16 Oct

More Questions About Detroit (And Other Places)

In particular, indigenous peoples and people of color become the occasion by which the white subject can self-reflect on her/his privilege.” – Andrea Smith,“The Problem With Privilege.”

The post I wrote over the summer about Detroit was nicely picked up by Culturebot, and was praised by a lot of my friends. Soon after I put it online, I had a conversation with a colleague in that city – also white, like me – and a longtime activist and artist. We discussed a few gaps I might have left open, a few questions I couldn’t answer, or oversimplifications I might have made. At the same time, I noticed that most of the people visibly approving or championing the post were white.

I wonder how my point of view was impacted by the access I have to certain forms of societal opportunities as an educated white person of some means. By ‘some means’, I’m specifically talking about the education I had, and the access to social and job networks granted to me by my education, and other opportunities. No, I’m not rich, but money isn’t everything.
In the last post, I wrote about artists I’d met through the Kresge Fellowships, for whom I teach a yearly workshop. My Detroit friend and colleague pointed out that, while the fellowship is of tremendous value there, the language of those fellowships – their guidelines and mission – are the language of a particular kind of cultural norm – a mostly white, mostly educated norm. Kresge is, of course, not alone here, but just my closest experience at hand.
These opportunities are great. The people who get the award, all of them, are remarkable artists, all deserving, regardless of their level of access. But as an example and embodiment of the seemingly subtle (but not subtle if you’re black or brown) ways that exclusion takes place unintentionally, without even anyone needing to discuss it, Kresge, like many grantmakers, might have some more work to do. And my practical experience in that one city brings up questions for me about the way many funders and their guidelines interact with diverse communities. I hope anyone reading this from that community can take this inquiry in the spirit of generous progress.
Another way to put it is, in a city that’s 80% African-American, the grant recipients are largely not African-American. Again, it’s not that the intentions or practices of the foundation are excluding black people by design. It’s that they don’t even have to. Nor am I suggesting that the population of grantees should necessarily be an exact reflection of the overall population, just that the disparity seems glaring. A starting point to unpack the problem is this: that the way the grant is positioned and described is race neutral, yet the results of the process are not. Because nothing is.
For those of us in the middle of it, whose intentions are 100% positive, the critique here can be mystifying. What I would say is that, if we should look at the language funders use, and the language surrounding concepts and trends like “social practice”, “community engagement” and “artistic excellence” as being in part specific to a particular set of people, then issues of unintentional exclusion might start to make more sense. Or, put another way, as an African-American colleague said to me at a conference recently, “Social practice. We’ve been doing social practice for a long, long time. We just didn’t call it that. Now we can’t get in the door.”
I don’t know answers for Detroit. I’ve seen and read work by people like Grace Lee Boggs and Invincible, Allied Media and the US Social Forum, as well as smaller collectives and even individual activists like Bill Kellerman. I’ve met and loved the work of artists and gardeners galore, and I’ve been visiting with my in-laws for a bunch of years. But in the larger discourse, I keep seeing a kind of blind adherence or a resignation to market principles (profits over people, business start-ups over needs and services, though perhaps this time couched in a comfortable scruffy hipster coffee shop instead of a casino), and to the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and ‘entitlement’ over justice, equality or democracy.
“…our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.”Andrea Smith, “The Problem With Privilege.”
There is a dynamic and almost dialectical tension in the city that is palpable and painful – between the rhetoric of improvement and the continued desperation; between the fact that people are making things happen everyday that do not conform to what we think of as renewal, but those same people are largely shut out of the official process of renewal and salvation the city proposes. Because those people are engaged in daily acts of renewal, and daily acts of resistance, does not mean they are doing okay. The system doesn’t work in Detroit. Other systems are forming. Both of these facts highlight the ongoing racial scars in our history, our present, and perhaps our future. 

The Questions
I ask readers, especially white readers, the following questions. People of color have been asking them and answering them for a long time. Whether or not you’re in the arts, these are questions I actually don’t know the answers to, and I think they’re worth thinking about. There will not be a test, or there already is.
What do you feel responsible for, politically?

What don’t you feel responsible for?
How do you benefit or suffer because of restrictive offerings?
What is the cost of making politics solely about economic impact?
What is the cost of making politics about ‘the best we can do,’ ‘the sensible solution,’ ‘the most we can hope for?’ What have we lost by our pragmatism?
What are many well intended people forgetting when it comes to race and class, when it comes to trying to remake, renew, or simply re-engage a place like Detroit?
What are the unspoken assumptions about what’s possible in the realm of what we now call “politics’, when it comes to Detroit’s future, and the future of cities in general?
How is the language behind certain opportunities offered by well-intentioned bodies – foundations and government agencies offering grants and fellowships, educational institutions offering new models, bodies politic changing governance to surmount a real problem – restrictive or exclusive to the underclass, however unintentional or covert those restrictions might be?
How are you creating opportunities for people unlike yourself to have the systemic, embodied power that you have?
Do you feel you ought to be doing “more?”
Do you feel you ought to be doing better?
What do you assume to be true about the necessity of the entrepreneurial spirit, the profit motive, competition?
What are the corollary benefits to being white, over and above the color of your skin?
Have you accidentally internalized the dominant rhetoric about poverty?
Does some part of you believe it’s a choice to remain poor?
Do you believe that there is a level playing field?
Further Reading

31 Jul

Dual Economies

My first visit to Detroit, in 1994, was also the first time I caught a glimpse of my future father-in-law John Meyer. He was out behind his church, which was across the street from the now-defunct Tiger Stadium in Corktown. A strong, stern but joyous-looking man in a clerical collar, he directed sports fans’ cars into parking spots before a twilight game. The wind blew dust everywhere in the sunset, and his hand signals made it look like he was invoking the earth to rise.

People from the suburbs tailgated in back of St. Peter’s Episcopal; their small change kept afloat the soup kitchen, the home for young mothers, and even the congregation. Some years, parking for games was one of the top sources of income for the church; a little creative fix for an entrenched and impossible problem.
At a time in which most “solutions” to Detroit’s entrenched problems are punitive and racially biased, three things have remained positive in the nearly 20 years I’ve been visiting: culture, religion and activism. This is the home of Grace Lee Boggs, of Allied Media Projects. It’s the home of St. Peter’s new pastor and longtime activist Bill Wylie-Kellerman, who rebuilds park benches the city tears down, because he wants to make sure the newly minted “historic district” of Corktown still offers somewhere for its many indigent to sleep.
Politics has failed the city. The democratic process, writ large, has failed. The city, economically, has failed. So people make up their own solutions – temporary, imperfect and small-scale. I hope these solutions don’t get lost in the reshuffling of the Detroit’s larger structure and finances.
As Boggs told me when I met her a couple years ago, “Detroit is a city of dual economies.” There is the economy that is in the newspapers, and that continues to deteriorate and oppress. And then there are micro-economies that pop up in a neighborhood, on a block, or even in a single building, where residents take on the basic services a city normally provides, like policing and mediation, water, education, and garbage. Some of these micro-economies serve entire neighborhoods; some exist without knowing others like them are out there.
What Do Artists Know?
In addition to my family visits, I’ve been making a trip every year for the last five, to teach professional skills workshops to Detroit artists who’ve received a Kresge Fellowship. Every time I’ve taught there, there’s been a discussion about whether Detroit’s new cultural visibility, weighed against the continued dysfunction on governmental and economic levels, will propel it forward or set it back yet again. Cultural renewal takes a long time on its own. It does not equal civic engagement, and can easily become instrumentalized (witness many other major metropolitan areas).
This year the questions were especially poignant. The workshop started on July 19, the day after the city declared bankruptcy. There weren’t any hotel rooms within 8-Mile Road because so many officials and business owners with a vested interest in what happens had filled them all. We were all in the city at the same time, which made the divide especially poignant to me. I wanted the financiers all to take a break from the numbers, and stop by our workshop, because I was amazed, as I always am, by the adaptability and generosity with which artists I meet in Detroit deal with so many entrenched and massive problems.
Some of them were relatively recent arrivals who felt the call to be there, wanted to live off the grid in an urban setting; maybe they romanticized the metaphor and then fell in love with the actual place. One started a farm, lives on $6,000 a year and feels like she has enough. Another has a bookshop that’s been open since 1982, and also formed some legendary and rambunctious creative collectives in the meantime. Another made paintings in secret while working a regular job for 30 years, and then opened up his garage studio to the world one day. Yet another has a day job in restorative justice and started writing speculative fiction because, “So much of that writing is about apocalypses, and we’ve already been through our own.”
Now, I know that on a bad week artists can be as dysfunctional as anyone; I know we can be corrupt and scheming, competitive, even cruel. I know many of us can’t do a budget to save our lives. I know that there has to be an official component to any renewal that happens – a restoration of services, of deliberative democracy, of streetlights and ambulances, schools and cops.
I also know that artists make something out of nothing, and, generally, they know when they have enough. Maybe the extreme circumstances of Detroit make that kind of skillset even more necessary to hone than other places.
The way Detroit’s problems have been addressed on an official level has largely been about impositions of policy over people who have already lost their civic voices, the vast majority of them people of color. Even the notion that what will save Detroit is to lure “creatives” there so that they can start up new businesses misses the point. The creativity is already here. It’s so far advanced and so far removed you just might not recognize it as such. This is a post-market city. This is the city we can both help to re-emerge and from which we can learn.
I don’t think Detroit can be “fixed” by a single overarching solution that is seen as the lesser of two evils – I don’t think the neo-liberal consensus-based approach will work here. In part because it’s not working well most of the time anyway, and in part because it doesn’t allow us to do the deeper work of examining why this place has fallen apart so thoroughly, what ingenuity has arisen within the gap, and what we could do differently, maybe in other places, too, moving forward.
As everyone converges to figure out how to cut the losses (which, put another way, means figure out which lives matter least enough to forsake), or how to cut up potential spoils, how to twist the arm of a place already hobbled from bending to the latest slow disaster, maybe people should stop and hear from activists, artists and priests. They’ve been there the whole time.

What will happen if we both start to address structural problems, and also understand the value of daily miracles, even if some of them just work for a single block, and others might be viable for miles? Here’s how you change the tone of capitalism, they could say to us, here’s how create a beautiful light in the dust. Here’s how you use your eyes, your ears, and your mouth. Here is how you make a new city. People are doing that right now, and have been for years. We just may have overlooked it because it doesn’t look like what we are used to calling America, or what we are used to calling progress.
Further Reading
13 May

I Don’t Brand

In the last two or three weeks, I’ve been asked to be a part of several workshops or panel discussions on the importance of ‘branding.’ Know your brand, You Are Your Brand, etc. It makes me wonder if I’ve been doing something wrong, teaching the kinds of professional development workshops I do.

To me, the point of having any kind of business acumen as an artist is to free yourself of the need to be a product. It means understanding that participating in the market is not really a choice but a necessity, but that by doing it with your eyes open, you can ideally make some choices about how that participation impacts you.

The idea that artists need to “brand” ourselves with a sort of motto or image that is supposed to define how we sell our work is counterintuitive to me, as is the notion that we need to specialize. I’ve had a decent hybrid career, albeit one in which some people don’t really know what my work is at a glance, because I have been pretty steadfast in refusing to narrow down what I do too much. Other people help me do that when necessary, with a particular project.

Doing a good budget means you know what your work costs you so you don’t promise too much to your buyers, donors, users or colleagues. Doing a good proposal or Kickstarter means you can raise money you need and make your contributors feel they are part of something great. Negotiating a better contract means you both maintain some control over the important things, and give license to future rounds of artists in your position to do the same. Speaking well in front of people engenders good conversations about the work. And taking advantage of social media can just mean using another tool, or engaging your curiosity. But none of this means you have to be just one thing. It doesn’t mean you’re always trying to sell.

For the record: I think branding is a word that belongs to advertisers and it should stay that way. I find it kind of a shameful word because it conjures up what people do to cattle, and in the past what they have done to other people. To brand yourself, to be your own brand, means to me that you’re a tool of the marketplace. You’re an instrument, rather than an agent. I know I’m a bit of a killjoy with this one. Okay. I’d rather let marketing people brand the work, and leave me to just be a human being making events. I’m fine if it’s confusing to you. I’m fine if you have to spend a little more time to figure it out.

13 Mar

The Times’ Real Estate Section Makes Me Mad

In 2000, I wrote copy at a dot com startup called Fashion500.com, which was either ahead of its time, a dumb idea, or both. It folded about eight months after I got there, and for a few months I got unemployment (what my wife called a ‘Department Of Labor Fellowship’) between freelance gigs.
I was trying to write short stories, as well as monologues. Some afternoons, when I didn’t know what else to do, I picked a neighborhood I’d never spent time in, took a train there, and walked there for several hours. One of my stories, which eventually became a monologue, was about a guy who walks and walks until he knows every street in the city intimately. (I also made a show called Desk about the Fashion500.com, which you can see a few minutes of here.)
During this period, I lived in Williamsburg, near McCarren Park, pre-swimming pool, pre fancy loft developments. I took walks in Jackson Heights and Corona, Sunset Park and Flatbush; I walked in a neighborhood whose name I can’t remember, or which has been renamed, in The Bronx, and even took the Staten Island commuter train to a few far flung suburban plots out there.
I luxuriated in these walks – no talking, no purpose except to see and go. I especially liked being somewhere unfamiliar at the close of a workday, when everyone was returning to their homes. Some people, you could see them letting the workday tension slough off their backs; some people you’d watch steel themselves for what must have been another rough night ahead. Some people delayed the inevitable at a bar. I love imagining what strangers are going through.
I thought of my walks as a way to understand the city more broadly, to take comfort in anonymity, and to calm myself from the uncertain time I was going through, work-wise.
9-11 happened within this period. I walked more, further, than ever in the weeks right afterward. In addition to the grief and horror, the love I felt for the city and my friends, I remember a few specific moments on walks that stand out: the first panhandler to integrate September 11 into his ask (“the attacks left me stranded down here, man, and I need $46 to get up to Albany”); the group of men that gathered quietly to protect a Lebanese barbershop that had been receiving anonymous, threatening calls.
I remembered this time as I tried to figure out just why this New York Times Real Estate article was so infuriating to me and other people like me – especially white artists who’d been in the city more than a few years. 
Maybe it was the assumptive tone – starting with the title – the idea the city was made to be gentrified, that anyone reading would, and ought to, prefer or need high-end boutiques, fancy coffee or organic produce over a dollar store, a bodega, or a big supermarket where the food was affordable and people had union jobs. Maybe it was that you could have read this same article, though maybe a little less brazenly written, 15 years ago, just substituting different neighborhood names. Maybe it was the article’s inherent racism and classism, which didn’t deal at all with the complexity of the changing city – the fact that many have people lived in the neighborhoods detailed here, happily, for many years, without the benefits of hipsters, $5 lattes or skinny jeans. Maybe I just feel less alienated by aesthetics of a dollar store than I do by the pretense of farm-to-table, and waxed mustaches, although I do love the food.
What it comes down to most for me is that this article, like so much that is unspoken within our politics right now, assumed that our current relationship between economics and politics is unquestionable and inevitable. That, when wealthier people move in the streets get cleaned up and the place becomes more desirable, and that is okay, or at the very least, it’s just how it is.
I read the article and I thought, not only has The Times Real Estate section remained unaware of, or complicit in, the gradual dismantling of New York, it seems to do so proudly. Is that journalism?
In the past, New York was more dangerous, financially cracked, and in some ways harder to raise a kid. It was dirtier. The city still ignored its poor. There are many things about the place that are better now. There were just more neighborhoods where more kinds of people could live. I just read and thought, the rich have always had their places. Do they really need the whole thing?
Last summer I saw a talk about New York City’s sustainability plan, called PlaNYC, which is actually a pretty awesome document. It addresses things like green spaces, food deserts, and other issues that actually apply to everyone here, or ought to. But as more of the city becomes prohibitively expensive to all but the most desperate to live here, or those with the most means, my question remains: at what cost, and for whom? If our city is not for everyone then what does sustainability mean?
To come back to those walks. I saw them then as an introduction to the larger world of New York, as an affirmation of my citizenship here. Now I worry that it was actually the city I knew, or thought I knew, bidding itself farewell; that promise that you could find your people, your neighborhood, your barber, your created family away from where you grew up, and still be a train ride away from work.
I know that there will likely always be areas that are more welcoming, and surely this nostalgia of mine, like all nostalgia, is leaving out something important. But when I think of those walks now, seeing people I’d never know come out of the train, awakening to what was about to face them when they walked through their doors, I worry I was watching our city become a shadow. Just one that wears designer flannel and serves better coffee in compostable cups.  

04 Mar

Thought of the day

I don’t care about the amount of arts funding we have in this country. I care about the distribution of resources.

I don’t care about grants. I care about health care.

More on this later.

01 Jan

2013 morning oatmeal anecdote

In our house, everyone likes oatmeal. And for people who know us, “our house” means many different locations these days, as Jo goes through grad school in Illinois and I come back and forth and go elsewhere for work. So the idea of “home is what you make of it” or “home is what you make in it” is especially meaningful.
Whichever place we live in, we do good oatmeal. With sautéed apples and dates, nuts, a little maple. Slow-cooked, fast-cooked, whatever. We are hot cereal aficionados. (Afficionadi?) We have it down to an art and a science. It’s a practice, the thing we do many mornings in a row, regardless of how the day before has left us feeling. It’s totally ordinary and totally celebratory – the idea that the day’s first taste should be sweet and nutritious. It pairs well with other flavors and you’re not hungry 15 minutes later. 
I don’t know what 2012 was. It wasn’t ordinary. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t something I’d like to repeat. It had many, many things worth celebrating, and many, many people came to me through it that were inspiring. Many people gave us their homes when we needed them.
2012 was a lot of work, the right kind if not the easiest. It involved some mourning and some renewal, slivers of light and palpable fear. But we got up at least some days and tried to make the first taste a good one, something on the tongue that would whisper that the rest of the day had promise.
Back to oatmeal. We can make it after any kind of night before. It’s always pretty good. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s a little underdone or wanting. But it gets you back into your life from the dream world.
This morning, Jan 1, 2013, I was up early, so I made the oatmeal. I put a few drops of balsamic in the sautéed apples and figs; I used ghee instead of regular butter, and that gave it a bit more depth of flavor, a little more shine. I let the cereal cool just enough so my son wouldn’t burn his mouth, and I put in some sunflower butter at the end. I didn’t rush but when it was done, it was done. 
While we ate, Jo said I had upped the ante, that I’d brought my a-game, to this cereal. That I’d raised the bar and set a new standard. This thing we tasted all the time had deepened our appreciation for what it could give us. This was perhaps overly flattering, but that’s how we talk to each other when we’re at our best, which I wish was more often.
My hope this morning is that, all year long, we all up the game on our oatmeal. That the daily events  that make our lives creative, tasty and good for us, the ones that combine the pleasing bitter sting of coffee with the salt of a walnut, with the crunch of an apple, with the sooth of hot grain, get better with time, celebrate the ordinary and lead us somewhere more peaceful and more alive.

27 Dec

Against the binary

I am tired of binary arguments on the web. This blog is dedicated to something else. Otherwise you’re just wrong and I’m just right. More to follow.