Pedaling Thru Motor City

The sun finally shines today in Detroit. Which is a good thing, since I’ve borrowed a bike from Trumbull’s bike shack. Headed out towards Third St. with things looking chilly and overcast for the day. Then the sun pops out from behind the haze and the clouds turn fluffy. Time to peel off the hoodie.

Jhon from Trumbull gave me some great tips for where to discover stencils. Hit the ped bridge over Highway 10 and found some. Found some on Willis St. in front of the Avalon Bakery. One was a great paste up supporting Pingree for Mayor. I found Pingree’s statue later, with another paste up of him on the pedestal (Someone had added a funny mustache). The plaque said that he was the “The Idol of the People” and had been the first to warn citizens against the evils of private corporations. After biking through the post-Fordist ruins of the city, which has slowly lost buildings to encroaching nature in the past five decades, I now understand why this former mayor is popular with a stencil artist and his friends.

Jhon pointed me to the Dequindre Cut Greenway to see more graffiti. His directions took me through an undeveloped part, which was overgrown, decrepit, full of spray graff as well as evidence of human settlement. I ended up at a fence, which i had to push my bike under and then crawled after it. Crushed my sunglasses in the process (that’s my third pair this year), but biked down the clean, gentrified, and under-surveillance path, finding a nice stencil for all the effort.

The Cut sent me to The Riverwalk,  which stood as a testament to the current hard times. Run down warehouses had signs on them promoting condos, while several lots promoted development as well. The surrounding area was full of rotting, boarded up, and broken buildings, and Detroit’s downtown gleamed just beyond the Riverwalk. The GM building stood over all this decay, the tallest monument to the city’s current hard times.

Chicago also showed scars of economic troubles. My host Zebulun has lived in the city for a long time. His place, a subterranean basement apartment he calls the “Mold Palace” is in West Town, which has a small strip of bars with valet parking. These bright, clean bars are situated amongst many empty retail spots, condos under construction, and older buisnesses and dives that are hanging on. While stencil hunting in Wicker Park after my Quimby’s presentation, I saw more of the same: many empty storefronts and partially-constructed condos.

But folks continue to hang on. Zeb has a job in Blue Men Group’s band, and told me that the production has gone through a huge lay off. Pay cuts have happened too, which has been hard for the community-minded Blue Men Group management. The Chicago show went through a period of time where the house count was way off, but the bus tours and school groups (BMG has created a curriculum for teachers to use) have filled the seats recently.

I had several long talks about BMG with Zeb. The Founders, the original three Blue Men, have deep meanings behind every last nuance of the show. An 80 page dialog from one or two of the Founders is in circulation among the cast, and Zeb has read it. It explains in Joycian detail the significance of everything in the show, adding a mythic, epic quality to the Blue Men show. I was awed at the philosophy and holistic view of the show, and Zeb seemed just as awed that he’s part of it.

Sunday night, after the so-so Quimby’s presentation, I met Zeb at Blue Men’s Briar Street Theater. While hanging out in the Green Room, I got to watch the Blue Men actors suit up. Once the show started, I sat in the band loft, just out of the black light that turned the band into supernatural beings. The trio rocked their parts, with Zeb on stick, standing in the middle of the zither player and the drummer. When the feast bit started, Zeb took me downstairs to meet the techs feeding all the props up to the Blue Men. Rachel was the main worker setting the props up for the Blue Men, and I sat behind her in a safe spot as she told me what she was doing.

After the Feast bit, I sat in the band loft a bit more and then started to walk around with the techs. I got to see Rachel set up the painted canvas/jello head bit and then walked up to the rafters with another tech for the grand finale. According to Zeb, this is when the audience finally becomes immersed in the the Blue Men’s world. The tubes drop above them and then they finally glow black light as piles and piles of paper get pulled over them, heading towards the stage from the back of the house. Being up in the rafters for this was amazing, and then watching the bows from the balcony was icing on the experience. Zeb asked if I wanted to take a bow, but I declined since I’d done nothing to contribute to the production. So being the VIP spectator in the balcony was the best.

Even in hard times, getting lost in another world (and the magic behind it), a world propelled by intentional theater, brings a smile and applause. Here in Detroit, sports seem to fill that empty place. For the Trumbull crew here in Detroit, culture, gardening, and DIY fills that spot. Detroiters are used to living in decay, emptiness, and fields of reclaimed city blocks. Things have been bleak here for decades, and the recent pain is yet another nail in local industry’s coffin.

But these folks keep moving forward, surviving. They’re the hardest working folks I’ve met in a while. And they’re not getting paid for most of their work! The payment doesn’t come in cash. It comes in learning survival skills for what may be the long haul in this run-down country. There’s value in growing sprouts and hosting stencil presentations. There’s hope in these small things. Hope that the simple bits of civilization that have been lost to our over-consuming ways are what matter the most.

And any kind of hope, based upon getting one’s hands dirty with toil, is what we’ll all need to get through the current troubles.