Liza Bielby holding a Porous Borders flyer
Liza Bielby holding a Porous Borders flyer

I sat down this week to chat with my neighbor Liza Bielby about the Porous Borders Festival happening next weekend around the Detroit and Hamtramck border. Liza is part of The Hinterlands, the group responsible for organizing the festival. Read what she has to say, visit the website, and come out to the festival. [Shameless plug] I'm hosting an event called The Breakdown on Saturday May 16th at 8 pm, where anyone with a story to tell, talent to showcase, song to sing, fruit to juggle is invited to perform when the spirit moves them.

Casey Rocheteau: Can you say a little bit about yourself, how you came to be in Detroit and what you do?

Liza Bielby: My partner, Richard Newman, and I came to live in Detroit after we had been working in Milwaukee. We formed our company, the Hinterlands, which is a performance company in Kalamazoo, where I was teaching. I had gone to Kalamazoo College and after graduate school I ended up teaching there for a term. Then we ended up in Milwaukee through a different collaborator and it didn’t really fit for us as a city, so we were trying to find another place to go to. Richard loves techno and always wanted to be in Detroit, and I’m from Michigan, I was born in Flint, which is close enough. It was interesting for me to think about coming back to the state, so we ended up back here. Usually we make performances that investigate different aspects of American history and contemporary local cultures, or facets of the culture of where we are, and personal histories that mix together into a performance that we work on over a year. This festival is different because we’re not actually performing in it and it’s not a theatrical event, but it does have the same spirit of research in how we’re thinking about it, in terms of looking at larger histories of borders and migration, and using de facto borders to isolate communities, and communities finding their own sanctuaries that they create through different kinds of borders. We’re also looking at the contemporary, the reality of the neighborhood and our personal histories.

CR: What can you tell me about the border between Detroit and Hamtramck?

LB: The only place I’ve lived in Detroit is this neighborhood (Banglatown, north of Carpenter in Detroit) And a lot of people don’t know that it’s not in Hamtramck. I’ve been in arguments with people about whether this is Hamtramck or not. The interesting thing to me about this border is that if you don’t live in this neighborhood, you wouldn’t necessarily know that it’s not Hamtramck, because Davison becomes this sort of de facto border that splits our neighborhood from just north of here, just south of 6 mile. That’s interesting to me—people can’t tell that Carpenter is a border, but those of us who live nearby can tell because of the difference in city services. So it’s both arbitrary and not. It’s a meaningless border, but like most municipal borders, it has to end somewhere. I like that it both is and isn’t important. Then it gets super weird—Carpenter is the northernmost border, and Conant is the northeast border, and then it cuts in this weird diagonal through houses and property lines. I was interested in that, and then interested in all of the other borders that exist in this neighborhood because it is the most diverse zip code in Michigan (48212). And also the groups that have found themselves in this area—like the Yugoslavian population have dealt with ethnic and political borders shifting in people’s lives, and the same with Bangladesh. It’s only been a little over 40 years since the independence of Bangladesh. So I think everyone here has some kind of border story. The populations here that have dealt with the borders between Detroit and the suburbs, the populations from abroad, for me was interesting to look into.

CR: So the actual border itself between Detroit in Hamtramck—how was that founded?

LB: I’m not great with the history, but Hamtramck township used to stretch to the river, so it was bigger than Detroit. And then slowly Detroit annexed it. I think a lot of it has to do with economics and the relationship between the auto industry and the city in terms of making it how it is now. I’m bad with the history of it, but there’s a lecture that’s going to happen as part of the festival so that everyone can kind of get on the same page. In making the festival, it’s interesting too because it’s easier to get things done in Hamtramck, because you’re dealing with a way smaller entity than Detroit. Detroit is very intimidating in terms of trying to get permits through a much more massive bureaucracy, whereas Hamtramck is tiny.

CR: What gave you the idea for the festival?

LB: It was a couple of things. It was this weirdness of crossing the border every day and people saying “oh, you live in Hamtramck!” and that I didn’t. And then it’s very weird to live next to the Davison, to see how divided our neighborhood is from across a highway. I’ve never lived this close to a freeway, and to me there’s this deep sadness or weird complicity or feeling I get from living on the side of the Davison that is attached to Hamtramck, and this idea things are okay here. Of course, people think that’s the municipal border, because for all purposes, it’s the border, but then I’m really insistent that I live in Detroit.

CR: Right, because when you pay taxes to Detroit, you pay taxes to Detroit.

LB: Exactly. That was just something Richard and I started thinking about. And then there’s this other layers that are cultural. Like living in the neighborhood and not being able to communicate with everybody. I feel like I live in this border where I’m trying to communicate and negotiate boundaries with people or find my way in to—I’m not sure how to say it—into people’s lives, or see how I fit. I’ve never been as interested in a neighborhood that I’ve lived in. I’ve lived in some neighborhoods that I was trying to know who my neighbors are, but never like this, and I don’t know if it’s because there’s a need to know your neighbors for security purposes or just because people are really friendly in the neighborhood and everybody says hi and you want to know people. It’s this desire, it’s two-fold, it’s this weird feeling of being between a real border and a fake border, and either the Davison or Carpenter could be the real or the fake, and also just wanting to know my neighbors across these other boundaries.

CR: Would you say that’s the point of the festival, to have people come together?

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LB: It’s not like I want to erase the borders. I think people have boundaries up, and borders exist, and I don’t have enough of a feeling about it to want to erase them. Clearly, things that impoverish people are wrong—I’m not saying I don’t want to eradicate poverty, but I think the point of the festival is to identify these different borders that exist within our lives and the forces that shape our lives. And maybe to start to look at which ones we have control over and which ones we don’t, and to go deeper with neighbors who are maybe different or maybe the same. You know, to talk about things with your neighbors more than just the weather. I do want people from outside of the neighborhood to come to the festival, and for them I hope they can see these different forces that shape our neighborhood and also use that to look at where they live. There are some borders that are arbitrary, and some you could get rid of. I think that is a purpose though, to meet neighbors. The thing is, everyone has a border story, whether it’s 8 Mile, or the border to Canada, or crossing state lines or other international borders.

CR: Can you talk a little about the areas where the border crosses through? What happens to those properties?

LB: That’s what I’m trying to find out. I keep trying to find people who live in them, because I don’t understand it. I’ve been trying to find someone who’s in that situation to talk me through it. The parking lot at Our Lady Queen of Apostles is cut in half by the border. As I’ve used these mapping tools, you do see that there are smaller amounts of taxes paid to one municipality or the other, so I don’t totally understand if they’re paying to both cities or how that’s determined.

CR: What kinds of events are happening during the festival?

LB: There’s events, performances or installations. There are some straight up peformance performances—there’s a play about the pull that an international couple feels trying to figure out what country to be in, there’s a folk music stage by the Detroit Folk Music Workshop that focuses on folk music from different communities. There’s a porch concert by Frank Paul—a band that he was part of twenty years ago is getting back together and they’re playing on porches. James Cornish has a performance. There’s some art installations, like this thing called the Wonder Wall that’s a wall you can peek through, and the other side is this vignette, and you’re also reflected in the wall. There’s a mutoscope, which is low-fi animation for one that takes the landscape that you’re looking at and morphs it into this fairy tale. There are some other installations that are aimed to spur conversation, like a see-saw with conversation prompts or Neighborhood Nails, which is a 100% non-professional nail salon that will be at Walter’s—so neighbors doing other neighbors’ nails. Then there are also some storytelling events: Marsha Music is going to talk about her experience in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the history of the plant that shaped the Hamtramck/Detroit area. There’s an event called “I Was Here” which is a story telling series around Detroit where people were born and grew up in Detroit talk about their experiences, and this one is geared towards Banglatown. Then there’s also an audio tour that you can go on down Carpenter using Reco, which is an app. Then there’s some eclectic things—we were trying to find a way to highlight Carpenter, and have all the things that happen on it happen all at once—like the fourth of July barbeque at Walter’s, and soccer games and cricket matches. And then there’s a piece that looks at the prison, which is maybe the most non-porous part of the border, which is a letter writing project with prisoners. There’s another piece that looks at the inaccessibility of the GM Assembly plant, measuring how far you can go on the property. There’s also a piece that looks at the boundary between life and death, Eleni Zaharopoulos’ “Our Ephemeral Life” which will be at Public Pool. There’s fifty projects, so it’s a lot. There’s your project…

CR: Oh yeah! That’ll be cool

LB: So combination house-party, Quaker meeting style performance space. So there’s a lot of opportunity for people to have weird experiences, and I don’t really want someone to experience the whole festival, that’s not really the point. The idea is to meander and wander and let yourself get lost in these experiences with people who you maybe know or maybe don’t, and to think of this place as having more possibility or history than you maybe know.