March 20 • 05:21 AM

'On the road' with Don Davenport

May 20, 2009
At the invitation of Don Davenport, I took a road trip last week into the City of Detroit and its environs.

Don, an Imlay City resident and retired Almont math teacher, was somehow able to teach both of my kids higher mathematics, despite their father's remarkable inability to work with or even look at any series of numbers that don't lend themselves to simple addition or subtraction.

An outspoken advocate of the Saxon (incremental learning/teaching) method, Don sometimes found himself at odds with other math teachers and administrators.

With that chapter of his life safely behind him, Don spends his time traveling to the Middle East, studying Arabic, visiting his daughters, serving on the Ruth Hughes Memorial District Library Board, working as a Lapeer County Red Cross volunteer, reading books, sharing his accumulated wisdom with others, and taking side trips to Detroit to check out the city's architecture.

It was for that purpose that I joined Don and two of his friends, Dan Smith of Metamora and Jerry Meng of Armada, on a day-long sojourn to the once mighty but now forlorn capital of the U.S. automobile industry: Detroit, Michigan.

Don had put together a travel itinerary that included visits to Kirk in the Hills and National Shrine of the Little Flower churches; the dilapidated remnants of Tiger Stadium; The Whitney, the old Michigan Central train station; Detroit's fabled Palmer Park, Corktown and Edison District neighborhoods; Cass Technical High School, the Elwood Bar & Grill (where some beer was consumed); the Affleck House of Bloomfield Hills, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; and the Heidelberg Project, where urban artist Tyree Guyton has assembled a shrine and resting place for thousands of discarded objects from everyday life.

Yours truly attempts to gain access to Tyree Guyton’s curious menagerie during a recent visit.

At the outset of our journey, there were the usual cordialities shared among the four of us, often leading to stories from our respective pasts. You know, memories from "back in the day," when we were young.

It is worthy of note that once free from the confines of Don's car, most of us were either limping or having some degree of difficulty walking. Nevertheless, we carried on with a minimum of grunts, groans and complaints about worn-out knees, recent motorcycle accidents or old football injuries. Needless to say, I never sustained a football injury. Unless I count the time Stan Ortwein, who outweighed me by at least 70 or 80 pounds, threw me to the ground in a pickup game back in junior high school. That tackle essentially ended my football career and also led me to start playing drums.

And now, back to the road trip.

With Don at the wheel and Dan offering directions (Dan had been a delivery driver for Chicken Delight in his youth), we made our way over, around and through the streets of old Detroit, peering out the windows in all directions at buildings and landmarks whose time had come and gone.

I was most dismayed by the appearance of Tiger Stadium; that beloved structure where I watched Al Kaline roam right field and "Tram" and "Sweet Lou" stop nearly everything hit up the middle.

After observing its current state, I would suggest all efforts to save this former treasure be abandoned. What is left today at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is a ramshackle shell of what once was.

Indeed, the hallowed vibrant green grounds where Cobb, Greenberg, Gehringer and so many others held court, are replaced by overgrown weeds and debris. It was a sad sight. Before leaving, I issued a silent "goodbye" to yet another youthful memory. I really don't want to see it again.

Leaving disappointment behind, Don proceeded to a few other downtown locations worthy of a look-see. Places like the old Wurlitzer organ store, Detroit Art Institute, Orchestra Hall and a few others. It would be the final two stops on our itinerary that I found of particular interest.

Leaving the downtown area, we headed along Jefferson to Mt. Elliot, where Don made a left turn heading west. The destination was the monastery where Fr. Solanus Casey, a Capuchin Franciscan, ran his religious order. Casey, who is reported to have performed miracles, is being touted for Sainthood by some in the Roman Catholic Church.

On our arrival we were surprised by the number of cars in the parking lot. As it turned out, we had coincidentally timed our visit with a healing ceremony being conducted by the Capuchin monks and priests.

Agreeing with Don's opinion that "it couldn't hurt," we got in line for a blessing. While feeling much the same afterward, I can attest that my aches and pains are not any worse.

Then it was on down the road a piece to what was my personal highlight of the day: urban artist Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project.

Located on Heidelberg Street not far from the Mt. Elliot Cemetery, Guyton's artistic display speaks to the decay of the inner city. Fittingly, it stands in the midst of one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in Detroit.

In 1967, at the age of 12, Guyton saw his neighborhood and city burn in the Detroit riots. From the ashes he created a burial ground for the past and a colorful "polka-dotted" message of hope for the future.

Today, Guyton devotees make daily pilgrimages to the site; paying their respects to the past and the resilience of the city; and to the life of a unique American artist.

I'd first heard about Guyton from my daughter, who along with her grandfather, visited the site several years ago. Upon meeting the artist last week, Guyton informed us he was about to receive an honorary PhD in Fine Arts from the Center for Creative Studies; adding that he would soon be off to Europe to benefit his latest project: "The House That Makes Sense."

The house on Mt. Elliot was built in 1899, and will be entirely sided with more than 800,000 U.S. (and Canadian) pennies. Guyton told us his trip, which includes stops in Germany, Italy and Switzerland, will lay the groundwork for the House That Makes Sense project and others to follow.

Guyton's dream is to create a neighborhood center (along Heidelberg and adjacent streets) where local artists can congregate, share ideas and set up galleries and shops. He is also promoting children's and school tours of the Project. At present, more than 275,000 people visit the site annually.

For information about Guyton or the Heidelberg Project, call 313-267-1622 or visit

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