What started as mild intrigue about the city of Detroit years ago for Fenton High School teacher and J.V. basketball coach Nick Gregory has now resulted in countless hours spent in the city, listening to stories and doing documentary photography work, some of which will be on display through Oct. 7 at Grand Rapids Art Prize in an exhibition entitled ‘Split.’
Like many from the suburbs — Gregory is an Ionia native — his fascination with the city began with sports.
“It was just a curiosity for me,” Gregory said. “Growing up, I used to go to baseball games at Tiger Stadium, but I never really experienced the city. One day about six or seven years ago, I just jumped in my car and started driving around there. I was in awe of the size and everything there is to see there. It has just turned into a fascination for me.”
During that time, Gregory has compiled an archive featuring many photos and stories of various sections of Detroit and its residents. This year is his second Detroit-themed exhibition at Art Prize. Last year, he presented an exhibition called, ‘Detroit Today,’ which he said was more of a general display while ‘Split’ is more focused on a theme.
Here is how Gregory described his inspiration and the focus of ‘Split:’
Divisions, intolerance and a biased political process have influenced Detroit for several decades before and since the 1967 riots. The idea for “Split” was born after meeting Detroiters who live behind the Wailing Wall, built in the 1940’s to separate white and black neighborhoods. I found it compelling that these residents had such a blatant, physical reminder of racism literally in their backyards. This led me on a journey to learn more about how barriers of the past still haunt the city today. I wanted to let the people tell their city’s story themselves.
In his years documenting and getting to know the city and its people, he’s been struck by how the people and their values are not much different in Detroit than anywhere else. However, the city’s history has played a major role in both how Detroit and its people are perceived now.
“I truly believe Detroit is the most misunderstood city in America,” Gregory said. “The challenge is to get people to understand how the political process throughout history has shaped that whole region. You can’t excuse the real problems the city is facing today, but it helps to understand how it got to this point. This is a city where they literally built a wall at one time to separate the white and black neighborhoods. The history of Detroit is very complex, and it helps partially explain what is going on in the city today. I think people need to understand and come to grips with that history for Detroit to be a great city again. How can we all not be better (in Michigan) with Detroit thriving again?”
Part of Gregory’s attraction to the projects he’s worked on in Detroit is because they’ve been educational for him as well as an artistic pursuit.
“I’m embarrassed as a high school graduate and a college graduate about how little I knew about the city and its history until I started studying it,” Gregory said.
As a teacher himself, he’s also been able to use what he learns in the city in his classroom.
“I teach social studies, and Detroit is like the ultimate social studies case study,” he said. “We can look back at its history and see what was tried there and was successful or what was tried there and failed and learn from that. The more I learn there, the more I’m able to bring stories into the classroom and the more my students get curious about it and ask questions.”
As a basketball coach and as a sports fan in general, Gregory noted the role that sports have played in the city’s history.
“The 1968 Tigers were kind of a rallying point, a team that everyone could get behind (after the Detroit race riots in 1967),” Gregory said. “Sports are truly about both athletic ability and how well people are able to work together and those are concepts that people of all different backgrounds can relate to.”
As a coach today, particularly a basketball coach, where players from inner-cities and suburbs alike often play in the same AAU tournaments and spend time together in summers, there are also great opportunities for sports as a tool to break down some of the historical divides that have existed in places like Detroit.
“An interest in sports opens a door to kids to the concept that we are all probably more similar than we are different,” Gregory said.
Gregory said his hope for those who see his exhibition is that it is informative and that it doesn’t reinforce negative preconceived notions that people may have about the city.
“I don’t want to be reinforcing a perception that people already have — the people who see a picture and say basically, ‘Yep, that’s what I thought Detroit looked like,’ and move on,” Gregory said. “This project is meant to be educational, to show the history of the city, and hopefully expose people to the complexity of the city. For me, the most gratifying part of displaying the work is just observing people as they look and seeing the reactions they have, or hearing the conversations they have. That was the cool part for me about doing it too — it truly has been educational. I’ve learned so much.”
Gregory’s 28-piece exhibition is currently on display at DeVos Skyway in Grand Rapids.