Detroit - Now and Then
Updated: Sep 15, 2018
I had a short visit in Detroit. Campgrounds are few so I stayed with an Airbnb host in the Belle Isle area near downtown.
I admire Diego Rivera's murals and was glad to be able to see his Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. Being surrounded by the many panels, in the interior courtyard flooded with natural light where they were painted, is an impressive experience. Some people may not be familiar with Rivera. He was a Mexican artist of the early 20th century. He is most famous for his many murals that celebrate not-rich, not-famous people. He used his art to highlight struggles: of indigenous people against colonizers, exploitation of natural resources and exploitation of workers. The commission of the Detroit murals in the 1930s to depict the production and economics of the auto industry indicates the politics of the time: even the people who were making vast fortunes (Henry Ford's son Edsel helped pay for them) felt compelled to acknowledge the workers' role.
The images were based on Rivera's observations of Ford's immense River Rouge plant which at the time employed 75,000 workers.
Part of what makes Rivera's murals so wonderful are the complicated details and the way he includes references to facts and real people. The two vertical panels, above, depict the worker (on the left), seated in front of the pipes that created the steam energy that powered the plant and the manager on the right, who controlled energy (converted into electricity by the turbines behind him). The docent pointed out the manager's ruler and clock, the worker's hammer. The panel on the upper left shows workers of different races, producing together, a significant statement at the time (and now?). The lower left panel shows workers tinted green by the formaldehyde they handled. And the hatted man depicted in the lower right panel was Mead Bricker, one of Ford's top managers who was notorious for running the assembly line at high speeds.
In the afternoon I went to the Mexicantown neighborhood and set up the Talking Capitalism (Hablemos del Capitalismo) lemonade stand in a parking lot on Vernor Street, near the Rocky's Road Brew food truck (after checking in with the owner, Rocky Coronado).
Rocky serves great, cheap vegan tacos and Vietnamese iced coffee which was very welcome sitting on asphalt on a hot day. Small clusters of customers hung out, eating and chatting. I didn't realize it when I arrived but Rocky was in the news recently for having posted on social media that she would not serve law enforcement personnel because "The majority of my neighbors, customers, and myself do not feel safe around law enforcement agents". Her small counter had information about immigration law.
I only learned about Rocky's position from Paul Thoma, a Conrail employee and customer of Rocky's. He said he came to her stand to demonstrate support for position. He also had a lot to say about capitalism. (It was interesting to have the connection to Conrail, created by the federal government in the 1970s to takeover bankrupt private rail companies, including the Erie-Lackawanna with it's connections to Hornell, NY).
Paul was particularly forceful about fellow workers at Conrail who were retiring with good pensions and, in his words, "who have landed on trampolines assuming they can jump 6 feet high". Unions, he said, don't represent workers the way they used to, that union leaders give away too much to management. "Walter Reuther (the famous United Auto Workers leader) used to be in these neighborhoods knocking heads". Today's retirees "don't understand they're coasting on benefits and privileges fought for for decades". He spoke about having visited Russia and seeing what he called "late-stage capitalism" in action, including oligarchs running things and "brown guys in coveralls" being brought in to do hard work and housed in shipping containers, treated "like we treat immigrants in this country". Paul worries that in what he saw in Russia is a vision of what the U.S. will become. In the U.S., he said, "we're on a downward glide path. Capitalism today, is the 1% vs. the 99%."