Saturday, September 6, 2014

Detroit -- Memories and Reality



(Liesa, Marie, Shilo and Greg)

Entrepreneur and ESPN commentator Emily Gail had it right when she coined the phrase, “Say nice things about Detroit”. I recently returned to the city of my birth and was amazed by what I saw: people walking downtown, new homes and gleaming buildings!

I’d planned to spend a weekday afternoon with my cousins enjoying the Detroit Institute of Arts. Afterwards, Greg Owen, who works for Chrysler, offered to show us around the city. I’d mainly wanted to visit Delray, where I’d been born and Palmer Woods where my grandmother had worked as a maid for the family of George W. Mason. Cousin Greg took us all around the city, from east to west, south to north and into the heart of Motown.

What I saw surprised me. Downtown was vibrant. There were people actually walking on the streets enjoying Starbucks. Many of them were dressed in nice clothes and suits, walking to and from their jobs. The new Comerica Park Stadium was busy. The Tigers had just won a game and happy fans were streaming out of the park. This gave us the opportunity to view new condominiums, many of them built in the fashion of the old brownstone-style homes that had been restored. There were actually businesses that, to me at least, appeared to be thriving. Pedestrians were smiling and many were heading to the variety of restaurants in town. I witnessed busses on the streets driving passengers to their destinations. I hadn’t seen the city so alive and cheerful since I was a little kid. Yes, I actually do remember the late 1960s, my father lifting me onto his shoulders as I watched parades pass before my tiny, wonder-filled eyes. Then we’d watch the enormous American flag as it was unfurled down the side of the beautiful Hudson’s building, the banner’s stars and stripes causing many to blink back tears. All the while I would be eyeing the balloon vendors, hoping my daddy would buy me one of those double-filled beauties with the Mickey Mouse balloon inside of the transparent one. (Yes, I do remember it, clear as the day it happened. Ask anyone who knows me well; I remember my childhood and very few details are lost to me.)

Then, there were the riots. There was crime. Coleman Young was elected as Detroit’s mayor and things were supposed to get better, but they didn’t. Contrast that with nearby Dearborn which was run tight-fisted and as some said, fascist style by Mayor Orville Hubbard; but you know what? Decades passed during that era with few gang problems and fewer shootings in Hubbard’s territory. My uncle Raymond Kohl was an auxiliary policeman in Dearborn and nobody questioned any city employee or peace officer. It was known for miles around, that the city of Dearborn ran a tight ship. Contrast that with Detroit in the 1970s. Raymond’s day job was driving a city bus for Detroit. His baritone, authoritative voice kept many young trouble-makers in line when they rode his bus. Not all drivers were as respected as Raymond. Even taxi drivers were beat pretty badly, some murdered, while trying to earn a living for their families.

Meanwhile things just got worse in Motown. Every night before Halloween, affectionately called “Devil's Night” by the locals, homes and businesses would be set on fire and burned to the ground. Many of these structures were abandoned and some were not. People were fleeing Detroit by the thousands every year, taking their businesses and taxes with them. Mayor Coleman Young called this retreat “The White Flight” but residents past and present knew it had nothing to do with race. It was the fact that Detroit police were over-worked and not allowed to do their jobs. Many times the cops themselves would be shot at. It didn’t matter if they were black, white or Hispanic; the uniform made them a target.

Once-beautiful neighborhoods were left to crumble. Incredibly sturdy well-built homes and the surrounding buildings that boasted architecture that was rivaled by few other cities were left to the crack-heads and working girls. The few families that stood their ground were threatened. Despite the fact that some individuals maintained their homes and yards, many times thugs tossed Molotov cocktails through home owners’ windows. We had friends in Delray that put out three fires in 1989. This family held out and remained steadfast until Steve died and his mother Katy was moved to a convalescent home in Allen Park.

Detroit schools were going down in quality every year. The curriculum was hard to follow despite dedicated teachers and administrators. The few students that tried to study were subject to beatings, rapes and the menacing specter of the drug culture that surrounded most neighborhoods. Communities in the Detroit Metro Area were later hit in the solar plexus when many automobile factories and steel mills closed down or moved their operations away to other states and countries. People who were already tightening their belts had to tighten them even further and what happened in Detroit did not stay in Detroit: it rippled into the Downriver region, into the Great Lakes states and affected America, stabbing at the economy, causing wounds and tears.

Yet, just like Nero watched Rome burn, Mayor Coleman Young and the city council, and later Kwame Kilpatrick and his cronies, bled the taxpayers of Detroit to death. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, they set their money sucking sights upon the people of Wayne County, viewing their taxes and community coffers as an endless source of cash. All the while, the city of Detroit and its people were still bleeding. A band-aid wasn’t even available when what was really needed was a tourniquet. City officials wanted more and more financial resources from the county and state. What could have been an easy fix at one time became the worst urban decay in the nation.

Still, the good people of Detroit and the surrounding areas were not going to give up. Individuals and private businesses began to creep back in. Sadly, the old Tiger Stadium was demolished, but the Comerica Park was built. The powers behind Detroit Tigers Baseball could have very easily decided to sell the team or build in another city, but they didn’t. Urban renewal followed, and maybe even Coleman Young’s dream of a “Renaissance” began to take root.

Later in the afternoon, my cousins and I drove to the historic old Train Depot. It‘s fenced off, but the good news is restoration’s in the works. Someday soon, trains will once again deliver passengers to Detroit. Next year’s Cubs versus Tigers game may be enjoyed after a leisurely train ride from Chicago!

Greg drove us into Little Mexico. Businesses were thriving and people were walking around. We drove by the Packard plant. We turned down an ally. That was the only time I was truly scared. A party was in full swing. People were dancing. Children were playing. Then it all stopped as the participants eyed us warily and Greg put the car into reverse. For a moment I recalled the recent beating of Steven Utash who after running-over a small child that had darted out in front of his car, was beaten nearly to death by angry young men who lived up and down that street. You see, it’s incidents like this that make people think really hard about venturing into the heart of Detroit. Many times they will choose to spend their money somewhere else.

We drove to Belle Isle and I was so happy to hear that this once picturesque island had been taken over by the state. Things looked beautiful again as we drove past the picnic areas and aquarium. We got out of the car and headed for the fountain. Water bubbled and sprayed out of the lions’ mouths and many tourists were taking photographs near the great, white statues. Memories flooded back to my mind, of sitting by my father as we posed beside the fountain taking similar pictures during family outings.

Sure as clockwork, the fountain brought another thought to my brain and I had to walk to the restroom. I actually felt safe as I used the island’s facilities. They could have used a good cleaning, but they were modern and in working order.

The tour hadn’t ended. We drove through some communities that had seen better days, maybe close to a century ago. Houses were burnt shells of the happy homes they once were. Trees grew through some structures. The few places that were still standing were boarded up. Some people milled around the porches and glared at us. I truly feared this seedy side of Detroit as anyone with common sense would.

Greg’s car drove past Fort Wayne. It was gratifying to see that there are reenactments and tours offered there occasionally, but this neglected historic site needs some attention. This is the location where Ulysses S. Grant was a young soldier in training. As a distraction from long hours spent in the classroom, near constant drilling and lessons on strategy, the young Grant raced horses up and down the streets of Detroit. This was long before there were motor cars and his horse carried him fast and far. Grant is the only President, so far in history, to have ever lived in Detroit. In fact as of this writing, his one-time Greek Revival-style home still stands, and anywhere else in these United States, it would be considered a historic monument.

Going back even further, although war had not been officially declared, some of the first shots of the War of 1812 were fired in July of that year, from a battlement that stood at one time very near Fort Wayne, in the vicinity called the "Sand Hill at Springwells". There is a street named Springwells that exists today, which Greg traversed despite its potholes, to locate my old hometown of Delray. Today this community’s most famous one-time citizen is retired Brain Surgeon and author, the respected and much loved Dr. Benjamin Carson. Delray was at one time a mostly Hungarian neighborhood.

On the way, near one of the rare businesses that's still in operation, seagulls feasted upon their dead and dying comrades. It takes a lot to kill a seagull. They are affectionately known as “sky-rats” among the people I know. Their busy beaks tore through feathers to get at the stringy, tough flesh of the deceased.

Despite roads that had long since crumbled, walled on all sides by falling abandoned bars and empty grocery stores, we managed to make our way to West End and later Bacon Street. I was amazed and delighted to see that this was one of the few places that still had occupied homes. I looked at a house and read the address. My eyes hadn’t deceived me! My Uncle Elmer’s home was still standing and obviously cared for! I wanted to stay and meet the occupants, but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had dinner, so we drove north to Indian Village. The homes there have always been cared for and as always, the lawns were neat and the streets were hugged by ancient trees, embraced by them almost like a mother’s tender touch.

Next we headed for Palmer Woods to see the home of George Walter Mason and his wife Hazel Bisbee-Mason. More than half a century ago, my grandmother Zona worked as a maid and cook in their home. (George Mason was the head of Kelvinator Corporation when in 1936 he was approached by Charles W. Nash, founder of Nash Motors. Mr. Nash was searching for someone to take the helm of his corporation. The Nash-Kelvinator Corporation which later joined forces with Hudson Motors, became the better-known American Motors Corporation in 1954.) Hazel Bisbee-Mason was so fond of Zona that when my grandmother left the service of the Mason family, Mrs. Mason offered her anything she wanted from the home. At first Zona declined, not wanting to take what she hadn’t actually earned, but Mrs. Mason insisted. Thinking very hard, Zona asked for the wood and glass tea service (a small table), which was handed down to me, and I still have today.

I told this story to my daughter and her third cousin Shilo who sat in the back of Greg’s vehicle. We neared the Palmer Woods home, close to a golf course, turning onto Hamilton and Fairway where the Mason home stands with its neighboring mansions. These regal homes look as if they belong to a different era, one of success and better days – and they did, but these houses also belong to the Detroit of the future.

National chains like Wholefoods Market are moving in. Private businesses like Motor City Candleworks and investors of all kinds are putting business back into Detroit. Recently an emergency manager was appointed. This hasn’t made everyone happy, but a sick patient needs a qualified surgeon, and so far, bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr and his team appear to be stitching up Detroit, a city that was bleeding out but still has a lot to give and a lot to live for; a city that, like a Phoenix, is rising from the flames.

Now we can choose to tell that patient, our city of Detroit that it will die a horrible death. On the other hand, we can be a part of the rehabilitation of our old soldier, one who is fighting to stay alive. We as Michigan citizens, past and present can think of creative ways to be a part of Detroit’s life, here and now. There is so much to see and do, places to live downtown and mass transit to get you where you need to go. Give it a try. You may also find yourself saying nice things about Detroit.

[Please Note: I wrote the bulk of this story in July. Before I posted this, my daughter suggested I read “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff. Afterwards, I read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. I did not change my post, but I am not looking at Detroit with the same “Rose-colored” glasses that I peered through back in July. I still believe in Detroit, but realistically I believe that the old-guard politics, politicians and policies that have had a strangle-hold on Detroit and most of eastern Michigan should be replaced by the common sense ideas that Dr. Benjamin Carson writes about. I would like to thank Liam Collins, Ruth Puckett and Daryl Puckett for some of the historical research that contributed to this blog entry.] ***** Photos two, three and four, courtesy of Shilo Jaynes are of Belle Isle and two homes in Palmer Woods***** Last Photo ca 1945 Mason Home -- unknown photographer

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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