I Was Here Interview, part 1 with Ryan Barrett

May 6, 2015 Artists, Interview

Ryan Barrett, 28, native detroiter, decided to launch “I Was Here” with Lauren Hood in order to create a safe space for long-time Detroiters to share their experiences with each other and their new neighbors.

Could you tell me about I was here and what it aims to do as an event?

Overall, the mission of I was here is to have native Detroiters control the narrative and their story, and also how it relates to the urban renewal and all the change that’s happening. I feel like our stories are kind of getting glazed over. There are some of us, like my partner Lauren Hood and I, we kind of exist in a grey area where we have access to both sides: of the renewal and also just being a native, being here our whole lives. So we see how there is a disconnect between the two stories. There’s a sense of not knowing how to tap into that other side from native Detroiters. We just want to have a space where native Detroiters can come and tell their stories to other natives and to other people moving in. So it’s a first hand exchange of knowledge, versus reading in a book or on curbed or something like that.

Ryan Barrett - I was Here

It’s a dialogue, it’s not just the panelist talking to the audience, we give the panelist the chance to ask questions so they can get that firsthand knowledge and do a Q&A.

As a native Detroiter, what perspective do you have on the history of the Hamtramck/Detroit border?

Actually, I have a pretty extensive one. I lived in a neighborhood, let’s say around Carpenter and Conant area, but my street was Klinger. I lived there for about three years before I moved to West Village and went to Cleveland middle school, which was there, where I met my best friend who is also going to be on the panel for the event.

So I have a pretty intensive history with the neighborhood—
I was very multicultural because it was so close to Hamtramck—
I was on the Detroit side.

There’s Bengalis, Polish people, Arab people, Ukrainian, you name it, everyone was there. Predominantly I interacted with the African-American and Bengali communities. It’s weird to see this new installation there because that area was always so insular and secluded. There wasn’t a lot going on there and the Bengali culture was always there, there wasn’t a “Bangla Town”—there wasn’t this kind of focus, it was just always there. For me it’s kind of exciting to see this there, but I also want to make sure the communities are being engaged and that they are actually a part of the installation and this new interest in Bangla Town.

Do you have any personal stories of the border?

That particular border, I remember the Detroit kids, we pretty much hung out with the kids from the Detroit side, the kids on the other side went to a different school. At that time I was in middle school, but I knew there was Hamtramck High School that serviced the city, but then Detroit had a ton, there was Pershing, Osborne in that general area. I went to Cleveland Middle School and I think it was Dickerson where the Hamtramck kids went. I remember we would always see the kids who went to the Hamtramck schools, but we were on the Detroit side, so we only hang out on our side, but sometimes we would go into Hamtramck.

In the Hamtramck schools there were all these rivalries, like the Albanians against the Arabs, it was weird because in the Detroit schools we didn’t have that. The Bengalis, the Black kids, there were a lot of Hmong, which subsequently  kind of just vanished out of Detroit, I heard.

I remember how there was this weird divide, it was just a street, but in a bigger sense in all the places I’ve lived in my life, there have been barriers, like a boundary or border.

Even between Corktown and Midtown, as a native Detroiter, I move in circles that are not necessarily from here and I hear different perspectives that that’s kind of a border there. I can relate to both sides because I do socioeconomically move in these same circles, but I’m not necessarily from the same background and my attachment is instill within these communities, so I see their perspective too, so it’s a very interesting border to always kind of skirt.

Speaking of Porous Borders, what specific project will “I Was Here” be doing there?

We’ll be doing an “I Was Here” geared toward the Bengali community living there. So it will be three Bengali individuals talking about their experiences in that neighborhood, the culture and the neighborhood—how it intersected with Detroit and how it intersected with the African-American community and subsequently, the members who have left, not all of them would have, but the ones who have left, how that experience has shaped their lives outside of the city.

Looking forward, how do you see the implementation of new community and socioeconomic borders affecting the natives?

Detroit is in a very interesting position where we’re hyper-aware because of so many grassroots movements that have happened here. We’ve had so much time before this heightened amount of interest came to the city, we’ve been doing projects and trying to figure out where we are as a city that we’re hyper-aware of who comes in and how things are being done.

I think with projects like “I Was Here” we do have the opportunity to police how things are done and if natives are being engaged, and if communities are being engaged, if they are being utilized, their history is being utilized-versus just being pushed out. I think if we aren’t more on top of it, it can become more of a land grab where residents are just pushed out; we can negotiate that better.

“I think if we aren’t more on top of it, it can become more of a land grab where residents are just pushed out; we can negotiate that better.”

I think it’s going to take things like “I Was Here” or little projects that we do, because unfortunately the people coming here with larger resources, that’s not their motive for being here. So I think we have to engage our communities and be stronger and be aware, that’s why Lauren and I do what we do, because we don’t want people who have been here to feel weak, to feel helpless or powerless and realize that you can empower your own neighborhood, versus waiting for a Dan Gilbert or someone to come in and buy your neighborhood.

— Interview by Levon Kafafian

Read part 2, Lauren Hood’s interview.