A Study in Contrasts: Joe Thee Great

 

 

Joe Thee Great just moved to our neighborhood, finding his voice in Detroit

 

Living in Detroit is a study in abundant contrasts.

I travel a lot, and right now I’m still awake in Denver at midnight (mountain time), so the bell on my phone that signals a new text doesn’t awaken me when it goes off 3 times in annoying succession. I look at the texts to see a barrage of messages.  Everyone back home is texting Captain Hope (yes, our community police woman carries the name Hope!).  Apparently the bikers are out on the prowl again on Jos Campeau, our courtyard side street, louder than ever. It’s well past midnight in the D, and folks inside the building clearly want their sleep. The folks outside want their music, and they want it loud and laced with profanity. The sound boxes mounted on their Harley’s continue to blast music long after the concert in Chene Park has ended. The speaker cages look almost as big as the motorcycle engines. Big bikes. Big sound. Big time.

I decline to text Captain Hope because it’s not my fight tonight. I will be back home soon enough. Besides, my neighbor Patrick has taken this up as his own personal cause.  He’s lived in our building for over 20 years, so he claims a certain right as the Dean of Detroit. He is an artist, who teaches art in Detroit’s public schools, but after two decades of union teacher concessions, I’m afraid he’s going to give up that fight and retire at the end of this school year, in favor of making sure that the motorcyclists are subdued, and he can follow his artistic pursuits without distraction. This has almost become his full time job, and he is persistent, and painfully well organized.  Patrick has already mobilized two meetings with the city council, and somehow secured a TV crew from WDIV to come out and interview the neighbors.  He’s holding the council fast to a promise they made last spring to post a sign enforcing the noise ordinance that’s supposed to be in effect.  It’s hard to imagine they’re going to follow up on this, it’s been a year since they assured Patrick they would. But loud noise, although annoying and sleep depriving, just doesn’t command the same urgency that other police matters do. I just want to make sure we don’t p#$@ the guys on bikes off so completely that they jump off their rides and make life difficult during the day for us as we pass them on the streets. It’s not worth that kind of fight.  Although come to think of it, they are clearly night owls, the music rarely starts before 11 p.m.  We probably won’t see them when the sun returns in the early hours.

Next day I am back in the D.  I am heading out to my car when I hear rap music coming from a BMW in the courtyard. It sounds different. Not loud and bracing, more poetic. And not at a volume that would offend anyone. Just a young guy in his car is in his own zone. He’s in the moment, totally channeling the music.  He has his dog with him in the back seat.

I signal a greeting and mention in passing, “just being honest, rap and hip hop is usually the one kind of music I just don’t get. My sons tell me there’s more to it so I’m sure it’s generational.  Call me an old fart.  Of course, as it turns out, the truth is I have heard some rap that I do like.” Guy leans out of his car window and says “I just recorded this.” He says this with a certain understated pride. Really.

I can’t help but be mildly embarrassed and impressed at the same time.  There is something deeply earnest about his voice, both in announcing this to me, and in the background vocals on the CD he’s playing.

“I finally found the courage to perform my art on the river last week. Found some guys and they were all in. So we took it to the studio yesterday and mixed it. No profanity, no trippin’ on bee-atches, it’s all faith based. When I turned my life to God last year it all changed. Moved here, found my voice. It’s all good.”

Guy has a way of making you feel good to be around him.  He has a serene smile, a soft voice. I can’t help but stand there for a minute, listening with him.  The dog in the back seat looks on.

“We’re working on our next tracks, gotta lot more stuff, it’s a work in progress, lot’s to say, it’s all good.”

This plays like a feeling, raw, powerful but not fully formed.  Detroit, with all its sounds, the music, the neighbors, the blight, the loud music and motorcycle engine’s revving late night, I guess on some level, it’s all good, all a work in progress. In our neck of the neighborhood, we escape much of it, the brutal crimes, the bodies in freezers, the car jackings, the neglected corpses, the drug runs that run in the wrong direction. That’s certainly real, make no mistake, gritty, raw, not clean, not sanitized, or suburban, or subdued. But the fact that we’re not up late with police lights, and yellow tape marking off our street as evening news crews arrive has to account for some progress.

Instead we deal with the tedium of small crimes and petty misdemeanors with the motorcyclists, the city park pan handlers, the concert goers walking to the bars after the music ends in Chene park, all of them expressing themselves, their voices at turns irritated, lubricated, unfettered, defeated, earnest, agitated. It’s so different for me, even though I grew up here. Strangely, it makes me feel both old and young at the same time.

Its not like the times are so different. My grandfather and his brothers were all weekend warriors who knew how to drink this city dry. They could tear up the streets when their shift was over, spend the night shift in the corner bars. My grandfather once stumbled out of the VFW hall after an evening spent fortifying his spirits. As he pulled his car onto Van Dyke he hit a pedestrian. An ambulance arrived on the scene, strapped the victim onto a gurney and put him inside the vehicle, apparently failing to secure the door latch as he did so. Whereupon said pedestrian flew out of the ambulance suffering several additional bumps, bangs and scratches. The only reason my grandfather was released from police custody to the care of my grandma and dad was that they couldn’t be sure which injuries were sustained by my grandfather. So its not like the Detroit of our past was without its similar head-turning twists and charms, fueled by alcohol and temporary lapses of judgment.

Detroit has a reputation for being that way, constantly on edge, in motion.  It has something to do with our automotive DNA, I’m guessing, the influx of immigrants, first from Europe and then the Deep South, the massive white flight that followed, stirring up a constant refrain of churn and drama, abrupt movements, and steady upheaval.

He extends his hand through the window.  “By the way, I’m Joe Thee Great, and this fine one is my dog Nola. I guess we’re neighbors.”

Joe Thee great makes me realize everyone does something different with the fight in them. Taking the raw feelings that the city, and all its elements stir. They turn it into something, whether art, a statement, or god knows some other kind of noise fueled by their agitation.

All good, this is real. My life now in Detroit.

Blinded by Rainbows

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Sometimes we get it right. We rise from the massive ash heap left smoldering, get past the shambles we’ve created for ourselves, and act in our own best nature. Like today. I woke up this morning disoriented. It was raining heavily with high winds and dark clouds. But strangely as I looked around the customary blight that surrounds us in this city, all I saw were rainbows literally everywhere.

As I read the morning news, I caught up on the first big story of the week. After countless tea party efforts to subvert the Equal Access to Health Care law, the Supreme Court decided it would let it stand. So now millions of children in poverty will have a better shot at getting the basic health care they need. That’s clearly gonna p@&$ some people off.

One would hope.

And in the second story of the week, we decided “equal access” meant exactly and simply that. Equal for everybody. Conservative jurists have historically described their view as a “strict construction” of the law. They “do not legislate from the bench.” But apparently if they don’t like the way the tide has turned, they reserve the right to take their marbles and go home, but not before wrapping up final arguments in a tidy screed of nastiness for everyone, and future generations to read.

Scalia’s dissenting opinion reads like an email someone writes to sound off after some petulant and petty dispute, but decides upon further reflection to wait before sending.

Only he pressed send. Which means he must have wanted future generations to know something more of our times:

When large dinosaur-like A-holes walked the earth. And old white men decided the fate of women’s reproductive rights, and self-righteous religious bigots wrapped themselves with false pride in Parchment passages from the bible and spewed vitriol like Hitler from the pulpit and we screamed “unbelievable” as they called it faith.

And we marched off patriotically to export democracy across the globe, send spent trillions of dollars on the way there, and turned part of the Middle East into a parking lot, and left the rest of it resembling the same war zone as our own inner cities after the race riots in the wake of armor.

Racism is dead now. We eliminated it like so much other pestilence just like polio, smallpox and tuberculosis, and the biggest affliction of this past decade, Osama Bin Laden.

Or wait a minute — is that him in the corner laughing with Saddam Hussein from the grave looking at the return on his investment from two planes he aimed like warheads at the World Trade Towers?

That must be my imagination.

Because don’t forget, we still have someone smart but sinister sitting on the big Bench ruling that corporations are just like people, and they can buy the American Dream and give it away to a select 1% of the people.

And in a generous interpretation of the Constitution they also decided to give everyone without good judgment and an axe to grind free access to weapons of our own mass destruction. Smaller versions of the ones we didn’t find in Iraq. These can be carried by suburban teenagers unobserved into shopping malls, elementary schools and churches to rid ourselves of the terrorist threats that lurk in midtown America.

As further protection we decided that we should gather up the most evil among us and they should be executed by the state even if we later learn thru scientific evidence they couldn’t possibly have done it. So we can now stand armed in arms with Iran and North Korea as the most developed country in the world to maintain the death penalty, and allow the state to shoot to kill first, and use DNA evidence posthumously to acquit afterwards.

We did it. We chose to do it freely, with free elections, not like the ones in sub-Saharan Africa where the UN peacekeepers must intervene to protect the ballot box, but here where our right to vote is protected by income and inclination, and the disenfranchised needn’t bother to show up at the polls, because we don’t care about their opinion anyway, and if we want them to have one we’ll put in on Fox News or Facebook for them.

Clearly, the only way we could have let this happen is we were picking our noses when we picked in a free election the One who picked this Supreme guy among nine others to safeguard the most sacred document in the free world next to the bible.

Is this what our free world is coming to? It must have been just a bad nightmare last night.

Because as it turns out, I woke up this morning, and everyone’s smiling and love is in the air, and all I’m seeing everywhere I look is rainbows. Beautiful rainbows.

Conservatism is the negation of ideology. When did it run off the rails and go so horribly wrong? When did it become a haven for the petulant and pedantic? Where the bombastic can bloviate without any obligation to govern fairly? What happened?

Sometimes I just can’t see it. Like today, blinded by endless patches of rainbows. I’m just so happy I could sing if I could hold a tune. Looking around in disbelief, Rainbows everywhere. Morning in America.

Developing Detroit’s Talent Through Collective Impact

The talent in Detroit it limitless if we unleash it.

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We must invest in Detroit’s Talent Collectively

By Ron J. Stefanski with Tami Strang

The job skills gap in Detroit is vividly represented by a staggering 15% of the city’s adult population without a high school diploma.  This remains one of Detroit’s most pressing challenges.  An area employer recently shared they had almost 100 openings, none of which could be filled with qualified local talent.  Develop local mid-skills talent, restore more mid-skills jobs, and we have a recipe for Detroiter’s to participate in the city’s revitalization.  Turn Detroit into an engine of sustained economic growth, with a pool of skilled talent, and Michigan takes its economic recovery to an entirely new level.

So how can a global education company with strong ties to Detroit play a role? Cengage Learning recently announced its Clinton Global Initiative Commitment, “Detroit Collective Impact – Pathway to Education & Work.”

Alongside other businesses and social-service organizations, we’re committing to use our collective resources to accelerate Detroit’s recovery by implementing some of our best and most innovative educational solutions. Through the work done with this initiative, Detroiters in need can earn their high-school diploma and get valuable career training through Career Online High School (COHS), an evidenced based program designed for those who are out of school, gated in their careers because they lack the education required for mid-skill employment. Our partners will be providing tuition assistance.  What’s more, learners will be surrounded by a skilled support and engagement system that helps them achieve their educational goals—and prepares them for opportunities that lead to greater success and security.

The Detroit Collective Impact Initiative: A Coalition of the Caring

Our company roots in Detroit go back over 60 years with Gale, a leading provider of library resources.  We currently have over 500 employees in metro Detroit that work on myriad learning solutions for learners of all stripes.  However, one online solution—and one progressive education Company—can’t resolve a city’s education and economic issues on its own.

As we’ve discussed our plan with legislators and leaders in the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, and in Washington, we’ve heard the same thing: that education is a local, community-inspired endeavor. We agree—for this reason, we’re mobilizing public and private organizations across Detroit to partner with us to provide educational opportunities for those in their own neighborhoods.  We started working with a coalition of caring partners—including Matrix Human Services, McDonald’s Corporation, Michigan Virtual University, and KinexusWe are collectively focused on those out-of-school who don’t have the education or skills to succeed in the 21st century globally connected economy.  As word spreads of our collaboration, we are confident other partners will join us in this effort.

Each of our current launch partners brings something valuable to the equation. Cengage Learning brings a unique series of educational solutions, as well as the means to connect thought leaders and decision makers. Our partners bring skills and resources such as tuition assistance, student recruitment, mentoring, learning labs, and other services that encourage people to re-engage in their education. This collective outreach is designed to produce results right in the city many of us choose to call home.

Detroit: A History—and Future—of Innovation

At the heart of the Governor Snyder’s recent Policy Conference on Mackinaw, Detroit and urban revitalization was a huge topic of discussion among policy makers, non-profit and business leaders, educators and legislators.  There were strong signs of collaboration on display—between Governor Snyder and Mayor Duggan, as well as Duggan and the Detroit City Council.  The Skillman Foundation, under the visionary leadership of Tonya Allen, was also on hand as the architect of the “Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.”  Their recent report on the state of public education in Detroit is sobering.  It represents the equivalent of a “ground zero” of dysfunction, and long-term cumulative financial and operational challenges across the educational landscape in Detroit. They’ve mobilized a dedicated group of public and private sector leaders to jointly address the issues facing Detroit’s schoolchildren.

But what does it mean if you were one of thousands who didn’t make it through the labyrinth of Detroit’s complicated educational corridors over the past decade? If you lived in one of Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods where a quality education was elusive if not completely out of reach? It very likely means that you’ve become part of a larger community across the country, now numbering 40 million or more, who are part of America’s “ungraduated” – part of a growing population of the disconnected who are not in school, not working or part of the military.

When my grandparents first arrived in Detroit in 1926 to work in the factories, assembly lines needed hard-working, dedicated people—not having a high school diploma wasn’t an impediment. Nowadays, an insufficiently educated population is a huge brake on economic development. We need to remove the financial, educational and social impediments that limit how we advance our human capital and talent.  We need educational innovation; an assembly line approach for everyone no longer works. As work moves around the globally connected economy at Nano speeds, zip codes shouldn’t determine one’s destiny. But in my Detroit zip code, for example, the odds of a 14-17 year-old male’s chances of earning a high-school diploma improve substantially if he is taken into custody as a Class A felon.  What’s wrong with this picture?

As a Detroiter with my own deep roots in the city, I look at these educational challenges as a place where we can start to leverage technology and evidenced-based best practice to create programs such as our Career Online High School, and other community services to help Detroit recover by helping Detroiters get the education, training and skills they need.

My Personal—and Professional—Mission in Detroit

I grew up in Detroit on the east side in the 60’s, spending a lot of time with my grandparents, who moved to the city with a 6th grade education to work at Chrysler’s Lynch Road assembly plant. My grandma Vicki was so passionate about Detroit for its technology and innovation, she saw it as the land of ultimate opportunity. But after years on the factory floor, as happy as she was with her life, she was convinced I needed an education to have an even better future.

As my immediate family ultimately left Detroit for the suburbs, my mother passed away, and Vicki became a central figure in my life.  We lived together for periods of time, but she never considered leaving her home in Detroit— she was adamant about living out her years in the city she helped assemble. After our family moved, Vicki was killed in her home by a 14 year old boy who had dropped out of school.

Was an individual perpetrator responsible, or were there even larger forces in the city that failed her? 25 years later, I’ve moved back to Detroit, motivated in part by a desire to address that question, and help this city return to its position as an incubator of innovation and opportunity—to put the pieces and parts into place that can re-assemble what was dismantled in Detroit over many years.  As I stand with our partners facing the 70,000 people in need of a high school diploma in this city, I imagine the assembly line my grandmother worked on addressing each task as the line advanced, one part at a time. If anything has changed in 25 years, it’s my resolve to make sure we put the collective pieces together so more people have access to a quality education. I understand firsthand and painfully what happens when we deprive people of this opportunity.  I’ve seen up close what happens when people don’t see a future, and don’t seek help.

I’m privileged that my “day job” allows me to develop these kinds of partnerships, and see this collaboration as creating Detroit’s ultimate “Comeback Academy.” Detroit is a city with a long history of building and re-building things. We’re coming back again to rebuild, and witness firsthand how scrappy Detroiters take a new shot at getting the education they want and need.  I’m convinced as we lock arms and join forces, they’ll come back stronger than ever, returning to the labor force more skilled and better equipped for the opportunities that await them.

After all, our motto is “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus: We hope for better things; we will arise from the ashes.”

  656     now

Detroit is rebuilding. The GAR building before and after renovation

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Advancing skills allows creative Detroiter’s to make something of themselves.

My bike path

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Is Detroit ever really coming back? So many false starts only to be dashed like so many broken promises. Why does this one feel different?

Because like anyone who has a serious problem, acknowledging the problem is invariably the first step to recovery.

After the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. History, it’s fairly easy to argue there’s nowhere to go but up!

But there’s more to Detroit’s story.

On my daily bike path in the D, you can’t swing a jump rope with hitting blight. Some of Detroit’s most majestic icons are situated next to ruins on a massive scale.

John Hope Bryant recently said it best at a conference on Mackinaw Island.”Detroit, America needs a win here!”

Belle Isle and the Detroit Yacht Club

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When people find out we moved back to Detroit, this is how it usually sounds: You mean actually in the city, not Metro Detroit? Is it safe? Is Detroit really coming back?

For many, it’s hard to see. But I grew up on the East side, so for me it’s a no brainer. Detroit is the quintessential comeback city. In the 60’s we had the riots one year, a World Series pennant the next. I still remember the curfews in 1967. My uncle Harry died during that time (not from the violence) and our funeral procession was turned away at the cemetery. Gatherings of three or more, even in God’s name, were strictly prohibited.

Public safety is still a concern. But returning the city to its former glory happens one day at a time. In 1958 my parents had their wedding photos taken, like many newlyweds, at the fountain on Belle Isle.

Nowadays, after the state’s cleanup efforts, families are returning in droves with their kids to hang out and barbecue.

If Detroit ever has a shot at being a resort town or a tourist destination again, Belle Isle and the DYC will no doubt fit prominently into that plan. For Detroiters like my grandma Vicki or Joyce Carol Oates, Detroit was THE American city in the first part of the 20th century, the Paris or New York of the Midwest. The oldest operating yacht club in America, the DYC first opened its doors 3 years after the Civil War in 1868. The current building is actually our third residence on Belle Isle, and was constructed in 1922. For any Detroiters from the 60’s or so, think of Belle Isle as more than Detroit’s iconic island gem, it was our playground. The fountains, statues and buildings all speak to Detroit as one of the wealthiest cities in the first quarter of the 20th century. At its peak the DYC hosted 3,000 members. Words like “Yacht club” and “commodore” makes it sound so hoity toity. It’s really just a cool place to hang with your neighbors, especially cool aboard a bunch of good old boats like ours. Don’t think fancy, just fun. The DYC became a vacation destination for us when Tres Joli was moored in Lake Erie, and it drew us into Detroit like a siren.

Then when you add the aquarium, the Conservatory, the myriad bike paths and the Dossins Great Lakes Museum, it’s certainly a special destination. Yes there’s the creepy stretch of roadway from the abandoned children’s zoo through the “enchanted forest.” But like Rome, the city isn’t going to be rebuilt in a day. A solid start.

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Grand Army of the Republic

One of the last Civil War veterans in Detroit died in the 1940’s. And with him, the Grand Army of the Republic ran its course as the organization that had looked out for our war veterans. Our friends Tom and David Carleton stepped in three years ago to purchase the GAR building and restore it to its former glory. It now hosts office space and a diner and tavern. These guys make the D a little more interesting and a whole lot more hip.

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You don’t know… From Shinola

Shinola has been criticized for its faux Detroit roots. But what’s not to like? Beautiful bikes and watches manufactured right here in Detroit. We recently bought David, my father-in-law, his first Shinola. What I love about my Shinola? It’s a reminder, right on my arm that Detroit makes stuff. Plain and simple.

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Our Guardian

The Guardian Building was built in 2 years and opened in 1929, and was the tallest masonry building in the world at the time. The orange bricks were made especially for it. The rare back and red marble in the lobby were mined in Belgium and Africa. It was opened to the public for the first time in 2003, and is my favorite building in Detroit. It’s a stunning architectural reminder that Detroit in its heyday was the most beautiful American city, and that we have our own majestic standard as we return Detroit to its former glory.

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Field Trip

Don’t you still remember field trips in elementary school as the best? At Holy Name Elementary we had a bus for such occasions, and my dad still had his chaffeur’s license from his early years as a truck driver, so he always drove the bus. I thought that was so cool. His favorite destination was taking us to the Dossins Great Lakes Museum, a regional gem on Belle Isle that was recently restored to its former glory. We caught this class learning about the Diego Rivera murals, one of Detroit’s most prized artifacts. My grandparents loved the murals for the way they spoke to their lives on the factory floor.
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