I recently visited Detroit, to see where parts of my biological family (I am adopted) once lived. I previously reported on what I had discovered about the neighborhood where my grandparents once called home, in west Detroit, on Stout Street, not far from River Rouge Park. Using historical snapshots with Google Maps street view between 2007 and 2013, I learned that the old house that my grandparents called home for decades up until the mid-1960s had fallen into decay, like literally tens of thousands of other abandoned homes in the Motor City. My grandparents left Detroit for the suburbs in 1968. That was a year after the devastating riots that marked a turning point moment in Detroit’s recent history defined by economic decline, white flight, and population loss that outpaces any similar decline experienced by any major American city.
On my return visit in September 2015, I found the spot where the house used to stand. It is now a cleared lot, on property now owned by the Detroit Land Bank public authority, which manages the thousands of distressed properties in the 139-square-mile city. Based on photographs I saw on Google Maps street view, the tearing down of the house and its neighboring homes was inevitable. Arson and looting was visible in feral houses still on the street, across from the now closed Kosciusko Elementary School, itself an abandoned property and among dozens of public schools now vacated and being gutted by scrappers citywide.
I took a look inside one of remaining burned and abandoned homes on the block. It is a cookie-cutter house, built for the emerging lower-middle class of Detroit in its industrial heyday. Tract houses like this run for blocks in all directions, either of wood or brick construction. It was disturbing to see what was once a home where families once lived in such a state of destruction, brought on by economic decline. There were still spices in the kitchen cabinet, along with a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup. About a quarter of a century earlier, when I first saw this street, it was still a home for the people who lived there. They, like my grandparents, had left too.
This was the small piece of real-estate where my family’s story intersected that the bigger narrative of decline that has proven stubbornly hard to turn around. And now there is no trace of that history to be found except a cleared lot.