That is why now I placed the collective hero, man-and-machine, higher than the old traditional heroes of art and legend. I felt that in the society of the future as already, to some extent, that of the present, man-and-machine would be as important as air, water, and the light of the sun.

This was the “philosophy,” the state of mind in which I undertook my Detroit frescoes.

Diego Rivera, My Art, My Life

IMG_2394Something is off with the world’s timing.  For most of this week the workmen tearing apart and rebuilding the kitchen of the main house were arriving around 10.  Thursday (the only day this week when I didn’t need to go out early and could sleep in) the workmen began the heavy demolition at 7 and they did so again on Friday.

For months, my Friday morning ritual includes putting the trash out between 8:30 and 9:00 and paying the woman who takes it, but this Friday she knocked on my door at 8:15 – she never enters the property, simply picks up the bag outside the gate – and we chatted about how cold it was (it was) and the construction and the tights she had sold me the previous Friday.  The routine continues when the housekeeper arrives at 9:30 and then I go to the panaderia (bakery) around 10 to buy some pan dulces (sweet breads) for Dolores to take home to her two sons.  Further proof that the world’s calendar is off is that Jesús, who takes care of the plants, was here this morning (Saturday) at 8 – and he nearly always doesn’t show up until  just a little after 9 at the very earliest.

Maybe this is all due to the three-day national fiesta commemorating the 10-year revolution that saw the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Diaz that began in 1910.  Maybe everyone wants to get the party started a little early.  While the actual holiday is 20 November, it is celebrated on the third Monday of the month – this year the 17th.

Diaz brought a great deal of modernization to Mexico; however, like most “reforms” around most of the world, only a small percentage of people received the benefits of his reforms and the populace remained largely poor and uneducated, which is still true, although to a lesser extent.  The disparity between haves and have-nots seems to be nowhere more prevalent, (according to sources far more knowledgeable than I) than in the state of Guerrerro, where the town of Iguala is located, which is where the Ayotzinapa school is located, which is where the 43 young student teachers were abducted.

When my friend R was here a short while ago, she asked about the status of gays and trans people in Mexico and I said that unlike in the U.S. where trans women are murdered on an average of one a month, I’ve only known of three trans people killed in Mexico in the two years I’ve been here and that includes one American.  Mexico, like much of Central and South America features disappearances rather than murders, and as far as I know a disappearance is not an official crime statistic.

Anyway, the American who was killed was an AIDS activist, which probably meant that she worked in a clinic that treated AIDS patients and she perhaps tried to educate people about how to prevent transmission of the disease.  The key word here is “activist” because there are people in Mexico who do not like activists and so activists are likely to disappear.  Like the 43 in Iguala who attended a school originally founded by Marxists during the 1960s.  I won’t reiterate what Enrique Krause (New York Times) and Carlos Martínez García (La Jornada) have described most eloquently, except to say that most people in power do not like to see the spread of power to a larger number of people.  The concentration of power is the most economical and efficient way to do business.  The fact that business has no place in government is a discussion for another time.

Somehow this brings me to privatization.  Sometimes it’s a good thing.  Many complain about the fortune that Carlos Slim made when he took over the former government monopoly of the Mexican telephone business, but let’s face it:  which would you rather have:  a cell phone in your hand right now or a lottery ticket offering possible delivery of a landline to your grandchildren?  Sometimes privatization offers benefits to the masses while providing great profit to a few individuals.

And that brings us to the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy in the United States.  Named after for the river that connects Lakes Erie and Huron (le détroit du lac Érié [the strait of Detroit]), the city’s government had proved incapable of providing its citizens – especially its poorest citizens – with timely public services, including safety and water.  An emergency call to the police might result in a response an hour later because there were too few officers [many were chained to desk jobs] in too few cars that actually worked.)  Many seemed relieved at the recent decision of the bankruptcy judge’s announcement:  there is hope that streetlights will again function:  the city now has a Public Lighting Authority which oversees private firms performing services formerly not performed by city employees.  Garbage and waste collection now takes place at the same cost to the city as before when trash was not collected by city employees.  The collection of the Detroit Institute of Art is now in the hands of a private trust, not the city, so regardless of the city’s future financial doings, the collection is protected from the city’s creditors’ actions.

The city is no longer the most racially segregated in the U.S. having fallen to number 4.  It no longer claims to have the highest percentage of death by police shooting in the U.S. (which it had in 2000) and, in fact, isn’t listed among the top dozen.  Waiting for a bus is still dicey, but there are hopes the fleet of buses can be upgraded.  There is talk of collecting taxes from a tax base and there is a plan for destroying more of the empty houses and commercial buildings that provide refuge for drug dealers and there’s even talk of dealing with houses in foreclosure.

It sounds to me like the city is ripe for gentrification.  But one needs to keep in mind the words of Elmore Leonard:

There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs.

All of Detroit’s problems were either magnified or exposed when the jobs disappeared.  More than 80 per cent of the city’s population is black; if you watch any sports event originating in Detroit you will see a sea of almost all white faces.

The BBC produced a documentary about the music scene in Detroit and how it reflected the city.  Part 1 describes the Motown years.


The entire documentary is here.

Martha and the Vandellas

Some may say the downfall of Detroit occurred when Japan took over the auto industry (although the city of Detroit was losing population as early as 1950). Others when Henry Ford brought the assembly line to manufacturing. Others when the white man, led by Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, settled. Some say it was the 1967 Twelfth Street riots and subsequent invasion by the state’s National Guard and U.S. military (there were riots due to racial conflicts in 1863, 1925, and 1943 as well). Others with the 1980 Republican National Convention that offered up Ronald Reagan.

Me, I gotta go with Berry Gordy. Responsible for the success of the Motown music machine. Gordy neglected many acts and took the musical heart out of Detroit at a critical moment by moving his company to Los Angeles.

Martha Reeves served as a Detroit city councilor from 2005 to 2009.


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