An American Abroad

Detroit: The Museum at Brush & Baltimore

I was thinking about why people make art when I came across a desolate intersection in Detroit. In the post-apocalyptic environs of Brush and Baltimore Streets, there are dozens of vacant lots where houses and stores once stood. Most of the remaining buildings have been stripped of everything burnable and salable; they stand like monuments to some undefinable slow-moving catastrophe. I shot a few photos of the ruins’ exteriors.

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Then a Chrysler drove up. The driver’s window slid down. I tensed a little, in spite of myself. Usually when something like that happens to me in neighborhoods like this, there’s someone who wants something from me that I don’t particularly want to give.

“Hey!” the driver said. “You should go in there.” He pointed to a burned-out shell of a building across the street. “All kinds of art in there. Wild stuff. Beautiful stuff.”

I was still a little on guard. “Just walk in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the driver. “We go in there sometimes, party, look at art. Some of it’s done by the people from the gallery there.” He pointed to a windowless building across the street that was painted completely black.

I must have looked a little doubtful, because the driver smiled and said, “It’s cool.”

What the hell. If I’ve learned anything from two years of traveling, it’s that some of the best things happen when you say yes to things you don’t understand. So I walked up to the building the driver had indicated. Plastic bags stuffed with moldy, smelly bread were strewn around the porch. Flies buzzed around them. A cinder block was propped against the front door. I toed it aside, pulled the door open, and beheld an amazing art collection.

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The building I had entered had no roof, no windows, and no finished walls. It did have something much better: stunning portraits of ballerinas painted by Everett Dyson. Some of the them seemed to be dancing their way out of the shackles that once bound them.

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Elsewhere were palimpsests of tags, notes, and images, reflecting unintentional collaborations that are still in progress.

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As I photographed the artwork, a freight train rumbled by twenty yards away. Nearly every car on the train had been tagged extensively. Watching them pass was like watching a filmstrip on the tagging aesthetic. I wandered through the back door and found several other small buildings in the same bombed-out condition. The whole complex was a museum with different galleries. I continued to explore.

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Some of the works were text-heavy, illuminated manuscripts inscribed on cinder block.

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As I made my way back to the street, I again wondered what motivates people to make art. The question seemed especially poignant in this environment. Everything in the “museum” I had visited spoke of the transitory and the ephemeral. The murals that artists spent hours and hours meticulously painting will not long survive the elements or human depredation. In that respect, they are more like performances than fine art, dances that, once completed, live on only in memory. Unlike a “real” museum, the complex at Brush and Baltimore is subject to time, decay, and dissolution. Heraclitus, who famously said you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, would have understood. Perhaps the artists who worked here needed to lay down an I-was-here marker in the river of time more than they needed to occupy a static space.

Detroit: The Hipsters Move to Corktown

There are signs of an artist/hipster presence in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Near Michigan Central Station, some abandoned buildings have been painted up and turned into giant urban canvases.

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Other buildings show signs of being brought back to life, albeit slowly.

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There’s a cool bicycle shop and several new bars and cafes near the station, as well as a redeveloped commercial district designed to appeal to the lovers of vintage watering holes.

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And then there are some businesses that look like they’ve been there for decades.

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It’s easy — chic, even — to deride the hipsters who have settled in Detroit in the last six years. But it’s almost always a cheap shot and seems more aimed at their sartorial and tonsorial choices than at their values. Their critics also tend toward stereotype; not every dude in a pork-pie hat, horn-rims, and a goatee drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon is a pretentious jerk. Yes, hipster disposable income and insistence on certain amenities drive local rents up and may displace longtime residents. But if the alternative is keeping rents low while the neighborhood crumbles and dies, then I’ll give at least two cheers for a hipster influx.

Detroit: We Did It to Ourselves

Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is now an American icon, a metaphor for the ruination of American industry and the hollowing out of once-vital American cities. Its very existence is commentary on our current inability to construct buildings that are grand, beautiful, or even functional. In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary wrote:

The station is the Eiffel Tower of ruin photography and probably Detroit’s most recognizable modern monument other than the downtown Renaissance Center complex, as shown by the hobbyist and professional photographers who descend upon it on every sunny day. An imposing, neoclassical behemoth even in life, the windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.

The first view I got of it yesterday was from an elevated highway. From that vantage, I could see through the building from front to back. Light streamed through the ruin unimpeded by office furniture, walls, or workers. One might have thought it was a Potemkin building, a grand edifice thrown up to impress visiting dignitaries as they drive by in air conditioned comfort. But as I stood on the street directly in front of the station, it became clear that this was no two-dimensional facade, but a very real place where real people had worked, a place of heft and substance that had been allowed to fall into ruin.

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The placement of a new American flag in front of the station puzzled me. Was it supposed to instill pride? To symbolize determination in the face of adversity? Or, as Leary might suggest, to commemorate America’s new national monument?

As I looked at my photo, I recalled another photo, one I did not take:

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That image of the American flag planted amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, backed by strong vertical lines, always seemed to me to be an expression of perseverance, national unity, and determination to wreak vengeance on the men who destroyed the twin towers.

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But here, the men who eviscerated American industry and gutted our cities were not foreign terrorists. Pace Walt Kelly, we did this to ourselves.

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Inside the shell of the building, a handful of workers were engaged in labor whose purpose was obscure to me. It didn’t seem to be restoration or renovation. Perhaps they were securing the structure against trespassers. For their own safety, of course.

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Roosevelt Park sprawls in front of the ruins. A group of elementary-age kids sat in a semicircle under a tree, presumably getting instruction of some kind. The scene was almost pastoral. And it called to mind yet another image, Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting of Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins:

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I didn’t get close enough to hear what was being preached to the children in the shadow of the derelict Michigan Central Station. I think I was afraid to listen.

Using Divvy Bikes to See Chicago

One of the cool things about Chicago is its network of 476 24/7 bicycle rental stations spread out across the city. Divvy Bikes are purpose-built, durable, three-speed machines. No one is going to confuse them with speedy road bikes, but they are serviceable and well-maintained.

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Their special bike racks feature a small solar panel tower, a credit card reader, and a small touch screen to set up your bicycle rental.

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I used Divvy Bikes to ride from Hyde Park along a zig-zaggy route north to the Adler Planetarium, a distance of about eight miles. I wasn’t in a particular hurry and hopped off the bike from time to time to admire the lakefront view and take photos.

While it was great to have a bicycle to tool around on in Chicago, Divvy’s fee structure makes their bikes a less than optimal choice for someone like me who wants to take his time to see the city from a bicycle seat. The headline rental price is just $7 a day for unlimited use, but there is a BIG catch. You have to check your bike into a Divvy station every 30 minutes. You can check it in and take it right out again (though this is something of a hassle), but if you ride for longer than 30 minutes without returning it to a station, 1) you get charged additional fees of at least $3, and 2) you have your 24 hour usage rights cancelled, which means you have to pony up another $7. For a traveler like me without a set route, it was annoying to check a bike out, meander for 15 minutes, and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically trying to reach another Divvy station so as to avoid extra charges. For commuters with regular routes, this wouldn’t be a big factor, but for me it was. I felt rushed and anxious.

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All this being said, Divvy Bikes can be a good way for a traveler to get around Chicago, but only if you plan your route carefully before setting out and stay cognizant of the time elapsed between stations. For people with a daily commute, though, Divvy Bikes are a very viable alternative to public transit and private vehicles.

Nicaragua 2008: Down the Rio San Juan from San Carlos to El Castillo

Following our miserable night on the Lake Nicaragua ferry, we arrived in San Carlos, a town our guidebook charitably described as “scummy.” Situated on the southeastern tip of the lake not far from the Costa Rican border, San Carlos indeed seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it, except for its being situated at the source of the Rio San Juan.

As I shivered in the pre-dawn light and made inquiries about a boat heading downriver to El Castillo, Spencer set off in search of coffee. He brought back two small paper cups of watery lukewarm Nescafé into which had been poured several heaping tablespoons of sugar. It was vile, but I drank it anyway. It did nothing for my chilled, sleep-depraved state.

We found out that we could get passage aboard a riverboat that would leave in several hours. With nothing to recommend San Carlos to us, we made for the nearest hostelry we could find in hopes of getting a morning nap.

I don’t know the name of the place we stayed. I don’t know if it had a name. But it was as scummy as the rest of the town, complete with damp dirty beds, insects, and river-rot. It was built up on stilts over a filthy stagnant stream that slithered into the river at some point.

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It was actually colorful and cheerful-looking, so long as you didn’t peer too closely. Of course, we arrived on wash day; the clothes hanging everywhere hid things that I’d just as soon not see.

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Our room had a Sandanista slogan painted on its door.

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I slept fitfully, occasionally wondering what I had gotten myself and my son into.

We were here:

Near noon, we checked out and went back to the docks. Along with a couple dozen other passengers, 300 cases of beer, sacks of mail, some chickens, sheep, and a goat, we boarded the riverboat.

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At the appointed time, we shoved off and headed down the river and into the jungle.

We passed by jungle hamlets here and there, places marked by a dock and a few wooden buildings, but without roads. At some of them, we stopped to drop off a passenger or two, some beer, and a sack of mail.

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The day turned to night and we continued on, more slowly though. The boat’s searchlights cut a sliver of visibility down the river, but otherwise everything was black on both banks.

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It grew late. Finally, after about fifty miles, our destination was announced: El Castillo. The boat docked and we stepped out onto a dock shrouded in darkness. We could see no artificial lights anywhere. We struggled to get our luggage together in total blackness. We were here:

We wandered around until we heard the thrum of a generator and saw a few gleams of light coming from a two-story building with porches up and down on the front. It seemed to be a guesthouse of some sort, so we knocked. A middle-aged woman answered and answered yes to our question about beds for the night. We were delighted. She then led us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out to the porch, where two hammocks hung from the porch beams.

Spencer and I looked at each other, unsure and disappointed. But then the woman let loose a deep laugh — just kidding! — and led us back into the hallway and into a dorm-style room with real beds. Maybe showing us the hammocks first was just clever product positioning on her part, because by the time we got into our spare but clean bedroom, I was incredibly grateful just to have a mattress under my body, a comforter draped over me, and a roof over my head.

I fell asleep almost immediately, wondering what the jungle would have in store for us come the morning.

Nicaragua 2008: A Most Uncomfortable Night

After three days at the luxurious Hotel Colonial in comfortable Granada, it was time for us to begin the second phase of our journey. Our plan was to get a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos. There I would walk around the docks til we found a boat going down the Rio San Juan, talk or bribe ourselves aboard, and head out to the jungle settlement of El Castillo. This required a leap of faith on my part. I didn’t know for sure whether we could find a river boat — do you just hail them like taxis? — but I told myself that the last thing I wanted was a Cook’s tour where everything was precisely planned.

Little did I know that finding a boat going to El Castillo would be easy, but that passage aboard the ferry crossing the lake would be a very uncomfortable affair.

We found the lake dock in Granada from which the ferry departed and bought our tickets. I’d read that it was advisable to pay a little extra to get a spot on the upper deck of the ferry and to string a hammock there. I had no problem paying for a place on the upper deck, but in a fit of senseless economizing, I bought only ONE hammock.

What was I thinking?

I guess I figured that I would find a place to sit or lie somewhere on the ferry and that I would let my son luxuriate in the hammock. There had to be chairs, right? And probably an enclosed cabin to escape the elements in?

But no. There were no chairs, benches, or other accommodations. No cabins. Just steel deck-plating. We tied our lone hammock between a mast and a wall cleat and began the overnight lake crossing.

At first, it was pretty nice. We were thrilled to pass within sight of Concepción, the world’s most perfectly formed volcano, on the Isla de Ometepe.

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The afternoon sun still warmed our bones. Spencer read Heart of Darkness as he swayed in the hammock. We looked down — literally, that is — at all the people on the lower deck trying to find a place to sit where they would be sheltered from the sea spray amid the bicycles, motorcycles, and other cargo.

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We congratulated ourselves on the decision to buy upper-deck tickets. We saw people on our deck laying down and it really didn’t look so bad.

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Many of our deck-mates strung up hammocks and looked quite comfortable in them.

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Others on our deck found places to sit: not chairs, of course, but better than the metal deck plate.

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The sunset on the lake was so beautiful that at first I didn’t feel the approaching evening chill.

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Ah, novice-traveler hubris. By the time darkness fell, we were both getting cold. The steel deck seemed to suck the heat right out of my body. Although we weren’t getting drenched, we shivered in the mist thrown up by the boat as it plowed through the waves. By midnight I felt chilled to the bone, damp, tired, and miserable. I did take turns with my son in our one hammock, which gave some respite, but I felt so guilty about making him sleep on the deck plate that I took most of the time there.

From this wretched, sleepless night, I learned that you can never be too hot out on the deck of a boat at night. The lesson etched itself deeply into my mental library of travel wisdom. In later experiences with nighttime boat rides — for instance, my trip up the Ganges River in Bangladesh aboard a paddlewheel ferry — I made sure to pack warmer clothes.

And if I ever travel across a body of water with a companion, I will be sure to buy two hammocks.

Nicaragua 2008: The Perfection of Granada

Granada is located along the coast of the Lake Nicaragua, the world’s twentieth largest lake. It was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and claims to be the first European city on mainland America. In the first centuries after its founding, the city was witness to and victim of many of the battles with English, French and Dutch pirates for control of Nicaragua.

In more recent times, though, Granada avoided most of the violence of the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. Back in 2008, I found a city that had managed to preserve and restore much of its Spanish colonial architecture and its pleasing public streets and squares. I’m not alone in this observation. The story is told that when Pope John Paul II visited Granada, he was so charmed by the town that he told the people not to change a thing.

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When we first encountered this bandstand in a public park, it was empty as you see it here.

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But the next time we happened by, it was mobbed with people. A band played. Different couples took turns dancing in front of the crowd, not so much to show off hot dance moves as to have their time in the limelight. The audience approved.

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We headed down to Lake Nicaragua, not so much because we wanted to beach it, but because we wanted to scope out where we would be catching the ferry across the lake. It being a holiday weekend, many people were heading out for some sun and swimming.

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Nicaragua 2008: Granada Signs

Looking back at my photos from this 2008 trip, I can see the beginnings of the same fascinations that still characterize my travel photography. Signs and graffiti, to name two.

Some of the signs for professional offices had a beautiful, simple elegance about them.

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Others were cheerfully cluttered with text and gave me the impression that you could obtain any kind of service within.

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And then there was this sign for a fried chicken joint, which amused me every time I passed by.

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I’m not sure, but I think this was a little love poem, a declaration of affection for one lucky Dario. But maybe some of my more fluent Spanish-speaking readers can set me straight.

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There were a lot of political murals and signs. And many, but not all, of them were in support of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party.

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This, below, was a popular political sentiment at the time. Still is.

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Nicaragua 2008: La Catedral de Granada

The cathedral of Granada is surely the most photographed building in town. It’s impossible to miss. No matter where we were in Granada, we could see its cheery neoclassical yellow towers in the distance.

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The original church at this spot was built in 1583. But when the American filibuster and conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, came to town in 1855 and began his mad attempt to take control of all Central America. His troops destroyed that building and much of the rest of the city the following year. Construction of a new cathedral began in the late 19th century, but was halted several times due to lack of funds. It was finally finished in 1915.

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Because Holy Week preparations were going on, we were unable to get any further inside than the reception area just past the exterior doors. But there, taped to a wall, we spied this charming admonishment.

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Even with my kitchen Spanish, I was able to understand this and appreciate its gentle humor. It says:

When you come to the temple and bring your cell phone, turn it off, because here you don’t need it to talk to God. The only phone you need to speak with God is prayer. Thank you.

Nicaragua 2008: Good Friday Parade

As night fell on our first day in Granada, we heard the sounds of a crowd and the buzz of a small engine coming from the street. I grabbed my camera and went out to see. The streets were aswarm with people. Considering their numbers, though, it was a pretty quiet affair. A long line of people passed quietly by us.

We saw the focal point of the evening toward the end of the subdued parade line. A wood and glass coffin, surrounded by flowers, was being carried atop a cart. The coffin was lit by spotlights powered by a portable gasoline-powered generator, which was sitting on another cart riding behind. Inside the coffin was a female department store mannequin which had been, shall we say, repurposed to resemble the popular image of Jesus: soft features, long curly locks, beard, white skin, and an almost effeminate countenance. Compounding the androgynous appearance was the fact that the figure was wearing a white lacy skirt. His (her?) body was streaked with blood-red gashes. Behind the coffin were two angels and a large cross draped with white linen.

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Not having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. Then it clicked with me that this was Good Friday, a holiday about which I had only a dim secular humanist awareness and understanding. I soon figured out that this parade was a reenactment of Jesus’ burial. I wasn’t sure what was cool to do. Could I join in the parade? Could I take pictures? I didn’t want to piss anyone off on my first night in Nicaragua, so for the most part I stood curbside and watched.

I was struck by the immediacy of the proceedings. This was not the abstract American Jesus; this was a bloody, mutilated likeness. It was the barbarous act of crucifixion made real. It wasn’t a priest saying “Jesus suffered and died”; it was showing, not telling. My son and I appeared to be the only gringos in the crowd. I felt privileged to be there.

Later that evening, when Spencer and I ventured out for a beer, we saw this figure (Mary? a local saint?) apparently waiting to be seated at the café.

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Strange big-headed blow-up dolls also circulated among the throngs of Good Friday celebrants.

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The religious procession by this point had given way to more secular concerns of eating, drinking, and relaxing. Strolling musicians came by and parked at our table for awhile.

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Tired from our travels, but feeling delighted and welcomed by the parade we had just witnessed, we then returned to the hotel and a sound night’s sleep.