LAX to DTW: A Native Daughter Returns to Define Detroit

Sara Jane Boyers is coming to Detroit next week a virtual blank slate.

She knows little about the city. She knows relatively few people. She has a vague idea where her hotel is located. She is even avoiding any media mentions of our beloved Motown as she prepares for the flight from LAX to DTW.

All she has is her camera, a box of memories, some family lore and a longing for the city of her birth.

Naïve? Hardly. Boyers, a former music industry executive, will turn 65 during her nearly week-long visit here. Uninformed? Yes, to a degree. But that is part of the excitement and mystery that accompanies her trip. A voyeur? Yes, Boyers is one of THOSE people. She is coming into town with a lens. She has a “pet project” about Detroit.

Are her intentions pure? They seem so. And I cannot wait to meet her in person. I’m interested to see what images, words and ideas this “blank slate” comes up with during her travels. I like a person with low expectations, some humility and an unfettered sense of curiosity. What if we all could have Detroit before us, untarnished by ugly crime, dirty politics, crumbling ruins and raging abuse?

But I digress. Boyers comes to us as a photographer and a daughter of Detroit. She lived the first year of her life here…then, her father packed up the family and drove them across the United States.

I was born on Sunday, January 20, 1946, at Harper Hospital in the city of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, where my father was working and where my mother moved to marry him. I was brought home to my parents’ newly purchased house on Pinehurst Avenue. We moved to California in 1947.

Family lore has it that they accidentally packed the snow shovel. When he saw it, he immediately broke it on his knee. Adios, Michigan. Hello, Sunny La-La Land. Now that she is facing a landmark birthday (65), Boyers decided it was time to come home. “It’s a good moment, a significant moment,” Boyers told me during our recent telephone conversation. Truly, she has lived in Los Angeles for six decades, and she still tells people she was born in Detroit.

Her goal is to photograph the Chinatown areas here and in Windsor for a longtime (10-plus years) project. But at the same time, she is piecing together her family’s life here from an old box of clippings, memorabilia and such stuff. She doesn’t quite know what she will photograph…yet. And not knowing is “an interesting way to get into the city,” Boyers said.

“I really didn’t know very much about Detroit. We don’t hear much about it here. I’m going in to recapture something I never really knew,” Boyers said. “I really don’t know it; frankly, I hardly know where Detroit is. I had to look it up on a map. That’s an awful Coastal thing…Where is the Midwest? Is Detroit there?”

Yes, despite her lack of feeling for Detroit, the project is still hugely personal. “There is something missing (here) for me,” Boyers said. “I’m not an ex-patriot. That’s not my vision. I don’t have any memories of Detroit. It’s just about a feeling.”

Perhaps one of the finest compliments her work has gotten, especially about Chinatown(s), is that people will say, “I have lived here for years, and I never noticed…” the grass, the tress, the architecture, the beauty, the life…So what will Boyers find here?

Well, her father was here. He made something of himself here (as an advertising executive, a pilot that flew out of City Airport, a friend to the rich and the blue-collar sorts). It’s the strange ironies of the city that keep her interest as she dives into his old things. For example, one of her childhood homes in LA has been torn down and a mini-mansion stands in its place. But her family homestead in Detroit remains…and the family there is eager to meet Boyers and give her a tour. That is one of her first stops on her journey in Detroit, where she is arriving Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during the Auto Show – fine times for sure).

“Everybody’s been fabulous about letting me in. I already have schedule of appointments,” Boyers said. That family that now lives in her old house? They’re going to take Boyers to the neighborhood’s regular monthly meeting. Boyers said she wants to hear about their commitment to the block, to feel the depth of their loyalty.

Why? “Because that is how Detroit can be portrayed,” Boyers said. The name of her project? “Detroit: Defintion.” Yes, Detroit does need to define itself. Boyers, as an outsider, needs to define the city as well. The project needs to find its way.

So this solitary woman, who prefers to work alone and shoot pictures of things, is going to stray from her norm. She is doing interviews. She is taking meetings. She is aiming her lens at people.

“It will require more of me, and that’s a happy challenge,” Boyers said.

If you see her, call out. Boyers probably will be wandering around the Midtown district, bundled up in every piece of down, fleece and wool she can find (hey, even in LA she feels chilly). Offer to show her around. Let’s define Detroit as something good, friendly and full of possibilities. You never know what will develop.

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