You have found the detroitblog. This is about my wanderings and debaucheries in Detroit, as well as observations, news, commentary and ramblings about the city itself. I love Detroit, even the old Detroit of blight, waste and emptiness. Hockeytown. Motown. I grew up here, had my best times here. It's my town.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Today's Scan of the Week was prepared for your viewing pleasure last week. I'm on vacation this week, and so I prepared this one ahead of time, Mitch Albom-style.

Like a lot of artifacts posted here, it has several levels of history connected to it. It's a glossy ad from the magazine "The Detroiter" dated October 1974, a relic found in a filthy pile of papers in the Motown (Donovan) Building at Woodward and I-75, in a room filled with pigeons and pigeon droppings. The address label indicates it was mailed to "Mrs. Esther G. Edwards, Senior Vice President, Motown Record Corporation." Mrs. Edwards was Berry Gordy's sister, demonstrating once again that even after the move to the Donovan Building, the Motown Corporation remained a relatively small, tight-knit community.

The ad is for Channel 7's newscast, featuring its All-Star Ensemble. First and foremost, of course, is notorious Detroit anchorman Bill Bonds, sporting a helmet of hair that may or may not have contained some hair that actually grew from his head at the time. It also features a liver that did a pretty good job in those days of making him look relatively energetic and alive, before the bottle took its toll and he began doing things like drunkenly and spontaneously challenging Mayor Coleman Young to on-air boxing matches. Now that was good local news!

The ad also features John Kelly and Marilyn Turner, who eventually married and went on to host Kelly and Company, a strange homegrown morning show that was sort of like a mellow version of Regis and Kelly, featuring all sorts of odd nobodys as guests and Kelly's strange, omnipresent smile. Rounding out the quintet is "gutsy sports guy" Al Ackerman, completing Channel 7's "We got who you wanted" newsteam, which ruled the airwaves in an era when those reporting the news were as colorful and unpredictable as the news itself.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Detroit Screw Works warehouse on Atwater near the river got torn down this weekend, as did the already crumbling Ambassador Steel shell next to it, most likely as part of the whole cleaning of Detroit before the Superbowl. A brief historical recap of the two structures here.


Speaking of the Superbowl, what better advance publicity than to have a national magazine like Time name the city's mayor one of the worst in the country. Keep up the good work, Kwame!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The huge mural of Steve Yzerman on the Cadillac Towers has been replaced by a moving, meaningful, Yoko Ono-esque white blankness:

The mural that inspired Red Wings fans to keep hope alive is coming down, and it may be a new game of wait and see to find out who, if anyone, is going up.

The 170-by-100-foot wall mural of Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman that graced the side of the Cadillac Tower building for two years is slowly being covered with plain white paint.

The Yzerman mural was unique in that few, if any, American cities paid such tribute to hockey. Cities all over the country have football and basketball stars on billboards and murals, but having a hockey player glaring down at Campus Martius was a uniquely Detroit thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The City finally bought out the last of the riverfront-marring cement silos, paving the way, so to speak, for a full beautification effort.

City of Detroit representatives signed a $23-million deal Monday to buy out Cemex, the third and final cement plant operating on Detroit's east riverfront. The deal removes one of the last big obstacles to completion of the city's hoped-for riverfront revival.

Detroit's the only major city that had a basically utilitarian riverfront containing ugly, industrial structures. Out-of-towners who look at the skyline from Belle Isle or Canada always scratch their heads and ask me what's this or what's that, usually pointing to the cement silos or the large tracts of land that are empty brownfields. This purchase is another step in rectifying that problem and prettying things up along there.


Now to Tuesday's other news:

Today's the day that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick delivers his supposedly tough budget to the City Council, but as the Freep previews it, contrary to Kwame's ominous tone earlier this week, there's a whole lotta smoke and not much fire.

{The budget} calls for eliminating the Culture, Arts & Tourism department along with operating subsidies for the zoo and the historical museums. The zoo had been expecting about $3.2 million from the city in fiscal 2005-06, or 16 percent of its $20-million annual budget. Detroit Historical Museums, which operates the Detroit Historical Museum, Dossin Great Lakes Museum and Historic Ft. Wayne, was expecting $2.8 million, or 64 percent of its $4.4-million budget. The city closed the Belle Isle Aquarium last week.

Again, too little, too late. $3.2 million, $2.8 million and $4.4 million, totaling $10.4 million, barely dent the $231 million (and growing) deficit the city faces. He's again paring the cultural and historical parts of the budget while leaving the meat and fat intact. And why does he want to privatize the funding of the DIA and the Historical Museum but not the Belle Isle Zoo and the aquarium?

The Freep also brings data that reinforces the point that everyone with a grasp of math knows:

Then the team studied other cities with populations between 640,000 and 1 million people. They found that Detroit had more separate departments than any of them -- 42, versus 20 in San Jose, Calif., 10 in Columbus, Ohio, 13 in Baltimore and only 5 in Indianapolis.

Detroit's ratio of municipal employees to total population was 1 employee per 53 residents. That's higher than most, but not all, similarly sized cities. Indianapolis has only 1 employee per 192 residents and San Jose 1 per every 132 residents, but San Francisco -- with 781,682 residents and 26,658 employees -- has a ratio of 1 city worker per 28 residents. Baltimore and San Francisco each include public schools as part of city government.

The city has a government for a 1.5 million person population that serves a city of 900,000. It has to be cut. This budget contains no hard numbers for cutting a significant number of those jobs in the near future, and thus, it is another failure.

Kwame could've saved the city from its curent budget woes by making the hard choices early on in his term. He at least could've played catch-up and done so now. It likely would've killed his reelection chances once the municipal employee unions went berserk but he would've earned great respect historically by being the one to do the right thing. Instead, once again, we get half-measures, window dressing and nothing to show for it other than putting the city's cultural institutions on precarious financial footing while the rest of the budget remains out of control. Now that's leadership!

Friday, April 08, 2005

The End

The Belle Isle Aquarium is now closed for good, after staying open through two World Wars, two full-fledged riots, the loss of half the population, recessions and a depression, 22 mayors, and the ghettoization of a once-thriving city. But it couldn't survive Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Now, faced with an ballooning budget deficit that's setting the stage for a state takeover of the city's finances, Kwame closed the aquarium, taking its $700,000 annual cost in order to shave a sliver off the city's $231 million budget deficit. Other questionable costs, such as his 21 bodyguards, remain in the budget. Maybe families can now come downtown and enjoy the sight of them rather than rare fish in the now-defunct aquarium, or the sights and sounds at the Belle Isle zoo, which Kwame also closed to try alleviating a similar fiscal problem a few years back.

The city's budget deficit, though compounded by a bad state economy, cuts in state shared revenue, further loss of city population (and thus tax revenue), is primarily the result of the fiscal insanity that's reigned for decades in the city among not only mayors and council members but also municipal unions and their members. That madness has been apparent for years, as has the solution — drastically cut the city's workforce and budget to match the drastically reduced population, privatize as much as possible out of sheer necessity, and end the lush perks for city officials (Lincoln Navigators, bodyguards, staff for dead council members, money for frivolous Africantown studies), or else the city will be taken over. It's as simple and stark as that. Yet to this day, nobody is willing to stop the madness.

The annual budget of the aquarium was a pittance compared with the rest of the budget, yet rather than make the necessary tough cuts in the budget and the workforce, Kwame killed one of the smallest and weakest members of the city's cultural heritage, one that didn't really have the clout or the finances to fight back. Cultural bright spots like the aquarium, or the zoo, are gone forever, yet the budget crisis has worsened each year of his term. Eliminating these treasures had no impact whatsoever on the ever-worsening budget situation. Their loss was ultimately pointless, and thus tragic.

The budget crisis will eventually be solved one way or another, by the city or by those who take over the city. At some point in the future the city's finances will be in order, and people will then wonder why someone chose to close the aquarium as a short-term, shortsighted fix. But then it will be too late.

For years Detroit has, quite frankly, been a decaying city with isolated pockets of beauty, islands of culture that sustain the life of the city, keeping it from being one giant disappointment. These are the very things that keep people in the city instead of fleeing to a safer yet duller suburb. Yet in the face of unrelenting population flight, Kwame kills those very attractions. They were like little flowers that stubbornly thrived amidst surrounding weeds.

It's a sad day for the city, not just for the closing of the aquarium itself, but because of what it represents — the loss of yet another jewel in the city, special not only in itself but for the long history it represented, the continuing link to a vanished past. The same aquarium that I walked through countless times is the exact same one that people who lived and died decades before I was born walked through. It was a chain linking generations, a continuum shared by perhaps millions of different people. No more.

To compensate for the aquarium's loss, Kwame promised a new $100 million aquarium on the riverfront. Where money will come from for another aquarium at the same time the thoroughly broke city cuts essential services, like bus routes, is not addressed. But he misses the point — it's not about replacing fish, anymore than the Hilton Garden Inn's presence makes it now OK to tear down the Book Cadillac Hotel, since one set of hotel rooms has been substituted for another. It was about history, tradition and culture, concepts perhaps too abstruse for Mayor Hip-Hop to comprehend.

Ultimately, it's another loss in a battle between those who want to preserve what remains of the city's culture and those who don't even understand the importance of culture. The people who close a century-old aquarium but promise future fish tanks are, figuratively speaking, the same people who tore down Little Harry's to make way for an IHOP, the same people who want to replace the Madison Lenox Hotel with a parking lot, the same people who tear down historic mansions and replace them with cheaply constructed condos. Their ignorance and dismissal of history and culture makes them disapponting and ironic caretakers of history and culture. Unfortunately, the rest of us are forced to suffer because of their crude ignorance. And, as has happened so many times before, the city is now a little less than it was.

So, as befits something once loved and now gone, an obituary:

The Belle Isle Aquarium was designed by architect Albert Kahn and opened in 1904 at the intersection of Inselrue Avenue and Loiter Way across from the Greenhouse, situated just next to the Conservatory. It was North America's oldest continuously operating aquarium.

At the time of its closing, the Aquarium featured 60 exhibits with a total capacity of 32,000 gallons of water. It was home to 1,500 individual animals belonging to 146 species of both freshwater and saltwater fish. Of these species, 18 are officially listed as endangered, threatened, or already extinct in the wild, including Charco La Palma pupfish, desert pupfish, green goodeids, blue-tailed goodeids, golden skiffia and Lake Victoria mouthbrooders.

It also featured many native Detroit River species such as trout, bass, pike, perch and walleye.

The Aquarium is most famous outside of Michigan for successfully breeding and rearing freshwater stingrays, including the dwarf, checkerboard and occelated species. The most notable success was with the occelated stingray, which had been raised through three generations. Offspring of dwarf stingrays from the Belle Isle Aquarium had been distributed to more than a dozen institutions throughout the United States. Two of those institutions have also produced captive-born offspring using the Belle Isle Aquarium's technique. In fact, the Aquarium earned the prestigious Zoo and Aquarium Bean Award in 1976, 1980 and 1985 for its success.

In 2002, the Aquarium hosted the surprise birth of two white-spotted bamboo sharks.

But over the years, attendance declined significantly. In 1995, the aquarium had 113,000 visitors. By 2004, that had fallen to 56,000, though word of its demise recently brought hour-long waits in lines that snaked back to the Conservatory, bringing people downtown who might have discovered too late that there really was nothing to fear by coming into Detroit. By April 3, the aquarium had its doors shut forever.

And so we have an island with one less attraction, in a city that has lost far too many of its attractions over the years. Like so many parts of the city, where once stood a living part of the city's historical fabric is now yet another abandoned building in a city with too many of them already. That, along with nothing more noble than strippers, scandals, and a probable receivership, will ultimately be Kwame Kilpatrick's legacy.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

When a citizen gets something stolen, they go to the police. When the Detroit Police find something is stolen, they go to the public and ask them, in effect, to be police for the police:

Detroit police officials are searching for a 2001 black Crown Victoria that may have been used in a Friday robbery.
Cops are paying special attention to this case: The missing vehicle is an unmarked police car.
Police spokesman James Tate said the vehicle, with the license plate 580X24, disappeared between March 16 and March 21 from its parking spot at Beaubien and Macomb -- outside of Police Department headquarters.
Police did not make the theft public until Monday, Tate said, so as not to alarm people.
Police are asking residents to call 313-596-2200 if they spot the vehicle.

A better term than "alarm" is "inform." As in, inform the public that a fake cop was on the loose. Nice to know that the police, thinking an unmarked car is stolen, allowed the perpetrator a two-week free ride before notifying the public to be on the lookout.

Police then told the public not to pull over for unmarked cars, and told undercover cops to wear uniforms, thus making them, well, no longer undercover. In addition, unmarked cars weren't to be heeded unless they were accompanied by marked cars, essentially wasting two cop cars when only one is necessary.

But just today:

Detroit police found an unmarked police car that had been missing since Friday, Local 4 reported.
The black, four-door Crown Victoria was reported missing during an inventory check on Friday, but was found Tuesday in another Detroit Police Department lot.
Police said the vehicle was never stolen, but was just unaccounted for.

Good to find out they still have such a strong system of inventory control. Who can, I ask, ever question the smarts, the crime-fighting savvy, of the Detroit Police? Certainly not I. Keep up the splendid work!

Friday, April 01, 2005

This Old House

I’ve gradually become preoccupied with a century-old rowhouse just outside of Midtown, something that I've passed hundreds of times over the years but never really paid much attention to, until the neighborhood surrounding it began to incorporate new development, causing the old parts of the area to start standing out in contrast.

It wraps itself around the southwest corner of Beaubien and Harper, in what’s left of a neighborhood known as Medbury Park. Its multicolor exterior is nearly invisible in the summer, having been abandoned for a couple decades now and thus surrounded by hundreds of small, random trees that, when in full bloom, obscure it in a wall of vegetation.

It sits slowly crumbling, perhaps waiting to be the next victim of “accidental” fire in the neighborhood, like many abandoned structures that stubbornly remain present in areas of the city that developers are waiting to add to. Similar rowhouses, built only six years later, are right next door on Beaubien, amazingly still occupied and in only slightly better shape.

I began photographing the strange rowhouse on the corner a while back, and checked back occasionally, finally going inside and exploring what was left of it despite collapsing walls, gaping holes in wood floors and major structural disintegration. I even headed over to the Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library, sifted through phone books and articles to gather names and facts, and tried to form a sense of life in an evolving neighborhood that, like so many parts of the city, lived its own unique, separate life while still being part of the greater whole of Detroit.

In 1903, whe the row houses were built on a vacant lot at Harper and Beaubien, the neighborhood surrounding it was almost entirely residential. Even Woodward a couple blocks west was lined only with trees and homes this far north of downtown. On Beaubien south of Medbury, between Frederick and Hendrie, the land was undeveloped grassy fields stetching for blocks.

One block away from the rowhouse, on Medbury (a street mostly plowed over in the 1950s to make room for I-94), were a number of medium-sized apartment buildings with names like Win-Rose, Riddell and Art Apartments, with small houses situated between them. The residents mostly had Irish and English names, like one of the new corner rowhouse’s first residents, a man by the name of Harry Potter, of all things.

In the early 1900s, Harry Potter would’ve exited his new, relatively inexpensive brick-and-wood home, the leftmost of the rowhouses but also the one that received the most sunlight, since most of his back windows faced south, and headed up Beaubien to Finn’s Saloon, where neighbors like Loretta O’Leary and Edward Dennie, also new residents of the rowhouse, might be found. On a nice day he could take head back, past his home and continue on a stroll south on Beaubien, past Medbury and Hendrie, walking through large, grassy fields. In fact, not until he reached Palmer did he encounter another person, Frank Calkins, who lived surrounded by empty land.

The relative quiet of the neighborhood didn’t last long, however. Just one year after the rowhouse was finished, Henry Ford opened his new automobile plant on the corner of Beaubien and Piquette, right up the street from Harry Potter’s home. The presence of this plant drew to the area hundreds of people seeking work, and new housing sprang up to accommodate their wishes to live near their jobs.

Almost overnight, the neighborhood changed, not only in density but in its population characteristics. Jewish Detroiters began moving northward, and suddenly the neighborhood wasn’t as homogenous as it had been. A crowded Jewish neighborhood ran along Beaubien on either side of the rowhouse, and the space on the streets alternated between housing and Jewish businesses. Near Medbury was local tailor Oscar Levenstein. Albert Shapiro’s hardware store soon opened on the same block. Eli Butkovsky had a home nestled between a barber shop and Regent Dry Cleaner. Two doors down was Sam Goldstick’s glove shop. Samuel Shusen ran a shoe-repair business around the corner on Harper, just across from the westernmost end of the rowhouse. Suddenly the neighborhood was thriving.

The biggest store was Koenig’s Grocery, a two-part building, with one half devoted to groceries and the other containing dry goods. Owner William Koenig walked to his store every workday from his home just around the corner, on Harper near St. Antoine.

Harry Potter didn’t stay in the area for long. His place in the rowhouse was taken by a succession of tenants, most of whom stayed only a year or two. The area remained a mix of Jewish and Anglo residents for a while, until blacks from the south began migrating northward in great numbers, seeking employment in the burgeoning auto industry. Suddenly the neighborhood was populated by people with names like Clurid Wiford, Rhoda Congleton, Alwin Rhodes and Claude Freeman.

At one point during the transition, compounded by the Great Depression, many of the homes in the neighborhood lay vacant. In fact, in 1934, 15 of the 33 housing units on Harper between St. Antoine and Beaubien were vacant. The entire row house was vacant that year. But within a few years, the neighborhood filled up again, this time mostly with Southern blacks spreading out from nearby, overcrowded Black Bottom. One of the new arrivals moved into the middle home in the rowhouse in the mid-30s. His name was, amazingly, Roosevelt Christmas. More on him later.

The neighborhood again changed to meet the needs, and reflect the presence, of the new residents. While many of the old Jewish businesses remained, black churches began springing up throughout the area. The Medbury Park that Roosevelt Christmas lived in was far different than the one inhabited by Harry Potter only a few decades earlier.

Just south of the rowhouse on Beaubien, the St. Paul Spiritual Temple opened its doors. Two blocks north, the Goodwill Baptist Church opened. New businesses also arrived. Marcus Samuel’s Billiards Hall opened across from the church, which was next to the newly opened Apex Beauty Shop. Harris Brothers Soft Drinks was just down the street, near Piquette. Snapp Brothers Barbershop gave workers haircuts near the Fisher Body plant. The shop where Percy Ishie had once cut hair, at 6020 Beaubien, had been taken over by Stafford and Owen, barbers. The store that had for years supplied the neighborhood with a large variety of food, Koenig Grocery, now became Goodwill Baptist Church.

Many of the old residents remained, despite the changes. Otto Hatzenbuhler, a longtime resident, did freelance plumbing in the neighborhood. Loretta O’Leary’s home in the rowhouse, the one currently painted green, was handed down to Julie O’Leary, who remained there through the 40s. Samuel Feldman’s tailor shop and Simon Zusen’s shoe repair (he had changed the spelling of his surname from “Shusen” recently), both remained past World War II.

By the 50s, though, the old neighborhood businesses had all moved or closed, replaced by a different strata of shops. The neighborhood had filled with electric-supply stores, with no less than five in a three-block area around the row house. A sweets shop, called Gay Confectionary, opened just a few houses down across the street from the row house. Most of the old neighbors had moved on, the Jewish residents moving westward and north, and the first and second wave of southern blacks moving to different parts of the city. Only Florence, Otto’s wife, lived in the Hatzenbuhler house on Harper, Otto having died a few years back.

A new wave of residents replaced them. Gus Banks moved into the corner row house on Harper, at 434, a home he lived in for the next 30 years until his death. Next door, at 452 and 456, in a two-family duplex built in 1907 (seen at left), Mrs. Gertrude Sharpe and Mrs. Beulah Dixon each moved in to their own apartment and lived there until the early 70s. Mrs. Jessie Ware moved to the Beaubien side of the rowhouse, and too stayed until the 1970s.

The area had become thoroughly ghetto by the early 70s. Detroit was spiraling downward economically and becoming the murder capital of the country. Medbury Park was hit particularly hard. Mrs. Jessie Ware, living in a crumbling old rowhouse, was surrounded by increasing poverty, pollution, and blight. Dry Cleaners replaced electric supply companies, most of which closed, and cheap services like shoe shine parlors took over from manufacturing and sales.

No building housed the same business for long. The shoe shine parlor was still there, but changed its name from Linn’s to Daniel’s, having now been a shoe shine parlor half its life, after being Bucher's barber shop until the 50s. Gay Confectionery became, simply, Eastside Confectionary. and Sanders Pool Room became Le-Bett Cleaners, adding yet another dry cleaning business to the area. The M&J Good Deal Cleaners was two doors down, between Jessie Ware’s house and the rowhouse. Audrey’s restaurant opened, providing low-cost diner food. Between them were storefronts that were vacant for longer and longer periods of time. One of the few steady businesses was Dixon's Barbershop, on Beaubien.

The neighborhood fell to pieces through the 70s and 80s, as house after house became abandoned and the remaining occupied structures grew more rickety and dilapidated. By the 90s the Oakland Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, on Harper (why they didn’t call it the Harper Avenue Missionary Church is anyone’s guess) formed a nonprofit corporation, the Genesis Community Development Corp. to help rebuild the neighborhood around the church. The group received a federal grant to rehab houses in the area, but few in the area were preservable. The project took years to commence and complete, but by 2002 the $14-million, 89-unit complex was complete, bringing yet another new wave of residents to Medbury Park, over a century after it was first settled.


But my mind kept coming back to Roosevelt Christmas, whose part of the rowhouse is pictured at right. At first it was just the appeal of his name, the curious, almost magical quality to it, like a character in a children’s story. That’s not to belittle the man for his name; though it sounds strange to the modern ear, such names that incorporated names of presidents and other historical figures, as well as common words like Hope, Freeman and Holiday, were common among blacks after slavery ended and they were free to choose names for their children that were not slaveholders' names.

He became to me an interesting example of the blacks who came to Detroit from the Deep South, and I began to imagine that his experience was probably not terribly different than other similar newcomers. Using what little info that was out there, I could sort of piece together a sense of his life.

Roosevelt Christmas made the trip north in 1923, lured by the expansion of the city and the seemingly endless supply of jobs. He found his first Detroit apartment at 5766 Palmer, supporting himself as a painter. But he found steadier employment by learning more skills, and advertised himself as a general laborer through the 1920s. By the time the Great Depression hit, Roosevelt had met a woman, Mary Emma, and married her in 1932. The couple moved to a home at 1522 Jay. As the depression ground on the couple moved back near the old Medbury Park neighborhood, finding a small room at 1014 Hendrie in apartment 12. In 1936 they moved to the strange rowhouse, occupying the third one from the end, just near the corner of Beaubien and Harper.

After World War II the economy picked up and Christmas had learned a valuable trade in the Motor City – auto mechanic, a job that became a career until he retired just after his wife died in the mid-1960s. He lived out his remaining years in a house the couple bought after the war, a single-family home located on Harmon between John R and Brush, until he died in the early 1970s. The house gradually deteriorated and it too, like his residences on Palmer and Hendrie, no longer exists.

Only the rowhouse still stands, though it's slanting dangerously in various directions, and sits next to a house recently torched, never a sign of a good future. Abandoned cars are scattered throughout the backyard, which is enclosed by an ancient wood fence blocking much of the view from the street. Stray dogs roam through the house and yard, leaving tracks when there's snow. And one of the last remnants of a once-vibrant neighborhood waits to sink back into invisibility beneath new green leaves soon to be ushered in by spring.

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