January 2011: I am preparing for my first real visit to Detroit, the city of my birth. I am a Californian, where I have been since age one when my parents packed me into a car to seek fame and fortune in LA. It is strange to be defined by something unknown but when asked if I am a "native" Californian, I answer, "No, I was born in Detroit." It seems time to investigate what that means. So I have come "home" on my birthday to photograph Detroit.

This blog is part of an accompanying journal about the project.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Family By House

There are so many ways in which we are connected, whether by six degrees or by place and interest. In this case, it is "by house."

From 1946 to 2011, the Pinehurst House has seen children born, families in life and death.

Below: 20 January 2011, Maurice Faust/January 1946 My father and me, brought home. I posted a version of this before but with Maurice, representing his family home, it seems so much more significant, adding personality and life to this progression.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Over the Wing, 21 January

On board, waiting to fly home to Los Angeles. My section of the plane is silent so far for I have boarded early in order to get my cameras more safely stowed away

My view: over the wing. As I gaze out in the night, the dark wing obstructing the light and activity of a busy airport, I realize I haven't been on a plane since I started seriously photographing the 747 Wing House, still in construction in the hills of Malibu.

There I walk on the wings, now the roof, and think about how this strange behemoth, an aged Boeing 747, no longer able to serve its initial function, has been deconstructed and repurposed into an iconic symbol of something new, a home. Seen in this new light, it becomes something novel, something contributory to design, to culture. Without the vision on the part of the homeowner, my friend, and the architect, a leader in environmental and repurposing theory, this airplane might have become a few hundred/thousand tin cans.

It took vision and continuing commitment. It took engineers who had to think in a new way, to solve the problems of today - how do we attach an aluminium airplane wing to a structure so that it doesn't quite literally fly away in strong winds? So that it doesn't leak in torrential rain? Other than the building of a log cabin perhaps or the contemporary construction of off-grid structures, most homes require this type of interactive teamwork and a continual stream of invention.

So too Detroit, the home of many.

My "blank slate" is starting to pick up some chalky scribbles. No longer am I that native daughter with no preconception. For the welcoming citizens of Detroit are scratching out for me a design of this city, using their words, their deeds, their memories, their hopes and their mutual love and exasperation. It is there for me to see.

How will Detroit be repurposed, for isn't this what Detroit needs? Vision. Preservation. Encouragement. Investment and commitment.

Sunday, the 23rd, someone walked into a Police precinct house in Detroit and shot four police offiicers. The someone died. The officers survived. Yes, this could have happened in any city today with the violence that is eroding our cities. But violence of this sort so often arrives with questions unanswered. Detroit has enough frustration and anger and disappointment to lay the groundwork for such horror. If those who are there to help and those who will hopefully join in can figure out Detroit, perhaps we can figure out too what we would so like to ascribe only to Detroit but, in truth, is happening all around us.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Day. First Visit. 21 January.

Friday, the 21st of January, cold but sunny. It is a day to photograph with clouds creating ghostly shapes across the landscape, highlighting then hiding.

The day starts at the very top of the Penobscot Building, once one of America's most celebrated skyscrapers and where my father returned in the '60s & '70s to serve on its Board of Directors. From this high, all of Detroit is clean and clear.

From within the Penobscot, the beauty of the details and the glamour of vintage Detroit remains.

On then to peek in at the Guardian Building. The deep and varied reds of this Mayan revival building made of brick, terra cotta and murals is overwhelmingly dramatic and I am not alone in staring.

There is a part of this musing in this first visit that makes me feel as if I am writing a travelogue and in part, I suppose that is exactly what I am doing. From conversation to conversation in just a short 4 day period, with very few photographs taken and even those in a different manner - quick, often in the presence of someone else - I am simply surveying the city with no true understanding of its meaning. It is frustrating in many ways for me as I want to do more yet as I walk or drive - often too cold or, I am cautioned by others, sometimes too dangerous to be alone with my expensive camera equipment - it feels like I am recording. Perhaps this is why as well that I am journaling and that early step is in fact my own little log from which ultimately I'll discover what it is I am hearing; what it is I am seeing.

What is apparent this day from my first visit at the Penobscot and the Guardian and viewing even smaller buildings such as Annis Furs, or the Detroit skyline in general: one can see that Detroit of old was a city of visionaries. The sadness: other buildings constructed with these dreams presently stand empty, many of them of the size and grandeur of the Guardian and the Penobscot.

Beauty needs people to appreciate and explore it and people add their own amendments to beauty when the economy and social system create the right environment to do so. Architecture remains along with an interest to preserve it, but what can preservation do in the stark face of economic disaster? Industrial Detroit remains - a quick peek into the annual Detroit Auto Show presents new ideas from Detroit's main industry - and perhaps finally that industry is taking note of the change it has itself forgotten about for too long.

As I leave Detroit, it is to the hard work already being done as well as the new ideas from individuals, from social interest groups, from neighborhood block clubs and from industry itself that one must look to go forward. This IS happening (see Model D's review of the Ann Arbor Conference that took place today, "Revitalization & Business: Focus Detroit.")

It is inconceivable that Detroit cannot rise again but much as I already am enamoured of the city in this very brief visit, I cannot get Percy Bysshe Shelley's words in Ozymandias out of my mind:

""My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

20 January: Birthday Day Detroit

On my 65th birthday, today 20 January, after 64 years I am back inside my original family home on Pinehurst Drive in the Northwest section of Detroit. I am here through the graciousness of the Faust Family - sisters Mary Faust Hammons and Veronica Faust and their brother Maurice Faust - whose parents purchased this house in 1973.

A remarkable family, with a heritage of four generations in the auto industry, from farmers in Tennesee coming to work the line to college graduates at GM. A family full of activists, teachers, artists. Hard workers, like so many they say are still left in Detroit and if not working now, are ready to do so.

I am here after two full days of wandering all over Detroit, starting Tuesday morning at the Park Avenue House, formerly the Royal Palms Hotel where my father lived from l939 until he married in 1944. This hotel, home of the famous Town Pump restaurant, and other Park Avenue businesses are readying for a comeback.

Buoyed by the morning, I was unprepared for the afternoon where my guide, a photographer and urban explorer drove me from Highland Park to Corktown, to the Train Station, to the Eastside and then the Packard Plant. I know much of this is Detroit history - some closed in the '50s - but the devastation is overwhelming and I am reminded of a film seen years ago with some German friends, the first film filmed in Germany after WWII. Then, as I viewed the protagonist enter a church with no roof and hardly any walls, my friend who had been a child on the streets during the war, leaned over to me and whispered, "These are not sets."

Neither is Detroit a set and the poignancy of these sights is overpowering. I can understand the relevancy of the books of Andrew Moore and of the Marchand/Meffre team for, not only for the sake of Detroit but for the United States at the very least, this part of Detroit is a call to action, not just for Detroit but for all of us to understand what has been happening to our country, slowly, not just in these times but over the years. It is a call to awareness.

Yet at the same time, I could not post last night as emotion overwhelmed me.

There is a reality to what I saw. There are other realities in this complex city as well and my birthday gift today was a day filled with a variety of experiences that again balance some, not all, of what I had seen. This started with a visit with attorney Dwight Phillips whose firm, PfiferWhite, redeveloped the Annis Furs Building, the workplace of my father and a beautiful architectural piece of Detroit.

This view through the 6th Floor windows with cornice pieces.

From there to John K. King Books, one of the largest collections of used and rare books and a lot of whatever else I have ever seen and where I could have stayed forever.

I ended the day with the Fausts at the bi-monthly block meeting of the Henry Jolly Memorial Pinehurst Block Club where passionate neighbors have come together for safety, beautification, plowing their street, and other community activities such as block parties, yard sales and checking in on elderly neighbors. One cannot but come away encouraged how neighborhoods and the strong reinvention of them are becoming an active and essential key to the reestablishment of this beautiful city.

They speak of neighboring block clubs who have contacted them for association. As they say, they are retaking Detroit "block by block."

Although one day remains on this first visit, I must already thank Detroit for this birthday week. The Detroit Regional News Hub has called me a "blank slate," a "native daughter" returning to Detroit with no preconceptions. In many ways that is true and how Detroit, I and perhaps others are defined in this process of exploration still remains unclear but it continues to be fascinating.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

First Real Day

Rainy not snowing, today was about Midtown primarily. Meeting with several here working through their business ventures - a real estate brokerage, an indie bookstore and several stores to supply newer AND older residents, with the supplies, housing and hopefully neighborhoods they need.

Especially at this time of year, the streets are not crowded. In fact, while there are many comparisons one can make between the city of my birth, Detroit, and the city of my home, Los Angeles, cars and urban sprawl among them, what distinguishes Detroit for me is the lack of traffic, automotive and foot.

A beautiful city, filled with noted architecture in business and homes and with noted history both pre-industrial and post, but without the appearance of many people. That said, my conversations today show what one doesn't see from the street, from "outside," is more and more being strengthened from within.

With each conversation, I am pointed in another direction, revealing to me that the landmarks of this city as I explore it are not just my own, but that each person has their own definition of what is exciting and worth seeing in Detroit, a possible direction as I work to find my own focus.

A few quick pics from today, including below the historic Annis Furs/LB King building in downtown Detroit where my father worked as Advertising Director for the Annis Fur Company in the 1940s, the reason he was in Detroit. The fur trade, so I've learned is one of the major reasons for Detroit itself.

The upper photo is a northern view of Detroit downtown, a landscape across the fields of vacant land. Among the various proposals for Detroit and in fact now growing (obviously not in the winter... ): urban farming. The land is there and, in the spring and summer, one can see how this can change a city.

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Detroit

Flew in on a very early flight from LA where it was almost 80 degrees yesterday and supposedly the same today. Here in Detroit the land is covered in snow but sunny and the drive into midtown from DTW is lovely. Loved the huge car tire symbol on the I-94.

Alternating bleak to beautiful on the drive through downtown by an escort from my lodging who stood guard as I quickly captured several quick pics of what remains of what was the Chinatown on Cass Street.

Brush Park as well, but within the glimpses of bleakness are scenics, houses and architecture of startling beauty.

Across the street tonight:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Preparation & Discovery

With only a few shreds of paper, what is left of my parents during the Detroit years is revealing already a new perspective, the city's story woven especially into that of my father whose bachelor life ended during his nine years in Detroit before marriage, my birth and that of my brother who was born just weeks before we left the city for LA.

That story becomes more entangled with each new document or photo. It punctures family myths such as the fact that my brother was just six weeks old - as he and I had always thought - when we drove away from Detroit, now contradicted by evidence showing us leaving almost a month later. Not a great difference but significant in terms of those small details that had built the foundation of our own personal tales.

Part of this is resulting from boxes opened, disintegrating albums picked through as I prepare scans to accompany the Kickstarter funding proposal I had hoped to have posted before I leave for Detroit this coming Monday. The prep is taking far longer than imagined although with the positive outcome that it is draws me into deeper exploration. The words focus me. The images send me on another path.

And as I finalize what to see and do this first trip, my story too is filling in. Adding landmarks. Finding facts. With every call, I learn more about the city. Perhaps there is an analogy to what characterizes Detroit today, especially by those of us who do not know it and who visit/return without preconceptions: it takes these small individual pieces of data, not always connected, each needing to be discovered, understood and then, experienced, to define a city, almost as these personal ephemera - clippings, photos, my father's pilot's log from the City Airport - are expanding the definition of me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Home is key. In researching Detroit these past months and becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the breadth of this city's complexity and concerns, home feels like the natural first focus. It is where I first started and where, again, I will start.

A telling irony: In West Los Angeles where I have lived most of my life, my two childhood homes are now gone, the victims of upscale demolition making way for mini-mansions. Yet in Detroit, so recently notorious for its burned out and empty buildings; the solid home full of hope that my parents purchased a few days before my birth still stands. Even the slanted address sign affixed to the front doorpost remains.

In less than two weeks, on my 65th birthday, I plan to be again in front of my first home. The drawing above was quickly sketched by me in Detroit decades ago while on a music gig at a time when I managed performers.

With luck this trip or next, I will be able to photograph the interior of the house and perhaps the Northwest neighborhood. I have located the owner, a hard-working UAW worker whose work and family generations in the auto industry have been profiled in USA Today in terms of a life characteristic of what is best about Detroit and best about America: Even with economic downturns, the hard work and increasing success and education of each generation. It is a strong story, not dissimilar to mine, and it feels good that this family owns the home.

Thinking of Detroit

The family myth: Nearly 64 years ago, when the moving van from Detroit delivered our stuff to Los Angeles, my father realized that someone had inadvertently packed the snow shovel. He broke it over his knee.

I am thinking of this as I prepare for this month's first real visit back to Detroit, the city of my birth, to celebrate my 65th birthday there and start a photographic project in this place by which I am defined but of which I know little. Is this to be a quirky memory or a premonition, even of so little as the fact that it is presently 45 degrees at 6am near the Southern California beach where I live; the household heat is set to 70 degrees and I have on four layers of clothing?

I was born on Sunday, January 20, 1946 at Harper Hospital in the city of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan where my father was working and where my mother moved to marry him. I was brought home to my parents' newly purchased house on Pinehurst Avenue. We moved to California in 1947.

Some of the above I have just recently learned: The name of the hospital in which I was born; the fact that Detroit is in Wayne County; and that my family home was in the "Northwest," south of 7 Mile Road. Except for a cross-country family drive while a teen where I sulked in the back seat of the car and one quick work-related visit some 20+ years ago when I again sat in the back seat and sketched the family home, I have not been to Detroit since infancy.

I am a Californian, raised within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean where I have remained, listening at night to the waves pounding the beach and experiencing light filtered through the marine layer. It is where I have spent most of my life since July of l947 when I, at one, and my brother just six weeks were packed into a car by our parents to seek fame and fortune in LA where my father, a former "madman" in fashion advertising yet holding a UAW card, planned to start photo labs catering to the film and advertising industry.

It seems strange to be defined by something of which one has no knowledge but the fact of my birthplace has done just that over these years. When asked if I am a "native" Californian, I answer, "No, I was born in Detroit." It is time to investigate what that means.

So I am coming "home" to Detroit. To Michigan. Starting on my 65th birthday, I plan to photograph the city and surrounding areas in a series of seasonal visits with a planned project completion in early July of 2012, mimicking the time period of my Detroit habitation, exactly 65 years earlier.

This blog will be part of an accompanying journal about the project.