Detroit Documentary Photography

And now the house is gone, too

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.

This picture is taken from a Google Maps street view, for the purposes of editorial comment.

The Stout home in 2013; this picture is taken from a Google Maps street view, for the purposes of editorial comment.

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.

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Thousands of them a year, bro

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, has provided one of the most painful descriptions of nihilistic self-destruction I have ever read. It is a brutally honest dissection of Detroit. While working as a reporter for the Detroit News, he became close to a company of the city’s beleaguered firefighters, who have battled literally thousands of fires intentionally set by criminal arsonists throughout the metro area. LeDuff shared this comment from one of the firefighters who is asked to do the near impossible–save a city the residents are intentionally burning down.

“In this town, arson is off the hook. Thousands of them a year, bro,” the firefighter told LeDuff. “In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the fucking porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ‘cause it’s fucking entertainment. It’s unbelievable. And the old lady living next door, she don’t have no insurance, and her house goes up in flames and she’s homeless and another fucking block dies.”

In my entire life, during which I have visited dozens of countries, I have not witnessed anything as bizarre as this. I have seen worse than this, and things vastly more evil than this. But the utter pointlessness of this chaos, besides pure anger and loss of meaning, seem overwhelming. And people live with this, next to his, surrounded by this, engulfed by this. For those of you out there who may snicker and even enjoy this, take heed. LeDuff and many other chroniclers of the downfall of the American middle-class in cities like Detroit have a message for you. Detroit is not the past. Detroit is the future, coming to a place near you, and quicker than you think.

Most of these crime scenes are in what used to be called the Delray neighborhood, near Dearborn and Jefferson, by Zug Island. Hard to imagine that people still make the best of it here. It is home to someone. I often wonder what Canadians just across the Detroit River may have thought seeing flames, if they could see the smoke amid the heavy industry that surrounds this former Hungarian-American enclave. This is now called a “ghost town” within a city.