Detroit, Beyond The Bad Headlines

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Jewish Week Correspondent

You hear a lot about Detroit these days, and not too much of it is positive. You hear about the travails of the long-struggling automobile industry, the staggering unemployment rate and the inexorable population decline. They're all related, of course, and together these facts tend to cement the image of a once-mighty metropolis now past its prime.

That's why I was taken aback by the bold, geometric splendor of the Detroit Airport's Northwestern terminal, and by the soaring verticality of its skyline, shimmering in glass over the Detroit River. The prevailing media narrative, which constantly revisits the past, neglects the newness everywhere in a city making its comeback: new riverfront parks, new museums, and new super-efficient cars to get between them all. This isn't the Detroit of a decade ago, but a greener, hipper, more optimistic version.

Much of what has long defined this ambitious town remains, however. Like erstwhile seats of empire from Madrid to Moscow, Detroit retains both its easy cosmopolitanism - historically Jewish, heavily Arab and a hub of African-American culture -- and an impressive, ever-expanding concentration of art that's well worth the trip.

Midsummer is the moment to savor Detroit's lush, green public spaces, and nowhere more so than the city's newly revitalized riverfront. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy was established eight years ago to oversee a transformation of the urban greenspace along Detroit's neglected shores.

Today urban explorers enjoy bike paths, parks and plazas along three miles of the eastern riverfront, a peaceful green buffer between the shiny corporate buildings and the water. The Conservancy website has convenient maps and an events guide for visitors; you can join a group of locals for al fresco tai chi and yoga, hear weekend concerts, and even rent fishing gear to cast off of designated landings. Later this summer, the riverfront will resound with the strains of Detroit's Labor Day weekend Jazz Festival.

Detroit's newest museum is the rather pretentiously named Kunsthalle Detroit Museum of Multimedia and Light-Based Art. The vision of Tate Osten, a Russian arts impresario, the Kunsthalle opened last year with a vision of art not grounded in oils and acrylics, but in rods, tubes and video screens - an appropriately electrical vision for a manufacturing city.

"Time and Place," the inaugural exhibition, runs through Sept. 10 and features the works of 12 international artists, whose primary medium is light and what the museum calls "illusionary environments."

A broader vision of contemporary art is on view at the MOCA Detroit, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened five years ago in a converted auto dealership. Conceived as a home for rotating exhibitions and cutting-edge performance events, the MOCAD is currently showing a two-part group exhibition, "Barely There," which explores timely notions of presence and absence. The 80-year, intergenerational survey includes artists such as Luis Camnitzer and Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander; the first part, a focus on the mind, gives way to a corporal focus in early fall.

The venerable downtown Detroit Institute of Arts is the city's longtime heavyweight collection, a Midwestern answer to the Met. During the past decade, the DIA underwent a major expansion and renovation — the better to showcase its holdings of paintings, sculptures and artifacts, which range from Ancient Egypt and indigenous Oceania to European Impressionism and contemporary America. Murals by Diego Rivera are a particular highlight, as are galleries dedicated to African-American art.

With its "Family Sunday" puppet shows, artist demos and children's plays, the DIA is a distinctly kid-friendly museum. Youngsters unmoved by Monet will still enjoy "It's a Zoo in Here! Prints and Drawings of Animals," 150 renderings of various fauna from medieval lions to Impressionist parakeets. Those inspired can join in a "drawing in the galleries" interactive session, or workshops from Japanese book-binding to musical instruments; also on Sundays is the "Brunch with Bach" series, featuring concerts and a nosh.

Also recently expanded is the Holocaust Memorial Center, which opened its latest new gallery in December to showcase temporary exhibitions. For decades, the Center was housed at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit in suburban West Bloomfield. Itself one of the country's most prominent JCCs, the latter this spring unveiled its own brand-new space, the 15,000-square-foot Berman Center for the Performing Arts -- the latest addition to Detroit's ongoing arts renaissance, and a major source of pride for this vibrant Jewish community.

Seven years ago, the Holocaust Center moved to its own space — the Zeckelman Family Campus, on the site of a historic theater in Farmington Hills, just outside the city. One of the top historical museums in the Middle U.S., it has distinct exhibition spaces for European Jewish heritage, the war and Hitler's "final solution," the postwar aftermath, and the Institute of the Righteous — a look at the individuals whose valor shaped the resistance.

Beginning this Sunday, July 24, the new temporary gallery space will host "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys." On view through February, the exhibit focuses on a special band of World War II soldiers who waged psychological warfare against the Nazis.

The glass towers of GM headquarters dominate the Detroit skyline.

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