To drive down Livernois Avenue south of Six Mile, past the "Avenue of Fashion," is to realize that Detroit's ongoing revitalization is not a reality for many neighborhoods in the city. Even the ubiquitous liquor stores and car washes — for many stretches, the only establishments still in business — have a post-apocalyptic quality about them, covered in graffiti (not street art) and tangled in litter. But by the time you hit Michigan Avenue, it starts looking a little livelier — occasional gardens and shops are reminders that there are people who live here, people who take pride in their neighborhoods.
At 3439 Livernois, you'll find a tidy entryway of antique wooden doors and bright hand-painted signs proclaiming "music, painting, break dancing," among other things. When you walk inside this old tortilla factory, you're certainly not expecting a beautiful kitchen, grass-hut classrooms, art everywhere, and the sound of music being learned floating over the air.
Sitting at his desk, likely greeting a family and shuffling through paperwork, you'll find Ismael Duran, the seemingly tireless founder and proprietor of Garage Cultural. For three years, he's been running this nonprofit cultural center. A musician, Duran got his start organizing cultural centers in his native Chile. "I could see that I could do a lot of music, performing and traveling all over, but what did you leave? What else do you do? So the idea to do this work, music and art for the community — especially kids — is something that I thought was important to do. A more lasting, direct impact to families, to kids, to the community."
"When I started the cultural centers in Southwest Detroit, it was very exciting. I mean, you see what happens here every day ... especially in a community like ours. These kids don't have other possibilities to do this. They don't have the money to pay other places. And whatever you teach them, whatever you show them, it's new for them, and they really appreciate it." (Full disclosure: I've been teaching art and skateboard-building classes at Garage Cultural for the last two years.)
But let's back up. If you know your Latin American history, you'll remember the 1973 (U.S.-backed) coup d'etat in which Chilean military and police overthrew socialist civilian president Salvador Allende, replacing his administration with a right-wing junta government, which brutally oppressed left-wing political activity.
"I was not political," Duran says. "But I had to get out. Music was not allowed, books were not allowed. If you were a musician, or an artist ... I don't remember how many times I had to go to the cemeteries to visit friends, people in the arts. They'd just eliminate you." And leaving voluntarily was better than exile (or worse).
After meeting his wife in Paris in 1973, then living in the United States for nearly 10 years, Duran returned to his home country. "In '84, I said I needed to be in Latin America. I said to my wife, 'Let's go to Mexico,' and from there we jumped to Chile. Because I wanted my kids to be fluent in Spanish, and I think it was important for them to not only speak the language, but to know my country, know my family." There Duran aligned with the Solidarity movement, a human rights organization founded by Pope Paul VI to halt ill treatment of Chilean citizens by the government, and got involved with a fledgling cultural center. "That was my first glimpse into how you run a cultural center," he says. "It was very self-sufficient, it was very community-driven. A lot of artists, printers, sculptors — doing work for the people, for the community, for kids, for families."
Duran returned to the United States in the early '90s, drawn to the Hispanic community in Southwest Detroit, and determined to create opportunities for the kids he saw here. He worked with several other cultural centers, but ultimately found them too restricting. His vision was a center where kids could decide on their own what they wanted to learn, with no limitations as to subject matter. In 2012, with the support of Hacienda Mexican Foods owner Lydia Gutierrez — and a little help from his friends — Duran converted the 18,000-square-foot tortilla factory into the bustling hub of arts and learning that it is today.
Duran does receive some grant money for Garage Cultural, but he feels the system is skewed:
"They just give us the crumbs," he says. "An organization in a poor neighborhood like this, they give us a little money, and the big money to big universities, museums. If we feed the local organizations, then the kids will know about the museums. If you don't teach kids and families about the DIA, the African American Museum, the Center for Creative Studies ... we have all those institutions here, but how are they gonna know? How will these kids know they can get involved in the arts? Nobody's asking for $200,000 for a big executive director's salary. Just the money to start, to buy more instruments, some paint or materials, and to pay our instructors."
Much of the support comes from Gutierrez, who allows Duran to use the building free of charge. The remainder comes from the small sum he charges families for their kids to come and learn at the center. Forty dollars per family for a 10-week program, no matter how many kids they've got. And each kid can take up to three classes. But in Southwest Detroit, sometimes families can't even afford that. Duran often gets paid in trays of enchiladas or a helping hand around the building. But it's worth it. With 15 arts programs and 120 kids, Duran feels that Garage Cultural is picking up where, due to constant budget cuts, the Detroit Public Schools dropped off long ago.
"The school system doesn't have any of these things," he says. "My work is to get more kids involved in the arts. I feel that we have a gift — musicians, painters — and I feel that we should share that with people.
"In my interviews with the families, mostly I talk to the kids. The parents want the kids to do one thing, but I want to know what the kid wants to do. The key thing is to find what their interest is. You find out what they really like, and they will be committed, they will be focused. You not only teach them and train them, but you have to expose them. They're learning something — and they feel good about it — so they will continue."
Part of that includes taking the kids on field trips. The DIA, the Henry Ford Museum, and an annual camping trip are all part of the program. "A lot of these kids have never seen any of this. A lot of their parents don't have a driver's license, or they don't feel comfortable [leaving Southwest Detroit]. And that's sad because they're missing so many things."
Besides adding to the existing variety of programs offered, such as a mechanic shop and a dance studio, Duran's plans for the future of the Garage are as ambitious as they are varied — including a retail shop for kids to rent or purchase musical instruments at prices they can afford, and purchasing a bus for mobile art and music projects. Duran and Gutierrez have also sponsored several murals around the city, including the iconic Hijo del Maiz (Man of Corn) by artist Dasic Fernandez.
"If you want to do something," Duran says, "you find a way to do it. Especially if you have the support of a family, a community.
"I feel very proud about it. And very humble. Because we've done it because we love our community, we love what we do. I'm not depressed that we don't have a $100,000 budget. We work with what we have, and it's fine. And I think it's because I come from a country where we did miracles with no money, under pressure, risking your life. Risking your life. Here, it's a piece of cake, man!"
Mike Ross is an artist, writer, teacher, and skateboard maker in and around Detroit. He was featured in the Sept. 3 issue of MT. — mt