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February 23, 2012
acclaimed writer, thomas lynch, also funeral director
ACCLAIMED WRITER, THOMAS LYNCH, ALSO FUNERAL DIRECTOR VIKI LORRAINE THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23rd, 2012 Thomas Lynch and his Bernese mountain dog, Bill, met me as I pulled into the parking lot of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Milford. The stately, well-maintained, colonial style building blended perfectly with the residential neighborhood that surrounds it; the same way Thomas Lynch has blended into his community. As we sat in a sunlit room off one of the funeral parlors, my first question was one I had been itching to ask. “You’re world renowned. You could live anywhere you wanted. Why Milford, why Michigan?” Lynch was quick with his reply. “My family’s roots here are not that old, but we’ve never strayed too far.” His great grandfather arrived in 1890 from Ireland. “He came to work in the prison in Jackson,” said Lynch. “The prison was a draw for many unskilled Irish laborers.” It was Lynch’s father who started in the funeral business and gave start to the family notion that unless family is running it, we shouldn’t be in it. The Lynch family eventually grew to include nine children. “My father had to keep acquiring more funeral homes to keep us in jobs,” said Lynch. All but two of the children found work in funeral service. Lynch came to Milford in 1974 to take over the management of Richardson-Bird & Lynch, which became Lynch & Son’s Funeral Directors in 1978. “I knew then I was where I was going to stay,” said Lynch. “I knew Milford would be our home. Occupationally, funeral directors are rooted in their community. …It’s good business to be anchored to community,” said Lynch. “There’s a tremendous level of trust people place in us, just because we show up. We become trustworthy by default. If something happens they know who to go to.” For Lynch, it’s all about being locally accountable. “If you have to live and socialize and pay the millage in a community, you must be accountable. That’s just the way it is if your name is on the sign.” Lynch lives next door to the funeral home. These days his sons do most of what he calls the heavy lifting. “I’m not retired, but also not required. But I do have a lot of history here.” Last week he buried two friends. It’s here, in the day-to-day living and dying of his community, where Thomas Lynch finds inspiration for his writing, writing that has won him international and national acclaim. The author of five collections of poems, a book of short stories and three books of essays, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, The New York Times, Times of London, The New Yorker, Poetry and The Paris Review. He has also been the subject of two film documentaries. PBS Frontline's The Undertaking won the 2008 Emmy Award for Arts and Culture Documentary. The film, shot inside Lynch & Sons, gives rare, behind-the-scenes access - from funeral arrangements to the embalming room - to Lynch’s world. Learning Gravity, produced for the BBC and narrated by Lynch, looks at what death and the business of dying can teach the living. It was featured at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival and won the Michigan Prize at the sixth Traverse City Film Festival. Michigan has many other reasons to be proud of this native son. He is the winner of the Heartland Prize for non-fiction, the American Book award and a finalist for the National Book Award. Lynch's commentaries have been recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio, RTE in Ireland and NPR. He has received grants and awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Michigan Council for the Arts, The Michigan Library Association, The Writers Voice Project, The National Book Foundation, The Arvon Foundation in Great Britain and The Irish Arts Council. He has also appeared on C-SPAN, MSNBC, The Today Show, and the PBS-Bill Moyers Series,"On Our Own Terms" Besides the people and places of his adopted hometown, I asked Lynch about other inspirations for his writing. “The availability of great writing communities,” he said. “They’re in Flint, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Petoskey. We have a wonderful network of writers in Michigan. We recently had a National Book Award winner!” The National Book Award, publishing’s version of the Academy Awards, was given to Western Michigan University English Professor Jaimy Gordon in 2010 for her work of fiction. Lynch went on to describe a letter he received years ago from writer Alice Fulton inviting him to a poetry workshop at the University of Michigan. “Many of the people I met there became lifelong friends.” Lynch also described several other Michigan gems: the Bear River Writers Conference sponsored by the University of Michigan and held each year at Walloon Lake, the Wayne State University Press and the National Writers Series in Traverse City. “There’s a great tradition in Europe that says ‘art is required’,” said Lynch. “In America the feeling is more –‘isn’t it nice that we have poets, we just don’t want to read them.’ How many people would know the current poet laureate? (Philip Levine, a graduate of Detroit Public Schools and former Michigan factory worker is U.S. poet laureate for 2011-12)They won’t be studying that in schools. We have a detachment from arts and the life of a community. We seem to have the sense that art belongs in universities. But the arts are really good business. I’ve made more money lately from writing and speaking about writing. But if I were a professor at a university, I’m sure I would be more highly regarded.” Lynch is encouraged by the collaborative efforts of many young entrepreneurs and artists around the state of Michigan “Artistically there’s a lot happening in cities like Detroit and Flint, cities built around manufacturing. When the manufacturing went away the office and professional base moved out. The residential space declined. But now the artists are moving in.” “People who are born here know what a resource we have,” said Lynch. “The time is right for them. What it used to cost for a flat in Manhattan you can now have a mansion on Detroit’s east side.” His nephew just bought a home in Detroit’s Boston Edison historical district. The nephew rents his 9000 square foot mansion to artists and medical residents. The plan is to use the ballroom in the basement for recitals, salons, arts events, and book launches. Lynch then points to Michael Moore and his contributions, both artistically and economically, to the state. “Here’s a guy who has really made an investment in this state. He moved back to Michigan, bought a home, bought a theater, created a film festival and makes films in the state. Lynch believes thriving arts communities have a great potential for growth in Michigan. He believes more people in government need to see the arts as good business with a big pay off in the revenue stream. “The arts are often recession proof,” said Lynch. “People will do without Buicks before they’ll do without Mozart. I’ve seen communities where the arts, theater, were underwritten, given infrastructure by public policy and it gave rich dividends. Artists don’t need to be watered like plants, it’s just good business to nurture them.” The facts of life and death remain the same. We live and die, we love and grieve, we breed and disappear. And, in between these existential gravities we search for meaning, save our memories, leave a record for those who will remember us. -from The Undertaking Lynch, true to his words, is giving us the gift of writing he will one day leave behind.
FLINT HANDMADE AND A CITY IN RENAISSANCE
MARY KATHERINE QUASARANO
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23rd, 2012
Some people have suggested that Flint’s best days are behind it. Clearly, these folks haven’t been to a Flint Handmade event, and they certainly haven’t met Crystal Pepperdine. As the founder of Flint Handmade, an urban crafts movement, and as a proud urban homesteader, Pepperdine is very adamant that Flint’s very best days are ahead. “Flint is a fantastic place for enthusiastic people like me,” she chirps. It certainly is. Her story is about a renaissance woman assisting a city in a renaissance of its own.
Flint Handmade began in 2007 as a part of the Greater Flint Creative Alliance, a local grassroots arts activism organization. “I attended the very first Detroit Urban Craft Fair, sponsored by Handmade Detroit, and immediately decided that Flint needed handcrafting events, too,” shared Pepperdine. Handcrafting, as defined by Pepperdine, is “…the perfect marriage of beauty and functionality.” After two years, there was enough of a demand for handcrafting events that Flint Handmade became an independent organization. Several friends and fellow crafters (Jessica Nickola Planck, Michelle Stolz and Amy Kelsey) helped Pepperdine start and maintain Flint Handmade in its first independent years.
As the friends left to pursue personal goals and dreams, by 2011 Flint Handmade was being run solely by Pepperdine, who had applied for and received 501(c)(3) non-profit designation through assistance from Wayne State University’s Small Business and Non-Profit Clinic. This valuable designation has allowed Flint Handmade to apply for grants and accept tax-deductible donations from supportive individuals from within the city as well as “Flint ex-pats” from as far away as Arkansas, Maryland and California. These two funding sources, as well as assistance from several dedicated event volunteers, have allowed Pepperdine to grow and expand programming.
That expanded programming now includes eight to ten craft lab workshops, two craft swaps (material exchanges between crafters), two large markets, participation in three community events, and five skill share workshops. In addition to these events, Flint Handmade has a permanent working shop display selling handmade goods from at least 15 local crafters at The Lunch Studio in downtown Flint. Pepperdine celebrates and lauds the willingness of the restaurant’s owner, Tracey Whelpley, to support creativity by supporting crafters. “I hear from people who attend our events, or see our work at The Lunch Studio. They share their gratitude that Flint has a group like Flint Handmade; they are thankful for the opportunity to participate in the revitalization of the city.”
Pepperdine has a full-time career at the University of Michigan – Flint, and for the past eight years she has managed four interdisciplinary graduate programs, including the new Master of Arts in Arts Administration. “It may sound a little unusual, but I consider administration my art. I truly enjoy the development and implementation of programs and projects,” shared Pepperdine. “My ideas for supporting and promoting the handmade movement are like a painter’s ideas for the canvas. The events and initiatives that I help produce are my works of art.” She calls Flint Handmade her “vocational call."
But wait, there’s more.
Pepperdine and her fiancé Russ Bedford are urban homesteaders. An urban homestead is defined by urbanhomestead.org as “…a successful, real-life working model for sustainable agriculture and eco-living in urban areas.” Pepperdine and Bedford own a home in the city, and they tend an 800 square foot vegetable garden plus fruit trees, nut trees, berry bushes, along with all kinds of herbs and flowers. Pepperdine cans jams and jellies and she describes crafting (quilting, paper craft, stained glass and pendants) as her hobbies. The couple’s next project is the construction of a greenhouse.
Where does Pepperdine get her “juice” – the inspiration and motivation to keep up enthusiasm at 12-hour swap meets and other events; to maintain the Flint Handmade blog and Facebook page, and thrive as a professional manager of graduate students and programs? She describes her juice this way: “…there is always one person at every Flint Handmade event that walks in, looks around, and their eyes begin to gleam and become wide with wonder. It’s as if their face is saying, ‘I didn’t know this existed! These are my people!’ Those people are having the same reaction to Flint Handmade that I had to Handmade Detroit in 2006.”Some people have suggested that Flint’s best days are behind it. Clearly, these folks haven’t been to a Flint Handmade event, and they certainly haven’t met Crystal Pepperdine.
BRINGING CULTURES TOGETHER THROUGH HIP-HOP ACTIVISM
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23rd, 2012
Growing up in America’s Midwest, Amer Ahmed recognized at an early age that he was different.
“I think growing up an Indian American Muslim in Springfield, Ohio -- definitely there were a lot of experiences not being like other people … I was around white Americans, black Americans -- and then there was me.”
The child of an Indian physician and his wife, Ahmed was acutely aware he was in a circumstance different from many Indian children. His acknowledgement of, and fascination with the cultural differences around him shaped a life rich with multicultural experiences.
“Knowing that I’ve been given this opportunity to get an education in the United States, I had to ask myself, what is my responsibility? It was a very anomalous circumstance to grow up here given the vast numbers of people in India living in poverty and with disparities. I wasn’t willing to simply accept their poverty because it could’ve been me, it should’ve been me.”
Ahmed’s sense of responsibility to effect positive change led him to Miami University in Ohio where he studied Anthropology and Black Studies, then to Indiana University for graduate work. It was during that time he discovered hip-hop and spoken-word poetry as a form of self expression.
“I liked the idea of putting performing with music, so I first started performing and recording -- sometimes with music, sometimes without.” Performing gave him another route to make an impact on people.
“I believe strongly music has the power to bring people together that would not normally come together. Because I’d always moved between groups of people, I liked the idea of bringing those people together. It was clear white people didn’t know about black people, black people didn’t know about white people and nobody knew about me.”
Ahmed’s involvement in the hip-hop community exposed him to a new group working to establish itself on college campuses around the nation -- Hip Hop Congress. The organization’s mission is to provide the Hip-Hop Generation and the post Hip-Hop Generation with the tools, resources and opportunities to make social, economic and political change on a local, regional and national level. It was a natural fit for Ahmed’s passions and he worked diligently during college to help the organization grow and succeed
When he finished his graduate work and began his career in academia, focusing on intercultural diversity, he thought his involvement with Hip Hop Congress would be forced to end.
“At first I thought my hip-hop activism was over. I thought it was just some club I was in during college, but I started to see opportunities and relationships grow. Nothing brings more types of people together than hip-hop. It started to become something I could keep doing in my job and that allowed me to continue to organize hip-hop activists nationally and internationally because I was able to use the network to find people to come to the campuses where I worked.”
As his career advanced and grew, Ahmed remained an active player in the hip-hop scene, becoming a well known speaker and consultant, releasing spoken-word poetry albums as Dawah, serving as national co-chair of the board of directors for Hip Hop Congress, and even executive producing Grammy-nominated vocalist Maimouna Youssef’s album. He also helped to bring Michigan its first Hip Hop Congress Midwest Summit.
“We try to bring people from different parts of the region and around the country here, but we also try to do something that’s fun, interesting and educational.”
The impact on students isn’t overlooked by Ahmed.
“For a lot of young people they haven’t been on a college campus before so it’s an opportunity just to experience a college campus for the first time. There are some people who have never left their towns, neighborhoods, cities. So to come into a new place and meet people of different backgrounds … to recognize that college can be a place where you can have that kind of experience and that other people can have a connection and an interest in someone like you, and all of that can be a part of your education and things you feel passionate about. I feel like we’ve been able to open up peoples’ worlds and potentially get them to make choices in their lives that may be different than they otherwise would.”
For Ahmed, leaving the world a better place is central to his art and his work.“We have to learn more about ourselves in order to be able to learn more about each other. I think the more we learn about each other the less fear there is. Fear creates a lot of the division and hatred that gets perpetuated when we don’t understand each other. If my words at all contribute to someone else’s life’s journey, that’s a blessing to me -- to be able to help, that’s my purpose in life -- to help people around me and better their lives.”
THIS PLACE MAKES YOU SMILE
FEBRUARY 23rd, 2012
Since the 1990’s downtown Ferndale, a stretch of 9 Mile Road off Woodward Avenue, has been deliberately developing as a Mecca for local entrepreneurs. And because of those resourceful local business owners, the district was developing a vibrancy that was hard to miss. However recently, there was a building right on the corner of 9 Mile Rd. and Woodward Avenue, an anchor location, which was last occupied by an Old Navy retail outlet store. This space was described, in its four-year vacancy, by a representative of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority as a missing front tooth in the smile that is downtown Ferndale.
Daily, the huge Old Navy space was calling to Tiffany Best as she passed by on her way to work, but it would be a while before she heard that call. Then she and her husband Chris were taking a hard look at their current job situations and decided they could do better, and truthfully they both felt they were on the brink of being laid-off. Tiffany was working part-time in landscaping and in a hair salon supporting stylists by sweeping hair. While Chris was working construction, a job that he liked, but there was very little job security in building high-end homes in the Detroit-area given the current economy.
The couple started to dream about creating a space for artists to display and sell their wares. “It didn’t really start with a market model,” said Tiffany. “We kept going to art festival after art festival, including the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, and on the long drive home we kept asking the question… ‘What could we do that captures the essence of an art fair and still provide stability for ourselves and vendors?’…the ah-ha moment was the market.”
It took the couple three months of steady work to write and perfect their business plan and scour the area looking at spaces in high-end locations like Birmingham. And while Tiffany was driving past the Old Navy store space daily, the couple’s sights were set on a much smaller space. “Finally, I decided we should at least look at the space,” said Tiffany.
Plans were presented, a deal was made and by May of 2011 The Rust Belt Market was open for business in Ferndale, Michigan. Open only on Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm, the Rust Belt is described by its creators, as homage to Midwestern creativity and ingenuity. Chris and Tiffany Best describe their vendor mix as those artists delivering original works of art (no reselling) and/or vintage collections for sale. On the day of our visit, Super Bowl Sunday, the Market was buzzing with excitement. HGTV had contacted one of the vendors, J. Kyle Keener of Keener Vision, to do a piece for the popular Detroit-based show called Cash and Cari, featuring estate sale guru Cari Cucksey. Keener describes his unique creations as art from found objects that require you to have a tetanus shot to work on. On this day he was working on fabricating a lamp with rusty cast-off industrials parts.
The HGTV host and a film crew cruised the market for additional feature stories before they got to Keener. They made a stop at Kelli’s Vintage booth. After just a few minutes, Kelli had made a sale to Cari (a full length, vintage, red leather coat) and had a nice conversation that just might end up on HGTV.
The Bests are particularly proud of the Market’s ability to create a steady revenue stream and source of employment for their vendors, last estimated at 65 people. There is a theme among many of the vendors. A theme of loss and redemption; lost jobs, replaced by the chance to incubate a new artistic business at The Rust Belt Market are common.
Consider Chris Gorski, a graphic designer with a job at Detroit-based ad agency Campbell-Ewald. There was a day that he saw the writing on the wall; he knew was going to lose his job when Campbell-Ewald lost the Chevrolet account. “My family loves Chevys," claimed Gorski. “And since I was already selling original design t-shirts out of the back of my truck, I decided to buy a short bed Chevy step van to open up a business called Detroit GT. I bought Little Leo (his name for the van, after his grandfather) sight unseen from Craig’s List and had it shipped here from Wisconsin.” Chris and Tiffany contacted Gorski and asked when he was going to bring the van down and move it inside the market. Little Leo has been a Rust Belt Market mainstay every weekend since last spring.
For every vendor there is a great story, stories that will make you smile and objects for sale that will delight you. Photographers finding the beauty in a city where others see only decay; artists inspired by everyday objects transformed; textiles, paintings, musical instruments from cigar boxes, wood crafted one-of-a-kind gifts… are all part of the mix. Even the coffee vendor at the Rust Belt Market will make you smile. Henrietta Haus Coffee Roasters adds a creative bent to the presentation of coffee service from their artistically funky sign to a display of ‘not-for-sale’ quirky found objects.
Through all of their efforts, which the couple describe as a 24/7 job, success is the “Best” word to describe their efforts at creating the space for artists. “Make no mistake, we were terrified when we started this project,” confides Chris Best. “But we have a vision for this space that propels us forward.” For the future, the couple hopes to continue to refine the space design and help their vendors improve their marketing and presentation. “You know you must be doing something right when people come to you with questions about franchising your ideas,” said Chris Best. “While nothing has come of those discussions yet, it is good to know that people are noticing, and that makes us smile.”