Free Corktown : Letting Public Sculpture Speak

(photo of by W. Kim Heron, appeared in Metro Times, Dec 8-14, 2010)

Corktown, walking distance from downtown's core, from the river, from Campus Martius, with its great brick paved stretch of Michigan Avenue and its network of small streets, bars and eclectic architecture, is a magnet. For its convenience, for its scale, for its services that include neighborhood places to eat, whether you have money or not. This is a neighborhood that has clear Maltese, African-American, Mexcian, Irish, and Appalachian whites as part of its demographic mix.To me, this is what an urban neighborhood should be, and when we talk of downtown density for a sustainable future, this mix needs to be part of the plan. That is, everyone needs to eat, to walk to the river, to live in a vibrant part of the city where the spirit of the neighborhood encourages a living, creative city full of every imaginable presence.

But Corktown keeps one of its pioneering spirits locked up.

A few summers ago, I needed a place for a group of 10 students to stay. Our short range housing plans had fallen through, and The Day House on Trumbull run by Father Tom Lumkin in the Catholic Worker tradition, opened their doors to us. We slept on their couches, and were welcomed instantly by Sister Sharon and Pat Dolan. One night the group wanted to go for a walk around the neighborhood. Sister Mary advised us to be careful--because it was sport for people to leap from their cars and attack the population huddled in doorways.

Corktown, with its co-existing populations--of bar trawlers, of guests of Manna Meals--occupies one of those uneasy positions in almost any city, where the tension between a long established social service and its guests comes face to face with the pressures of gentrification.

But this one is ours here in Detroit. With the limbo like nature of the neighborhood's once anchor, the old Tigers stadium, its former hallowed grounds now largely demolished and waiting in the balance for City/development , Cortktown is home to a rising population of new arrivals, mostly young white artists on one hand, and black housing projects like Kern Gardens on the other. With Bagley Street as its divide--by race and class--Corktown means solid blocks of 900 square foot wood frame Victorian houses with elaborately painted trim on one hand, and the abandoned Michigan Station (and, until recently, a sizable homeless encampment within Roosevelt Park in front of the station until police sweeps dispersed this community) on the other.

Bill Wylie-Kellerman wrote an eloquent and passionate plea for the need to address this divide directly. In the wake of an attack on Charles Duncan, a Corktown resident who happens to be homeless, by another Corktown man, who is not, Wylie-Kellerman paints a chilling portrait of the hostility that can exist when those with power victimize those with out.

Bill uses this image above of Father Kern, whose activism on behalf of people lacking resources fueled a continuing the tradition of Corktown as a welcoming place for those in need. In his article, Wylie-Kellerman writes of Corktown's new arrivals as needing context to inform their understanding of the presence of the soup kitchen at St. Peter's as part of Corktown.

I'd advocate for opening up the pocket park where Father Kern's statue is locked up now, right at Bagley and Trumbull. Come to think of it, there are more monuments and statues around town that would help us all understand that these men and women, standing still on their plinths, have quite a lot to tell us. I think of all of these statues, the figures they represent and the artists who made them, and recognize that any image--whether chiseled into the face of Mt. Rushmore or standing in a lonely and shuttered park--only matters when they can be calls to action. Father Kern is calling for a civil Corktown. It is up to his neighbors--both those who have been around and artists moving in--to listen. How about opening the park soon for public events rooted in the neighborhood. Not just the neighborhood that hangs out at Slow's or the Lager House or Manna Meals, but all of them.

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