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June 10, 2015

Workers of Woodbridge Interview Series: Rosie Sharp

Rosie Sharp was born in California’s Bay Area, and lived in New York for six years before she moved to Detroit in 2009. For the past two seasons, she has worked on various landscaping and beautification projects for Woodbridge Co. Her background in the arts and her commitment to helping write Detroit’s new chapter make her an asset in not only Woodbridge, but also in her place of residence, West Village. Update: Rosie was recently named a 2015 recipient of the Literary Arts Fellowship by the Kresge Foundation.

I met her on a sunny afternoon while she was trimming rosebushes on the corner of Commomwealth and Putnam. She answered my questions between sessions of clipping thorny stems and putting them into tall lawn bags, and occasionally moving large strands of curly hair out of her face.

At times, I had to point my microphone in her face to remind her we were on tape. Her devotion to the roses was insatiable. She trimmed the dead branches with the precision you’d expect from someone who works with their hands for a living, which Rosie does, just not always in the dirt.

Her move to Detroit was partially borne of a road trip she took to all fifty states. In her words, “I checked everywhere and then moved to the best place.”

LIW: Really?

RS: Yes.

LIW: What made it the best place for you?

RS: I’m an artist, and I was really attracted to being able to have space that I could and practice art (that was reasonable to afford). I love Detroit. I really like the vibe here. I like the people here. I think it’s a place with a lot of heart and a lot of character.

I think there’s this tendency to think about fixing Detroit, and I really feel the opposite — Detroit fixed a lot of things that were wrong with me. It’s taught me to be a more connected and thoughtful person.

LIW: Talk about your art.

RS: I do a couple of things. I’m a writer. I write a lot about arts in the city. In my own practice I do mostly fiber arts and miniatures, which is a weird combination. Most recently, I showed a long-term sculpture piece I’ve been working on which is a 1/12th scale hoarder dollhouse… … A hoarder is someone who…

LIW: Yeah! I just wanted to make sure I heard you right.

RS: Hah! So, it’s a dollhouse that’s been hoarded. That’s an example of some of the work I do in miniatures. Just this last weekend I was part of the Hamtramck Porous Borders Festival where I showed some flags. I also make flags that have to do with more personalized representation — thinking about a flag that can represent a smaller group of people than a state or a country, or even a city.

LIW: You do a lot of gardening and landscaping. Do you have a background in these?

RS: I work part-time at Greening of Detroit. I’ve worked there for a few years. I did an urban-ag apprenticeship there, and I organize a community garden in my neighborhood, but I have no formal training in it; I just do a lot of gardening. The nice thing about gardening is that you don’t need a lot of training. You can learn about plants, and it’s mostly just hard work, and having some sense of aesthetics. I just kind of do stuff until it looks right and Larry seems to like it, so it works out.

LIW: Talk a bit more about Greening of Detroit.

RS: I worked in the Urban-ag department there for two years. Sometimes closer to full-time, now part-time. I run a program that I piloted there called Land-Forum, which has to do with helping people to understand how to buy land in the city. I’m personally concerned with buying vacant land for things like community gardens or agriculture but, really, the whole process has been very complicated for decades. I’m sort of sensitive to gentrification and what it means for people who have held on in their neighborhoods. I hope that I can do some work that helps people to feel empowered through the process. The people who have lived in Detroit create its character and I would hate to see them not be here anymore.

LIW: Gentrification is a real thing, but what about the parts of Detroit where there weren’t people to begin with? Sometimes there’s a sentiment that it’s all gentrification but in order for something to be gentrified, someone has to be there first.

RS: I think in Detroit of all places, there is certainly room for new people to come without displacing anyone. What’s concerning is that it’s happening. People are getting displaced. I’m not anti-development, and I’m not anti-people-coming-here. I just hope that it is mindful and there’s an understanding that this isn’t a blank canvas. This is a really rich environment where people have thrived in incredible adversity, and sort of against all odds. That, to me is part of what makes Detroit beautiful. It is not a thing to be extinguished or pushed aside. Obviously, it’s easier to buy a house that’s habitable than to have to go buy one that’s been abandoned for twenty years and redo it from the ground up. Hopefully people coming are aware of that kind of contradiction and try to do their due diligence as far as: who was in that house, who was selling it, and why?

I also think that there are a lot of people here who have a very self-sufficient spirit, and they take it upon themselves to do things like mow vacant lots or take care of properties they don’t own. The problem with that is: that’s almost like a silent wave of gentrification. You’re making  your neighborhood nicer because you live in it and you want it to be nicer. What that does is it attracts people to it, who then might buy the things that you have worked on. I think it’s important that people understand sometimes the hard work of dealing with a property is going down to the city building and trying to deal with the red tape it takes to buy that.

LIW: How long have you been doing work like this around Woodbridge?

RS: Somewhere around two years now? My work is seasonal, so there’s not a lot during the winter, but I’ve definitely done two garden seasons here, and weird little odd-jobs here and there.

LIW: It sounds like there might be a bit more outside of the residential popping up in Woodbridge in the next couple of years. On top of that, the art. What is it that you see Woodbridge contributing to the this chapter in Detroit’s history?

RS: Woodbridge is a neighborhood that has retained a lot of its historical character because it’s remained relatively occupied,  which is important. The houses are beautiful. When you look at Detroit versus a place like New York, new development just comes and tears stuff down, rebuilds it constantly, so you lose a lot of the history. Sometimes, here, it will atrophy, but in places where people live it remains. I think that’s wonderful.

It’s a university district, so there’s a population that’s transitional sometimes, but also academic and informed. That gives a quality to the neighborhood. It’s a place for people who are getting to know Detroit in some capacity.

I love all of the art happening here. Robert Sestok, the sculptor, is one of my favorite people. He’s been in the city for five decades or something. He really knows a lot about this part of the world and has seen it change. I love that there are these monuments of his all over Woodbridge. I think that’s a real thing. There’s obviously a concern here with reinforcing culture that is positive in the neighborhood, not just renting to students. I think that’s more than a lot of people do.

LIW: On your road-trip to all fifty states, was Detroit the last place you visited?

RS: I came here early on. This was maybe the second or third place I visited. Over the course of the year I found myself coming back. I was in a car sort of criss-crossing the country  a lot. I came to Detroit maybe two or three more times in that year and by the third time I was moving my stuff into storage. I got it, that I was finding the next place I was going to live.

LIW: Do you learn something about yourself through the city and taking care of it?

RS: Yes. It’s good to remember that it’s not all about “me.” I had a realy well-paying job in New York City. By a lot of conventional metrics, I was a successful person, but I was really unhappy. I think our culture indoctrinates us with this idea that you need to have more, you need to buy things, you need to be making and spending money in order to be happy and fulfilled. I think that’s a completely false premise. I understand the reasons people feel that way, and the that capitalism has maybe encouraged that behavior. But the most precious thing that we all have in life is our time and what has been important for me to think about has been how I want to spend my life.

It’s a beautiful day out. I’m cutting Roses and being in the sun, and when I’m tired of doing that, I will leave. It’s not glory, and it’s not super lucrative, but it is freedom in a way that is priceless to me.

LIW: Is Detroit, in your mind, kind of conducive to someone who may have reached that point of thinking, or is it more important for people who need to reach that point of thinking?

RS: I think whatever you come to Detroit looking for, the city is going to change you. Maybe what attracts you on the surface, you’ll get a deeper understanding of it, the longer you’re here. It takes some time to really understand. I would say that it is a good place for people who like to do things themselves. City infrastructure is not very strong here, so, you need to be able to connect with your community – your neighbors. If something goes wrong at my house, I might call the police but I might call the neighbors first, and they’re going to show up. So, it’s not so much a place for someone who wants to plant their flag and start their own empire but maybe someone who wants to be important to their community, or make a difference by being a part of something that is happening.

And that’s my advice, if you’re new to Detroit. Understand that there are things happening and the best way to make connections and gain credit and credibility is to help other people. The more you help, the more you see the places where maybe there’s room for your own thing to grow.

LIW: The idea of the American Dream is obviously not what it used to be. Elements of it are there, but that ship has sailed. It’s no longer: go to school, get a job, become successful, buy a house and have kids. It’s evolved into something different — something that maybe Detroit embodies. Grace Lee Boggs said that people will learn from what’s happening here in Detroit. Can you speak to that?

RS: What jump out to me is this thing you said: “become successful.” I think that it really calls into question what it means to be successful. What is your idea of success? I think that it’s the work of every conscious human being to decide them for themselves. The American Dream was the shorthand for saying that to be successful meant that you had a three bedroom house, two cars in the garage, 2.5 kids, a white picket fence. And it’s really lazy to let that be your definition. If you want those things, that’s fine, but decide that you want them. Don’t just get fed that idea.

Ultimately, it saves you a lot of work because increasingly those things are harder and harder to get because there’s no middle class. That means that if you can really look at yourself and try and spend some time understanding what makes you happy in life, you may find that you don’t need to enter the rat-race and find all of these things. You may find that you need much less, and can still be much more.

So, I think that when Grace Lee Boggs says we can learn from what happens here, there’s a potential for that to be a beautiful lesson and the potential for that to be a terrible lesson. That’s I hope that it’s not just about everybody coming and buying — it’s not a land rush. America has done that for a long time — take property from other people who were there first and portioned it out to newcomers. It would be great to see that unfold in a different way —  to see what a truly diverse and equal city looks like.

LIW: Detroit, 7-15 years from now. What do yo see and what do you hope for?

RS: New people are coming all the time. It’s interesting in especially in the Cass Corridor (that’s been re-branded Midtown), you see all this really high-end stuff coming in. We have Shinola, where you can buy a $300 watch, but we don’t have a Target. It’s not to say that I love Target, or that we need Target, but it’s an interesting commentary on what that new stuff is serving. I don’t know anyone who can afford a Shinola watch, and I know a lot of people in the city. So, when you see this new development but it’s all courting money on a different level than people in the city have an opportunity for — I hope that it would even out a little. I hope that there is some in-fill in that middle section. It would be great if when I do need to go to Target, I don’t have to drive to Troy.

LIW: It’s almost indicative of what’s happening in the United States, that there’s a fancy clothing store, and right around the corner there’s a rundown quick-mart that’s been there for fifty years and struggling to stay in business.

RS: That’s right. When you see Tomboy Supermarket which has been the only supermarket in the middle of Cass Corridor; it’s getting replaced by a high-end organic market. That’s the only supermarket for a bunch of people around there, and you’re making an assumption about what they can afford and what they can’t. If they can’t, what happens to them?

  • I would like to see better public transportation. I have never lived in a place where during a job interview you are asked if you have a reliable car. That is a huge employment challenge to people in the city. And if people don’t have jobs they aren’t going anywhere. When you talk about trying to reduce crime and improve quality of life — I really don’t think people want to be bad people, but if you put there backs against the wall they will do bad things to get by.
  • Detroit is such a good biking city. It’s so flat and low traffic. It could really lead the way in terms of strong bike infrastructure, real bike commuting. I would like to see more people who have been in the neighborhoods own their homes and have opportunities to regain the wealth that has been taken from them.
  • I love the arts here, I would like to see them flourishing. I do a lot of writing about the arts and I think there’s a very dynamic arts scene. I hope that artists here get the recognition they deserve.

Read Rosie’s essays on Detroit artists on Essay’d.

Read a Freep Article on Rosie from Jaunary 2015.

Contact Rosie: sarawithanh.sharp@gmail.com

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