10/29/2012 10:28:22 AM
Editor’s Note: A
recent tip reminded us about a collection of articles from the October/November 1986
issue of Utne
Reader about Halloween, contemporary
witchcraft, and feminist spirituality. In celebration of the holiday, we’ll be
posting a few of our favorites online until the 31st.
Witches celebrate eight festivals each year, known as
sabbats, which coincide with the changes in the seasons. The solstices
(December 21 and June 21) mark the days when winter and summer, respectively,
begin. The spring and fall equinoxes (March 21 and September 23) mark the two
days of the year when the hours of the day are equally divided between day and
night. These four days were very important to ancient agricultural societies
and were occasions for great celebrations.
The four other sabbats are known as cross-quarter days and
represent festivals that were important to herding societies: Candlemas on
February 2; Beltane on May 1; Lughnasad on August 1; and Samhain, or Halloween,
on October 31. Of the four cross-quarter days, Halloween is probably best known
by nonpagans. In herding societies, Halloween marks the new year. It signifies
the time of year when herdsmen thinned out their livestock for the winter,
killing for their meat those animals that looked as if they wouldn’t survive
the colder weather. Thus, Halloween is the Witch’s new year.
Halloween also marks the late harvest—the time of year when
vegetation dies off and days grow shorter and darker.
“Halloween is the time when we are going into the dark,”
says Antiga, a Minneapolis Witch, “and one thing about Witchcraft is that
darkness is not necessarily associated with evil. The seed lies in darkness
under the earth and is quiet all winter before it comes to life in the spring.
In societies not as industrial as ours, people rested during the dark. It’s a
whole different energy in the winter than in the summer.
“According to pagan legend, Halloween is also the time when
the veil between the two worlds, the world of the dead and the living, is
thought to be the thinnest. The reason people dressed up on Halloween was that
they thought the spirits were all around them, and they were afraid the spirits
might take them along with them. The people dressed up as spirits so the
[visiting] spirits would think they too were spirits and wouldn’t take them to
the world of the dead.”
Excerpted from the
Twin Cities Reader (Oct. 30, 1985) and
reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov.
Image: A Halloween trick-or-treater in Redford, Michigan, 1979. Photo by Don Scarbrough, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/24/2012 1:40:54 PM
Available on Woodsist (Sept. 18, 2012)
Jeremy Earl likes to stay busy. The falsetto-prone singer and founder of the hazy folk band Woods has spearheaded a release by the group every year since 2006. Not creatively satisfied with just fronting the band, Earl also runs the successful record label Woodsist and hosts the annual Woodsist Festival at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Some might take a look at these pursuits and see a man spreading himself too thin, while others might see an artist thriving in a culture bursting with free-flowing creativity. Despite this heavy output, Earl and the other three members of Woods have managed to create a new album, Bend Beyond, that is consistently engaging and artistically progressive.
All of the staple ingredients of a Woods album, like simple acoustic rhythms, reeling electric guitars, and Earl’s doubled lead vocals, find prominent positions on Bend Beyond. The instantly memorable “Cali In A Cup” employs each of these to great effect while adding a thick backbeat, wandering harmonica riffs, and a vocal hook as catchy as the best of them. On “It Ain’t Easy,” Earl picks lightly on an acoustic guitar to the stark accompaniment of a slide guitar and his voice. Reflective and earnest in his trademark casual manner, the lyrics rival some of Earl’s best – “It gets hard without much to say / A pile of stones in lieu of your grave / And ain’t it hard to say it ain’t easy / Lookin’ for different ways to makes things stay the same.”
While Bend Beyond still gives off a sense of the DIY ethos that has guided Woods in the past, the recordings here seem fuller and more realized than previous efforts. Luckily, the album contains several of those freewheeling and squealing beasts of guitar solos that have long come to help define the band’s sound, albeit they are now walked on a shorter leash. Bend Beyond improves upon the finest elements of Woods’ prior releases without stepping into the unforgiving trappings of a sterile and uninspired performance.
Ben Sauder is an Online Editorial Assistant at Ogden Publications, the parent company of Utne Reader. Find him on Google+.
10/24/2012 1:29:25 PM
Available on Sugar Hill Records (Oct. 9, 2012)
At an age when most people have left business concerns behind, Wanda Jackson is still working harder than people just getting started. The Queen of Rockabilly has cranked out her second album in as many years, again produced by a musician who wasn’t even born when Wanda started rockin'.
Jackson’s Unfinished Business collects 10 tracks that touch on each of her strengths: rockabilly, heartache-y country, blues and gospel. Justin Townes Earle makes his production debut, giving the proceedings a lean, honky-tonk feel. Fresh off of 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over—produced by Jack White—Business once again gathers several standards, some in Jackson’s wheelhouse, others not quite a full realization of Jackson’s legendary, gravelly voice.
One of the first women to record a rock and roll song, Jackson has been singing blistering rockabilly tunes since the late ‘50s. Fortunately for listeners, her voice hasn’t left her and still has its bite as evidenced on “Tore Down,” the album’s opener. Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” gets the vengeful, not-sorry-for-myself blues treatment and the Etta James hit “Pushover” finds Jackson’s sultry croon scolding a would-be lothario.
For years, Jackson left rockabilly behind to focus on country and later gospel before coming back to her first love. She duets with Earle on “Am I Even a Memory,” as they trade verses of heartache and loss, a steel guitar wailing with nearly palpable regret all the while. She’s not lost the touch for Saturday night barroom ballads or those more appropriate for Sunday morning service, as evidenced on the joyous “Two Hands.”
Song selection aside, the centerpiece of Unfinished Business is Jackson’s voice. Even on the weakest track, the Woody Guthrie-penned and Jeff Tweedy-finished “California Stars,” a song that doesn’t play to her strengths, that voice still sounds magical. Earle’s inexperience behind the controls shows in spots, as the music sounds thin and the band as if they’re in another room. That’s not the point though, as Jackson proves she still has pipes many aspiring singers would kill for. While not as vital as her previous effort, it’s good to see Jackson still taking care of business.
10/19/2012 9:19:18 AM
Black Moth Super Rainbow
Available on Rad Cult (October 23, 2012)
If airports are the ghost towns of the future, Black Moth
Super Rainbow is already there, playing an all night party amidst crumbling
walls, deserted storefronts, and lines of empty chairs. Mechanically processed
vocals floating through distorted synthesizer riffs somehow manage to sound
warm and friendly. Shadows shift as people filter in and the desolation is
slowly replaced with dancing. It seems entirely possible that an alien
spacecraft could land on the cracked tarmac at any moment, amidst echoes of the
In the cultural subconscious, the sounds of modular synths
and vocorders are inextricably linked to spaceships, robots, and boxy white
text on black computer screens. Because Black Moth Super Rainbow tends toward
such instruments, the music often has a party-on-the-Starship-Enterprise vibe. Cobra Juicy is no exception. After a few
seconds of rowdy pep-band percussion, the album transforms into a retro-futuristic
exploration of analogue electronica. It might seem impenetrable and
disorienting unless you regularly listen to Boards of Canada, Air, and Pink
Floyd all at once—and it might even if you do. This is fringes of the fringes
songwriting and, while BMSR has plenty of fans, the music is a creative experiment
probably never intended to be understood or loved by the masses. There’s an
urge to try to wrap your head around it all, but it’s only when you stop
analyzing that the sounds begin to make much sense. Once the moog-era novelty
wears off, we hear danceable beats, straightforward hooks, and melodies meant
to delight rather than impress.
Cobra Juicy is the
product of BMSR’s own transformation. Frontman Tobacco (Tom Fec) reported
feeling confined by the project after 2009’s Eating Us. He went solo for a couple of albums, then got inspired
to return to BMSR—without the rest of the band. He laid down several tracks,
trashed most of them, and made new ones. Though the band will be joining him
for the live tour, clearly this is not a man who gives in to sentimentality. Rather
than nostalgia for a dead future, tracks like “Spraypaint” and “I Think I’m
Evil,” seem to be coming to terms with the weirdness of now. Others, like
“Psychic Love Damage” and “We Burn,” revel in the strange and sad while finding
something beautiful in them. Cobra Juicy
owns our culture’s dated expectations and eerie optimism, turning the history
of our imagined future into a new thing that’s vulnerable and joyful, sinister and
lovely all at once.
10/16/2012 2:22:53 PM
David Wish is the founder and executive director of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides music education for students in disadvantaged public schools. Since 2002, Little Kids Rock has provided meaningful music education to more than 200,000 students nationwide thanks to the support of teachers, volunteers, and music icons such as B.B. King and Paul Simon. David Wish is a 2012 Utne Visionary; below is our email interview with Wish from September 2012.
Christian Williams: Where were you teaching when you decided to start the after-school lessons
and develop the program?
David Wish: I was a first-grade teacher in the San Francisco
Bay Area and was very upset that my students were not receiving music education.
So I took matters into my own hands and started giving free classes after school
for my class. More and more kids wanted to get in on the fun so I kept offering
more and more classes. It got to the point where I had to start turning kids
away which broke my heart. So that's when I started reaching out to other
teachers I knew to enlist their help. Not only did I no longer need to turn kids
away, I found their were tons of teachers who wanted to help.
Kids Rock has been around for 10 years now. Did you expect this kind of
longevity and success when you started?
DW: Time flies when you are having
fun! I really can't believe that ten years have passed. I have never pursued
success; I have pursued fulfillment. It brings me such joy and satisfaction to
watch a young person's life transformed by music. That's where I still keep my
focus: reaching kids and making a difference in their lives. That's something we
can all do every day of our lives: do something for other people.
I don't expect success, I expect impact.
CW: What were your initial
goals or measures for success in the beginning?
DW: When I first started, I
just wanted to bring music into the lives of thirty first graders. That seemed a big
enough goal. Then my goal became reaching another group of thirty, then another. I
could see the impact immediately in the way the kids carried themselves, the
ways that they expressed themselves and the ways that they connected to school.
That's what motivated me. Today, in year 10, over 1,300 public school teachers
have decided that they feel the same way and have brought Little Kids Rock
programming to over 200,000 kids.
CW: What has surprised you most about
the program and how it’s been received by kids and teachers alike?
has surprised me the most is watching the impact that our teaching methodology
and training has on the teachers. I have seen teachers weeping during our
trainings because they themselves had internalized negative messages about their
own creativity. Our pedagogy validates and elevates them. They say things like,
"This has changed me entire view of myself as a creative person," or "I learned
more from two days of training here than I did in all my years at the
conservatory." That's powerful stuff
CW: Your approach to teaching
music differs from the traditional approach in that you emphasize performance
and composition over reading notes. When did you realize that kids might be more
attracted to learning music this way?
DW: To people who do not make music
themselves, this may seem mysterious. However, music is a language and like all
languages, we learn to speak them before we learn to read them. We all learned
to speak before we went to school. And what did we speak about? Things that
interested us. We teach kids to play the music that interests them and we
approach it non-notationally, at least at first. When you teach people to play
by reading music, it is a mathematical approach. In math, there is usually one
right answer and an infinite number of wrong answers. However, when you teach
music as a language, there are many, many right answers and making music becomes
easier and less intimidating. That was the way that got me hooked.
Like so many other people from my generation, I did have music as a kid but the
classes I took did not speak to me and yet I loved music. I learned music
from my friends, from records and from the street. It became a passion and an
obsession but one that developed outside of the academy. Little Kids Rock is my
attempt to reconcile this approach with the academy and, in so doing, rock the
lives of a lot of kids.
CW: How were you originally able to get
celebrity sponsors like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker involved?
appeal to celebrities has always been very grassroots and organic. In the early
days I would send tapes of our students' original compositions to artists and
ask if they'd like to get involved. Upon hearing our kids, people wanted to get
involved. I know that sounds so simple but it's true. Once artists come out to
see our kids, once they got to see the joy in their faces first hand, once they
got to play with them and make music, they tell their other musician friends and
our artist outreach is all word of mouth.
CW: Anything else you like to
DW: Yes. If you love music then you are innately musical and a
music maker. Anyone who ever told you otherwise was lying.
"Beyond Baby Mozart, Students Who Rock,"New York Times, September 8, 2011
Main site: LittleKidsRock.org
10/11/2012 12:25:12 PM
This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com.
Woody Guthrie has been having a blowout of a 100th birthday party,
and it's lasted all year long. Forty-five years after his death in 1967, you
can suddenly hear him everywhere.
Tribute concerts have been held around America and in Europe, many with conferences
attached, and the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his Oklahoma hometown this summer swelled to
extra-large proportions for the centennial. Smithsonian Folkways has released a
lavishly documented box set, Woody at 100, that couples well-known compositions with rare
and unreleased performances. On October 14th, all will culminate in a Kennedy
Center Celebration Concert with an honor roll of musicians.
A handful of fine books have also been
timed to appear this year—including a "song biography," This Land Is Your Land:
Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, by Robert
Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and a biography cum memoir, Woody's Road,
by Guthrie's younger sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, and the Oklahoma historian
and folklorist Guy Logsdon. Guthrie's archives, long housed in Mt.
Kisco, N.Y., are being shifted
amid great fanfare to Tulsa,
Okla. There was even an
announcement by the historian and television personality Douglas
Brinkley and the polymathic performer Johnny Depp of a deal to publish the
recently located manuscript of Guthrie's previously unknown 1947 Dust Bowl
But after the confetti flutters to the
ground and the crowd disperses, exactly what will remain?
The instability of Guthrie's renown
owes something to his leftist politics, but that's only part of the story. Some
of it surely has to do with how he lived his life. He was a nonstop creator,
but never an entrepreneur. As a result, lots of his work went unnoticed until
he was "rediscovered" after he stopped performing—and despite recent
excavations, there's still a rich trove in the archive, including thousands of
song lyrics that he never recorded. Nor should we overlook the nature of
Guthrie's art itself: The accessibility of his writing masks its depth.
But it still remains to explain why it
has taken so long for Guthrie to get his due—not least from scholars. The man
was quite simply a titan in his field. In less than two decades of public life,
Guthrie created a vast body of work that continues to influence artists and
listeners. His subject matter—immigration, unemployment, bank foreclosures,
climate disasters—could not be more topical. Almost every American knows at
least a song or two by Woody Guthrie, so why don't they know more about the
The disjointed nature of Guthrie's artistic life, in which fame
followed him like a long-delayed echo, is the first place to search for
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in the
small town of Okemah, Okla., a few months before his namesake was
elected president in 1912. Guthrie's family never knew stability. His father's
work waned more often than it waxed, and Guthrie's mother, Nora, showed signs
early in her son's life of the Huntington's disease that eventually killed
her—and later him.
The Guthries were plagued by fire.
Woody's beloved older sister, Clara, died in 1919 of burns suffered in a
kitchen accident, and the family home burned down in 1927 as a result of a fire
that Nora Guthrie may have started. She was eventually institutionalized.
Guthrie's father, Charley Edward, permanently disabled by burns, moved to the
farming town of Pampa, Tex.
Guthrie later joined his father in Texas, and there he
found his musical vocation. He learned the guitar and started to perform. He
also married for the first time at age 21, and quickly became a father himself.
But beginning a lifelong pattern of restlessness, he soon drifted to Los Angeles, alone.
Guthrie's stay in Depression-era Southern California politicized him. New Deal reforms
were slow to reach the coast, as powerful agribusiness interests fought hard
for control of a poor and itinerant labor supply. That labor force included the
"Okies" who had fled the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl in
search of any sort of work. Appalled by the inequality he saw, Guthrie began to
write songs about it:
California is a Garden of Eden,
a paradise to live in or to see,
But believe it
or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't
got the do-re-mi.
He became a popular Los Angeles radio host in the late 1930s, and
honed a persona that was part Okie, part homespun storyteller, and part singing
activist. But Guthrie soon abandoned his radio gig and moved on—first back to
Texas in a failed attempt at family life, and then to New York City in 1940,
the year he wrote "This Land Is Your Land." In New York, Guthrie found a welcome among the
city's left-wing intelligentsia and began to make a living performing at
rallies, union halls, and other political gatherings.
He cut a record, Dust Bowl Ballads, for
RCA in 1940. It turned out to be the only record he would make for a major
label, and it was modestly received. He also recorded at the Library of
Congress at the invitation of the folk archivist Alan Lomax that year, though
those recordings weren't released until 1964.
Even in such congenial artistic
surroundings, Guthrie could not stay put for long. He bounced back and forth
from coast to coast in the early 1940s, sometimes with his new friend Pete
Seeger, a Harvard dropout who sensed the genius of this guitar-wielding knight
errant who was writing and singing on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised,
the workers: people who needed a voice.
Guthrie—and also Seeger—was a Communist
sympathizer at this time, but Guthrie probably didn't join the party. When
asked about his politics, he had a one-liner at the ready: "I ain't a
Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life." You could
say he was never an official joiner—or perhaps that he could never belong to a
group that would exclude anyone. In response to a question about his religion
toward the end of his life, he quipped: "All or none."
Guthrie was turning out words at an
astonishing rate during these years. "You rarely see a cross-out,"
Barry Ollman, owner of the largest collection of Guthrie's writings outside of
the singer's official archive, told me at this past summer's WoodyFest in
Okemah. "He knew what he wanted to say." In the spring of 1941, for
example, Guthrie took a 30-day songwriting job with the Bonneville Power
Administration, a New Deal project in the Pacific
Northwest. His assignment was to write songs about the dams that
were being built along the Columbia River. He
wrote 26 songs that month, including "Roll on, Columbia,"
now the official state folk song of Washington.
None of those songs gained any sort of
wide acclaim at the time. "This Land Is Your Land," for example, has
had a career arc as eccentric as its author's. Guthrie didn't record his lyrics
to the song until 1944, four years after he wrote them, and probably sang it on
the radio for the first time in 1945, the same year that the words were first
published. His recording wasn't released until 1952, when it appeared on a
children's record and was barely noticed. Not until the late 1950s did the song
Guthrie paid little attention to the
financial workings of the music business. He acted not so much out of
principle—he was glad to make money—but because he was perpetually on the move,
creatively as well as personally. In that respect, he was a true folksinger,
happy to just share his songs with folks. In a 1999 essay, Seeger recalled that
his friend's view of copyright was not exactly exclusive, and ran something
like this: "Anyone caught singing one of these songs ... will be a good
friend of mine, because that's why I wrote 'em."
The 1940s were the most stable period
in Guthrie's life, and his most creative. His autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory,
was published in 1943 to wide notice. Not only was he celebrated as the newest
man of letters of the Popular Front, a loose collection of leftist groups, but
he was also lauded by mainstream critics. The book received about 150 reviews; The New York Times
described him as "a poet" who was "on fire inside." Guthrie
recorded scores of songs for Moses Asch's small, privately owned label during
the 40s, but Asch released very few at the time, and they had no commercial
impact. Most of the recordings did not appear until the early 1960s—but they
eventually became a cornerstone of Guthrie's legacy.
Outside of a stint in the Merchant
Marine during World War II, Guthrie remained based in New York City for the rest of the decade, now
with his second wife, Marjorie, and a second set of children. That second
family included his son Arlo, who would become a famous musician in his own
right, and daughter Nora, her father's future archivist.
By the early 1950s Guthrie was
displaying the erratic behavior that eventually led to his own diagnosis with
Huntington's disease in 1952. Acquired from his mother (and passed on to two of
his eight children), Huntington's
usually presents in midlife. Like Lou Gehrig's disease, it is incurable. Unlike
Gehrig's disease, which leaves the mind intact as it destroys the body, Huntington's
destroys brain cells and causes cognitive changes (which led to a misdiagnosis
of insanity for Guthrie's mother), even as it erodes muscle control. It's a
long, bad death.
Always impulsive, Guthrie became
mercurial and quarrelsome. He divorced again, returned to California, remarried. He repaired to New York after his third
marriage ended and was taken in and cared for by Marjorie for the rest of his
life. Intermittently, and then continuously, confined, he lingered at various
hospitals for more than a decade before he died. In the process, he became, in
the words of his biographer Ed Cray, "a vague, almost legendary
He had always been well known among folk musicians, with Pete
Seeger in the lead. As a member of The Weavers, Seeger helped make Guthrie's
"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" into a hit, and his thousands
of performances of "This Land Is Your Land" did much to fix the song
in national and international memory.
The publisher Howard (Howie) S. Richmond also did unsung but crucial work to keep
Guthrie's music in public view during the 1950s. At a time when Seeger and
other performers were being blacklisted for their Communist associations, Richmond touted Guthrie's
songs when Guthrie no longer could. Richmond
sold many to publishers of songbooks, especially those assembled for
children—thus allowing Guthrie's words to elude the blacklist. "This Land
Is Your Land" Richmond
gave away free.
A New York concert in 1956, organized as a
benefit for Guthrie's family, first brought the singer out of the shadows to
stand alongside his songs. The show put wind in the sails of the folk revival,
and Guthrie became a hero to a new generation folkies that included Phil Ochs,
Joan Baez, and most famously, Bob Dylan. Ochs and Dylan wrote memorable songs
about their idol ("Bound for Glory" and "Song to Woody").
Guthrie's recordings from the 1940s now began to appear, with extensive liner
notes. So did tribute collections of others singing his songs.
Performing at this year's WoodyFest,
the singer-songwriter Larry Long described Guthrie's life as a "creative
explosion that subdivided into thousands of subatomic particles that turned
into little Woodys." The efforts of those "little Woodys"—or
Woody's children, as they're more often described—enabled Woody Guthrie to
finally take his public place in the music he had helped to grow.
But Guthrie also remained a divisive
figure. David Amram, who has written a suite of "Symphonic Variations of a
Song by Woody Guthrie," suggested that Guthrie "was marginalized by
people who wanted to put a political slant on him." He became a lightening
rod for true believers right and left. "He was either a hero against the
enemy, or he was the enemy," said Amram. "That's understandable in a
boxing match, but not for a poet. Great artists are on everybody's side."
Nevertheless, Guthrie's personal
politics made him an easy adversary. The American Legion blocked an attempt to
honor him in his hometown in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Communist. Guy
Logsdon recalled at the folkfest that, in 1982, Gov. George Nigh of Oklahoma
forbade the mention of Guthrie's name at the celebration of Oklahoma
at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington,
D.C. (Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and
others helped organize an alternative "Tribute to Woody Guthrie."
Guthrie has also received surprisingly little scholarly attention.
There have been two good biographies—Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie, in 1980, and Ed
Man, 2004. (There's also a new short biography, Woody Guthrie: Writing
America's Songs, by Ronald Cohen, an emeritus professor at Indiana
University Northwest. And last year brought us the U.K.-based literary critic
Will Kaufman's Woody
Guthrie, American Radical.) But given Guthrie's immense stature and
influence, there is much less scholarship on his work than one might expect.
His radical politics would presumably not discourage academics, many of whom
lean left themselves. Why the diffidence?
Read the rest at Chronicle.com.
a professor of English at Fordham
University, is general
editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011).
10/9/2012 2:48:24 PM
Once an Irish enclave, Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood now attracts
young hipsters with its inner city ambiance and lively nightlife.
Jay Walljasper is author of the Great Neighborhood Book, an associate of the Citistates Group and a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces. He writes regularly about cities for a number of sources including OnTheCommons.org, Shareable.net, and Citiwire, and is a former Utne Reader editor. Reprinted from Planetezin, an urban planning news website, featuring articles, op-eds, jobs, courses and information for the urban planning, design and development community.
Sprinkled among gloom-and-doom stories coming out of Detroit is some unexpected good news: the city’s growing appeal to young people. According to plentiful media reports, well-educated twenty-somethings are streaming into the Motor City to test out new ideas, explore art and music projects or launch DIY revitalization initiatives.
The real story is a bit more complex than that, but you can spot a number of once-dormant corners of the city now pulsing with activity thanks to young entrepreneurs. Corktown, in the shadow of the much-photographed ruin of Detroit’s train station, sports pubs and restaurants that would fit in Brooklyn or Portland.
The Midtown district near Wayne State University and two major medical centers shows all the makings of a creative class hub, complete with hipsters hanging out at the Good Girls Go to Paris creperie, the Avalon International Breads bakery, and the N’Nmadi Center gallery, devoted to the rich tradition of African-American abstract art. Add in the venerable yet lively Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as handsome brick mansions still standing from the early 20th Century, and it’s easy to understand Midtown’s attraction.
Recent college grads can be seen all over town, from the bountiful Eastern Market to bustling Campus Martius square to festive Mexicantown to the scenic Riverwalk to the yummy Good People Popcorn shop downtown.
This burst of youthful energy—even in the face of the city’s continuing economic and social woes—debunks widespread opinion that nothing can be done to jumpstart the Motor City. While a new, more positive narrative about Detroit is welcome, there are problems in focusing entirely on idealistic young adventurers swooping in to save the city—it reinforces the stereotype of native Detroiters as hapless, helpless and hopeless.
The truth is, newcomers aren’t the only ones stirring up excitement around town. Good People Popcorn, for instance, was started by two sisters and a cousin, all of whom grew up here. Sarida Scott Montgomery, one of the founders who is also a lawyer and Executive Director of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, says people are often surprised she grew up in the city. “Not in the suburbs,” she explains, “but in Detroit itself.”
Regina Ann Campbell, manager of the Milwaukee Junction Small Business Center incubator in Detroit’s North End, grew up on the Northwest side before earning a Masters in urban planning degree at the University of Michigan. “I welcome all the new people,” she says. “But it’s important for them to understand they are building on some things that have been going on for years. I want to help them appreciate the city though the eyes of the people who have lived here.”
Scott Montgomery and Campbell are both part of a new initiative that matches the talents of bright, young professionals with local organizations working at the frontlines of reviving Detroit. The Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program (DRFP) selected 29 Fellows with backgrounds in urban planning, economic development, finance, real estate, and related fields out of 650 applicants from across the country.
A lot of the buzz around the program highlights ambitious folks relocating from New York, Seattle, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles to further their careers in Detroit, but in reality ten of the fellows were already living in Detroit and nine others had grown up in the metro area or previously lived in the city.
For many of them it was a long-awaited homecoming, which shows that continuing loyalty from the Detroit Diaspora is a hidden asset in the city’s favor. Jela Ellefson, who was working at a Los Angeles urban planning firm before moving back with her husband, an architect, and two children, says, “We always followed what was happening in Detroit, and noticed that the urban planning world was paying a lot of attention. Life in Los Angeles was coming to feel very stressful in terms of time, distance and money.”
The program—a Wayne State project financially supported by the Kresge Foundation, Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Skillman Foundation and the university—placed fellows at organizations identified as being "actively engaged in building the Detroit of tomorrow." This covers everything from the Data Driven Detroit research firm to the Community Investment Support Fund, which directs investment capital to low-income neighborhoods.
Fellow Matteo Passalacqua works at the Vanguard community development corporation to rehab historic structures as affordable housing in the city’s North End, Owiso Makuku joined the governor’s Office on Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, Marcus Clarke at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and David Barna at Midtown Detroit Inc. are collaborating to help city firms acquire a larger share of procurement contracts from large local institutions.
One of DRFP’s chief goals is that many of the Fellows will make a long-term commitment to help reviving the city, rather than just sampling the Detroit scene on their way to somewhere else. The program was modeled a similar one in New Orleans that brought young talent to the city after Hurricane Katrina—most of whom stayed after the Fellowship ended, according to DRFP Executive Director Robin Boyle, an urban planning professor at Wayne State.
Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit who hired Fellow Eric Anderson as the organization’s Director of Digital Media and Engagement, sees the DRFP as important in reversing Detroit’s brain drain. “We’ve been losing talented folks for a long time. Part of what we have to do to recover our potential is stop that drain. The Fellows program represents that potential.”
Jean Redfield, vice-president for Public Programs at Next Energy, a sustainable energy non-profit working with the city, notes, “The program has allowed us to bring in backgrounds we would not ordinarily be hiring. Katy Wyerman fits that with her background in community planning and Erin Kelly with her passion for a waste-free economy. The Detroit Fellows program delivered for us access to skill sets we likely would not have been able to get.”
Despite this high level of enthusiasm, director Robin Boyle is frank about the challenges. He admits he did not anticipate the rippling effect the City of Detroit’s financial emergency would have on work all across the city. In doing it over again, he would also spend more time helping employers get ready for the Fellows.
Indeed, Boyle may have that chance. Discussions are underway about selecting another round of Fellows to start in the fall of 2013, but no firm decision has been made yet.
“The biggest surprise for me was has been how so many of these people fit in so quickly and incredibly well in the world of Detroit,” Boyle notes. “A lot of them are engaged in the community, inside and even outside work. Often I will go to a meeting of some kind or another and walk in to find 2 or 3 Fellows there. That’s a very positive sign.”
Another positive sign is how many Fellows have become ardent advocates of Detroit as a great place not only to make a difference in the world—but a difference in their own lives and careers. Allyson McLean, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs and has worked on brownfield redevelopment for Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and on strategic planning for the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security at the D.C.-area consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, is now aiding real estate development in low-income communities with the Community Investment Support Fund.
“Now that I am back,” she says, “it’s frustrating to hear from friends I grew up with who have no plans to ever return. In many cases they aren’t necessarily staying in places like Chicago because they’ve landed great jobs, they simply think it’s a cooler place to be. They have no idea what they’re missing in their hometown.”
Image courtesy of Sean Davis, licensed under Creative Commons.
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