An American Abroad

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

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The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

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I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

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The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

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Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

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It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

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Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

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Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

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Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

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On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

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Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

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Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

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The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

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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.

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.


Toledo, Ohio: My Hometown

When I was growing up here, I couldn’t wait to leave. At seventeen, I lit out for the territories and swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles that I would never ever ever return to Toledo. I managed to stay away for nineteen years before returning. When I came back, I planned to stay just a little while. But inertia, the low cost of living, and the excellent school system in the suburb where I lived kept me and my family here.

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But I wasn’t happy about it.

One day while I was driving around town with my son Spencer, I started talking smack about Toledo. To my surprise, my son didn’t share my sentiment. “Dad,” he insisted, “Toledo’s got soul!”

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked.

“People here keep getting kicked in the mouth,” he said. “Layoffs. Downsizing. Factories closing. Stores gone out of business. Crappy political leadership.”

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“But,” he continued, “Toledoans get up every morning and go to work, go to school, do their thing, and by and large they do it with a good attitude. They have every right to be bitter, but generally they’re not. They’ve got soul.”

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With that conversation, I began to make peace with my hometown.

I’ve been away from Toledo again for the better part of two years, traveling through other countries. Now that I’m back in town for a while, I’m determined to explore the city in the same way that I explored cities on the other side of the planet. And so this evening when the sunlight was golden, I went out and shot the kind of photos I’ve taken in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Chicago.

As I’ve done in those cities, I focused initially on public art: the authorized, the unauthorized, and the unintended.

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Last month, I took some photos of unauthorized public art around Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One of them featured this work:

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I took this photo because I was attracted to the Betty Boop vibe the original artist painted in. The girl’s missing mouth creates ambiguity in her expression — is it pride? happiness? thoughtfulness? strength? sorrow? The chips and cracks of age actually seem to improve the image and give it it an enduring quality, like the city itself.

A partner in one of Chicago’s larger law firms saw my original blog post and wanted this pic blown up and framed. I was thrilled. And so here it is, ready to move to its new home downtown.

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Having someone like my photos enough to want to reproduce them, as happened here and happened with my photos of the Hanoi Hilton, is immensely gratifying. If any of my readers want to purchase any of the photos on my blog, please contact me. I would be honored.

Farewell to Pilsen

I’m leaving Chicago later today, but before I go I wanted to post more street art pix from the Pilsen neighborhood. This series seems to be the most obviously Mexican in origin.

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Love is Torture, Love is a Delight

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Yeah, ain’t it the truth?

My friend Aaron Nathan directed me to these walls on 16th Street where it crosses Ashland in Chicago’s Lower West Side Pilsen neighborhood. I appreciate the advice; I never would have found them on my own. Pilsen is home to many Mexican families, and you can see the Latin American influence in the Day of the Dead images, among others.

Not everyone here shares my enthusiasm for this unauthorized public art. One local politician calls graffiti “a cancer on the city” and “the second biggest problem that we have, after shootings.” That seems a bit hyperbolic, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, the mayor of Chicago wants to increase the fines for graffiti from $750 to between $1,500 and $2,500. I suppose that the hand-wringing over graffiti is directed more toward people who tag public property with gang symbols than it is toward muralists like the ones who create the images I’ve been posting. But the law makes no distinction between a gang tag and a work of art. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Under the “broken windows” theory of policing, graffiti can make people feel unsafe, which causes people to shy away from the places where they see it, and which in turn creates a situation where the bad guys rule the streets. Perhaps that’s true. I also understand that not all graffiti is as beautiful as the murals I’ve photographed. My point is only that when I saw these walls in Pilsen, I felt more safe. The street felt happy, joyous, loved, and like a real neighborhood. I would actually have felt a little apprehensive walking around the area if I only saw ugly blank decaying concrete and cinder block walls.

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The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Discovered

    “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
    The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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We now know that the giant rat of Sumatra made its way to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where it met a grisly end. The event was immortalized on a METRA viaduct at 16th and Ashland. Those wishing to see how giant a giant rat is are invited to click on the above photo.

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I wasn’t investigating vampirism. I came for the rat, which is often photographed and displayed online. But I found much more than a megarodent. Weird game pieces. Sponge Bob character rejects. Robbie the Robot. Don Quixote. Spontaneous abstract expressionism. Fleeing immigrants. And a guy with a big hat.

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