And now, Detroit is officially bankrupt…

Detroit is now, officially, bankrupt, and it’s time, again, in telling the history of this once great city of Detroit — home to the automobile as well as to The Supremes — to remind of the book, “Ruins of Detroit,” by two young French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.Ruin in Detroit

Their photos tell the tragic story better than any words of how Detroit’s decline has created a city of poverty and neglect and decay — an urban tragedy.

And then, it’s time, again, to ask the question – how could America let this happen?

Detroit United Artists Theater

“Detropia” — a film about a city in tragic decline

“Capitalism is a great system, I love it, but it exploits the weak”, says one of the main characters in the stunning documentary “Detropia” currently playing at the premier documentary film festival “Silverdocs” in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.

The film, about the impact on an entire city and its inhabitants of the brutal side of American capitalism, is the grim tale of the decline of Detroit, from a glamorous city with nearly 2 million inhabitants and a thriving automotive industry, to a city in tragic decline that has lost over half its population and with a higher percentage of poor people than any other American city.

Made by young documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film is currently shown in packed theaters at the festival on the premises of the American Film Institute. Their film creates the same heartbreaking impressions as the two young French photographers Yves Marchand’s and Romain Meffres’ book “The Ruins of Detroit”, which I wrote about last year.

And the conclusion is also the same: how could America let this happen?

For Pittsburgh, a new future without steel

On the road again…

…and once again to Pittsburgh, the old steel city among the green hills of western Pennsylvania, where old friends live in a city of optimism and hope.

From Mount Washington, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers come together and become the Ohio River, the view of downtown Pittsburgh from the steep mountain as dramatic as in any other American city. Below, some twenty bridges in all directions cross the rivers between the city’s many neighborhoods. Among the skyscrapers downtown are some of America’s finest buildings, from the days of Carnegie, Heinz, and Mellon to modern masterpieces by Philip Johnson and others, and to native sons Andy Warhol’s and August Wilson’s museum and cultural center, respectively.

And across the rivers lie the splendid ballparks for the Steelers and the Pirates, important landmark in a city of passionate sports fans.

Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s south side reminds me of Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s old hippie neighborhood, with its galleries, rock clubs and small shops. Old mixes with new, former philosophy professor Edward Gelblum’s lovely old bookstore “City Books” with young Jake Nickman’s “Buddy’s Brew on Carson” – the finest of beer stores.

Coming into the city, along Monongahela River in Mon Valley, where the steel mills lie as giant monuments to a bygone era, side by side, mile after mile, in the small towns of McKeesport, Braddock, and Homestead, with furnaces long since cold and chimneys without smoke, the optimism and sense of hope might be a bit hard to understand. At its peak, the steel mills employed well over 100,000 workers, but in the crisis of the 70s and 80s, most of them lost their jobs, and Pittsburgh’s steel industry is only a fraction of what once was.

Today, Pittsburgh is the prime example that the old industrial cities in the “Rust Belt” can come back. But the recovery is based on something completely different than the steel, on distinguished universities and hospitals – biotech, green technology, health care, finance, and research. Today, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) logo is seen on top of what once was U.S. Steel’s 64-story headquarters, and with its 50,000 employees, the university hospital is western Pennsylvania’s largest employer.

It’s a city of history and character, and of excitement. I will return, again.

Watts Towers are part of Los Angeles’ art treasures

The Watts Towers are one of America’s most remarkable works of art, not only because where they are situated, but also because of how they came about, an old Italian immigrant’s life’s work, threatened many times over, but now formally protected as a National Historic Landmark.

So a tour of Los Angeles’ museums during the ongoing, city-wide exhibits called “Pacific Standard Time” — about L.A. art between 1945 and 1980 — should include a visit to Sabato “Simon” Rodia’s mighty works in Watts, that troubled, largely black, and poor, part of Los Angeles.

The trip south from downtown on the huge 110 freeway towards Long Beach is a journey away from the wealthy and glamorous Los Angeles to another world at East 107th Street, in South Central Los Angeles. There, in 1965, the Watts riots lasted five days killing 34 people, injuring and arresting thousands and damaging and burning down almost a thousand buildings. In 1992, Watts was hit again by riots following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, resulting in over 50 deaths and a billion dollars in damage.

It is a quiet and almost deserted morning on East 107th Street with the exception of a few visitors, like us, and a couple of police officers, who stand and eat their sandwiches next to their car. The 17 different works of art, the tallest almost 100 feet high, dominate the neighborhood. They are the result of Simon Rodia’s work from 1921 to 1954, next to his little home on the small plot of land he had bought. The towers are surrounded by well-kept, often colorfully decorated small homes.

In 1955, Rodia gave it all away and left Watts, never to return. He died ten years later.  Over the years, his life’s work has been threatened countless times, but the Watts Towers still stand, now formally called “The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park” and managed by the city of Los Angeles’ cultural affairs department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A small art center with a shop and a gallery are also part of the park.

It’s an stunning sight, this remarkable symbol of one man’s dogged efforts to create something beautiful of what he found, rocks, pipes, glass, ceramics, pottery, bottles, tiles, all put together with mortar and steel wires in a huge, colorful mosaic, an example of “folk art” that has become historic.

Rodia, born in the village of Ribottoli 1879, called his creation “Nuestro Pueblo” – our city. “I build the tower people like, everybody come,” he said.

A museum adds to the magic of Golden Gate Park

October is a good month in California, I was reminded recently, as I returned there for a week to that gorgeous California autumn weather, from San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles in the south. As always, it was exciting and full of new experiences, and, as always, the East Coast felt far away.

When I lived in San Francisco some time ago, on the top floor of a small house overlooking the Golden Gate Park, I could observe the new de Young Museum in the park being built, slowly raising itself above the eucalyptus trees. Today it is finished, a magnificent building clad in copper with a 45 meter high twisted tower, from which, on the ninth floor, visitors have maybe the best of views out over San Francisco and its hills, parks, and houses, down to the Pacific Ocean in the west, up to the Golden Gate Bridge’s red towers in the north, Twin Peaks to the south, and downtown with its Transamerica pyramid to the east.

The architects, Swiss Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the local firm Fong & Chan, had no easy task in the earthquake-prone city. But the result is grand and the location is without comparison. The copper exterior is expected over time to oxidize and turn greener in tone, thus blending in with the park’s vast greenery.

The Golden Gate Park is the most beautiful of America’s urban parks, full of that special smell from its eucalyptus trees and the winds from the Pacific. The de Young Museum changes nothing of that. In fact, it adds to its wonders and magic.

Jazz on re-born H Street Corridor

My hometown Washington, DC is changing.

I was reminded of that again the other night, as I ventured over to the H Street Corridor and the new jazz club, HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues. Its name comes from a congressional resolution in 1987, which designated jazz as “a rare and valuable national American treasure.”

HR-57 had recently moved here, from a more established area in downtown, and oh, what a nice and friendly little place it was, with alto saxophonist Antonio Parker and his quartet, all local musicians, playing some strong modern jazz and with the son of an old high school friend from Santa Monica, CA, at the piano.

HR-57 is part of the revived H Street NE Corridor, also called the Atlas District after the renovated art deco Atlas Performing Arts Center from 1938. During my many earlier years in Washington, I never or rarely ventured there, because there really was nothing there, as it was pretty much destroyed in the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

The same thing happened to the area around U and 14th Streets, once a focal point for many black jazz musicians. It has made its remarkable comeback in the last decade, and, now, it seems to be the H Street Corridor’s turn. Once again, this area is popping, with H Street Playhouse and with restaurants, bars, and clubs, like HR-57, Rock & Roll Hotel, Pug Bar, H Street Country Club, etc.

Along the 1.5 mile long H Street NE, Washington’s new trolley will begin to run next spring, as streetcars are brought back to the nation’s capital after an absence of over 50 years. The H Street line is part of the first step in what could become a 37-mile citywide network, connecting the H Street Corridor with Union Station. It will likely quicken the re-birth of this area, which was once a main commercial street in the city. The transition is not yet completed, but it is on its way and it’s exciting and fun.