Category Archives: Michigan

Racism and the White Woman, 2

I’m from Detroit. A writer of a recent Detroit newspaper article would argue with me on this point since I never actually lived on any street within the city. I am a phony because I only lived near the city of Detroit.

When I lived in Warren, Michigan, I could look across 8 Mile and see Detroit from my kitchen window. (No, I do not hang out with Sarah Palin.)

Before that, I lived in Hamtramck a couple of blocks from the Detroit city limit. Hamtramck is a small city that is completely surrounded by Detroit.

The street I lived on in Hamtramck created and at the same time broke down some racial barriers. I lived on one side of the street where all the houses were occupied by white people. Across the street, all the houses were occupied by black people. Divided right down the middle. At the age of four, all the white and black people sitting on their front porches sort of looked the same to me.

One of my first observations of racism took place in the women’s clothing section of a department store. I was with my mother and grandmother. Two teenage girls debated over the monumental decision of which blouse they should buy.

My grandmother spoke in Polish to my mother, “Just look at that, black people are shopping here!” Her words implied that these black teenagers should be banned from certain places and activities. This is the first time I remember being fed a racist thought.

This was the late 1950’s and within a few years all the houses on my divided street were torn down. The dismantling continued into the 1960’s.


DIA on the Brink: Does Man Live by Bread Alone?

Detroit is living a real life ethical dilemma these days. If a city is burning, do we pull out the old woman or do we rescue that portrait of Van Gogh?

Detroit went into bankruptcy last week. The emergency manager in Detroit, appointed by the State of Michigan, has been eyeing the vast and valuable art collection held by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The city owns this museum and its assets are potentially up for grabs as creditors and city pensioners alike look for some good money coming out of a bad situation.

Union contracts can be rewritten. Creditors may get pennies on the dollar for their investments. The retirees may find their pensions slashed. Money is needed for turning the streetlights back on that have been dark too long; money is needed for the razing of thousands of blighted buildings; money is needed for police, fire, and EMS services that seldom serve city residents in a timely manner. The city population keeps dropping and the tax base can’t support the over $17 billion debt.

The DIA has one of the best art collections in America, and both tourists and residents would feel the pain if it was dismantled.

But real people may get hurt while the art still hangs on the wall.

A letter writer to the editor of a Detroit newspaper said that if he had to make a choice between gutting retiree benefits or selling city assets, he would be saying,  “What is the opening bid for this beautiful Van Gogh?”

This is hard for me since I find the DIA to be vital and relevant. I need art and bread, and I believe (perhaps naively) that art can uplift everyone in society. Detroit without its great museums, would be even sadder.

So what’s it gonna be? Should the Degas and Matisse survive? Or does the old woman have any need for a stinking painting?

World Peace and Stable Furniture

When I first saw a photo of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I thought to myself, what the heck is Fritz doing in the newspapers?

My mother knew a Ukrainian handyman that did odd jobs around the house. Sometimes he would come over and just bullshit with her and have a beer or a shot of liquor. I’m sure he’s dead by now, but he sure did resemble the Iranian president.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Sept. 23, 2009

Fritz was always unshaven and his handyman jobs never required him to wear a tie. He was slender, with an olive skin tone, and had the same kind of wrinkles when he smiled as Ahmadinejad.

Fritz scavenged the sidewalks on garbage days and his worksites for any usable junk to add to his collection at home. A spare bedroom in his house had, among other stuff, a couple of used toilets stored there just in case he needed parts.

One time when Fritz was over my house, our cat jumped through his open Impala door window, fell asleep in the backseat, and took a ride with him back home to Hamtramck. Fifty years ago Hamtramck, was filled with a huge Slavic, mostly Polish population. All my grandparents came from Poland, settled in Hamtramck, and never learned to speak English since they didn’t have to. Everywhere you went, Polish was spoken. Help wanted ads for a bank teller preferred applicants that spoke Polish, and that was just within the last five years. Over the last 30 years, many people from the Middle East and Southern Asia began settling in Hamtramck. Today Hamtramck is the most diverse city in Michigan with 41% of its population coming from foreign lands.

One time Fritz took my mother and I to a closing down paint store in Hamtramck. He went to scavenge more junk for his collection, I think my mother and I went along for the ride. I saw an old wooden shelving unit that I wanted for my books. It was pretty ugly with its splotches of different colored paint, assorted stains, and wobbly legs.

I wanted to cut this shelf down since it was too high and uneven. Fritz liked to think that he was indispensable as a handyman. He said cutting down the legs was a complicated job and I couldn’t just jump in there and start sawing with any success. After all, I was female and not in the handyman line of work. But I measured and measured the shelf and cut it to the height I wanted. Then I painted it my favorite color, green. The shelf sat evenly, sturdily, and freshly painted on the floor and stunned the Ukrainian.

The southeastern corner of the Ukraine and the northwestern corner of Iran is only a day’s car ride from each other. Maybe that explains the physical resemblance between the president and Fritz. Given a few weeks, his ancestors could have walked the distance either way. After World War II, Fritz himself walked from Russia across Poland and Germany to France where he somehow shipped himself to the United States.

So when I see the president of Iran, I can’t just echo hatred over a professed enemy of my country. I have to smile and think back to this Ukrainian character I knew from my childhood. Mahmoud, are you handy around the house? Maybe we can all find unusual, non-destructive connections with our adversaries. The world is not that large, somehow we are all related. Wow I didn’t know I could do bleeding-heart liberal. But it would be nice to give peace a chance.

The Detroit Institute of Arts: Worth Fighting For?

Last Tuesday, voters in the metro-Detroit, Michigan, area passed a millage to fund the Detroit Institute of Arts for a 10-year period.

The August 7th election included Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Wayne County voters passed the millage by 68.15%, Oakland County by 63.68%. Macomb County, a tough sell, squeaked it by at 50.5%.

Just before the election I received a robo-call from the Michigan Taxpayer Alliance, an anti-tax group in Macomb County opposing this millage. The recording warned me that the “Detroit Elite” want to spend my money. No definition for this “Detroit Elite” was given.

Possible Detroit Elite:

  • Some wealthy Detroiters that want their art and not pay for it too?
  • A group of starving artistic types that feel entitled to other people’s money to fuel their personal passions?
  • Millionaires caught backing art museums in Switzerland while those in Detroit suffer?
  • Low-income Detroit families scamming the northern suburbs to fund their addiction to art galleries when they only deserve to live by bread alone?

I’m not a fan of big tax increases and I believe that government tends to be highly inefficient. But my mind was already set to vote Yes on this millage.

Everyone has their sacred cows and museum funding is one of mine. I grew up rather poor without many frills and no grand vacations. My father took me to the Detroit Historical Museum on one of his Saturday afternoon custody visits with me. I immediately fell in love and wanted to go there all the time. Then I was taken to the Detroit Institute of Arts and fell in love again.

Great beauty and evil live in museums. We can enjoy the best of what the human spirit offers within those walls. Also, museums keep us from forgetting the potential for evil within all of us. With that knowledge and with some luck, we won’t repeat the worst events in history.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is part of a wonderful museum district that includes: the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; the Detroit Historical Museum (closed for renovations until November 2012); and the Detroit Science Center (closed due to lack of funding).

I’m glad the millage passed. Maybe I can now count myself among the Detroit Elite?

Going Dutch Tweet

Twitter and postcards, they have a lot in common.

I visited Holland recently . .  . Holland, Michigan that is.

Dutch people arrived here from the Netherlands in the middle of the 1800’s mainly seeking out religious freedom.

A popular Tulip Festival began in Holland in 1929. Today a half-million people attend this spring festival that displays millions of tulips throughout the city. This festival centered around a flower has been called the Best Small Town Festival in America.

I’m a museum junkie so I had to see the Holland Museum while in town. The museum is currently displaying the postcard collection of Mike Van Ark which at one time contained 5,000 postcards. This exhibit shows off cards that came from Holland area tourist sites as far back as 1900.

As I was walking through the gallery, it hit me that these cards may just be the precursors to Twitter.

The definition of a postcard: Concise messages written on a small 3 1/2 inch by 5 inch rectangle of paper. The postal service delivered these messages from people wishing to communicate with friends, family, and co-workers about what they were doing on their vacations or trips.

A tweet is a post or status update on Twitter that allows 140 characters or less per tweet. Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected. A tweet likes to answer the question, “What are you doing?”

Postcards were far from being instant messages, but the few days wait time for these notes to come through wasn’t all that bad in the time of railroads and horses.

In Victorian London, mail was collected and delivered up to 7 times per day, 6 days a week in some locations near the main postal office. Rural locations saw mail delivery and collection of 4 times a day. Mail could be delivered to your door nearly as often as you may check Twitter today.

I thought I had a novel idea linking postcards to Twitter. It turned out to be not so novel after all. Searching through the internet I found this website that made the same connection years ago: Twitter an Instant Hit with Users Since 1902. Oh well, I observe too little, too late. But onward I go.

These old museum postcards were used more for personal communications between people. Very often they came from a tourist destination complete with a photo of an interesting attraction at that location. As a marketing tool, the recipients of these cards may have felt the urge to visit these places because of the attractive pictures and messages printed on them.

Twitter is full of marketing potential. A celebrity with a large Twitter following can mention a product and the website for that product can crash due to the large number of visits generated by that tweet.

Tourists flock to Holland and still purchase postcards of tulips, windmills, wooden shoes, or other Dutch treats and then jot down quick notes to mail back home. Tweets are faster, but this old-fashioned piece of paper remains popular. Apparently a large group of collectors keep the history alive. All in all another fun trip traveling back in time.

The last 150 years have seen vast technological advances. More and better machines work and play for people. Yet doesn’t it seem that despite rapid change in technology, humankind keeps rehashing its own essence? What we want to work and play at keeps constant.

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.  

Harry Truman