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Detroit is officially bankrupt… but is this news?

Once the industrial mecca of the world.  Once considered the wealthiest American city in the 1950s.  The City of Detroit is now bankrupt.  However, people who have any knowledge of Detroit in the past few decades might not really view this as news.  Starting with the post-war era and then race riots, the city has been in constant decline.  As the corruption and complications of the Detroit City government are being righted over the past decade, the scars and desperation have grown more visible.  Many people didn’t want to admit it, but Detroit has been at rock bottom for several years.  It is a good thing that the city has finally come to terms with this and now has the State of Michigan and federal government backing a new transformation.  There are plenty of skeptics about how the situation is being handled, myself included.  But how can anyone really know how to handle the largest municipality to have ever declared bankruptcy?  Nobody really knows what will happen yet but we all hope for a positive change.  Things can’t get worse at this point.  Or can it?  Some very horrific rumors are being passed around including the idea of selling off artwork from the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to pay for portions of debt.  I just hope this dire situation doesn’t produce an irrational form of urban renewal and government policies that will come to haunt the city in its unforeseeable future.  Regardless of what happens, there is evidence of positive change throughout several areas of the city.  Survival and persistence are core qualities of native Detroiters and those who choose to live their lives in the city.  This short editorial echoes positive thoughts for the City of Detroit in the wake of bankruptcy.

Vacant land is one of the issues that few are addressing across Detroit.  The City of Detroit is fortunate to have people and organizations such as LEAP that are already taking the initiative to jump-start revitalization projects.  LEAP and the other grassroots organizations are not the first to transform vacant land into productive parcels.  While talking to a colleague recently, I learned about an urban farming government initiative that took place in Detroit in 1894.  The plan which was dubbed the ‘Potato Patch Plan’ was created by four term Mayor Hazen S. Pingree [Detroit mayor from 1889-1897].  It’s goal was to grow food for Detroiters in the wake of the Panic of 1893.  This blog about Detroit architecture provides a more detailed descriptions of the ‘Potato Patch Plan’.  Mayor Pingree’s plan was so successful that it garnered national appreciation and helped fuel his campaign for governor of Michigan.  Pingree was elected governor of Michigan and served from 1897-1901.

The current situation is no doubt far more drastic than that in 1894.  The politics of the city are so complex today, that it is not likely Mayor Dave Bing or his successors will be the ones to initiate the drastic change.  Bing’s administration did create a plan that exists as an overarching framework for a 50 year plan to revitalize Detroit.  The plan, referred to as the Detroit Future City framework, is a great start.  Other organizations, including LEAP and DNPE, have helped further develop pieces of the framework that plug into the Detroit Future City plan.

One of the most intriguing and pressing aspects of this planning process is the transformation of land typologies within the city.  In order for any revitalization or renewal to take place, it is necessary for the City of Detroit to redefine the land use patterns throughout much of the city limits.  The Community Development Advocates of Detroit [CDAD] have developed a comprehensive guide to the evolving typologies of land use within the city.  The CDAD land use typologies have been acknowledged and adopted by LEAP and other community planning initiatives within Detroit.  The typologies are:

traditional residential _ spacious residential _ urban homestead _ naturescape _ green thoroughfare _ green venture _ industrial _ shopping hub _ village hub _ city hub

The Mack Ave Green T project falls into the categories of ‘green thoroughfare’ and ‘green venture’.  Most of the typologies are self-explanatory to anyone with a design or planning background.  There is one anomalous typology labeled ‘urban homestead’.  What is it? CDAD describes urban homestead as, “Country living in the City! A family harvests some vegetables that they intend to sell at their local farmer’s market. They enjoy their large older home, surrounded by a natural landscape comprising the huge lot/yard/small farm that comprises their property, away from the highenergy, noisy activity in other places in the city. Many city services (IE public lighting) are no longer provided, and homeowners enjoy lower taxes, in exchange for experimenting with and using alternative energy programs for heat and electricity, and where possible, well-water services. However, they are still close enough to the rest of the city where they can easily sell produce at Eastern Market, enjoy a ball game downtown, and take advantage of the city’s cultural amenities. Low and extremely low density. Lots can be as large as an acre or more. Low-impact agricultural activities can be allowed in the zoning. This area is adjacent to Spacious Residential Sectors, Naturescapes and Green Job Areas.”

Why can it occur here?  This photo, which I took on my lunch break today, depicts a common sight in Detroit.  Homes once stood here.

fields 180 view at the intersection of waveney and ashland streets _ 2013.7.23

fields _ 180 view at the intersection of waveney and ashland streets _ 2013.7.23

“And where I live, it was house, field, field
Field, field, house
Abandoned house, field, field”    -Danny Brown

The urban homestead is a possible condition unique to Detroit and any other post-industrial city that may be seeking to consolidate residents, services, and utilities.  I view the urban homestead as an incredibly intelligent solution [option] for much of the vacant spaces here on the Eastside and across the rest of the city.  This zoning typology helps the city and homesteaders save money, provides opportunities and a site for experimental and entrepreneurial projects, and most of all gives current residents the option to stay and avoid displacement.  If services and utilities are disconnected, it is a voluntary decision for residents to stay that avoids the use of eminent domain.  Although some incentives have been created for relocation, fortunately, Detroit’s government has been strongly opposed to implementing eminent domain as a means of relocating or consolidating residents.  If the opposition to eminent domain remains and new zoning typologies such as urban homesteads are successful, Detroit can and will become a model for other cities facing vacant land crises.



ELIZA SQUIBB : Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.

July 17, the day following our arrival in Pucallpa, was an open slate, because my linguist companions were still waiting for their professors to show up. Carolina is enchanted with everything that has to do with the selva, or jungle, she chats with everyone and is eager to explore new places. She helped me get to San José, a settlement two short motocarro rides from Pucallpa. After the town of Yarinacocha, the road abruptly turns to dirt, and huge dust clouds are kicked with each passing vehicle. If a car goes by, even the motocarro driver has to practically shut his eyes to avoid the dust. This is the dry season, and therefore called “summer” here, November through March are just as hot, but much more rainy, the dusty road turns to mud, the water level rises, and most communities are accessible only by boat or canoe. Now, one hour away by plane, Lima is having it’s cold, gray “winter”, and this gets extra confusing when you ask a Limeño when they were last in the selva: “winter” they might say, leaving you thoroughly confused.

ImageThe path to the cabins at Adelina’s house

ImageMy bedroom ceiling!

We arrived at Señora Adelina’s house in San José: a quiet garden of fruit trees, hammocks, and a few different cabins with banana leaf roofs in the traditional Amazonian style to house visitors. Adelina is part of a collective of 30 Shipiba women who export their embroidery to different partners in North America and Europe, often as embellishment on organic pima cotton clothing. Adelina also participates in many craft fairs around Peru. After dropping off my stuff at Adelina’s house, we went off again to catch a boat to San Francisco, a Shipibo settlement an hour boat ride away, to visit Adelina’s mother Teresa, another talented embroiderer.

ImageLa Laguna de Yarinacocha is an oxbow lake that used to be part of the flow of the Ucayali river. Now only a small canal connect them, but there are many dolphins that can be seen at sunset.

ImageFish Market! You can have your fish expertly chopped for you to accommodate any type of cooking.

ImageWoven palm fronds laid out to dry. This specific weave goes over the apex of the roof.

The port of Yarinacocha is lined with market stalls and tiny restaurants along the bank of the river. We walked down to the shore where a few river boats were unloading the day’s catch, huge tubs filled with chunks of ice and many different kinds of strange looking fish, including some truly huge ones. We inquired about a ride to San Francisco, but everyone told us that the best way to go was by car, since the road was accessible during the dry season. A block away, there was a line up of cars, and we completed the number of passengers needed to start the trip. Two people shared the front seat, and there can be three or four passangers across the back, plus kids. Our driver had a customized shirt with a long sleeve only on his left arm–the arm that rests on the window sill–to protect him from the sun. Motocarrodrivers often wear a second tee-shirt on just their arms for this purpose, or else cut-off sleeves. The drive took us through groves of banana trees, and by sitting in the window seat, I was thoroughly coated in red dust upon arrival in the village. The first thing that struck me was the quiet that almost roared in my ears after three weeks of hearing constant car alarms and traffic in Lima. There was not even the sound of a distant motocarro, just the ever present buzz of insects and sounds of chickens and dogs in the brush.

ImageThe pottery kiln in San Francisco.

ImageTwo ceramic bowls made by the very talented Shipiba potter Anastasia.

Here in San Francisco, every house is up a good two or three feet off the ground, roofs are made out of banana leaves, and often the wooden sides of houses are painted with Kené. Teresa was sweeping out her house and yard, but she sat down with us to chat and catch Carolina up on everyone’s health. Her mother, Anastasia, a very talented Shipiba potter, had been very sick, and almost died a few days previously. We went to visit her too, she was apparently getting better, and eating a little bit, but she didn’t look well. In all the neighboring huts, laundry was hung out to dry, children relaxed in hammocks and on porches while women worked on embroidery. A uncle or brother was watching over a huge pot of ayahuasca that was boiling down on a fire in the yard.

We said our goodbyes and flagged down a motocarro to take us to the “botanical garden” not too far down a dirt path. We found the gate locked but in a nearby hut two older women were working on their embroidery, and one of them offered to take us through the garden. She explained that she was the mother of the resident shaman, and in the garden there were huts for travelers who come to stay for a month to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. There was another huge pot for boiling, and an ayahuasca root drying out. Many different ayahuasca vines were pointed out to us, red, yellow, white ayahuasca.. but they all looked like vines to our untrained eyes. When I mentioned that the vines resembled snakes, our guide laughed, saying that the first time she took ayahuasca she thought she saw a snake coming towards her. People often say that Ronin, the great anaconda comes during the ayahuasca ceremony and wraps herself around the participants. Image

As a foreigner, it seems like everyone talks to me about ayahuasca, or is anxious to point things out about it. It definitely appears to be one of the main attractions for travelers who find their way to this area, and people stay for long periods to learn about it and perform the proper dieting and rituals. The textile production then becomes a linked to this as a way to provide souvenirs. While some embroideries and painted patterns remain completely abstract and geometric, many of the embroideries I’ve seen so far also incorporate figurative imagery such as the ayahuasca vine or flower and the anaconda snake.

After a dusty walk back to the center of San Francisco we had lunch at the local restaurant: a picnic table under the tree where everyone waits for the car back to Yarinacocha. Lunch was a banana leaf package that contained yellow rice and a small chunk of chicken. Spice was added to this by spooning on chopped onions and peppers that were marinating in salt water. Drinks were cool-ish glasses ofchicha morada, and desert was sugar in its most elemental form: a snack bag of bite sized pieces of sugar cane that are chewed for a minute to extract the juice, and then the fibrous part is spat out into the road.

After making our way back to Adelina’s house, we relaxed for a bit in the hammocks in the yard, then Carolina had to head back to Pucallpa. Her professors were arriving the next day and they would be busy buying supplies for a two day trip up the river to the community that they work with. Apparently the village elders, los veijitos, “the little old people”, didn’t feel like making the trip down to meet them, as travel is more difficult in the dry season, and everyone we met teased Carolina about having to travel to such a remote place. She seems game for any adventure however, and I’m sure I’ll get to hear about everything in detail when they return in early August.Image

In the evening, Adelina and I sat out in the garden under the moon (it was the first time I’d seen the moon since my arrival in Peru, Lima’s pollution is not conducive to star-gazing) and talked about life in Pucallpa, before I went to bed in my hut and was lulled to sleep (not exactly) by all the village dogs and chickens, plus some mysterious rustlings in the roof, and the largest spiders I have ever seen.

ImageCarolina stands on the long wooden walkway that leads from the river to the community of San Francisco



women only …


Every train on the Delhi subway has a car that is reserved for women only. A couple of days ago I took the Delhi subway for the first time. I stood on the platform, underneath a pink sign with swirly type announcing the entrance to the Women’s only section, and waited for the train to arrive. When it did I stepped in to a really comfortable environment that was air conditioned and roomy and with lots of women laughing and talking without any discernable restraint. It was a pleasant ride.

At one of the stops on my subway journey a man was just about to enter when he realized it was the women’s only section of the train. He stood at the entrance for a while looking up and down the car, I presume contemplating whether to take his chances and enter. The women inside the train turned to look at him gauging his movements. At the last minute he decided against entering and ran to the part of the train that accommodated both men and women.

I started to think about this voluntary gender segregation and what it says about the politics of gender and patriarchy in Delhi. Using the subway as an allegory, I don’t think that the separation of the sexes is a useful tool to mitigate the imbalance that patriarchal systems cause, nor do I think that here it is intended to do that. I do think, in the case of the subway, its intention is to create a space for women to travel without the ogling, teasing, groping of lascivious men. But this I believe just reinforces the tenets of patriarchy and I also believe it condescends to not only women but to men as well. It presumes that men, in the unrestricted company of women, cannot control an impulse to violate. When men are faced with a society that presumes this behaviour of them as a default and organizes itself around mitigating it, this same society is paradoxically supporting (or encouraging?) the same behaviour. It does not give men a chance.

2Additionally, the section for women on the subway train is only one car of the whole train. It is at the back or the front of the train depending on which direction the train is going. This voluntary segregation asks of women to separate themselves; in doing so it places the burden of men’s behaviour on the women. As mentioned, the segregation is voluntary, if women choose to ride in other cars on the train and they are violated in someway, the blame would be placed on them because they opted to ride the subway in a section that included men when one has been provided for women only. It therefore punishes women for the bad behaviour of men.

A large part of India is patriarchal. The patriarchal system is supported by culture and by society. It is also for a large part internalized and perpetuated by both men and women. And it is in this patriarchal system that the gender imbalance is located. Other added complexities are the classifications that work in tandem with patriarchy; these are class, caste and religion. All of these Nupur and I need to take into consideration when producing our project. If looked at as a matrix with the social classifications (including age and geography) on a horizontal plane and the gender classifications on the vertical, each point on the matrix requires a different intervention. Daunting!

So after some thought, advise and analysis, we have tentatively narrowed down our entry points for the project to:

  • The male voice – men speaking to men; the expectations and effects of patriarchy on the man;
  • Sexuality education – addressing the gaps in sexuality education. For instance responding to the lack of communication between intimate partners. As an aside, we had a meeting with an amazing organization called TARSHI, they told us  as an example that in Hindi there isn’t a word for breasts that is not vulgar, therefore it is difficult for a woman to say tell her sexual partner that she would like him to touch her breasts because a polite way of saying it doesn’t exist. Additionally, even if she could and iassuming her partner is male, he would see her request as an assault on his masculinity;
  • Disseminating women’s rights – Laws have been amended since the 16 December incident; and women have many rights (ie the right to free legal counsel etc) but the majority of women don’t know what they are.

Additionally, we are interested in exploring the idea that because of the stringent mores around behaviour, people are living double lives – the one that they have at home and the one that they have with their friends.




ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.

I started to get nervous about missing my flight to Pucallpa as we sat stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. “Oh good! It’s just an accident” was the verdict, and indeed, an accident was somehow better news than an actual traffic jam, because before too long we had wove our way around the line up of at least eight cars with dented-in bumpers. The drivers stood next to their damaged vehicles in the gray afternoon talking to the traffic police and looking like their day had been thoroughly ruined.

I met up with my three traveling companions at the airport, Carolina, Diana, and Jaime, all of them linguists from the University who were traveling to Pucallpa to meet up with two of their professors and work for a few weeks collecting information from tribal elders about one of the lesser know indigenous languages. The flight took barely an hour, and we quickly left Lima’s gray fog behind to fly over huge rocky mountains. I could barely see any traces of towns or roads through these mountains, then for a minute, the mountains were covered in green foliage, before the landscape flattened out entirely and we began to see the long sinuous lines of the river snaking through the green. The Ucayali river is 1771 meters long, one of the origins of the Amazon, and indigenous groups have been living on it’s banks since at least 2000 AD. This is the land of the Shipibo-Konibo, as well as fourteen other distinct indigenous groups: Amawaca, Chaninawa, Kakataibo, Kashinawa, Marinawa, Kokama-Kokamilla, Ashaninka, Kulina, Yine, and Awajun. ImageImageImageImage

We started to see the city from the plane: tin-roofed houses and many tiny trails of smoke clustered around the huge curves of the river. We stepped off the plane into the humid evening just as the sun set. Heat and humidity have a special way of magnifying smells, and after the confines of the plane, the jungle air brought a pervasive smell of bonfire, but more that that, a vaguely sweet smell of burning plastics and trash. One of the first most notable things about this city is that 99% of street traffic is motocarros; three-wheeled motorcycle cabs with a plastic awning to protect against rain. We flagged down two motocarros to get us to the center of town, and I was able to begin my ongoing observation of this mode of transportation: After being here for two days and I’d seen a grand total of two people wearing helmets. Generally, three adults fit across the backseat, although this is tight, plus kids, (and there are a lot of kids!), plus any manner of packages, groceries, etc..  I did see five teenage boys crammed in the back of a motocarro this afternoon, and I saw a driver steering with one hand while holding on to his toddler who was straddling the gas tank in front of him. According to Carolina, on Valentine’s day, motocarro business continues as usual, except with the addition of each driver’s girlfriend snuggled in behind him, arms around his waist. On that first night, riding in from the airport, I saw one motocarro that was carrying a motorcycle in the back; this looked something like an ant carrying the dead body of another ant. I have seen a few motorcycle pickup trucks, and every corner mechanic shop usually has at least one motocarro leaned over on it’s side, getting a wheel changed, or some other form of maintenance. There is also a lot of motorcycle and scooter traffic. Often high schoolers will be driving their younger siblings to school on motorcycles, or whole families will be riding on one, kids sandwiched between parents, or sitting on laps.ImageA second notable detail is the evidence of indigenous culture everywhere here. Kené patterns from different cultures are painted on every lamppost in the town center, tiled onto government buildings, painted on restaurant awnings, and added to pretty much any other available surface. There are also many murals of mermaids and the pink Amazon dolphins, which figure heavily in mythology here. There are a few streets lined with shops selling crafts and textiles, included clothing made from industrially printed kené patterns rather than the traditional embroidery. Many Shipibo women in traditional dress walk around selling their jewelry made from rainforest seeds and glass beads, and this gave Carolina plenty of opportunity to practice her Shipibo, which sounds to me like a very complicated language. So far, the only phrase I’m good at remembering in “Iraki”, meaning “thank you”.

In Pucallpa, there seems to be more restaurants for drinks and ice cream than for food, and given the climate that makes perfect sense. Ordering a cremolada, or a blended icy fruit juice, is a bewildering experience for someone from the far north, because on a menu of fruits, the only flavors I recognize are piña, pineapple, and chicha morada, which is an iced tea made from boiling dark purple corn and sweetened with a lot of sugar. Chicha is drunk all over Peru and has an interesting flavor, mostly of sugar. I called it “juice of corn” for a while, until I remembered the name. Other fruits on the menu,sandia, aguaje, guanabana, popoascu, cocona, camu camu, ungurahui, carambola, remain mysteries yet to be tasted.


Poll Worker Training

Warm greetings (literally 93 degrees) from Providence! The pre-college, CE, and summer camp students have swarmed college hill. Needless to say, Kelsey and I are the exact opposite of lonely.

As we continue our research, poll worker training has been one of the target areas that we have addressed. A few weeks ago we met with a Jen Giroux who is the Interim Associate Vice President for Professional Studies and CE at RI College. She has been working with the RI Board of Elections to help them assess their current poll worker training program. She expressed to us that the biggest challenge for her was that changing one seemingly minuscule thing could then go on to unintentionally shift something else.

Jen, with the help of the RI Board of Elections, recently conducted a follow up survey that was sent to 766 RI poll workers from the 2012 general election. It is the first follow up survey they have done, and they have seen a high survey return rate…meaning people are eager to give feedback about their training and election day experiences (UH HUH, OH YEAHHHH!). The results have not been compiled yet, but we are both very excited to see the responses!

I have been thinking a lot lately about multiple intelligences and learning styles; specifically how my past experience in a progressive school that embraced these methodologies has influenced how I understand my election research this summer. After our meeting with Jen, I continued to think about the different kinds of training our society embeds into our everyday lives: CPR, drivers education, and lifeguard certification among the many others. What’s interesting to me is how these crucial training efforts are delivered to the citizen and how effectively the things learned are sustained. How can poll worker training be tailored to all kinds of learners? How can the training become an experience that empowers them?



Research through conversations


Nupur Mathur

New Delhi July 20th 2013

Since I last wrote Pattie, Bathsheba and I have met a number of people working in the area of gender based issues.

One of the first people we met was Dhruv a young 25 year old male activist that actively speaks out about issues related to gender via his online platform called got stared at ( and at ‘must bol’ ( a voluntary youth driven platform where people share their personal stories about how gender plays a role in their day to day lives. Dhruv got me thinking about the male voice and how the male voice is not a big part of gender related dialogue. For me it was the first time I was seeing a young man that is addressing other young men as well as women of his age about gender, equality and perceptions of sexuality. I personally feel that a male voice is extremely important for sustaining a healthy discussion surrounding gender. Gender based issues not only affect women they affect men too. Male masculinity is a big part of the male psyche perpetuated through advertising, bollywood films and other mainstream media. More often than not men are faced with pressure from their peers and family to not show pain, to not cry and be ‘strong.’ Men are often made to feel uncomfortable about sharing or showing their emotions and a boy’s peers would ridicule him and call him names because he’s too sensitive.

Salman Khan a popular Bollywood actor

Salman Khan a popular Bollywood actor

On a more complex level, at home men live out patriarchal roles that are perpetuated by their mothers, sisters and wives. Men grow up thinking it is their right to behave in a certain way right from childhood. I think there needs to be a space for an open dialogue between young men about how internalized patriarchy is and how it plays a role in their lives. Dhurv and others like Anshul Tiwari (founder of, are men who have examined their own internal relationship with patriarchy and are catalysts that open up and sustain such  dialogue.

We also met Ushinor a journalist from a newspaper here in India called Tehelka ( Ushinor gave us insight into how our initial proposal was nothing new and that everyone was speculating constantly about the state of affairs in the country. Digging deeper and targeting a small audience was something that most people were not doing. After meeting him we’ve been trying hard to narrow down entry points for this project both in terms of what about gender but also what target audience. So far through our countless conversations and meetings we’ve identified that working with the male voice is a potential entry point Another thing that at a very core level needs more of a voice is sex education, or rather as it’s been brought to our attention by TARSHI (, a more holistic term is sexuality education. As sexuality is something that we encounter at every stage of our life it is limiting to speak only of sex education as often young people get a narrow perspective.

Here for example when girls start to menstruate boys are not told what is happening or why it is happening. In school if girls are being told about sanitary napkins and how to use them, boys are told to go stand outside while the girls are spoken to. The result is a very awkward set of adolescents where the girls are shy about what they are going through and the boys are making up their own theories of what is happening to them, while alongside laughing and making jokes about what are fundamental changes in a woman’s body. Moreover menstruation in the home is seen as something impure and women in hindu households are not allowed to enter the kitchen until their fourth day after they have washed their hair. They are also not allowed to enter the pooja (temple) room in the house for prayer. Until recently this was a common thing in my family, it happened for generations and no one thought to question it. As a young woman growing up I never completely understood why it was happening, but I complied. It now no longer happens, even though my grandmother would rather we stick to older ‘traditions,’ as these things are extremely internalized in her. It makes me wonder, and makes me extremely vigilant of myself to question what is internalized in me.

Talking about menstruation, buying tampons here in a shop is the most uncomfortable experience. Most often there are only men working in the shops and even if there is a woman its still uncomfortable because they immediately start judging you. You get odd smiles as if insinuating you are now having sex, even though the reason you are there is because you have your period. It is a common myth that if you are using tampons you are no longer a virgin. In any case this is how it is to buy tampons so you can only imagine what its like to buy condoms.

The other day I asked my mother about sex education before marriage and how it was for her because she and my father had an arranged marriage. Even now she is embarrassed to speak of anything related to sex, it is so internalized in her that sex is something hidden, something you don’t talk about. Even while speaking with me she couldn’t control her embarrassed smiling face. She told me about how her mother a few days before she got married gave her a book called ‘Everything you want to know about sex,’ and how excited that made my mother to get such a book to read after years of being kept away from such information.

The state of affairs in my country from villages to towns to cities are all equally challenging. I’m burdened by a sense of helplessness of not knowing where to start. I must say however that after meeting all these lovely people who have managed to find space, provide space, create a voicee, articulate clearly and create a vocabulary to sustain a dialogue on gender based issues I also feel empowered. I find myself talking about these issues with ease everywhere I go, whether it is at home or with friends. It is harder at home and I’m trying to think of ways to create a casual environment where these things can be openly discussed without a sense of embarrassment, or shame. If I don’t know where to start in terms of the country, I can certainly begin at home, the most challenging space of all.




ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles : Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft

Shipibo-Konibo art, incredibly complex and fascinating, can be summed up with the word “kené”, meaning the designs, or patterns that are inscribed, painted, embroidered, woven, beaded, dyed, glazed, tiled onto every available surface: houses, textiles, ceramics, wood, and skin. The word itself, is closely linked with the idea of language and writing in particular. The word in Shipibo for “occidental writing” is joxo joni kené, meaning “writing of the white people”. A women explained to me, “escribimos” kené, “we write kené”, rather than using the word “to draw” or “to paint”.


Kené is central to Shipibo aesthetic, but is also connected to mythology, health, and the Shipibo-Konibo understanding of the universe. The patterns can be said to represent pathways, but pathways that exist on both a micro and macro scale: paths through the jungle, the milky way in the sky, or the veins in a leaf that bring sap to nourish the plant. By using these patterns to embellish themselves, their tools, and their surroundings, they are ensuring health, happiness, and beauty in their lives.ImageWhen researching Shipibo-Konibo art on the internet, it is possible to find a myriad of descriptions and explications of these enigmatic patterns: The patterns are visions that result from the ingestion of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca; All Shipibo are kinesthetic, they feel colors and visualize sounds; each pattern is a language that can be sung as a shamanistic song to induce a trance; two Shipiba women can paint different sides of a huge ceramic jar simply by singing the same song. This fascinating culture and art form have been the subject of much speculation and anthropological investigation, and sometimes it seems that false information uncovered by anthropologist had made its way back into Shipibo lore in a sort of cycle of invented information. A well known embroiderer who told anthropologist that she could sing every part of her patterns, was later denounced by the same anthropologists because this was not true of all women. These kinds of “misinformations” seem to be due to the fact that researchers are often searching for a “unified folk knowledge” that leaves little room for individual creativity. In addition to that, it is easy to find what one is searching for, a secret visual language for example, if that idea is already fixed in the mind.

Much of the information I am summarizing comes from an article and a book written by Luisa Elvira Belaunde. The book, “Kené, arte, ciencia y tradicion en diseño”, is available in Peruvian museums, and the article, “Diseños materiales e inmateriales: La patrimonializacion del Kené Shipibo-Konibo y de la ayahuasca en el Peru”, can be found online. This article is especially informative because it describes the recent process of achieving cultural heritage status for both kené as a material, physical pattern (on textiles, wood, ceramics), but also of kené as an immaterial pattern: as a vision produced by shamanistic ceremonies. This means that the government acknowledges the existence of kené before it is manifested on physical objects, a very rare case of “immaterial” cultural heritage, and it legally protects the ayahuasca ceremonies as a medicinal ritual.

Because this is a fairly recent decision, not many communities have felt either the consequences or financial benefits from the cultural heritage process. This art has always developed in relationship to outsiders and trade, possibly it originated from an encounter with the woven textiles made by indigenous groups in the mountains. Now, as before, kené is an important economic resource, and it continues to develop in relationship to changing styles and tourism. Women are still teaching their daughters these techniques because it ensures employment, or at least one possibility for making money. There had also been a shift in the patterns recently towards more figurative imagery of the ayahuasca flower or the anaconda snake that are important elements of mythology, and more easily explained to tourists through figurative representation rather than as abstract patterns. If the state ever decided to protect this cultural heritage in its “pure” form, it would be condemned to be an object in a museum, rather than a living tradition and economic resource.

Although it is important to me to learn as much as possible about the history of kené, and its traditional uses and production. The focus of my research lies on the agency of artisans: how they define, evolve, or radically change their traditions; how they chose to wield their rich cultural history as an economic resource, and how they leverage their craft to make their indigenous community visible in the ethnically diverse landscape of Peru. An important element of this research is learning how they share their culture through their textiles, or what elements they communicate directly to the foreigners or Peruvians who buy their art. To gain a compete understanding of the various methods used, I will be meeting with artisans who live, create, and sell their work in both rural and urban environments. The association of artisans, Las Madres de Ashé, living in Cantagallo, have direct access to Lima’s historical center, although they are displaced from their native homes in the region of Ucayali, in Peru’s central Amazon basin. I will also be traveling to this region, both the urban center of Pucallpa, but also to other Shipibo communities on the banks of the Ucayali river, to learn about how they are developing and selling their textiles.



Catch-up Post: My Expensive Mzungu Milkshake


There’s a nice cafe called Endiro Coffee, just a 10 minute walk from my office. I call it “one of those muzungu cafes,” in a slightly derogatory way, even though I contribute to the name. It’s canopied by a large awning and the outdoor seating area is surrounded by nice tropical foliage – banana leaves, even some bamboo, etc. You can’t tell that it’s in the midst of a dusty construction site and a parking lot, where street vendors weave around the cars selling bags of vegetables and the occasional beggar sits by. Endiro Coffee is a whole other world, a sort of enclosed haven where people – mostly foreigners – basically move in with their computers (aka me), hold meetings, order burgers and salads, and be even as bold to leave their laptops as they excuse themselves to the restroom.


And here I am, sitting on my mzungu* ass drinking a banana vanilla espresso milkshake, thinking of how expensive this beverage just became to me after today. It’s 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), which is less than $4. It’s cheap by New York standards, but here, all I can think about is how it’s about double the price of what a local Ugandan lunch would cost.

While budgeting for my field research, my research partner helped me estimate some costs. For lunch, for example, we put aside 5000 UGX per person. That’s about $2. I was surprised, since I had been spending on average about 20,000 UGX per meal, which is under $8. Compared to New York, it was cheap, but having spent that much on a meal while discovering that my research partner would usually spend 5000UGX on a meal, I felt like an asshole.

I had an interesting conversation with a former Silicon Valley guy who visited the office. He now works in South Africa with a company called Mxit, which is apparently bigger than Facebook over there (I checked online to verify it). He told me about how awesome South Africa was, and how much he wants to buy a house there. According to him, a 3-4 bedroom house with a balcony and backyard is only about $400,000. The nightlife is “off the hook,” the food is amazing, the scenery is amazing, and everything is just cheaper. He encouraged me to take a trip to South Africa before leaving Uganda, and began listing all these places to go, ensuring me that I would have such a great time for little money.

It sounded great, but I also felt a little strange about it. Sure, living comfortably half the price is awesome, but I felt like that was cheating – like I would be taking advantage of another nation’s lesser economic power and international standing to satisfy my expensive palate. Sipping on that delicious milkshake at Endiro Coffee made me feel that way too. Perhaps I am being too dramatic, and perhaps I am undermining the very point of tourism and global commerce. But that’s what has been running through my mind these days.

Cheers, as I order a burger.


*mzungu /moo-zoon-gu/ a term in Swahili meaning “white person,” though it is often applied to foreigners in general


Biodiesel is a viable product of vacant land

So far my role within the framework of LEAP has changed several times over several weeks.  This has demanded constant adaptation.  Although a few aspects of the Green T project are becoming clearer and more solidified, I don’t expect the constant fluctuations to end anytime soon.  This is the nature of working in Detroit.  The city is in a state of perpetual uncertainty from the micro to the macro, the individual to the city government, and small business to the big 3.

Earlier this week I met with MetroAg, who are essentially the pennycress harvesting and biodiesel production consultants.  MetroAg is an existing Detroit based company who has experimented with and tested the viability of pennycress as a crop to harvest for biodiesel fuel.  They have experience with harvesting and own the proper equipment necessary to crush the harvested seeds, convert them into oil, and then process them into biodiesel fuel.  MetroAg also has been talking with a major oil company who could be a future partner interested in purchasing oil produced from pennycress.  This would alleviate any pressure on MetroAg to refine the oil into fuel and take care of distribution.  The Start Detroit website has quite a bit of information about pennycress as a crop and the process of converting it into fuel.


MetroAg facility in Detroit _ 2013.7.9

Developing a farming operation on vacant land in Detroit requires a planning process that is foreign to nearly all of the parties involved.  The logistics are being developed as the project unfolds.  Through MetroAg, I’m currently learning about the necessary elements required for creating an optimal farming situation.  How does one cultivate and harvest among blocks that still have houses on them?  How will the equipment navigate between the city blocks and across curb cuts, streets, and sidewalks?  How small is the smallest viable pennycress field and what does it look like?  What will we do about the sites that have structures survived only by concrete foundations? How much toxicity will the crop remove out of polluted sites?   Speaking of… I should mention that the demonstration block and most likely much of the land that will be used for the Green T project has incredibly toxic soil.  So if you’re wondering why nobody is considering growing heirloom tomatoes or purple asparagus here, essentially it’s because there are very few areas in Detroit where growing edibles would be viable.

This past week, our organization has brought a small group of designers on board to help with the design process.  They are called the 42nd Parallel Group [42PG] and consist of 4 different people with various areas of expertise in the design and business fields.  From here on out I will be working as the main contact between LEAP, MetroAg, and 42PG as they develop the design plans for the entirety of the Green T project.  Beyond that, I am focusing my efforts on pushing for a design solution for the demonstration block that fits within the larger framework of the entire project.  LEAP and I hope to integrate elements of public art and signage onto the site.

Public art!  What is it and who will make it?  I’d surely like to help and bleed my creativity onto the site, but the scale of the demonstration block site could easily contain something that is far too large for me to complete on my own this summer.  The demonstration block site could be a great platform for residents to exhibit their creative skills.  For those reasons, we have decided that it is better to collaborate with locals, rather than take on this type of project alone.  Luckily, Detroit is full of people who are ready and willing to help.  During one of my evenings wandering through the Eastside, I came across this wonderful garden!


Reclaim Detroit _ 2013.7.9

As I was standing in front of it admiring the signage and the massive variety of edibles growing on these lots, a man in the back of the house waved me in.  After several hours of chatting with the couple who owns the house and the two adjacent lots with the garden, I left with lessons about living on the Eastside, how to successfully farm using hugelkultur, and with one possible contact for a public art installation!  First of all, I had no idea what hugelkultur is until that evening.  Rather than try to explain it myself on here, I’ll just direct you to this link I found that properly explains hugelkultur.  One of the beauties of this technique is that it is creating a raised bed using nearby abundant materials.  The raised bed is necessary in most areas of Detroit because of the highly toxic soils.

Reclaim Detroit's hugelkultur _ 2013.7.9

Reclaim Detroit’s hugelkultur _ 2013.7.9

Detroiters carry themselves with pride for the place they call home.  The Reclaim Detroit plots exemplify the optimism that some residents have.  The Mack Ave Green T project and others within LEAP aim to boost that pride and improve the quality of life for those who call Detroit home.  The last thing I’d like to mention in this post is a huge nod to the resilience and initiative that this blue collar city exudes.  You may or may not know that Detroit was recently a finalist city to host the X Games for several consecutive years.  How does a motocross track or massive halfpipe sound as a design solution for vacant lots?!! Yesterday, unfortunately, it was announced that Austin won the bid and Detroit did not.  But then this announcement came.  Bring on the D-Games!

‘Detroit hustles harder’


Official meeting with Las Madres de Ashé

ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.

Although I visited Cantagallo a few times with my contacts in GIA to meet members of the community and learn my way around, on Sunday, July 14th, it was time for me to present myself officially to the Ashé association. This would officially introduce who I was and what my research was about, and since the community is run by different association, this sort of formality is very important. Walking up to the second level of the community, through the hardware market and the narrow streets, I felt incredibly nervous, and completely out of place in a different culture, landscape, language and ethnicity. I had with me some images of my work and my official letter of introduction that had been spell-checked by two anthropologists as well as the man who ran the copy shop where I went to get it printed out. I was met by Señora Luz and she left me in the company of her cousin while she went to round up other members for the meeting. My nervousness faded away as I was quickly surrounded by teenage girls, all asking me a million questions about my family and my origins, did my parents have blue eyes too? Did I dye my hair?

When the meeting started, I was interested to discover that the first part of it had been organized by a university student to introduce Ashé to another women’s group of textile artisans from the Andes. Three women from this Andina group sat in the meeting room knitting and taking turns introducing their work. They explained that the name of their group, Mama Quilla, meaning mother moon, came from their moon-lit escape from their villages near Ayachucho. Due to terrorism, many of them fled as widows with young children and orphans. They expected help in Lima, but found none, and found themselves incredibly isolated as Quechua speakers far from their natural resources in the mountains. They tried different forms of cleaning jobs that made them sick, and they eventually found support through the church, literacy programs, and training programs. They started making arpilleras, and have become well known for that, even receiving commissions for mural sized arpilleras. They ended this passionate speech by talking about the importance of working together as women and as mothers, sharing stories of trauma, violence and suffering, to salir adelante, to progress, recover and live happily.

(Their website shows some of the arpilleras that portray the violence they suffered)

Although Senora Luz translated much of what was being said into Shipibo, some of the madres of Ashé looked very tired. Luz, in turn, mentioned briefly that there had been incidents of violence that had contributed to the dislocation of some Shipibo from their native villages, but the Shipiba women didn’t speak as openly about this as the Mama Quilla group had. They decided that they would set up a future meeting to exchange techniques; the Andina women had a loom, and the Shipiba were very interested in learning new textile techniques and understanding how the loom worked.

Once the Mama Quilla group left, we closed our circle of chairs until it was only me and seven madres. The total group numbers 18 madres, but many women were out selling their textiles and therefore not in attendance. I introduced myself and shared the pictures of my work, which were handed around with interest. Luz read my letter and translated for the group, and they proceeded to have a long, animated discussion in Shipibo in which all members participated, and not everyone seemed to agree. Although there were a few words in Castellano thrown into the discussion, it was definitely not enough for me to understand what they were talking about. Eventually, they explained to me that they had lingering feelings of frustration because so many people had come to them claiming that they wanted to learn about Shipibo culture and textile techniques, promising to help the madres, but in the end, people never kept these promises. “People come, and we show them our textiles, and they take pictures, and we see these pictures on their websites, but what good does that do us? They always leave without doing what they said they would do!”

This frank and honest statement allowed us to continue our discussion with the utmost clarity of intention. I explained that I was a student, and I didn’t yet have a full understanding of the problems they had or what they might need help with, of course, it is important to me to help, but I have to understand how they work, and when we find something that I can help them with that’s feasible in the time frame, then I will do it, no matter what, and not leave until it’s done! They explained to me that what they need most is a secure market, their only opportunities to sell come from occasional fairs and working as walking street vendors in the city center. We talked about possible opportunities for craft markets in the US, and I explained that I didn’t know much about this, but I can help them research and email questions. I also thought of a technique workshop that I could do with them, because they are very interested in learning new techniques. We decided that we would meet again to continue the discussion when all the madres could be present. They all accompanied me through the narrow streets to the central square, but before leaving, they took me to Fidelia’s house to show me her textiles. In the tiny living room, all the walls were covered with embroidered and painted cloths. In this less-formal environment, I was able to talk with Fidelia about how she sells her textiles, and how she explains her culture to the people who buy them. Needless to say, I did not take any pictures!

The ride home, on two different combis, was wonderfully uneventful. I did not get lost, receive counterfeit money, or any other such adventures. I don’t think I can accurately describe the impression that this meeting had on me, and my mind was churning for days, making plans, and coming up with ideas. I was looking for ways that artisans exercise their agency as creators of their own culture and craft, and I found myself right in the middle of it.