The first batch of scarves hang on a sculpture outside the Boll Family YMCA on Broadway in downtown Detroit. (Photos by David Coates / The Detroit News)
The scarves started appearing on city statues and lamp posts downtown almost two weeks ago: soft, hand-knit mufflers with tags attached that read: “If you’re cold you can keep me. If you know somebody else who’s cold, please take me to them.”
The first four scarves, in bright red, orange, green and yellow, were draped around necks of the children reaching for the stars in the bronze sculpture outside the Boll Family YMCA on Broadway. A few days later, a second batch showed up warming the four lamp posts at the entrances to Cass Park in Midtown.
Perched at an eye-catching height, it is also the highest Barbara Green — who measures 5 feet tall on her tippy toes — can reach. And while this tiny speck of a thing, whose naturally curly auburn hair falls like curled ribbons past her shoulders and whose favorite T-shirt reads, “Detroit Fights Dirty,” calls this her “scarf-bombing project,” don’t be fooled. This is a sizable undertaking of the heart.
The idea for the scarves came one night during the recent arctic air blast when she couldn’t sleep because the pipes had frozen in the “retrofitted lake cottage” in Keego Harbor she shares with her husband and their three cats, and all she could think about was: If she was this cold, how cold were the homeless?
The scarves also satisfied a yearning to both give back and pay it forward to a city that she says saved her from falling into the black hole of depression.
“I can honestly say that this city gave me my purpose,” Green said over coffee early this week, the ever-present knitting needles clicking in earnest. “When I was at the lowest point ever, the community here welcomed me. They didn’t know who I was. All they knew is that I wanted to be here and show people the good side of the city and not feel like an outsider. And for that I am so grateful.“
Once the scarves were placed downtown, she posted pictures on her Facebook page. Pretty soon, friends started offering to help with knitting and others sent donations of yarn, most notably Aunt Elsa from Florida, who sent a huge box full.
To date she’s knitted 11 scarves. Ten have been distributed, and while she doesn’t know how many have been taken, she’s confident “they’re being worn by whoever needs them.”
She knits just about 24/7: “I’m on a mission.” In fact, the only time she’s not knitting is when she’s working at several local ice skating rinks as a hockey referee.
“I know, I know,” she says, at people’s reaction to a 100-pound female hockey referee who may be 47, but could pass for 20. “I get that a lot, especially from hockey coaches who think ‘Oh, she’s little. And she’s a chick. I can push her around.’ They so do not know me.”
Green moved to the Detroit area in July 2013 from Providence, R.I., where she’d spent the last 30 years. Her husband, Eric Siegel, had grown up in Ferndale and later attended Brown University, where they met.
Born in New Jersey, Green got her undergrad degree in English at Brown. Then she went New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to become a film historian. Thereafter, she returned to Brown, earned her master’s in library science, becoming a rare book cataloger. Still restless (and at this point you want to say: seriously?) she began pursuing her Ph.D. in American studies at Boston University.
But a couple years in depression sidetracked her. She’d earned her master’s, but stopped short of the doctorate. In retrospect, she has no regrets.
“You don’t ever unlearn anything,” she says.
The couple decided to move back here after making several trips to care for her father-in-law, Richard Siegel, who was general manager of the famed rock ’n’ roll magazine Creem during its glory years.
After his death from cancer in February 2012, Green cataloged all his Creem memorabilia and photographs. She also dusted off her camera and shot everything from graffiti art to neon signs to beautiful architecture.
“I was going into neighborhoods I probably shouldn’t have by myself, which is why I have on my belt loop my hot pink pepper spray, but I wanted to prove to my friends this city is so much more than ruin porn.”
In the process, she found lots of camaraderie in the art and music scene. She’ll rattle off names of artists to whom she feels indebted for pulling her out of her depression. “I realized I felt good here,” she says. “It felt like home.”
Last Monday, she completed her third round of “scarf-bombing.” She tied one scarf around a peace pole outside of Avalon International Breads on Willis. Appropriately enough, the pole bears the message in four languages: “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”
She decided to hand the second scarf to a homeless man on Second, over by Redmond Plaza, who was so cold his beard was frozen. When he said incredulously: “You made this yourself?” Green gave him a big hug. Then she dashed to her car where she promptly burst into tears and then headed home to knit.