Crack House to Hay House: My (Detroit) Summer Vacation
by Jenni Emiko Kuida

"Why Detroit? Do you have relatives in Michigan?" friends asked. People expect to hear of summer vacations in Hawaii, Cancun, Paris, or the Caribbean. But Detroit? Actually, my partner Tony and I spent a week in Detroit this June for our vacation.

When our friend Grace Lee Boggs invited us to help design a mural for the Detroit Summer program, we eagerly went. Grace is an 85 year old Chinese American woman, and an activist who has lived in and worked in the Black community in Detroit for over 50 years. Grace and her late African American husband, James Boggs, wrote many articles, newsletters and pamphlets, including "Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century" in 1974. Ever evolving, Grace’s autobiography "Living for Change" was published in 1998.

Detroit Summer was created 9 years ago by Grace, Jimmy, Freddy Paine and Shea Howell. Detroit Summer is a "multicultural, intergenerational youth program/movement to rebuild, redefine and respirit Detroit from the ground up." Young people, from 14-24 years old participate in planting community gardens on vacant lots, creating murals, learning about social responsibility, leadership development and civic spirit.

And so we went. Being LA-centric, I knew very little about Detroit. I learned that Detroit’s Cass Corridor area, has a median household income of $5,000 per year. Over 47% of the city’s residents live in poverty. On our first day in Detroit, we set out with maps of the city to look around. Driving around the desolate streets in our rental car, I thought,

in the ruins of detroit, you’ll see
10,000 empty homes, 60,000 vacant lots
broken bricks, bits of glass, sadly strewn about
burned out houses, boarded up, honey, this one has no roof.

they say that when the car factories shut down,
a million jobs were lost... now there’s
out-of-business auto shops, block after block,
chop suey houses showing signs of better days.

what happened to the people, what happened to their lives?
tiger stadium now sits empty, 100 years of fireworks
they destroyed the people’s homes, making way for corporate park
inside my mind i wonder, does anybody care?

On our first day, we went to the Opening Ceremony for Detroit Summer. There we started to meet the kids in the program. Several shared poetry about Detroit, their plans for the summer, and the impact that Detroit Summer has in their lives. Roxana, a teenager from El Salvador, said "People talk about how bad Detroit is. So do something about it. Take action. You can make a difference." Kibibi, another volunteer who just finished her first year at Michigan State, said that Detroit Summer is: "Not just a wish, but a vision. Not just a thought, it’s Detroit."

Michelle Brown, the Coordinator of Detroit Summer and the Director of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation brought tears to my eyes when she said, "We’re making small changes, but real changes. In doing a garden, we’ve made people see that there is hope. Murals reflect hope, dreams, diversity and strength."

The next day, we started the real work, doing clean up, and planting gardens. Detroit Summer works with "The Gardening Angels," a group of senior citizens from ages 65 to 103 that manage over 125 community gardens in Detroit. As Gerald Hairston said, "We don’t give it from the lips. We do it from the hips."

every day’s a work day,
hauling tons of lumber on our shoulders
down two city blocks, just to plant a garden.
hey kids, whatcha doin’ with that wood?

tilling soil, pulling weeds, meeting Mrs. Clark,
making rows for melons, celery and lettuce.
it’s about small change, but real change
going to paul’s to get some hay -- hey!

We went to Paul Weertz’ house, to pick up hay for the raised beds we planned to use to make a garden in the space behind the youth center. Make no mistake, Paul does not live in a rural area, but he does have a farm... in his backyard. His neighborhood looks a lot like others in Detroit, hundred year old, two story homes, lined up along the block. A few empty lots on the street, the house on the corner is empty.

But, Paul has roosters and baby goats in his backyard, wild raspberries, veggies growing in the yard, and behind the house, five acres of alfalfa are growing. After visiting for awhile, milking and feeding the goats and checking out last year’s garden across the street, Paul took us to the Hay House.

What’s the Hay House, I wondered? We walked across the street to an abandoned house that was boarded up. But then, Paul unlocked the house, opened the plywood front door, and we literally walked into a house filled with hay! It was pretty amazing. I learned that this house, used to store hay, was a former crack house and had been abandoned for many years.

Ten years ago, crack houses flourished in Detroit. Members of SOSAD, Save our Sons and Daughters, senior citizens would take to the streets every Friday night, in an effort to shut down the crack houses. This is one crack house that has been transformed.

While we were learning about some of the great and creative ways that people are approaching the rebuilding and respiriting of the city, we also learned about other issues from people like Shea, the "Walking Detroit Encyclopedia," that helped us to frame the ideas for the mural.

Incinerators burning human waste pollute the city; over 2000 churches, but 7,000 licensed gun dealers; Black and Arabic racial tension; out-of-state casinos wanting to take over the riverfront, demolishing living neighborhoods to build the garish "Comerica Park" (Comerica is a bank in the Midwest) and then abandoning the old Tiger Stadium; and how the city wants to gentrify the Cass Corridor and move the homeless people out... and on and on. This reminds me of the MOCA and JANM-backed Arts Park, and the community struggle for a gym in Little Tokyo.

After my experience working on the Aloha Mural in LA for close to two years, it was a much different process to design a mural in a week. The kids are experienced muralists, having painted murals every summer for the last few years. We had a wall space on the side of the Detroit Summer office that was two stories high and about 30 feet long. In the mornings, we would scrape and blast the wall, and in the afternoons, we would talk about ideas for the mural’s theme, incorporating the concerns of Detroiters, and a vision for what Detroit can be.

By the end of the week, we had a rough sketch of the design. We left before the painting even began, but we came home from our "vacation" feeling enriched and renewed. I guess that’s what it’s about. It makes me wonder how we can bring these ideas home. What things can we do here in LA to make it better and transform people? Do we want to leave it to Riordan, Bush and Gore to come up with the answers?

I talked to Grace the other day. She said the mural is finished and looks great! Detroit Summer. Planting seeds of possibility.

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Jenni Emiko Kuida is co-author of the original "101 Ways to Tell You're Japanese American." She is the Managing Director of the community based performing arts organization Great Leap. The Detroit Summer Mural was her second mural project. This article was originally published in the Rafu Shimpo, August 2000.


Photos of Detroit Summer 2000 Mural at Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation.


The To All Relations: Re-spiriting Detroit and Appalachia project is currently in the planning process, in partnership with Appalshop, also being planned in Central Appalachia, addressing similar issues in a rural community. For more details, contact jenni@greatleap.org.


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Updated: 11/3/2001



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