As Kevin and I walked out of Sunday service, there I saw it: next to the dumpster across the car strewn parking lot on top of mounds of grey brown months old snow were the remnants of a discarded and forgotten organ. How often do we sit in church pews and get swept by the music that envelops us, but never reflect on the instruments and the history of how that music is produced? I felt guilty. That mound of snow with its broken organ became a symbol of indifferent wastefulness; I began to reflect on my time as a transient resident of Detroit.
When I start typing "Detroit is…" in Google, autocomplete results are predominantly negative. "Detroit is crap." "Detroit is dangerous." "Detroit is a war zone." "Detroit is scary." The news has been dominated by Detroit with headlines of the largest municipal bankruptcy, the phenomena of urban flight, and the downfall of the automotive industry. The lights are out. The roads are broken. The jobs are lost. The incomes are unequal. Detroit is that broken organ next to the dumpster. Or at least, that's how it has been perceived, labeled, and dismissed. Detroit, the gleaming beacon of American industrialization and exceptionalism, just like that organ, the gleaming centerpiece of visceral artistry and spirituality, has been discarded in lieu of progress. We live in a world speeding towards change willing to discard the trappings of the past. How do we respond?
The decision was easy. Two days later, Sarah, Elizabeth, and I drove by that dumpster and saw the broken organ still there. After a few minutes of struggling with wood and ice, it became obvious that the other parts were too heavy or bulky for us to carry. In the end, we were only able to salvage the keyboard: the interface between instrument and man.
The keyboard in my room sat for several days. Ideas were thought up and summarily thrown out. Should I turn it into a wall mount? Should I use the keys to create a lamp? Should I use the structure as a canvas? Should I separate the pieces and create different projects? In the end, I decided to use the entire structure as a whole to create a bookshelf. I spent two nights measuring and making plans.
Eventually, I bought some planks of wood and had them cut at the store. The sideboards I had to cut myself. I ended up buying or borrowing other tools like a saw, a sander, and a drill. The first day, I spent four hours just cutting, sanding, gluing, nailing, and varnishing the pieces. Along the way, of course I made mistakes. I broke some drillbits, got splinters in my hand, inhaled some sawdust, put the pieces together crookedly, and spilled a can of varnish. I got frustrated and distraught. My product was imperfect and crooked. I had to remind myself that I'm a novice. The experience was in trying to create beauty and functionality out of trash and the barest of materials. The project became a symbol of how to interact with materials in an imperfect manner, but still find value in the process. In the end, I was left with a flawed but valuable product that I am proud to have created. I redefined the refuse to create a bookshelf: a storage space and product of creativity.
So what is Detroit? Where do the fingers of its people intersect with the foundations of the metropolis? Where does its people get involved in the process of redefining a dismissed city? With a city, flaws permeate its existence and its redemption. In Detroit, I see people work everyday to make it better. Doctors, caseworkers, legislators, lawyers, volunteers, teachers, chaplains, and community organizers face an avalanche of human suffering daily. They see the flaws of a city and try to work with the barest of resources for redemption. The victories of course are not perfect. The medicines or housing or food or counseling that can be provided cannot fully remedy the failures of social structures. Even after safety nets are provided, people will fall between the cracks. The marginalized may remain marginalized. But, is that reality grounds for pessimism and inactivity?
In the end, my project taught me to enjoy the process. The process is what will redeem Detroit. The results will eventually come to fruition, but it is the process that most excites me about Detroit. There is an excitement and an embrace of the process that is full of optimism in the light of all the suffering. There are days that make it hard to get out of bed, but Detroiters still do and hope for tomorrow. People that I work with, have met, and admire in Detroit see the marginalized at their level. They embody the imperfect process of redemption along with the people they serve. At the end of the day, it is in those imperfect interactions at an equal level that redeems Detroit. It is in the solidarity of a people in imperfection that allows for Detroit to re-imagine itself.
There are objects, moments, people, places, and skills that, over time, eventually change, lose purpose, or is discarded. The progression of violence, failure, and industry has rendered Detroit, its people, and its industries irrelevant. Or at least that is how it is perceived. Everyday, there are interactions in this city, in any city, that are slowly redefining and re-imagining its potential. As people, we have to acknowledge these efforts and not be bogged down by the results. We have to allow our imaginations to see the potential and beauty of each and every interaction we engage in. So with that in mind, let's keep building bookshelves.
[Sorry for the inactivity]