Harpoon Notes for August 22, 2018

The Rotary bell rang from somewhere; probably from a guard tower as it seemed like roll call at Stalag 17. President Greg, left arm cradled in a sling, struck a dramatic pose. With his sports jacket draped rakishly, he peered at our motley assembly much like Preminger from the stoop of his commandant’s hut. He nodded to his adjutant, Aaron Boylan, who snapped to the podium for an announcement. We’d heard it all before, or so we thought. We just stood there, cold and ragtag, eyes half vacant, our stomachs churning from black bean soup. They call it an ‘Inspiration’ — a brief harangue, really, about love, dedication, and keeping one’s chin up in the face of disaster. Actually, these homilies can be (depending on the topic, or if the barrack warden had handed out clean blankets that morning), surprisingly uplifting.

True to form, Boylan starts jabbering about a ‘personal experience’, about something that had happened in his house. “My wife and I are re-doing our kitchen,” he began, a picturesque introduction somewhat at odds with the current reality of we POWs. “I got to talking with the electrician; a diminutive guy who’s standing on the counter, working on a light. He’s 80 years old. So I ask him, ‘What’s your secret to longevity?’ He says: ‘I like you just the way you are.’ Meaning, he takes people as they are, one at a time. That’s his secret.” Maybe that should be our secret, too. One day at a time — with our captors and the bean soup. Commandant Greg smiled, flapped his bum arm, and we were dismissed.

Song: Past President Ingrid Sheldon, reprising her song-leader duties of last week, and joined again by that fabulous pianist Joan Knoertzer, captured the spirit of Detroit with her choices: “For Me and My Gal” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. These the assembly, now freed from stalag captivity, sang beautifully.

Greg welcomed one and all, then explained what had happened, a la W.C. Fields: “I slipped on some ice, and I don’t know how my foot got in the glass.” When the laughter died down, visiting Rotarians and guests were introduced. Among them was architect Ed Wier’s guest, Ethan Melock, president of the Pioneer Rotaract Club.

John Simpkins, Golf and Tennis Outing Committee chair, returned to the podium to urge members to register for the GTO dinner. “We’re three weeks out. Registration is going well, but we could use some more for the dinner. Since this is our biggest fund raiser, I hope we’ll get more registrations.”

Club Administrator John White then introduced a video featuring Rotary International President, Barry Rassin. “Barry is going to talk to us about [the future of Rotary]; about reaching out to the community, and [attracting] members who reflect the community.” Barry got right to it: “We’re in Rotary because we want to change the world. We do a lot, but we have to start at home. Rotary should reflect people in the community.” Reaching out to young people was definitely a priority. “Treat Rotaractors as colleagues, not interns,” he emphasized. Indeed, perhaps the crux of Barry’s address was the challenge to convert Rotaractors to active Rotarians, with as brief an interval as possible. Like many in the audience, perhaps, your reporter was struck by both the RI president’s earnestness and his resemblance to Sir Alec Guinness.

Next, Dan Romanchik came forward to speak about membership, thereby underscoring Barry’s message. “It’s easy to rest on our laurels, because we’re in a great Rotary club, but we want members to contact us [the Membership Committee] any time [with candidates]. We want new people to come to our meetings. The Committee will seek ways to have the Club reflect more of how Ann Arbor looks.”

Speaker: Toastmaster extraordinaire Barbara Niess-May then introduced our speaker. “It is my pleasure to introduce a brilliant architect, Kemba Braynon. One of my best friends, Kemba is an author and [associated] with Quinn Evans Architects, in Ann Arbor. The eldest child of two professors who were passionate about the City of Detroit (her mother’s studies in [urban] planning affected Detroit and many other cities), Kemba is an architect, writer, and historic preservationist. Please give a Rotary welcome to my friend, Kemba Braynon.”

“I wanted to be a storyteller,” Kemba declared unabashedly. She explained that, given her parents’ renown and immersion in Detroit history and architecture, she “wanted to stay as far away from Detroit as possible!” Eventually, though, she came around. At MSU she majored in architecture and English literature, reflecting both her cultural interests and desire to become ‘a writing architect.’ Citing Detroit’s population decline “from its peak in the mid 1950s,” through the riots, and up to the present, she observed that the “Great Recession” held back the City’s resurrection significantly: “Nobody was building in Detroit in those years.” She projected a map on the screen. It showed Detroit’s three sections — West, East, and Central. “Most of my experience [as an architect and historic preservationist] has been in the East and Central areas.” She then introduced a key operative term, “place-making…What we do is to inspire people to collectively re-imagine where they live.” One way she and her team accomplish this is to revitalize marquee buildings that have deteriorated from neglect. A major project was the long-shuttered Atkinson School; a huge brick structure, once a palace of education, now a wasted hulk. “Atkinson had been built when Detroit’s population could support it — 1.8 million in the 50s.” Actually, it was just one of many.

“I don’t know if anyone here has ever lived in a community with an abandoned building,” Kemba posited. “It’s a weight on the community; it attracts vandalism. [The question becomes] how to re-use these abandoned buildings.” She went to the residents. “We hosted workshops. What do they, the people in the community, want? What [businesses] can we put into them that will enhance the neighborhood? Finding out took nearly ten years. “We held lots of meetings, drew up a list of 19 possible uses. The residents, though, were getting frustrated. The meetings were only for information purposes. They were coming up to us, saying ‘So, what’s going to happen?'” However, after ten years, and a re-zoning, old Atkinson School became “a place-maker.”

City landmark Belle Isle was Kemba’s next project. “Belle Isle, situated in the Detroit River, is Detroit’s Central Park. With over 100 historic structures, the island received historic designation in 1974. But it had really deteriorated over the years.” A prime structure was the Aquarium, and it was a wreck. Built by renowned architect Albert Kahn in 1904, the Aquarium was THE destination point for generations of Detroiters. “Then, in the early 2000s, it was closed. The City couldn’t afford to maintain it.” Kemba showed several slides of a jarringly dilapidated Aquarium. “The roof leaked, which is a sure sign of neglect…and look at the windows.” This is where her writing prowess took center stage: “Grant writing is like storytelling. So I wrote it. Grant after grant. We were able to re-roof, paint, and fix the windows. Now look…” The next slide revealed an instant sensation: “Now, there are usually lines like this, of people waiting to get in.”

In conclusion, Kemba described The Scarab Club. “It is the oldest continually-used art organization in Michigan,” she asserted. A gem of the Cultural Center Historic District of Detroit, the lovely brick megalith was erected in 1928. “But the roof was leaking, endangering a beam signed by Norman Rockwell and Diego Rivera, when he was at the DIA painting his mural.” The grant requests flew off her desk. “It’s surrounded by the DIA and other historic buildings,” and needed to be preserved. The next phase, according to Kemba, will be to interconnect this cultural heart of Detroit, creating a cultural campus of historically significant buildings.

Greg thanked Kemba for her insightful presentation. Many eager questions and comments followed; one in particular seemed to say it all: “In the film, Field of Dreams, they said, ‘Build it, and they will come’. For Detroit, it seems to be, ‘Re-build it and they will come back.'” Amen.

“Life is hard, but it’s harder if you stupid.” — John Wayne