Rosa Parks

Rebuilding American History in Berlin

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The rebuilding of Rosa Parks house in Berlin reveals differences between how Germany and the United States approach to the culture of remembrance.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Detroit home of Civil Rights hero Rosa Parks was earmarked for demolition.
    • Instead, her niece bought it and artist Ryan Mendoza had its parts shipped to Berlin where he reassembled it.
    • The reconstructed house will go on show in April along with a photographic exhibition and a documentary film.
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    Audio

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Rosa Parks House during reconstruction in Berlin, copyright Fabia Mendoza
Rosa Parks' House during reconstruction in Berlin. Copyright: Fabia Mendoza

Artist Ryan Mendoza is still puzzled why Michelle Obama didn’t respond when he attempted to contact her. He believes the wooden house in which the civil rights icon Rosa Parks lived belongs in the garden of the White House. And who would have been better suited to move it there than the Obamas? Wasn’t the first African-American president the last domino in a series put in motion by Rosa Parks when, in 1955, she refused to give her bus seat to a white man.

In September 2016, a heap of slightly damaged wooden boards reached Berlin; the transport across the Atlantic had cost almost $13,000. Mr. Mendoza laid a concrete foundation in the courtyard between his studio and apartment building in the city’s Wedding district. Then he got to work nailing the boards back together into a house.

Since then, winter has come and almost gone. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump was sworn in as president, and the pile of wood in Berlin seemed to acquire more and more significance. The house almost appears to have found asylum here.

One has to imagine the winter months in Berlin during which, day after day, the wiry Mr. Mendoza piled the physical remains of the American civil rights revolution on his back. He left his own home and turned his attention to the individual pieces. Working alone in the cold, he heaved the window frames in place. He didn’t want any assistants helping him and didn’t have a crane for lifting the heavy sections. So the entire house was rebuilt by him, using his body, his muscles. He had to physically shoulder this issue. The artist as a stand-in. “American Artist Apologizes Instead of the Mayor of Detroit.” That could be one possible headline, he suggests.

That is because the house almost disappeared entirely. The house where Rosa Parks lived in Detroit was set to be torn down – one of more than 80,000 condemned houses in the shrinking city. Ms. Parks only lived in the house for two years. But they were special years.

“I took the house as a hostage.”

Ryan Mendoza, Berlin-based American artist

The legendary Ms. Parks, who continued to be persecuted in the South, had fled together with her husband to relatives in the North where, from 1957 to 1959, she led a life that belied her importance. She was unemployed, received minimal assistance from a church and occasionally did sewing. The couple lived in the house with the 13 children of her brother.

After learning of the planned demolition, Rosa Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley, bought the house for $500 but had no idea how to proceed. She asked Mr. Mendoza if he could do something. He couldn’t imagine this chapter of American history simply disappearing: “I was deeply concerned.” His intention was to turn it into art. His first idea: To preserve the house with the help of Detroit’s mayor. But there was no interest in city hall. His next idea: An American institution should look after the house. None could be found. The final idea: Before it was torn down, he would simply take the piece of history home. To Europe, Germany, Berlin, his own back courtyard.

It took 18 days to disassemble the house in Detroit. Friends and volunteers pitched in. At some point, the neighbor across the street called out, “Come on over, my children!” And so the vegetarian Mr. Mendoza ate meat because something far deeper than food was involved. But why did Ms. Parks’ niece ask him in particular?

Ryan Mendoza left the United States in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected president and at a time when Donald Trump was still working on acquiring the title of real estate tycoon. Mr. Mendoza considered the U.S. to be too isolationist. “We are a nation built on lies,” he says. He doesn’t think it’s bad that the United States isn’t the country with the most freedom, but he does consider it bad to make that claim. He grew up in New York, had grandparents in Pennsylvania; but now he wanted to get so far away from his native country that he even stopped speaking English and traveled to Naples. But running away didn’t work. He couldn’t cut himself off from himself. America was part of his identity.

That is the actual reason Mr. Mendoza was in Detroit last summer: He was searching for himself. Houses contain memories; he was looking for an American house that he could bring to Europe, a framework for his memories, his identity. So things began personally and became political on their own. In three projects involving buildings.

First, a family gave him a house that he shipped by sea to Europe, painted white, and exhibited as the “White House” at Art Rotterdam.

There was indignation in Rotterdam and also in Detroit, with cries of: “Ruins porn!” People criticized the fact that a white man had used an African-American home to enhance his own fame.

Mr. Mendoza had actually wanted to show the opposite, that the powerful pursued their own interests at the expense of the poor, who first were paid miserably for their work, then charged horrendous rates of interest for homes they couldn’t afford and lost in the financial crisis.

Mr. Mendoza suddenly found himself in the cross-hairs of opposing interest groups. For a week, his name was on the front pages of the Detroit Free Press. “The government played with blacks’ fears of being exploited by whites,” in order to distract from its own machinations, says Mr. Mendoza.

And in fact the city was hiding something. Reporter Charlie LeDuff had discovered that several companies were making money from unusual demolition contracts. The prices for carrying out the work rose by 60 percent in a single year. The FBI was investigating the wrecking program of Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan.

Mr. Mendoza says it is good that these things came to light. “An artist is an undercover whistleblower.” He sits in Wedding, in his stained working jacket, following the veering course of his native country. An American in Berlin whose courtyard also has two old American cars he intends to tinker with soon.

Rosa Parks niece and Gregg Johnson (donor The White House) in front of the covered carcass in Detroit, copyright Fabia Mendoza
Rosa Parks' niece, Rhea McCauley, and Gregg Johnson, a donor to another art project, in front of the covered carcass in Detroit. Copyright: Fabia Mendoza

His wife Fabia documented the Detroit projects in a film and is fastforwarding and rewinding on her computer. John O’Malley appears on screen; they got to know him in Brightmoor, one of the most notorious districts of the city. He lived between two dilapidated buildings, alone and ill with cancer. There were drug-dealers to his right and left; he felt compelled to buy a gun – couldn’t the artists do something?

Ryan and Fabia Mendoza moved in with him for a few weeks. They painted the houses to the right and left white. Mr. Mendoza  put holes in the facades that spelled “Trump” and “Clinton” – the names looked like they had been shot into the house-fronts. He called the project “The Invitation” and invited the two candidates to spend a night in these houses, in direct contact with American reality. Both declined, but Mr. O’Malley had once again found a meaning to his life. He had come to represent those Americans caught in a dilemma during the electoral campaign, literally squeezed between two evils. “Millions spent for that sort of campaign? And this is what we’re left with?” he says directly to the camera.

Mr. Mendoza’s canvases depict houses. A line can be drawn from the beginnings of his art until today, and this link surprises him most of all. Right at the start, he has now discovered, he painted a house that looked exactly like Rosa Parks’ house from the 1950s. The money that allowed him to take his first artistic steps came from a little house he inherited from his grandparents; at that time, $30,000 was a lot of money. Last summer brought “The White House” and “The Invitation.” And now Rosa Parks’ house is on display in his back courtyard, day in, day out.

Mr. Mendoza detached the old dry walls from the boards and replaced decayed wood. He erected and aligned the construction, blow by blow. He tried to remember when it was a Sunday and his German neighbors would expect some respite from his hammering.

It was an expression of esteem for Rosa Parks; and for Ryan Mendoza it was also a Zen-like experience. The artist has antennae that are sensitive to power structures. “When the leader of a country has precedence over millions of people – is he representing them or leading them by the nose?” he asks. “Who’s harnessed in front of whose wagon?” He loathes everything that exerts pressure. And so he moves seamlessly from Rosa Parks’ historic opposition to the social resistance of an artist: “Where does the border between activism and art actually lie?”

“Germans understand from A to Z why this house is important.”

Ryan Mendoza, Berlin-based American artist

A few weeks ago, Mr. Mendoza traveled to Moscow to paint the front of a Russian wooden house in the colors of the American flag. He took photographs with models who thought they were posing for a fashion shooting. “It’s okay to drape a chain of Mars candy bars around models; but if you tell them they’re dressing themselves as America, problems arise.” People get scared and stop speaking; the conversation dries up. He doesn’t believe this is because people in autocratic systems don’t think – they simply aren’t allowed to voice their thoughts.

He himself experienced how self-censorship can happen under such conditions. He hoped he could get people to write “Putin, my Putin” in the snow. He knows what association is raised by the Russian president’s name in French: “Putin, my whore.” But Mr. Mendoza ended up doing it alone in the dark. “I’m a sheep too,” he says.

On a drizzly February day, his makeshift Berlin solution for Rosa Parks’ house seems strangely appropriate, as if the building had always belonged there. Its size is similar to those of the apartment house and studio building between which it stands. It will not be possible to enter the dwelling; this is a sign of respect toward Ms. Parks.

Mr. Mendoza is still working on the sound installation. He knows in which corner the television stood; he has researched what programs were broadcast in those years, to what advertisements Ms. Parks was exposed. A couple of weeks ago, while Donald Trump held a one-and-a-half-hour press conference in the White House, a roof was being lowered onto Rosa Parks’ house in Wedding.

His preference would be if an American institution took an interest in the house. He would hand it over for a million dollars, says Mr. Mendoza, and donate the money to the Rosa Parks Family Foundation.

It will be possible to view the building from April 8. There will also be an accompanying photographic exhibition at the Camera Work gallery with Mr. Mendoza’s pictures from Moscow and photographs by the American reporter Steve Schapiro, who documented the U.S. civil rights movement. To mark the opening, Fabia Mendoza’s documentary on the three Detroit projects will be shown in the city’s Babylon Cinema. Rosa Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley is expected to attend. She will return to Berlin in June, because she is planning a project with the Rosa Parks Elementary School in the city’s Kreuzberg district.

“Germans understand from A to Z why this house is important,” says Mr. Mendoza. They have a culture of remembrance: “Germans can help me to be an amplifier so that the voice is also heard in America.” The artist would be pleased if Americans got angry upon discovering that he took away the house. The angrier, the better, “because Americans only act when they’ve got mad.”

“I took the house as a hostage,” says Mr. Mendoza, in the hope that it will someday be ransomed. Until then, he imagines himself sitting in the house, smoking a cigarette on the upper floor. Waiting to see if America notices it is missing something.

 

This article first appeared in Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

 

 

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