Groups collaborate to keep Detroit’s rich heritage alive
DETROIT – While southwest Detroit resident Carl Taggs sat patiently in the makeshift studio inside the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit, three student documentary filmmakers from Wayne State University scurried about setting light levels and performing sound checks. Once the crew was ready, interviewer Jeantia (pronounced jen-TEE-ah) Bush shouted “Quiet on the set,” and moments later, Taggs – a maintenance millwright for the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department – began adding his own personal Detroit stories to a collection now being gathered to preserve the city’s rich history.
“We’ve been lucky so far,” said soundman Stephen Black after the taping. “We’ve gotten a lot of diverse stories.”
The project, called Detroit Stories, is a collaborative effort to record and present “Detroit stories in drama, fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and oral history” that grew out of a discussion between Bridget Lomax, Boll’s vice-president of arts, humanities and culture, and Matrix Theatre’s Executive Director, Shaun S. Nethercott. Explained Elaine Hendricks Smith, Matrix’s director of production, “Bridget said she wanted to do a history of Detroit, and, well, we create live versions of the history of Detroit.”
What the two community leaders soon discovered was that they weren’t the only people thinking along those same lines. So it wasn’t long before representatives from the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, Marygrove College and Wayne State University were added to the mix. “All these groups got together to make Detroit’s history a tangible ‘thing’ instead of something people don’t know,” Smith said. “What we want to do is show people how history can come to life. Kids today don’t know about the Battle of the Overpass, or they don’t know about when people marched on Ford’s factory. People don’t know any of this stuff, so we want to make these histories come alive.”
Each of the participating organizations has a unique role to play in creating Detroit Stories. WSU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Projects Program, for example, is creating a documentary based on the interviews being conducted by students culled from the university’s Media Arts and Studies Department. The program will eventually be placed online in an archive that hosts a digital history of Detroit. The InsideOut Literary Arts Project will use the interviews as inspiration for new works created by its Citywide Poets program.
And Matrix will use the interviews beginning early next year to create a new play. “Doing plays that bring to life Detroit’s history is very important. There’s all this history sitting in basements, hiding in attics – it’ll be forgotten otherwise,” Smith said.
An earlier Matrix collective playwriting project, “Boomtown 1925,” is serving as the catalyst for collecting Detroit Stories. Interviews are conducted before and during performances of “Boomtown” through Nov. 12 at Boll Family YMCA. Those interested in sharing their stories simply have to show up at the designated times; no pre-registration is required.
So far, according to the documentarians, the response has been both diverse and quite informative. “Detroit is such a pivotal city. I kind of already knew that, but I’m learning so much as I listen to these people – things I’ve never been taught in a history class,” said Black.
“It’s also a great way to bring people together,” Bush added. “Everybody has one commonality, and that’s Detroit. We’re all here, so everyone telling their story brings us together in some kind of way.”
Plus, “Everybody’s been really nice and cooperative,” said Michelle Numar, the camera operator. (The three WSU seniors switch jobs daily to gain experience that will help them pursue jobs after graduation.) “I love it how people are supporting Detroit. You hear all these negative things about Detroit, so it’s good to hear all the positive stuff.”
One of those supporters is Taggs, who came to Detroit in 1990 looking for “a more reliable source of income.” Detroit, he told Bush during his interview, “is a city what you make of it; you get what you put into it.” Married and the father of two, Taggs now has roots firmly planted in the community, noting he’s never stayed so long in a single place. “I’m pretty happy with my life here. Everything I want to do is right here.”