Sunday Opinion: Imported From Detroit

I am a fan of my city; I have lived here all my life, and I still like it. I was born near the Jefferson plant in 1950.  I subsequently lived in Burns Park in Indian Village in Detroit until I was 6.  Though my family moved me to East Detroit in 1956, I routinely rode my bike downtown for a chocolate soda at Hudson’s, and took a tour around Belle Isle on my way home.  It is incredible to think that my parents never worried one bit about a 10 year old biking with friends miles away from home. But we did not think of Detroit as miles away then-it was our city. Detroit was and still is my city; I write this with pride. You may think of a car as a mechanism that allows you to get from one place to another, but my idea of the cars that have been expertly designed and engineered and efficiently produced- starting with Henry Ford-a product of infinite complexity that came on to move people and goods efficiently, reliably, and beautifully. The automobile- a game changer, ranking right up there with the light bulb, modern vaccines, and air travel.  My city, my gritty city, was instrumental in getting this country, and many other countries, on the road. That same city is also home to many thousands of talented, energetic and imaginative people doing all sorts of things-the same kinds of people that live in your city.

 Better than 15 years ago, a landscape client greatly respected in the product branding business (she named the Saturn) was kind enough to take me through a process by which I was able to give a name to the shop.  Giving a name to something which does not yet exist-not so easy.  But she organized the process.  Make a list of all the words that in your mind describes what you want this shop to be.  My list was long.  Of course garden was the first on that list.  It’s what we do.  Eventually the word “works” appeared on the list.  As in the works, this works for me, a work in progress, work the problems out, working well, not working; work is an apt synonym for gardening, is it not?  The word work is a favorite.  Also on my list, Detroit.  I had by that time done landscape and events outside of Michigan.  Though I live some 30 miles north of downtown Detroit, Detroit is where I live.  My geography has plenty to do with my attitudes and practices as a gardener. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe all great work, all great art, all great landscape is local.  I do not for one second believe that all the most creative people people in the world live in Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, or New York City.  What captures the attention of the media is a very small version of what is out there to see.  Incredibly talented and capable people live all over this globe-and lots of them in my town.  Some live in the Netherlands, or England, or Sweden, or Australia, Belgium, Canada or Wisconsin. In every city, town and township in every country there are people doing work that is breathtaking.  Really beautiful.  The internet has made it possible to appreciate this in a way that staggers the imagination.  I learned about the hellebores of Judith Knott Tyler from the internet; I have since bought her plants, and her books.  Small business people and artists lived and worked in remote places long before there was an efficient way to find out about them. 

The three words I chose that would become the name of the shop needed an arrangement. It seemed only natural that the word Detroit would come first.  The climate and community in which I work influences everything I do.  I practice horticulture in the midwest.  This means I design American gardens from a midwesterner’s point of view.  I would not want this any other way.  I believe authenticity of place is a critically important factor in landscape design.  There are lots of landscapes, both historic and contemporary that I admire from other places.  But what I have is this place.  And I have the conviction that what can be designed and grown in this place is equally as beautiful as what might be designed somewhere else.  There may be certain things about Michigan gardens that have no equal or parallel anywhere else.  This belief keeps me warm and working.

Why am I talking about Detroit?  The ad for the Chrysler 200M which aired this past Sunday, of course.  Chrysler bought 2 minutes of time during the Superbowl to talk about the genius of this place.  The genius of the people who work and live here.  I admire the gritty talk, the gritty music and photography.  All of that was perfectly authentic as to place.  But most of all I admire the clear conviction from start to finish that Detroit has produced something fabulously engineered, paintakingly built and beautifully sculptural- that cannot be found anywhere else. It is a very impassioned statement about taking ownership of what had melted down, reinventing with what was left standing, and forging something stronger and better. The ad closes with a simple but very powerful evocation of the idea of genius loci-the pervading spirit and atmosphere of place- Imported From Detroit.  Detroit has problems-terrible problems that all but defy solving.  But we have many people here with the guts, foresight, talent and imagination to take on the work of creating a local landscape where people can live and thrive.  The two minutes worth that Chrysler managed to bring to the discussion-have you seen it?