Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Detroit! Notes from last Christmas

     A year ago, Christmas Eve Day, I took an eight hour walking and driving tour of Detroit offered by the historian/artist at detroiturbex.com. The tour focused on the history of Detroit--its changing neighborhoods, communities, buildings of worship, and system of public education--as well as prospects for the future in the midst of the city's bankruptcy proceedings. Because I'm a teacher, my tour guide adapted the tour to include as many schools as time allowed. 
     Below are compiled notes, photos, and emails that I sent to a friend just after the experience. I'm posting them now in part to: remind myself of what I learned last year, and to compare what I saw last year to what I saw this year in Detroit over the holidays. (I regret that I did not take more photos last year, nor any this year, but the best photos of the spaces I visited in Detroit, and of Detroit in general, can be found at detroiturbex.com.) 
      December, 24th 2013: At quarter to nine in the morning it is thirteen degrees outside. I drive downtown with the Subaru's seat-heat on. I am wearing a ski jacket, hat, gloves, and snowpants. I'm prepared for a  day outside. The drive along E. Warren Ave. to midtown takes ten minutes. I park outside the restaurant where I am scheduled to meet my guide. 
     The restaurant looks open. I could use some coffee so I walk inside. Moodymann is playing in the background, the windows are steamy. Three people are busy behind the counter. I ask for a cup of coffee. 
     One of the women says, "We don't open 'til eleven, do you mind drinking our coffee? I mean, it's strong. It's what the staff drinks."
     "No. That sounds perfect!" I say. This is my favorite Detroit. The doors are open. We're all here. There is no formality, no rigidity, no separation. 
     My guide shows up five minutes later. He is a guarded, bearded man, in his late thirties. He is very professional. I appreciate that. There's no small talk. He goes right into the tour.
     I drive the car. My guide has the plan. He immediately takes us to an area downtown that was a forested railroad bed six months ago. Now, it's a pedestrian walkway and bike path. It's a huge tract of land. Apparently older pedestrian/bike paths now lead from apartment buildings to a year-round farmer's market to office areas downtown. Newer paths, including this one, will lead from other residential neighborhoods to more office spaces. All of these sections of the city used to be impassable on foot or by bike because of the way the freeway is laid out--it crisscrosses downtown. The paths pass under the freeway, are lit, and patrolled. This seems like obvious, cheap, urban infrastructure, but it is completely new to Detroit. We drive to three new schools that line these bike paths. There are also newly renovated buildings that are now multi-use spaces nearby. A new Whole Foods sits near Wayne State University--the only WF in the Detroit area. This is a huge fucking deal. Everyone in Detroit is jazzed, including my guide, that WF would invest in downtown. 
     I learn that my guide did not grow up in Detroit, but has lived here for almost seven years. He knows pretty much everything you could think of to ask about the city. He is not interested in "ruin porn"--photos of urban decay--he is interested in capturing the history and context of this evolving metropolitan area through photography. My guide is telling me so much, I start taking notes in order to keep track. 
     A few things become immediately apparent: (1) Because Detroit is huge, we will barely scratch the surface in eight hours. (2) The city is filled with pocket communities whose inhabitants don't necessarily want to be consolidated. (3) There is so much unused, unoccupied space--fields, forests, between neighborhoods and even houses that it makes the efficient use of resources nearly impossible. (4) As a result, this spread out city cannot all be managed. A lot of funding for basic services is being provided by private investors.
     We stand out in the freezing cold and my guide tells me about the history and movement of different community groups. We spend a lot of time at abandoned schools and churches for two reasons: (1) To get a feel for these former community centers/how many have been closed/how many communities are gone. (2) To see how rapidly natural cycles take hold. We go into buildings that have been closed for one to three years mostly. Once the windows are out and water enters through the roof, natural geological processes take over. It only takes a coupe of freeze/thaw cycles for the plaster and concrete and brick to crumble. Anything constructed after the war, with steel beams, has a better chance. The Detroit Public School System has its own police force to try to protect closed buildings from scrappers. 
     I learn that scrapping became a big business in the mid to late 2000s in Detroit, when most of these schools were closed.
The newly cleared bike path. It will be paved, lit, and sodded by summer. Paid for with private funds. 
One of the DPS charter schools along the pedestrian path.
Close up of an old Pontiac.
An abandoned house that has been purchased and sold several times--with the intent to gut and refurbish. It has sat under current ownership for ten years.
The gymnasium of an elementary school near Jefferson Ave. The school had been closed for one and a half years. 
A Catholic church that was built in the fifties in a Polish neighborhood. When the Polish community moved out, the neighborhood was no longer Catholic, and attendance at the church went from 7000 to 500 over a decade. 
    I haven't used my guide's name thus far because he uses many aliases. He explained that he uses an alias partly to remain anonymous and partly because he "deals with a lot of characters in different contexts". He wants the city he's covering to be the focus, not him. He has a lot of clients who want to remain anonymous as well. 
     He said, "It's all about building trust in these towns." 
     We tour a series of schools--elementary, middle, high--and discuss the evolution of school closings over the last several years. One of the first major schools to close was Cass Tech. It was an amazing science and art school--state of the art in its day. A new Cass Tech was built right next door, but they didn't have a plan for the old building. It was left as is--abandoned. Scrapping hadn't become a livelihood in Detroit yet, and so the abandoned Cass Tech sat. Detroiters were really upset that all the equipment, books, etc. were left in the old school. 
     Beyond being unbelievably wasteful, it seemed an unhealthy sign to leave a building that way, a sign that DPS or its school board was corrupt and that corruption was on display. My guide told me that Detroiters hoped that Cass Tech could be reopened as a community center, but after being closed for a few years it was already too damaged, at which point the building became a PR nightmare, a liability, and a reminder of better days in Detroit. As a result, the old Cass Tech was demolished. 
     We walk the old Cass Tech footprint. 
     My guide explains that when it became clear that hundreds more schools would begin closing starting in the late 2000s, a new closing plan was put in place so Cass Tech wouldn't happen again and demolition (expensive) could be avoided in favor of sales. 
      My guide outlines the plan below (taken from my hasty notes): (1) Close schools that have terrible attendance and/or that are too costly to maintain (old). Many of these schools would have an ancient, about-to-bust or busted boiler. (2) Once closed, remove all DPS equipment from the building. Try to sell the building. In the meantime, police guard buildings--DPS police. (3) After six months to a year, guarding by police becomes too expensive, so set up infrared cameras and remove metal (lockers, pipes, wiring). Police drive by. (4) After one/two years, if the building hasn't sold and there is no rebound in the neighborhood, stop patrolling. Inevitably scrappers come in, if they haven't already, and remove all the metal that's left. They leave the building open for the homeless and others. Then the school buildings are essentially abandoned by the city. 
Old cars in a lot.

Police parked at a recently closed school. Decorative metal from the roof is already being pulled.

Renovating for Corktown apartments.
One year vacant elementary school.
Brightmoor community theater.
  Each school we tour is in a different stage of  disrepair. In the best case, the lights/heat still work, and some programs are being run out of a section of the building (usually taken over by a private education entity). These schools have lockers on the walls. Schools that are actually closed, but still have a chance to be purchased or salvaged, have a door open, with all the lockers removed, and no lights, but they're fairly clean, and the windows are mostly intact. The worst cases are schools that have every metal window frame ripped out, drag marks or tiles missing on the floors from pilfered metal, glass everywhere, homeless huts in rooms, and staged metal near doors. If there is too much metal by a door, my guide does not take us inside a building because it means that someone is actively collecting scrap.
     Unfortunately, most of the schools we see in the afternoon are already in bad shape. 
     My guide explains that there are three types of scrap yards in Detroit. We visit all three (I have no photos). There are legitimate yards that require documentation for the scrap collector and their metal. These yards have lots of neatly organized metal that is heavily guarded. There are semi legitimate yards that may not require a collector's full ID, but still require paperwork on their metal. Like anything, this paperwork can be forged. The third type of yard is illegal and usually run out of the back of another business or out of someone's home. Scrappers can bring a stolen metal bust to the door, get pennies on the dollar for it, and the metal will be taken and broken down by the yard owner. In one illegal yard we see a sledge-hammered eagle that my guide says was probably taken off a municipal building. 
     We meet one scrapper who my guide is friends with. The man is an ex con who cannot find enough work to pay his bills, which is why he scraps. The man wears a Lions jersey and heavy workboots.  
     We do not have time to go to any established neighborhoods, of which there are many. We do visit newly opened or reopened schools, housing developments, and some strangely vibrant areas that are not new. Corktown and Brightmoor stand out. 
     Corktown,  an old neighborhood that is being revitalized, is just west of downtown on Michigan Ave. It is the neighborhood where Tiger stadum stood. That's where I went as a kid to watch my favorite Tiger, center fielder Chet Lemon, play baseball. I remember paying $2 for great seats near home plate. The stadium was torn down in late 2000s, but the baseball diamond is still visible behind a fence at the corner of Trumbull Ave. and Michigan Ave. There are new housing developments, bars and restaurants in the area.
      Brightmoor is northwest of downtown. Most of the industrial plants back in the day were right on the water, the Detroit River, obviously polluting. The soil where the plants stood (car manufacturing, tire manufacturing, coal-fired power) is mixed. Some sites are still toxic. The waterfront should be developed, should be where the money is, but building permits have been hard to obtain because of this toxic soil. Clean up has been a slow process, but it is happening. Brightmoor, north, has always been considered on the outskirts of the city and remains underdeveloped. It's now a subsistence farming, artist, and squatter community. There is decent soil there. 
     My guide explains that the way Brightmoor works is, people move in, squat, and if they can hack it for a few years, they've earned their right of passage and they're considered a part of the community. It sounds like this is a really close group of people who live and work together, and keep their patch of community thriving. We pass a few green houses. I note that my car thermometer reads fifteen degrees outside. And we can see tomatoes growing in a hothouse across the road. 
     My guide tells me that Brightmoor still has arson. And that the city doesn't provide services out here. There are maybe three or four houses per city block. There are no operating schools. The children are mostly home-schooled. 
     This seems like a hard community experiment. I look forward to hearing more about the results in the future. 
A garden in Brightmoor.

This is a synagogue that was turned into a baptist church. A common transition. 
A famous training facility for boxers like Joe Louis.

The Brewster projects downtown  which were being demolished when we arrived.

By now the sun is going down. My guide discusses the history of Detroit and the failure of the Chicago model for certain ethnic groups in Detroit. We drive by iconic ruins and works of art in the city, but by the time we get out of the car the sun is gone. My guide keeps us away from the Heidelberg Project, saying it's crap. I don't argue with him.
     I drive us back to the resturant where we first met in the morning. They are busy now. I feel energized. My guide and I shake hands, say a few parting words, and go our separate ways. My head is stuffed full of information, the history of the city mixed in with my own history.

     Returning this Christmas, 2014, I am still processing what I learned last year. Detroit is out of bankruptcy, there is new construction downtown, and public and private funds are pouring in. There is a new rail line going in on Woodward Ave.--M-1 rail--that looks like it should be more useful than the "People Mover" was. But the neighborhoods, schools, and houses of worship I visited last year were in the same state of disrepair. The city is still huge and now it's certainly rangy. 
     Detroit was not cold this year like it was last year. It was wet and foggy. The fog was so thick that I couldn't see the cityscape clearly as I drove through. From the Detroit River, I heard freighters sounding their fog horns as they passed each other in the channel. It's a loud, clear, and close sound, perhaps a distinctly Detroit sound.

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