Why Carlos Stays In Detroit (and Why James Stays in Little Rock): Dispatch from Detroit Part 2.

Carlos Nielbock.

In our second piece from Little Rock residents who traveled to Detroit for the Detroit 2012 ReImagining conference, James Szenher offers this profile of his visit with master craftsman Carlos Nielbock, a metalworker dedicated to his craft and his home.

Inspired by Nieblock’s work and commitment, Szenher explores what constitutes a decision to call a place home and how passionate creativity, collectively and individually, can effect lasting change: “He helped me to realize that I have to look within my own skills and my own passions as a starting point for working to make Little Rock a better place.”

Before we got to C.A.N. Art Handworks I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen a poster of a windmill and some pictures online of ornate and elegant wrought iron gates and a gazebo. Then there’s the name, mostly just confusing, which evoked for me some kind of trendy recycling art project. It wasn’t much to go on.

After driving past Detroit’s Eastern Market and through a quiet neighborhood of empty or abandoned stores and houses, we pulled up to what looked like an old print works building with massive iron gate with the lengthy name in decorative bronze lettering. They had left it unlocked for us. The huge doors swung open into a courtyard where another, larger, even more decorative gate was under construction. This, we would later find out, was a planned realization of the design for the welcoming gate from the 1862 World’s Fair in London , which was never built.

Windmill. Photo from Driveforinnovation.

There was some reggae blasting from a stereo sitting under the windmill from the poster. Upon closer inspection, it had been rigged up and was running off the generated electricity from a wind turbine engine. Seeing this thing, it’s sort of disorienting because it doesn’t look like the sort of towering, three-blade structures you might see in Texas or Oklahoma. It looks more like this thing, which you’d see sitting on top of a barn somewhere. After a minute or so, a tall man in shorts and what looked like a white lab coat comes out of the building striding towards us, waving and smiling and speaking in a thick German accent. He looks and sounds like a mad scientist.

Carlos Nielbock introduces himself as a master craftsman and is clearly very proud of his work. He shows off the gate, which he explains he’s been working on with several apprentices, mostly just kids in their early twenties from around the neighborhood. He explains that under his guidance, it was them who built the beautiful gazebo that I had seen on the website.

Carlos takes us over to the windmill/turbine thing and releases the chain, which was anchoring down the vane sticking out from the circularly arranged blades. The vane, when unanchored, finds the direction of the wind so that the windmill rotates around its vertical axis, allowing the blades to catch wind more effectively. This works great, he explains, in low altitude areas and cities with low wind where the larger, Texas-style wind turbines wouldn’t be practical. It’s not new technology; people have been using this design to drive mills and water pumps for hundreds of years, but I’ve never seen one like this rigged to a turbine to generate electricity.

As Carlos takes us inside his workshop and studio, I begin to wonder, what in the hell is he doing here in East Detroit, surrounded by abandoned lots and empty streets? There’s plenty of places with more access to the sort of higher-end clientele who could afford the type of labor-intensive, beautiful pieces that he produces. While we’re inside, he tells some of his story, which brings things into perspective.

Carlos was a war child. His father is an African American soldier who met and fell in love with a German woman during World War II. The laws there regarding interracial marriage, and the general attitudes towards blacks were just as racist as they were in America, however, and the couple had to split with Carlos’ father coming back to the United States leaving he and his mother in Germany.

He started working as a metalworking apprentice when he was 14, learning from an old master, and then becoming a journeyman, traveling from place to place acquiring skills from masters across Germany and Europe. But, the racism he faced there became too much for him, and so he set out to find his father in America. He got off the boat, totally unable to speak English, with only an old address that his mother gave him.

Carlos found his father, settled in East Detroit, and eventually taught himself English. He seemed to feel at home here now, but I can imagine it must have been difficult and very alienating, having been rejected from the place he was born on the basis of his skin color, and trying to find a new home in a place where there were at least a few people who were more accepting of his biracial background, but who he couldn’t understand or communicate with. He must have found a very supportive community here who helped him through that transition, and I’m sure he found a way to channel the frustration and alienation he experienced into his work.

The pride and strong sense of place became evident when Carlos showed us some of the restorative work  he had done around the city. He plans to rebuild the clock tower and the massive statues from detroit’s old city hall , which was demolished in the 1960s to make room for this green thing . He has displayed around the shop some of the remains of the statues, which he salvaged from a landfill.

Carlos loves his work, and he loves Detroit. As another sort of artist, a musician who loves the place where he lives, but who sometimes feels alienated from it, I found myself wanting to relate to him. But I began to feel humbled, dwarfed even, as I tried to compare the few songs I’ve written with the band I play with to the massive, beautiful structures that Carlos had created. He seems to have a determination and focus that I’ve never managed to find.

My life feels fractured and scattered sometimes when I try to juggle my work for a nonprofit whose cause I believe in, with my passion for music that gives me energy and excitement. I find myself looking for opportunities with both of those paths to channel my desire to see Little Rock transform into a place where all its residents are working together to make it better, and while I struggle to find the right balance in what I do, the question of where I want to do it is never difficult.

It’s my strong sense of place where I feel like I can relate most to Carlos. Much like Carlos could move to Beverly Hills, CA or Westchester, NY to find more wealthy clientele and more demand for his labor-intensive wrought iron work, I could move to ‘music cities’ like Austin or Nashville or Williamsburg where all the hot bands are forged these days.

So what is it that keeps us where we are? I can’t definitively speak for Carlos, but I think that the reason both of us stay in our respective cities is the potential we see in them. It’s the potential that Carlos sees in the kids from down the block to whom he imparts his master skills, or in the reimagined clock tower, a symbol of restoring Detroit’s greatness.

It’s the potential I see when I perform on stage or watch others play, feeling the love and support that others have for local music or when I go out to play kickball and I see people from different neighborhoods all over town coming together to have fun.
I see it in my fellow Arkansas Travelers who went with me to Detroit, and the others in our small, still forming group of people who share that desire to realize a more inclusive and cooperative vision of Little Rock.

We went looking for ideas and inspiration from people who have a similar vision in their own city of Detroit. I expected for us to find a slew of activists, community leaders, urban farmers, and dreamers who were transforming a disintegrating community into something new, experimenting with creative strategies and collaborating across divisions of race and class. We did find those people; there are a lot of them in Detroit, and I think we’ll be telling you more about them later, but first I wanted to share Carlos’ story because he doesn’t really fit that mold and because his is the one that I felt had the most impact on me.

He helped me to realize that I have to look within my own skills and my own passions as a starting point for working to make Little Rock a better place. He made me see the need for young people here to get past our ageist tendencies and find ways to connect with our elders and exchange skills and knowledge that could complement each other. And finally he reminded me of the importance of focusing on the potential we see in the places where we live and work.

In doing that, though, we cannot ignore our problems, or the systems and structures that create them. America’s economic system has utterly failed Detroit, and it’s not working that well in Little Rock either. We too have abandoned lots, urban blight, failing schools, and gentrification. We too see some of our best and brightest minds leaving our community for more ‘opportunities’ elsewhere. We too struggle with racism, classism, and disparity in our neighborhoods.

We can’t ignore these problems, but if we’re ever going to get out of this mess, simply sitting around and discussing our analysis of oppressive systems is not going to be enough. We need to find more people like Carlos who have a passion for where they live, see the potential for what it could be, and put their heart and soul, their blood, sweat, and tears into realizing that potential. We need to become those people.

James Szenher is a Little Rock native and musician.  We’ll be hearing more from him in coming weeks.

To read more about our ongoing dispatches Detroit, including this piece from one of James’ fellow Arkansas travelors, Acadia Roher, click here.