Detroit

Composed by Scott J. Ordway (b. 1984)

“The wheels looked like bicycle wheels today.”–Paul B. Shirley, b. July 30, 1912

This fragment refers to the Ford Model T automobile, which was manufactured in Highland Park, Michigan from 1908 to 1927. Remnants of the old Model T assembly line, now covered in vines and surrounded by abandoned buildings, can still be seen today. Before World War II, Ford was alone among the Big Three automakers in employing black workers.

Paul B. Shirley was born on July 30, 1912 in Dayton, Ohio. He moved to Detroit in November, 1919. He worked as a waiter at the Barlum Hotel from 1928–33, and he has also worked at the Downtown Club and Penobscot Club. During the Roosevelt administration, under the National Recovery Program, he dug ditches, cleaned alleys, set out tress, and blacktopped roads. He has entertained as a singer, dancer, and stand-up comedian in clubs such as Lark’s Grill, Turf Bar, and Flame Show Bar. Mr. Shirley is currently a participant in the Detroit Urban League’s Seniors in Community Service Program.

“I wish it would rain (oh how I wish that it would rain). ‘Cause so badly, I wanna go outside.”–The Temptations, 1967

This fragment is an excerpt from the song “I Wish It Would Rain”, by Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, and Roger Penzabene. In 1967, it was recorded by the Temptations at Motown Records’ famed Studio A on West Grand Boulevard. Soon after its release, the song would reach No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts. Earlier that year, and not far from Studio A, a police raid on an unlicensed bar precipitated a five-day riot, one of the most violent and destructive in United States history. Residents describe the days following July 23, 1967 as days which changed the city forever. The riots were the result of decades of social inequality, unequal employment, overtly racist real estate practices, and other de facto segregation; they made permanent a cycle of fear and distrust which remains palpable today.

“How still the garden seems…”–Original text by the composer, 2013

In some neighborhoods of Detroit, people have begun to plant gardens in vacant lots; in some areas, organizations have repurposed entire city blocks as sustainable farms. This original line of text was inspired by a visit to several of these urban oases in May 2013, and by the quiet resilience of the Detroiters who tend to them.

–Scott J. Ordway

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