Tuesday, July 15, 2014

After 25 years of growth in the city, the Greening of Detroit comes of age

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 7/15/14 in Model D)

It isn't easy being a tree in the city.

The average lifespan of an urban tree is just 20 percent what it would be in the wild. For every tree that's planted in Detroit, four are lost. A number of stressors contribute to this high mortality rate: compacted soil, nutrient deficiencies, and greater susceptibility to pests. Improper pruning doesn't help matters, and neither do the wounds inflicted by people and machines.

But we need trees in the city, and for more reasons than the obvious ones. Sure, we need them to take our carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen, to provide cooling shade, and to play their part in complex urban ecosystems. Yet a growing body of research suggests that we need them for much more than that. Trees absorb stormwater, helping reduce runoff. They clean the soil. They promote economic vitality, raising property values and subtly encouraging shoppers to spend more time spending money. They reduce our stress levels and might even help reduce violent crime. (Readers ready to dig into some of the research supporting these claims -- and a host of others related to the benefits of trees -- will appreciate this handy resource list.)

None of this is news to the folks at the Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit working to grow a greener, leafier city since 1989. And while the Greening is well-known for its work promoting, planting, and caring for trees, it remains what Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the Greening of Detroit, calls "an organization on the move" and is continually finding new ways to support a more sustainable Detroit.

Monday, April 14, 2014

How It Happened: a conversation with Biba Bell about her apartment dance

Photo by Norman McDonald
(originally published 4/14/15 in Infinite Mile)

For six evenings in late February and early March 2015, dancer & choreographer Biba Bell performed It Never Really Happened (Part One) in her fifth floor, corner apartment in the Pavilion, a 1958 Mies van der Rohe high rise in Detroit's Lafayette Park.

Bell describes It Never Really Happened as a "triptych," a dance in three parts taking place in the same apartment in the winter, summer and fall of this year. Part One was a solo, Part Two will be a duet, Part Three an ensemble piece.

Part One featured a soundtrack curated by DJ Scott Zacharias as well as a performance by photographer and musician Nicola Kuperus, who played "the hostess."

Bell was born in 1976 in Sebastopol, California and earned a Ph.D. in performance studies from N.Y.U. this year. She first became interested in creating an intimate, site-specific performance that would explore the intersection of dance, domesticity and modern architecture when she encountered Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House at the Henry Ford Museum. But it is in Lafayette Park, the mid-century superblock just east of downtown Detroit, that the dance continues to take shape.

I have known Biba for about five years and have admired and written about some of her previous work in Detroit. After attending two performances of It Never Really Happened (Part One), I decided to interview her to learn more about the performance's development, execution, and many shades of meaning.

On the evening of March 23rd, I walked from my apartment in Lafayette Towers across Lafayette Plaisance to the Pavilion, where I joined her for a homemade dinner, a bottle of wine and two hours of conversation. What follows is an edited and illustrated transcript of our talk, divided into ten sections and preceded by a sketch of the performance for readers who did not have the chance to attend it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Two about the Hinterlands

Two articles that I wrote concerning The Hinterlands, a marvelous experimental performance group in Detroit, came out this week in two different publications.

The first, in Model D, tells the story of Play House, the Hinterlands' home in Banglatown, which was created with the help of Power House Productions as part of their innovative neighborhood stabilization work. 

Photo courtesy The Hinterlands. 
The second, in Infinite Mile, a new-ish online journal of Detroit art & culture, is an account of my experience attending a Hinterlands "open training" session. Open trainings are weird, wonderful, intensely physical workshops for performers and non-performers alike that take place monthly at Play House (the next one is tomorrow!).

Open training 2012 at the Jam Handy. Photo by Richard Newman.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Palmer Park's turnaround and neighborhood revival

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 1/28/14 in Model D)

1: A brief history of an exquisite neighborhood

In the 1870s, lumber baron and U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer inherited 160 acres of land from his mother in the area we know today as Palmer Park. (For a longer history that includes the pre-Palmer days, check out this delightful Souvenir and Illustrated History of Palmer Park from 1908.) After continuing to acquire neighboring parcels over the next decade, Palmer eventually came to own around 800 acres in what was then known as Greenfield Township.

Senator Palmer used much of the land as a horse and cattle farm, while his wife Lizzie employed noted landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot to design a resplendent park that included two lakes, islands, and miles of winding paths.

In the 1890s, the conservation-minded Palmer deeded the park land to the City of Detroit, on the condition that the virgin forest on site be preserved. Subsequent years found the remainder of Palmer's vast land holdings around the park and forest turned into a golf course, the august Palmer Woods neighborhood (north of the park), and the Palmer Park apartment district (immediately south).

The first apartment building to be built in the apartment district was the Albert Kahn-designed Walbri Court in 1925. What followed were 40 dizzying years of glamorous, upscale apartment construction, resulting in dozens of buildings variously designed in the Egyptian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Venetian, Tudor, Moorish Revival, Georgian, Art Moderne, and Modern styles.

This exquisite neighborhood -- bordered by Woodward to the east, the park itself on its northern edge, Pontchartrain Blvd to the west and McNichols to the south -- was home to much of Detroit's Jewish community from the 1920s until the late '70s, when Temple Israel moved from Palmer Park to West Bloomfield.

In the meantime, it had also become the locus of Detroit's gay community. From the '50s until the '80s, the apartment district was Detroit's "gayborhood," where large numbers of gay men lived in close proximity and walked to nearby, gay-owned restaurants, bars, and stores.

Gregory Piazza lived in the district from 1974 to 1991 and remembers it as "the most exciting place I've ever lived." Piazza, who is responsible for the district'snational historic designation, recalls that the gay population stabilized the neighborhood in the wake of the Jewish migration to the suburbs; but gays, too, were soon leaving in droves, heading north to Ferndale and Royal Oak in the wake of a long crime wave that, they felt, the police were not taking seriously.

From the '80s to the first decade of the 21st century, Palmer Park earned and maintained a reputation for seediness. The apartment district destabilized as the money moved north, the buildings began to empty out and decay, and the park became known as a hotbed of drug activity and prostitution. Rochelle Lento, who moved to Palmer Woods in 1991, quickly realized that the historic park she was so excited to live nearby was no place to take her children.

As recently as 2007, Clinton Griffin, who moved back home to Detroit from abroad to take care of his grandparents and raise his young great nephew, decided there was "no way" he would be taking his child to the park to play, even though he moved into a building that overlooked it.

2007, though, is also the year that the district and the park's twinned revitalization really got started -- that's when husband and wife developer team Mark Leipsitz and Kathy Makino-Leipsitz fell in love with the apartment district and started dreaming.