Team Here There on Borders that Divide & Contain
Amy Kelly, Hamtramck; Susan Girardeau, Detroit; Bob St. Thomas, Detroit; and Jay Sharma, Hamtramck reminisce on how the actions of the past have affected the communities of the present. This insightful interview with Team Here There gives us a taste of what Detroit/Hamtramck used to feel like.
Can you give us a brief history of the group and what the mission is behind Team Here/There?
SG: We’ve known each other for 30 years now.
JS: Probably close to that. Amy and Susan did their undergraduate work at College for Creative Studies. I worked as a technician and parttime instructor there and Bob was at Wayne State University. Amy and Susan shared studios, I worked in the photography dept. Bob has a background in music and history, and Amy and Susan are sculptors and Amy is a time arts and dance artist.
“I don’t know if we really have a mission, we came together to do this piece because we’ve all lived, worked in Hamtramck. ” — Amy Kelly
SG: This is the first project where we’ve all been directly involved and named. We write together, she has something she wants to do she talks to me and vice versa. He helps her make that, he helps me, we’ve been involved in each other’s projects. In fact, Bob was a model when [Jay] was doing the black and white portraitures a long time ago and Jay took pictures of my sculpture.
BST: I was much better looking then.
SG: So we’ve all been like that, this is the first one where we’ve had all four names as a group. Amy is the one that brought it to us and had a here/there concept going. We had a discussion, wiring back and forth filling out the application.
AK: I don’t know if we really have a mission, we came together to do this piece because we’ve all lived, worked in Hamtramck. We thought this would be a good formal way to come together to do something. We all have complementary skills.
SG: She’s the actual word person of the four of us.
JS: All of us had been involved in and had lived in both communities. Susan, did you live here too?
SG: No, but I’ve been coming to Hamtramck since I was this high with my grandpa.
JS: Bob had taught at the middle school behind our studio on Doramus. All of us have worked in both communities as artists and have ties to both going back a long time.
“I thought it was a unique idea because Hamtramck is a unique city, it is almost a city in a time capsule. As every other community has changed into something other than what it was a 100 years ago. Hamtramck has remained a small town in the belly of Detroit.” — Bob St. Thomas
BST: The uniqueness of what Amy found words for was that you could have dinner in Detroit and have a romantic evening in Hamtramck and never leave your house, because the border could run right through your house. I thought it was a unique idea because Hamtramck is a unique city, it is almost a city in a time capsule. As every other community has changed into something other than what it was a 100 years ago. Hamtramck has remained a small town in the belly of Detroit. It’s very community and family-oriented, in fact it’s probably the only community in this area that at two or three o’clock in the morning you find women walking down the street by themselves. They feel very safe so I just thought that with here/there, there is a tremendous difference at 12 o’clock at night you will find no women or couples, small groups quietly walking, having conversation.
SG: Except for downtown…
What will Here/There as a project be at the Porous Borders festival?
AK: The formal being primarily signs delineating the border between Hamtramck and Detroit, one side of the sign will say here, the other side will say there. We will also have several of these sight viewers so that people can peek through scout their own distance through the border, especially where it’s inaccessible.
SG: We’re going to make a map with where our final locations are.
JS: Where it’s appropriate, I made arrangements to borrow a striping device like they use on athletic fields, so it’s a temporary water based paint. Where we get permission to use it, we’ll have an actual borderline, that’ll help people see—especially where the border does interesting things.
Do each of you have a short story you’d like to share about your experiences with borders in this region or elsewhere?
SG: When I was very young in the 50’s, the lodge went in and it was a boulevard street level at the time. It was one of the ways we went from neighborhood to neighborhood, on our bikes and roller skates. The lodge went in and just cut through the neighborhoods which caused people to shop over here instead of over there, because it was still a very much a walking around community back then. It really caused neighborhoods and retail to change.
“The lodge went in and just cut through the neighborhoods which caused people to shop over here instead of over there, because it was still a very much a walking around community back then. It really caused neighborhoods and retail to change.” — Susan Girardeau
BST: What used to be called Paradise Valley in downtown Detroit is now I-75 and as a little kid whenever relatives came to Detroit my dad and uncle would put us in the station wagon, a real woody, and drive us through what was left of so called Paradise Valley. It was where most of the people who moved from the south, the first stop in Detroit would be in what they called Paradise Valley, the Black Bottom, which was really a place where the river had for centuries probably washed this black topsoil down and because most of the people lived a rural life before they came to the Detroit industrial center—whatever you put in the ground in the backyard, flowers were twice as big as they were in the other neighborhoods. The soil was very rich and very black and it made people who came from small towns in the country feel at home. It was easy to settle, it was a beautiful walking community.
Most of the people that were part of Motown recording, Joe Louis, most of the 40’s and early 50’s big band member, jazz musicians all grew up in that neighborhood when Detroit was a mecca for music, dance engineering. It was predominantly black, but it was mixed, but the city grew too fast for people to stay separated ethnically. Very well kept and harmonious. The freeway just destroyed all of that, it became a barrier to community, the same as the lodge.
Probably the one saving grace for Hamtramck, why it’s different from all of the other communities in Detroit — it remained a community. It didn’t get cut up.
JS: Years ago flying out west, I had to take a flight from Detroit Metro to Atlanta and then to Denver. There was a little boy sitting next to me with his family was across the aisle. It was sort of a bumpy flight and the kid was a little nervous and asking a ton of questions while I was trying to get a bit of sleep: Hey mister, where are we? I looked out and noticing some of the landmarks on the ground I said we’re over Ohio and he said no, we can’t be. I said well, sure we can, why not? He said I didn’t see the border. The idea that the border was drawn on the ground was in his head. I’ve thought of that — borders are so obvious and so important, but they’re also arbitrary. I think part of this project is to sort of explore the ideas of borders being both very real things and very transparent things.
“Hey mister, where are we? I looked out and noticing some of the landmarks on the ground I said we’re over Ohio and he said no, we can’t be. I said well, sure we can, why not? He said I didn’t see the border.” — Jay Sharma
AK: In doing this I’ve really been thinking about how many times a day I cross the border. Now being sort of aware of it, it’s been interesting how you think about whether you feel different on either side of the border. I’ve been thinking about how that’s changed my thinking about the border and also again, just how the big marks, how Carpenter is a boundary. It’s been interesting to think about — I’m so much more influenced by the visual tracks normally.
JS: For a number of years I lived just north of McDougall, near the hospital on the Detroit side. we’ve lived in several homes in both communities. It was very interesting because this neighborhood was closely tied when the North Detroit hospital was in operation. There used to be a police precinct, I don’t know what’s there now, a drug store or a dollar store, up on the corner of Davison and Conant, this neighborhood was nearly seamless with Hamtramck, you didn’t notice a change.
There were very rapid changes north of Carpenter after the hospital closed and the police precinct closed. When the hospital was open you had a lot of people who were physicians and residents at the hospital, nurses and staff there. They very quickly moved out after the hospital closed. Lately they’ve had a change with all the artists that have moved into the neighborhood and also many of the people from Bangladesh that have moved in and have made pretty significant improvements on the neighborhood.
Just geographically this neighborhood in particular seems to be tied to a certain extent, even though it’s in Detroit, to Hamtramck. There’s not a lot of shopping or community things going on here, outside of the new things the art community have brought in, and it’s tied this community with Hamtramck in a way similar to how it was in the past. The other thing that’s sort of interesting in going through here — I’ve always had an interest in geography — the way the borders are set up here go back from surveying from before the turn of the century. The streets that are running northwest-southeast are parallel to Woodward Avenue, whereas our borders in several positions run straight eastwest run parallel with the mile roads and where Grand Boulevard goes across, which would be 3 mile if it came down that far. As result it cleaves many of these neighborhoods in half where some of the borders run right through buildings.
You don’t really think of the significance of that until you start thinking about where you are paying property taxes. Am I paying property taxes on my garage in the back of my house to one community? Can my kid go to school in one city or that city? When I call the police is it a different response based on whether there was a robbery in the front of the house as opposed to the back of the house? On a lot of the properties the border runs through the center of a rail yard, it cuts right through the middle of a DTE power station. Of course, the GM Hamtramck Assembly plant, they don’t like to refer to it as Poletown because when they put the plant in it destroyed a lot of neighborhood area. It’s interesting with GPS now you can pinpoint it without being a surveyor to within a few feet of where the border separates buildings.
— Interview by Levon Kafafian