Saturday, June 28, 2014

Parachuting Into Detroit

A house in Palmer Woods
I parachuted into Detroit on Thursday.

I did not jump out of an airplane and pray for my chute to open before landing in the middle of Navin Field. Instead, I "parachuted in" in the way locals use the phrase to describe visitors (usually members of the media, but sometimes tourists) who swoop into Detroit to take photos of blight. However, I was not in Detroit to take photos of buildings in ruin.

I was briefly in town to take care of some family matters and had a couple of hours to kill. I planned to visit the Detroit Public Library's Main Branch on Woodward, but I still was fuming over yet another out-of-state newspaper, the Washington Post, publishing photos of Detroit's blight (see my rants here and here). The Post's photos of dilapidated Detroit homes made me want to show proof that Detroit has beautiful neighborhoods where people take care of their homes, lawns, and streets.

Since I was heading into the city from the north, I decided to visit Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest, two Detroit neighborhoods between Woodward and Livernois just south of the 8 Mile Road boundary between Detroit and Ferndale. I had driven past these neighborhoods on Woodward when I was younger, but I did not even know they existed. Armed with only the camera on my phone, I drove through these two neighborhoods in awe of some of the most beautiful homes in Metro Detroit.

Palmer Woods. The streets and sidewalks are well-maintained
A beautiful house with a beautiful yard in Palmer Woods

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beating the Washington Post's Dead Horse

Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the editor to the Washington Post about its careless printing of Detroit blight photos. Realizing the Post probably would never publish it, I wrote a separate post for this blog called "Beating Detroit's Dead Horse." 

It has been more than two weeks since the Post published its photos of Detroit, and I am assuming other people who care about Detroit sent letters as well. However, the Washington Post has not published one letter to the editor about its Detroit photos.

Since it does not appear that the Washington Post will be publishing any letters criticizing its handling of the Detroit photos, I wanted to share my letter with my readers. 

Detroit Is More Than Blight

The Post accepted its invitation to the Detroit ruin porn festival about 10 years too late by publishing several photos of Detroit's blight in Detroit’s faded beauty. The pictures themselves, although they are visually stunning, tread the same ground that every hack with a camera covers when they visit Detroit: the Packard Plant, the Michigan Theatre, Fisher Body Plant 21, and abandoned schools, homes, and churches. The photos are not part of a larger story about Detroit. Instead, it appears the Post wants to elicit visceral reactions from readers without adding anything of value to the conversation about Detroit's past or future.  

I guess if a newspaper does not have the initiative to break a story, it can just borrow a tired narrative with the hopes of increasing its readership. They say sex sells, and publishing Detroit ruin porn is the dirtiest and most demeaning sex for Detroiters who are doing a lot of good things to improve their city. Their stories are the news, not retreading worn out ground. Detroit’s blight is well-documented. Put down the camera, and spend time with its people and document the parts of Detroit that are resurging.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Family's Hero

My grandfather in 1954
When our car passed the firehouse, two firemen stood, saluting my hero’s procession as it passed by. At their feet was a fireman’s uniform, with two empty boots and an empty helmet, now waiting forever to be worn again.

I had not known that my Grandpa Walter's funeral procession would pass this firehouse. I had been fighting back tears throughout the day, but the sight of those boots and helmet and the pride of knowing he was a hero to more people than his immediate family overcame me. The funeral procession continued to the cemetery, where we said our goodbyes, but my love and respect for my grandfather has never died.

Having a grandpa who had been a fireman was extremely cool for me as a young boy. I remember his old firefighter helmets and gas mask hanging on the basement wall and how I used to pull them down to play with. As a kid, he was a hero to me for being a firefighter, but when I grew up, I understood he was a hero for many other reasons. 

My grandpa with my aunt
I do not remember my grandpa telling any stories about being a firefighter. Despite serving the Wyandotte Fire Department for three decades, my grandpa was more interested in telling me stories about family, stories about him and grandma when they were younger and stories about my dad, aunts, and uncle. He embellished stories about his athletic endeavors, but he never once embellished stories about his work. My grandpa may have been willing to risk his life for others, but he lived for his family.

At a family party a few years before my grandfather died, I overheard my dad say to my grandfather, "You know, Dad, there's a little bit of you in all these kids here." My dad may or may not have been talking only about DNA, but our grandpa gave us a lot more than DNA.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Beating Detroit's Dead Horse

Detroit is beautiful
Anyone who lives in or near Detroit likely has seen the t-shirts with the slogan “Detroit vs. Everybody” printed on them. This slogan has always bothered me because the optimist in me thinks that the ideal slogan should be “Everyone with Detroit.” Then again, it’s not hard to understand the combative sentiment when the media has spent 15 years attacking the city’s image, as the Washington Post recently did with an “article” that featured unoriginal pictures of Detroit’s blight.

The ignorant comments from readers on the Post’s Facebook page and website are a sad commentary on the views that many Americans have towards Detroit. Unfortunately, many of these views are probably the result of years of negative images and stories about the city. How many times do we have to see pictures of the Packard Plant or Michigan Central Station to know they are abandoned? Yes, Detroit has problems, but stop beating us over the head with them. It's not all. Detroit's blight stopped being news long ago. 

Show these businesses or one of Detroit's thriving neighborhoods instead of abandoned houses
So thank you, Washington Post, and every other media outlet that has beaten Detroit's dead horse for 15 years, for creating viewpoints like the following from the Post's website and Facebook page:

The Political/Racial Blame Game Comments

“Detroit should be so proud it voted for Democrats.”

Another reader's direct response to the above: “It sure should, realizing how much worse off it would be under a Republican administration.”

At this point, blight photos no longer tell us anything new about Detroit, but they do allow Americans to play the blame game that we too often turn to when we do not have the answers. If something goes wrong, dig your feet in and blame the other side. Americans have become really good at pointing fingers, except when it comes to pointing them at themselves. 

“Headlines should read...‘The over demands of government Promises have collapsed the City’”

Or maybe the headlines should read: “More Detroit ruin porn elicits ignorant comments from people who’ve never set foot in the city.”

“No big deal---with all the union and minority votes in detroit, barack and the congressional black caucus will get the us government to bail out detroit with huge money---at least 100 billion---it's a matter of time.”

At least this racist is optimistic that Detroit’s blight is not a big deal. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Words of Wisdom From Detroit's Past

"Detroit did not have to be. Detroit is–despite every obstacle that had been thrown into its path." -Malcolm W. Bingay, Detroit Is My Own Hometown

When I visited Detroit's John K. King Books in October, I stumbled upon Detroit Is My Own Hometown. Published in 1946, the book is a collection of tales by former Detroit News and Detroit Free Press editor Malcom Bingay. The book is not really a history of Detroit or a memoir. Instead, the book reads as if someone recorded Bingay over many nights as he told stories of Detroit's most famous historical characters.

Although Bingay's writing style often feels dated, especially some racially prejudiced comments indicative of his era, he writes with an unabashed pride about the politicians, business leaders, and sports figures who helped make Detroit a metropolis that other cities envied. 

His stories include Detroit's contribution to the war efforts in both World Wars, the founding of all the major automotive companies, political corruption and race riots long before the 1960s, the founding of the University of Michigan, and the construction of many of Detroit's monuments and buildings. Serious sports fans should read Chapters 12 through 15 about the Detroit Tigers' early history, including the Tigers and Chicago Cubs players likely colluding to tie game one of the 1907 World Series so that they could earn more money from gate receipts.

In the end, the book is Bingay's love letter to Detroit. His predictions of a prosperous, late 20th century Detroit turned out to be wrong, but that does not mean that his predictions cannot be realized in our near future. Several quotes from Bingay's book are inspirational reminders of what Detroit always has been and what it can still be:

A little failure in Detroit is OK, so long as we learn from it.

"Men can be trained to be inventors by the simple process of telling them that it is not a disgrace to fail. In research work there is no such thing as failure in the accepted sense of the word. If an inventor does not get what he is after by one experiment he has not failed; he has made progress." -Charles F. Kettering of General Motors

True Detroiters are not afraid of a struggle.

"The true Detroiter accepts conflict as naturally as he accepts milk from his mother's breast. It is part of his life. He yields his opinions to no man's persuasion. The pioneer cast of countenance is upon him." -Bingay

Detroit should continue to welcome new ideas today.

"The people will climb out of their troubles on a ladder of new ideas." -Kettering

Detroit Public Library. Photo by Jason Mrachina

Spend time in the city to feel its spirit. Don't just parachute in and take pictures of blight.

"There is a stability and a strength of character in the town that gives it the undertone of which you speak. Detroit is full of thoughtful, serious-minded citizens....Hang around here long enough to meet the folks, and you'll begin to understand. You cannot learn the real spirit of Detroit by just stopping off between trains." -Bingay

Detroit Riverfront. Photo by Brian Mulloy

Always carry Detroit in your heart.

"The man who does not carry his city in his heart is a spiritual starveling." -Fr. Gabriel Richard

Detroit has always been more than the auto industry.

"Detroit was a city with a soul, an identity carved and shaped from a heroic heritage, long before the honk of the motor horn was heard on any hill." -Bingay

An oath of office needs to mean something.

"I took an oath of office. You know what I mean? An oath! That means something to me. I have not reached the age of fifty to begin breaking my word. I'm the mayor. It's my job to protect the interests of the people the best way I can." -Mayor Hazen S. Pingree (Explaining why he ignored the wishes of his financial backers to do what was best for the people of Detroit).

Detroit has been through bad times before. It will arise.

"Blow after blow has has rained upon this city throughout its history and always it has arisen from its ashes–cleaner and finer and better because it has conquered adversity." -Bingay

Honor Detroit's past by building a better tomorrow. It is home, after all.

"This is our home: Detroit. Our beloved ones are buried in its soil. Our children sprang from it. We are soil of this soil. Our streets are touched with sacred memories and traditions. Our dreams of a finer life to come are a hallowed heritage. As was written on the seal of the city when we were in ashes: 'We hope for better days.'" -Bingay