Detroit’s Music Museum: Hitsville: USA

Motown - Ted Eytan

photo: Ted Eytan, creative commons license

If the button for your car radio’s Oldies’ station is shiny from use, there’s a travel stop for you in Detroit.  The Motown Museum’s headquarters and studio, Hitsville, USA, contained in two connected American Foursquares at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Once success arrived, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., had offices and operations departments in seven houses he owned on both sides of the street, later expanding into a ten-story office building, and eventually moving his whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972. But these buildings are the original home of the Gordy family, as well as the enterprise that created the soundtrack of the 1960s and 19970s: Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and so many more.

Gordie’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards recognized the importance of this original spot and founded the museum in 1985. When Gordy lived there, local kids who had a musical idea were welcome day or night, under the theory that “you can’t put a time limit on creativity.”

Gordie recruited a backup band from Detroit jazz clubs, that became legendary as the Funk Brothers (fantastic documentary about them: Standing in the Shadow of Motown). Likewise one of his girl groups, the Andantes, served as backup singers on dozens of iconic records, from “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Gordy wanted music and lyrics that were upbeat. “Part storefront church gospel, part jazz joint on a Saturday night, part street corner symphony,” that was the Motown Sound.

Though many Motown performers became major stars, they started as neighborhood kids. They knew each other from living down the block or around the corner, and many of them weren’t out of high school yet. Gordy set up an “artist personal development” program for them, headed by talent agent Maxine Powell, who taught grooming, poise, and social graces, to give these young people the polish that would support their success.

Museum visits are conducted by tour leaders in small groups and include a brief film plus an opportunity to sing in the legendary Studio A, where so much great music was created. The costume display, sample records, and photographs of those early days are amazing, though your tour group will move ahead before you can begin to read all the captions!

****Made in Detroit

moon

(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

This is a review of two books with the same title and of the same re-readable excellence.

Made in Detroit, the memoir by Paul Clemens, is a tale of growing up in the 1970s in one of the Motor City’s last white neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to see the whole “minority status” issue turned on its head, and he comes out of it with decidedly mixed emotions. It’s a struggle, a worthy one, and following his evolving attitudes and understanding of both whites and blacks around him is a thought-provoking journey for readers, as well.

Clemens’s family is Catholic and he gets a Catholic education as parishes and schools close one by one. Meanwhile, the family’s economic stability is increasingly shaky due to the rapidly declining auto industry. Yet, the Church and his father’s love of cars were two constants in his life. He says his family members weren’t readers. “There was enough serious content, enough transcendence, in cars and Catholicism; it wasn’t necessary for them to concern themselves with ideas buried away in books.”

Made in Detroit, the book of Marge Piercy poetry, covers an enormous swath of emotional and physical territory. She uses the simplest language to express the deepest thoughts and makes it “poetic,” without superfluous lily-gilding. I was first drawn to her work by her poem “In Praise of Joe.” As a dedicated caffeine consumer, we recognized each other across the page. Here are the two lines that snared me forever: “It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.” And here’s a bit from the title poem:

The night I was born the sky burned red
over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.
The elms made tents of solace over grimy
streets and alley cats purred me to sleep.

Clemens’s book takes place some decades after the night Piercy was born, yet the burning skies (steel mills then), sirens, and desolate streets were only more so in his youth. Despite all the city’s frustrations and conundrums that Clemens describes so well, despite a college education that could have taken him anywhere, he returned to the city. “At times, I feel like a failure in several directions simultaneously,” he writes. “That, with my education and reading, I should be more broad-minded than I am; and that, with the education I received from my father and Sal, I should be angrier about what the broad-minded morons have wrought. . . . Detroit, which drives people to extremes, has left me standing in the middle.”

Clemens’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, describing the experience of a closeknit black family in Detroit and Susan Messer’s beautiful Grand River and Joy, about a Jewish businessman’s reluctance to flee to the suburbs around the time of the 1967 riots. Perhaps one family story at a time, it might be possible to assemble a picture sufficient to comprehend this fascinating, catastrophe-ridden American city.

*****The Turner House

Detroit, house

photo: ddatch54, creative commons license

By Angela Flournoy – I deeply admire this book about two generations of an African American family living in Detroit. The parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II and had 13 children whose lives play out against the backdrop of drastically changing economic and social circumstances over six decades.

Newlyweds Viola and Francis Turner spent some of the early months of their marriage separated when he moved to Detroit to find work. Chapters about that era in the family history alternate with stories of the family’s present-day experiences. By and large, their children have many more choices than they did. The parents started out poor, the children are almost all firmly in the middle class.

Principal characters in the narrative are Charles Turner (Cha-Cha to the family), the eldest child, born in 1944, and patriarch of the family since his father’s death and the youngest, Lelah, born in 1967. Lelah has the most difficulties, many of which derive from a bad early marriage and her gambling addiction. She’s near-homelessness and shunned by her daughter Brianna. Cha-Cha is plagued by a haint, which has brought him in contact with a psychotherapist, a much younger African American woman to whom he’s unexpectedly attracted. These are secrets just waiting to burst out. Readers get to know several other family members reasonably well, too, especially brother Troy, the former soldier, now Detroit cop, and Cha-Cha’s wife Tina, who wonders whether her husband is slipping away.

With these two dramas bookending the family’s present-day story, Viola’s large dispersed family is coming together to celebrate her birthday, very probably her last. How they accommodate each other, buck each other up, revisit old wounds—every interaction seems exactly right. They have expectations of each other (“Turner men don’t . . .”) and a strong sense of their shared history. I marveled at Flournoy’s acutely observed assessments of the siblings and their motivations, for example: “The things we do in the name of protecting others are so often attempts to spare some part of ourselves.”

Now that Viola lives with Cha-Cha and Tina, a key issue is whether to sell the house they grew up in, in the largely abandoned heart of the city. Everyone has an opinion, but the long and the short of it is that the house is deep under water. Much more is owed on it than they could ever hope to recover in a sale. Sentimental ties seem hardly to justify the cost of keeping it, yet it will cost thousands to sell it.

You know these people. By remaining so true to its human core, The Turner House is “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel,” said Matthew Thomas in the New York Times, who points out another of its strengths: “artful without being showy.” No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award! In Flournoy’s biography, we read that her father was from Detroit, and many of the tiny touches could only come from someone who knows that city well. It’s a beautiful book deserving of a wide readership.

Read an engaging BuzzFeed interview with Angela Flournoy here.

*****Grand River and Joy

Detroit, abandoned building

Michigan Central Station. When I was a child, my mother and I caught trains here. (photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Susan Messer – Bought this book about a notable Detroit intersection (writes Messer: “Joy Road—now there was a misnomer”) after reading an excellent Messer story last summer in Glimmer Train.

This novel covers the months leading up to Detroit’s horrific 1967 summer and its aftermath. The riot/rebellion the city and its residents–and vicariously, the entire country–experienced in July 1967 lasted five days, 43 people died, more than a thousand were injured, and the associated fires destroyed thousands of buildings. The city has never recovered.

Messer’s story details the intersection of lives, as well—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, parents and children. In the unsettled time leading up to the July events, Harry Levine—the Jewish owner of a wholesale shoe store founded by his father—and his family members and neighbors debate whether to leave their Detroit neighborhood and join the flight to the white suburbs. Harry also maintains an increasingly uneasy relationship with the store’s upstairs tenants, Curtis and his teenage son Alvin, who are black. Inescapable are the longstanding tensions between blacks and Jews, which derive from a tangled history of thwarted expectations and differing patterns of upward mobility.

Early in the morning after Halloween, nine months before the uprising, Harry and his sister arrive at the store and find painted on the front window the words “Honky Jew Boy.” Alvin is suspected. Later during the riots, when buildings all around the store are erupting in flames, Harry’s building is one of the few to survive, partly because this time the white paint splashed across the front window spells out “Soul Brother.” Alvin wrote it to save his and Curtis’s home.

Harry is a sympathetic character, but he suffers by a lack of coming to grips. He ignores problems with the building’s boiler, so it eventually threatens to blow up in a cloud of steam. More important, he downplays and ignores the simmering social forces in his community, which do explode in violence. While he could have been more conscientious about the boiler, the social forces were beyond one man’s capacity to redress. But he ignored how those forces might affect his wife, daughters, and sister, even though all around him “should we stay?” and “should we go now?” were a dominant conversation. Curtis, especially, tries to cut through the cotton wool Harry surrounds himself with and give him a dose of reality. It’s easier just to keep on keepin on.

This is a beautifully written story by a thoughtful writer that contains barrels of good humor and fundamental humanity. It helps the reader examine many sides of a complex time that should not be forgotten as long as America’s issues with race remain unresolved.

Assessing Blight

Detroit, auto, Charlie LeDuffDetroit, my long-ago home town, “is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them,” says Paul Clemins in the New York Times.

Numerous recent books, films, and photo essays have tried to shape and inform those opinions, and I’ve covered a number of them on this website, from the ruin porn phenomenon, to the Heidelberg Project, to the threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The plot-thread of of this once-great city was allowed to unravel until the American automotive dream drove right out of town. City lots filled with abandoned homes, the wrecked shells of once-beautiful buildings, suitable for nothing more than desolate parking lots.

A story by Monica Davey in the Times this week describes yet another effort to get a handle on the devastation. A central office is collecting information and photos of every abandoned and dilapidated building in the city, recorded by teams outfitted with computer tablets. The comprehensive database they are compiling will be ready this spring and is expected to help city leaders decide what to try to save and what to demolish.

Former Mayor Dave Bing suggested shrinking the city to a core that could be maintained, instead of continuing to provide city services to blocks with only one or two standing, habitable houses. But even people residing on empty streets that look like farmland—and in some areas actually are being farmed—don’t want to give up their homes. Some officials say demolishing the worst buildings might cost $1 billion, while a public-private effort called the Detroit Blight Authority has begun an aggressive demolition campaign, clearing lots that will become . . . . ? Enough human drama here for scores more books and films.

On the list of LA Times finalists for 2013’s best current issues books is Detroit native and journalist Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It tells the history of a city, but more important, the stories of the people struggling in it. In his review, Clemins says, “Many city supporters [and a nascent creative class is among them] will object to the ‘autopsy’ in the subtitle, though it’s not the suggestion of civic death that rankles. Rather, it’s the suggestion of the surgically precise.” As the teams of surveyors roaming the streets who are in a sense conducting that autopsy can attest, decay is a messy business.Enhanced by Zemanta