Coming up as an emcee, I sometimes saw a closed-minded, crabs-in-the-barrel mentality. That’s why so many artists left the city to make it, or stayed and burned out. I left when I was 17, and came back four years ago to be a part of the growing community of artists in Detroit who are transforming that crabs-in-a-barrel attitude into relationships of mutual support.

One of my favorite quotes is from longtime [Detroit] community activist Grace Lee Boggs: “Revolution is the liberation of human creativity.” The more we blur the line between artist and activist, the closer I see us coming to the kind of power and vision of collective sustainability that’s going to revolutionize this city and the world.

 

David Bonior, 60, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 2003. He left Congress in 2002 to run for governor, lost, and ended his career in Congress as Democratic minority whip. Born in Detroit, he grew up in Hamtramck and now lives in Mt. Clemens. After serving in the Air Force, he was elected to the Michigan Legislature, where he served for four years before his election to Congress. Since 2003, he’s been teaching at Wayne State University and has founded a Washington, D.C.-based workers’ rights organization called American Rights at Work.

Economically speaking, I think the region needs some really bold initiatives to make the transition in the auto industry. The state is tied to the region and the Detroit area is the main accelerator. In our industry, we should be leapfrogging to hydrogen fuel cells as quickly as possible. It would bring new development to get the infrastructure in place for new technology. I would put our energy into getting there and being the first to get there before the Germans, the Koreans and the Japanese.

I think the most important obstacle for metro Detroit to overcome is the question of race. Metro Detroit has to learn to celebrate its diversity as opposed to fighting diversity which has unfortunately been its history. The sooner it learns to do that, the better the region will be socially, politically and economically.

Too many people don’t bother with their own histories, then they repeat the same mistakes. So education, communication and outreach to each other are critical.

We could start with putting together public transportation for the region. If we don’t do that, we’ll continue to die economically and socially, and there will be constant bickering as a result. People are not going to want to move their businesses into or establish companies in a metropolitan area that segregates itself in terms of housing and education. To be mired in the past along such reactionary and racial lines is to doom the region.

Ric Bohy, Eve Doster, Curt Guyette, W. Kim Heron, Michael Jackman, Nancy Kaffer, Sarah Klein, Rebecca Mazzei, Monica Price, Brian Smith, Andreas Supanich and Ashley Woods contributed to this article. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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