July 17, 2015

7/17/15 – Happy Birthday, Toby! (and also a bunch of angry ranting)

Artist: Toby Millman

Location: Maine Street Restaurant, Hamtramck


TM – Coffee (w/ cream), French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon

SRS – Coffee (black), French toast, eggs over hard, sausage

It’s Toby Millman’s birthday today, so breakfast at the Maine Street Restaurant is on me. Though located on the main street of Jos Campau, Maine Street has its own unique approach to either spelling or branding, and is in all ways a satisfactory greasy spoon-type diner. We covered a few personal topics—Toby’s impending move to Massachusetts for a teaching position, the importance of diligent dental hygiene, how I sometimes cannot differentiate between being angry and being passionate—but the main thrust of our conversation was around two articles have have a lot of folks in Detroit talking right now, and triggered an angry screed I posted on Facebook last night.

There’s Last Stop on the L Train, an infuriating piece that I think Casey Rocheteau has the definitive word on. And then there’s this piece, about “Detroit artists,” which manages to gloss Nick Cave’s massive all-city project, Dabl’s Bead Museum and Sculpture Park, The Heidelberg Project, and Robert Sestok’s City Sculpture opening into one big, context-free mess. Both of these pieces ran in the New York Times.

Okay, here’s the thing: there is no one, not one person, who can come to Detroit and “get it” in the span of a weekend, a couple weeks, a month. Not in years. This place is layered, it is dense, and it sinks in slowly. Midwesterners are not self-promotional by nature, and the ones who step up to talk to reporters are not always the ones with the best stories. I have been here for six years and am just beginning to accrue enough context to talk about anything that happens here. I realized this first and foremost as a photographer; in New York, I was always compelled to zoom in, trying to catch microcosms within all the visual chaos. In Detroit, I found myself ever-wishing for a wider-angle lens, because it’s not just the thing, it’s what’s next to the thing. It’s what’s down the block. It’s what used to be there, which you won’t even know until you notice the woman sitting on a porch across the street, like she has every day for the last 20 years. She can probably tell you a thing or two, if she doesn’t think you are a complete cretin.

I remember when I first came here, fresh from New York. It is hard to understand, coming from a place with such strong infrastructure, how deeply the city systems have failed the people they are meant to serve. What does jump immediately to the forefront is the generosity of spirit, the human infrastructure that has built up in its place. Sure, City Sculpture is cool. But if you have actually gone through the process of trying to buy lots from the city, get projects done here on an artist’s “salary,” it goes beyond cool to something fucking astounding. Robert Sestok’s work is a triumph of the human spirit against a lot of odds, and I say as much in the piece I wrote for Hyperallergic. How do I know? Because I have watched him work for YEARS on this project, tireless and basically uncomplaining. Because I have seen how much he gives to everyone around him, how this project is built out of the living fabric of Real Detroit. Not a bunch of out-of-town start-up money. I remember him expressing frustration when he had to delay pouring concrete pads for his sculpture park, because all the new development projects had literally used up all the concrete supply in the area. I know, because I have personally gone through a three-year process to buy two vacant lots to protect my community garden, which has been there for seven years and was, until recently, at complete risk to be the collateral damage of “progress.”


Toby knows, too. When she expresses her mixed feelings about leaving Detroit to pursue a great opportunity while apparently everyone else is flocking here in search of that same sense of opportunity, I know what she is saying. And I also know, because I came here six years ago, as cocky and self-serving and spiritually bankrupt as anyone else who survives in New York City: those people have no fucking idea what they are getting into. If you are very lucky and pay a lot of attention, you will be affected by this place. If you are not, someone will probably take your iPhone and your catalytic converter, and you will probably deserve it.

I should emphasize that I’m not speaking for Toby. And on my better days, I am a tireless ambassador for Detroit; I hope this city can get a tax base together that enables it to really serve the people here who most deserve it. But those people aren’t ex-Brooklynite hipsters, and they aren’t students, and they aren’t even the artist community I love so much. They are the folks in the neighborhoods, who have hung on through unimaginable circumstances—circumstances that, make no mistake, were orchestrated to starve them out. If you aren’t prepared to honor the existing Detroit community, take it into account when you make your plans of a new empire, then stay the fuck away. People here have lived through enough damage.

At very least, and for very starters, try seeking out some Detroit voices. Some people who have been here, like Marsha Music, who speak truth at great personal cost, like Gary Wagaman, who seek to preserve the untold stories, like Lauren Hood. The money that you spend expensing reporters to make superficial clickbait coverage would change our lives, would change the story. I am talking to you, NYT. I am talking to anyone who comes here to implement ideas without taking some time to understand the lay of the land.

Anyway, Happy Birthday, Toby Millman. You are one of the best, a real Detroiter, and everyone who knows you is sad to see you go. Thanks for saying that I’m not just angry, I’m passionate. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to tell.

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