‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ — Ornette Coleman, jazz player, free thinker
There’s one in Los Angeles, and there’s one in Detroit. Large, neon letters splayed across the walls of a gallery, simply imploring viewers that “Everything Is Going to Be Alright.” What if we believed the message? The work caught my eye as I was passing Hauser and Wirth, a venerable gallery in Downtown Los Angeles. This version, thousands of miles from the all-white installation done by Martin Creed (born U.K. 1968) at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) was instead rainbow-hued and stretched straightforwardly over an indoor Hooverville of tents. Almost daring visitors to disregard what they were seeing. To suspend belief. In today’s economic climate–the Great Recession an all-to familiar memory for most millennials–another threat of recession being bandied about in the news cycle, and homelessness up 75% in L.A. County within the last six years, the contrast was jolting. The tents had been assembled as part of a larger exhibit by David Hammons, a vaunted black American-born artist who commonly uses found objects to make statements. This one was rather clear yet subtle. There was no command to Eat the Rich. Instead, Hammons uses usually temporary structures to highlight an ongoing problem: in an age of gentrification, sprawl, and aging infrastructure poisoning entire populations, where can one safely lay their head at night? If if they find a home, is the water safe, or are the lights on?
Hammons exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman, another black male American artist and dedicated Jazz playing free-thinker who died in 2015. In Los Angeles, young musicians busk for a few dollars, perform on the subway, or within a few feet of the major shopping centers downtown. On the same block, young male activists blast messages and warnings trying to drum up support for updates to Rent Control in L.A. County. It’s encouraging to see and make the connection. In a town famous for giving the nobodiest of nobodies a chance to make it big, tons of ordinary young folk live two, three, or even four to a room. Reminiscent of many an old photo series chronicling housing shortages. It’s not that there aren’t any units available at all. Construction in Los Angeles and surrounding cities and townships is rampant these days, however, the monthly cost to keep a roof over one’s head is out of reach for many very low-income residents. Does it matter if a place exists if it’s out of reach financially? There are ordinances on the books, some of which have been in place for decades, however once a tenant leaves the price hikes become fair game:
“When a renter moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, landlords are allowed to raise the price to whatever amount they see fit. That means that unless your friend or family member is already on the lease, you can’t pass down a sweet rent control deal when you decide to find a new place…”
So young musicians, actors, and other creatives agitate. Or they double and triple up, and take on as many jobs, hustles, or gigs as they can reasonably juggle. Or they move way out to places like Chino and eat the commute, paying gas instead.
Artists have a long history of making due in challenging environments. Back in Detroit, a local marvel named Piper Carter is organizing too. While rent hikes in creative centers is just one of the issues Detroiters face, one of the biggest aggravations has been the water shutoffs and in nearby Flint, lead contamination on a horrifying scale. Having gone back and forth between Detroit, New York, and New Jersey throughout her childhood, Piper experienced gentrification in New York City firsthand in the 1990s. When she returned to Detroit on a more long-term basis to care for her now-recovered mother, she witnessed the same effects cropping up beginning around the time of the Great Recession:
“…When I moved back to Detroit in 2008 I started seeing the same thing happen. And now In 2019 we can look back and see the massive hijacking of democracy with a small letter ‘d’ via Emergency Management, the impact of the foreclosure crisis & fake bankruptcy, the massive school closures, water shut-offs, & theft of pensions and how these tactics including allowing developers to receive tax breaks for huge projects that rob the taxpayers of money that should be going to city services and the failing school system. That is the culture shock that cuts very deeply. Because the Detroit that I grew up in had a surplus and served its people, not just the white and wealthy…”
It chafes politically active Detroiters to see Nestle bottles in hand out here in Los Angeles. Most Angelenos haven’t had to confront the issues with aging water pipes back East. They don’t have to live with lead contamination, burst pipes due to winter freezing and an elderly generation of master pipefitters who are stretched thin with scant younger apprentices on deck. When a young man graduates from law school, we throw him a party. If they complete trade school and begin building, we might notice over lunch. In Michigan, with the ongoing water crisis in Flint still inconveniencing residents at best and sickening them at worst, Nestle pumps fresh water at very low cost and with little regard for environmental or economic impact relative to the citizenry. Michigan allows a corporation to have access to clean water for profit yet can’t replace the pipes in Flint fast enough for taxpayers. The citizens of Newark, New Jersey are just beginning their lead water impact journey.
Detroit residents such as Piper often organize out of the Cass Commons, a community center in what was once known as Cass Corridor in Detroit. The Clean Water Brigade regularly agitates against the water shutoff policies of Detroit’s Water Board there. Water shutoffs, though slowed in recent years, contributed heavily to the ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak shutting down restaurants and flooding (pun intended) area hospitals with patients suffering from water-borne illnesses not seen since the 19th century. The official line is that the outbreak and shut-offs are unrelated. This is subtle, carefully constructed germ warfare on the lower classes which can usually include artists.
Mid-summer in Detroit, a multi-day Art Build calling on local creators was held over a three day period at the end of July in support of the Green New Deal. Artists could paint, screenprint, construct and commune together over dinner each afternoon. The volunteers supplied and shared food, and beverages. One could offer one’s services for an afternoon or stay for the long haul. We may not have much control over the policies winding their way through local, state, or national government, yet we can put our talents to good use elsewhere. Will you lend a hand?
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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