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.

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.

Fourth of July, Toledo, Ohio in Color

Red, white and blue for the holiday, plus assorted greens, yellows, angels, and a cat. Photos I shot today in my hometown.

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Fourth of July, Toledo, Ohio in Black & White

A photo essay: my hometown on this most American of holidays. I shot these today in my hometown.

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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.

At the Chess Records Studio

These are the back stairs to the musical history of Chicago and the world.

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In the 1950s, numerous blues and R&B legends walked up those stairs to this room, which back in the day was a recording studio.

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Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, The Moonglows, Howlin Wolf, James Cotton, Archie Bell & the Dells, Lonnie Brooks, Solomon Burke, The Four Tops, Percy Mayfield, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin climbed those stairs. And in that studio, they recorded the music of the Great Migration, the electrified blues that came out of Chicago in the 1950s. Then Chuck Berry came along, combined the electric blues with a country beat and and twang. In the Chess studio, he recorded “Maybellene,” one of the first and most popular rock n roll records:

Encouraged by Muddy Waters, Berry in 1955 brought to Chess Records a recording of his version of Willis’s tune[1] which he had renamed “Ida May” and a blues song he wrote “Wee Wee Hours”, which he stated was inspired by Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blue”. To Berry’s surprise, Leonard Chess showed little interest in the blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”. Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at the recording session. He also felt the titles “Ida Red” and “Ida May” were “too rural”. Spotting a mascara box on the floor of the studio, according to Berry’s partner Johnnie Johnson, Chess said, “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene” altering the spelling to avoid a suit by the cosmetic company. The lyrics were rewritten at the direction of Chess as well. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

Ten years later, the rock musicians of the British Invasion came to Chicago to record at Chess, in an attempt to get the sound they had heard on American blues records. The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, among others, recorded there. The title of the Rolling Stones’ jam, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” was a reference to the Chess Records address.

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Though the building is now primarily a museum, the Stones still show up, as recently as 2014, to get the Chess sound. Some of the components of that sound, apart from the configuration of the studio room itself, were these two pipes, which rise a few inches from the floor by the back wall of the control room.

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Originally, the music being performed in the studio was picked up by a mic hanging high on the wall at the far end of the studio. It was tweaked in the control room and played through studio monitors. The sound then travelled down those pipes to the mics connected to the tape recorders, which were housed in a room under the control room. This gives Chess records their echo-y, live sound, the sonic texture you’d experience at a blues club.

Today, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is home to Willie Dixon‘s Blues Heaven Foundation and serves as a museum, concert venue, and school for young musicians. Some of the old recording equipment is still on site and provides an object lesson in how far recording technology has come in a half century.

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I was privileged to get a private tour of the facility from Willie Dixon’s grandson, Keith Dixon Nelson.

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Keith graciously allowed me to play his grandfather’s bass — quite a thrill for me.

The land adjacent to the studio is now a small park, with a stage for outdoor concerts.

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The site has also been acknowledged by the Chicago Landmark Commission.

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I went through a major blues phase in my twenties. I lived briefly in Little Rock, Arkansas and listened to a radio station there that played gospel by day and blues by night. I would sit up late listening, electrified by what I heard. Later that summer, I took a bus to Greenville, Mississippi to the Delta Blues Festival. The smell of the Mississippi mud baked hard by the sun mingled with the sounds of electric guitars and wailing harmonicas coming from the stage. I had an experience of synesthesia, where the music and the unique smell intertwined inside me. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Many of the musicians who performed there had come to Chicago and Chess Records decades before. Now they were returning to their roots. Now years later, after seeing the Chess studio, I felt like I had seen where those roots produced the blossoms that became the electric blues and rock n roll.

The Cove: Exemplar of a Neighborhood Bar

I’m particular about my bars. A good bar should be unpretentious. Welcoming. Not too loud but not too quiet. Old. Diverse in its clientele. A place where you can chat with strangers or sit quietly and read without being disturbed.

There aren’t very many places that meet all those criteria — which is one reason why I am not a big bar-goer. But there is such a place in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. It’s called The Cove. It’s located at 1750 E. 55th Street. And it’s got a great old neon sign out front.

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Inside, it’s got a classic long-rectangle layout, with a venerable dark wood bar running down one of the long walls.

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There’s another room of the same dimensions that’s accessible from the far end of the barroom. This gives The Cove room to seat a lot more people but doesn’t spoil the cozy feel of the bar itself. The other room has a mural that depicts local heroes (though the portrait of Barack Obama is almost unrecognizable).

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On the three nights I was there, the clientele seemed to be a mixture of neighborhood folks, U. Chicago grad students, down-dressed professionals and working-class Joes, men and women, old and young. Most bars I’ve been in are 90% one ethnic group or another. Not so at The Cove, where the mix over the nights I was there was about 50/50 black and white. There was an overall friendly, relaxed, welcoming feel to the place.

By the time I last left, it was dark out, the NBA finals had just concluded with a Warriors victory, and it was time for me to go. I took one last pic of the cool vintage neon sign and vowed to return when I could.

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