Saturday, June 10, 2017

Inch One Hundred Seventy-Four: Detroit

I spent three days this past week in Detroit, attending the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. When you are married to the Symphony, you often end up at these things.

The League has stepped up its focus on and push for diversity and cultural equity in the orchestral world. These are topics that resonate deeply with me, so I was thrilled to attend three excellent panel discussions (two being interactive with the audience) on these themes. I came away with new points of view, some new discussion points, and some new approaches for the implicit bias workshop I will be co-facilitating at work later this month.

The conference was held in downtown Detroit, at the Renaissance Center. The Center is the world headquarters for General Motors, backing up to the Detroit River. We stayed at a small, just adequate motel within walking distance, and so walked the 4 or 5 blocks daily to the conference. I also went off by myself to walk around the downtown, exploring a little before I caught the QLine (light rail) to the Detroit institute of Arts.

Much was made at the opening plenary session, a panel discussion, of Detroit's rebound from its bankruptcy of 2013 and the Detroit symphony's rebirth from the musicians' strike of 2010-2011. Rebuilt neighborhoods, urban farms, the QLine: these are all measures of forward progress. The Detroit Institute of Art, one of this country's great collections, was saved in the Grand Bargain. But some panelists reminded us that much is yet to be done. This July is the 50th anniversary of the violent Detroit riot and, some reminded us, the city is still dealing with the aftermath of that event.

What struck me hardest about Detroit was the visible and omnipresent poverty. I am not a newbie when it comes to poverty and I know that in big cities, I am more likely to run into people asking for spare change, for a few bucks, for some help. What I saw in Detroit was far beyond that. Yes, there were people asking for change, but there were adults, mostly men but some women, who were sleeping nightly in the green spaces downtown or in a little protected back entrance of a building with no place to go. Unless you deliberately turn a blind eye, you cannot help but see them. It cut me deeply. Call me a dupe, but I gave away every bit of pocket money I had. I don't care what the recipients did with it; once it left my hands, it was theirs to spend.

On Thursday, the last day of the conference, I took a break late morning. I crossed over to the park that runs alongside the Detroit River, just behind the Renaissance Center, and sat for a long time in the dappled shade of a tree, looking across the river at Canada. A musical duo was playing steel drum and keyboard somewhere over my shoulder behind me. In front of me was a sidewalk fountain, a series of jets that shot up different lengths (a variation of a dancing fountain, but larger and more complex than the ones I have seen). It was a warm, sunny day and children were playing at the fountain. Children shrieking, laughing, dancing, jumping, drinking, squatting, yelling with delight. They would run back and forth to their parents, sitting or standing in near proximity. I watched in particular one little girl, maybe all of 3, who saw an older child bend over and wet his head in a spray. She carefully bent over and doused her own head: her forelock first and then all of it. Standing up with a gasp, she shook her head and trotted back to her parents, laughing in delight. There are far worse ways to spend a long half hour in Detroit.

We left Detroit a few hours later, and I carried a swirl of images: the tiger sculptures at Comerica Park, the woman who slept each day in a sleeping bag, one medium-sized purse near her, on a grassy sward just yards away from the Renaissance Center, the Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Arts—stunning enough to make me gasp when I entered it, the young teen, who looked surly and unapproachable, but who helped an older woman with a cane boarding the QLine car to a seat, and helped her up when she reached her stop down the line, listening to passionate musicians of color talk about the need to stop talking and to move forward on breaking down the barriers, and the elderly man to whom I gave money, who thanked me and told me his name, and then asked me mine.

And the laughter of children. The laughter of children dancing in the fountain.

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