Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Urban Tourists and the Dequindre Cut

©tom stoye

Spectators gather at the Lafayette Street entrance to the Dequindre Cut Greenway, to watch as performance artist Nick Cave makes his way down the ramp to a waiting audience. Off in the distance is Meis van der Rohe's iconic Lafayette Towers, which were recently designated by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark.

For me personally, this photo represents a remarkable chain of events, that is a metaphor for a multitude of other equally drastic and surprising changes to Detroit's landscape since I began photographing the city in my teens.

Once a dilapidated Grand Trunk Railroad line, the Dequindre Cut is now an urban recreational pathway, that connects the Detroit Riverfront to Eastern Market.

©tom stoye

In 2004, when I started to document graffiti culture in southwest Detroit, the cut was a lawless playground for graffiti writers, conveniently hidden below street level. The writers rarely referred to it by its formal name though- it was simply known as "the yard."

To gain access to the middle of the yard, which saved a lot of time, I had to jump a fence, while lugging around my cumbersome camera bag and tripod, then slide down a steep (and often muddy) embankment to a retaining wall, then jump off the retaining wall to get to the bottom. If I was lucky, there would be a pallet at the base of the wall that would act as a make-shift ladder, making my decent a hell of a lot easier; but often times I would end up landing flat on my ass covered in mud and debris from my decent. On one occasion, I had the misfortune of loosing my balance, which resulted in me rolling down the hill into a mound of piss-soaked clothing. Barf!

©tom stoye

Unlike myself, the graffiti writers (who were half my age) were quite adept at negotiating entry into the yard, and I was always relieved when they were around, but on a few occasions I remember being profoundly embarrassed by my inability to keep up with them.

To see the Dequindre Cut now is a bit surreal, because I can't quite wrap my arms around it as a gathering place for public use. When it was forbidden space, the Dequindre Cut was both dangerous and sublime. I always had the feeling that I was lost and about to discover something when I was down there…something that only a select few were privy to. The duality of discovery and being discovered was always present. That feeling, that heightened sense of awareness that is required when you are doing something that is forbidden (or hidden from the public eye), is one of the motivating factors of why I love taking photographs of yet-to-be discovered peoples and environments. To be uncomfortable, is to be alive, and never is that feeling more intensified then when you are doing something you are not supposed to do. It reminds me of a quote by the author Jim Harrison, who once wrote, "When you're lost, you know who you are." Harrison's quote sums up why I gave so much of my time and energy to documenting graffiti culture, and as a result of that, occupying the same environments and spaces that they used as their palette.

That feeling of discovery has now been replaced by convenience and familiarity, but that being said, I'm glad to see Detroit finally taking the steps to move forward.

I've waited a lifetime to see Detroit wake up from its slumber. Let's hope that it's not for the benefit of a select few, and that the marginalized and forgotten get a piece of the pie.

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