Back to where it all began, in Detroit

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Last month, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I was born here and lived in the city less than a year. My family moved to Boston and later to St. Louis. Despite that short period of time, I am forever connected to the Motor City. I was, quite literally, made in Detroit.

I also was relinquished for adoption in Detroit, a topic that I explore in my new memoir on the American adoption experience. More specifically, I was born in Crittenton General Hospital, a facility that was created to serve single mothers in 1929. By the 1940s it had transformed into a maternity hospital that promoted adoption as the most suitable plan for single mothers. Like thousands of other babies born at the hospital, I was surrendered to an adoption agency, placed in foster care, and eventually adopted by my family.

Crittenton General Hospital opened in 1929 to serve the maternal health needs of mostly single women.

My birthplace was torn down in 1975. I examine the legacy of my birth place on the website for my book. The hospital location in central Detroit, a few blocks off of the John Lodge Freeway in central Detroit, is now the location of the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home. There is no memorial or marking indicating the building that stood on the property for decades earlier, serving literally thousands of patients, mostly mothers and infants. If a person did not know the story of the hospital and its role in promoting adoption, they would never know the history of this place.

The surrounding area today shows the economic distress that still is prevalent throughout greater Detroit. Some homes are kept tidy, while many others, as well as apartments, are showing decay.

I wrote about my feelings returning to the place where I came into this world more than five decades ago. I felt a mixture of exuberance and also sadness seeing the place on earth when I came into being.

One cannot undo one’s past. It is the foundation upon which one build’s an identity and place in the world. I am glad I have reconnected with my roots after all of these years.



Travels through Trump country in 2015

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In September 2015, I travelled through the heart of the country that swung the Electoral College vote to Republican Donald Trump, giving him the presidency without a 50 percent majority and even behind Democrat Hillary Clinton. My trip had nothing to do with politics. It was about my past and my history, not the future of the country. But the trip was illuminating. I drove through some cities that once formed the bedrock of our industrial economy: Detroit, Toledo, the Ohio River petrochemical corridor, Canton, Akron, Cleveland, and Sandusky.

Even though I didn’t spend time to explore all of those communities, it was easy to spot the remnants of the industrial past that has dramatically downsized in the last 30 years from globalization, mechanization, and trade policies. These have lead 4.5 million manufacturing jobs to leave the United States since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994. Detroit, of course, stood out, as the nation’s great symbol of industrial dislocation, which began long before NAFTA was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I could not believe how far this area had fallen, and all without any meaningful attention from our two major parties and the nation. The new economy means these were the losers, and nobody in power likes losers.

So when the Trump tornado rolled onto the national stage in 2015, and promised to make them winners, I knew that he would find fertile ground in Ohio and Michigan. I knew that instinctively, simply because I had done a drive by. Why was I, as an outsider, able to see this and those in power and leading a national campaign not aware of what would happen on election day. (See my essay on that topic.)

Where I live in Portland, the Multnomah County Library twice rejected my proposal to host a presentation I offered on these issues through the prism of Detroit. I think the Library failed to do its job as the place for civic discourse because my show would make Detroit look bad (news flash, it is in crisis and has been for decades) and because economic dislocation in the Midwest means little to the nation and especially to those on the West Coast. There is a progressive bubble out on the West Coast that is completely disconnected from the gritty, nasty world that exists in the rest of the country, and even in rural counties in the Northwest.

One of the most chilling takeaways from me was the poverty I saw everywhere in Appalachia in southern Ohio, from Chilicothe, to Waverly, to New Boston –areas that are both economically distressed and hard hit by opioid addiction.  On the Ohio side of the river, I saw more than a handful of Confederate flags hanging in windows of homes and on the back of vehicles. This was an area ready and ripe for a messenger, who claimed he would make America great again and bring back jobs. On election day, when I saw the results come in, I already knew how Ohio and Michigan would fall in the Trump column for electoral votes. I had seen the vote outcome with my own eyes a year earlier.

Revisiting an abandoned Detroit public school

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A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public schools by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my I Wonder and Wander policy blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

The house on Stout Street

Relatives of mine lived on Stout Street, in northwest Detroit. It was once a middle-class neighborhood for working-class families. Now it has gone to hell. I have profiled the decay on this block before. I wanted to share how it looks with this short video. It still makes me want to cry every time I see it, because every house that used to be here is a story of lives come and now gone.

The footage was taken in September 2015.


Fisher Auto Body Plant, Detroit

Just off Interstates 94 and 75, north of downtown Detroit, at St. Antoine and Piquette and Harper, stands the abandoned and crumbling Fisher Auto Body 21 plant. It closed in the 1982. It used to produce auto bodies for GM, then limos and ambulances, before finally shutting its doors. Its design was not compatible with auto manufacturing needs, and the industry had long changed, moving to single story, vast production plants, located throughout the country.

The plant has frequently appeared on blogs celebrating the industrial decay of Detroit, of which I would have to count this web site among them, except I am not celebrating massive economic de-industrialization in the Motor City. I found this on my own, just driving. The plant stood out prominently, and I circled back to it once I left the freeway. It was completely surreal to see it, standing next to apartment buildings still being used and across the street from functioning businesses and a warehouse. No one in those buildings coming and going seemed to look or notice the structure, as it had become part of their environment. I saw a couple of guys hanging out there, and decided they were either security or perhaps folks I didn’t want to meet with a lot of camera equipment. Scores of photographers have been here before me, and will come after me, and you can see the wreckage in very accurate detail on Google Street View.

For many, it is just another eyesore and reminder of what was, and also a visible icon of what a declining industrial city looks like. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)


Abandoned, east Detroit

Since coming back from Detroit in late September, I have reached out to five Portland area universities if they or their student groups might like a multimedia show on the realities facing Detroit. So far, I have not had any bites. I do not think the topic is of much interest to Portland area residents, as Detroit is nearly 2,000 miles away, and the realities facing a city with tens of thousands of abandoned properties and continued problems with public safety, poverty, and economic revitalization just do not register here. The Rust Belt and its many ills I think matter very little beyond the region that is experiencing continued economic decline for decades. But, I will keep working on this.

It still startles me how little people know and care about the pockets of distress in the United States, even though we still share the same country. This is not true all the time and everywhere, but for those pockets of intense decline and multi-generation poverty, it is as if we write them off as failed mini-states, doomed forever to failure. There seems to be an unwritten decision that just says, you are no longer worth it. And, for many in east Detroit, that looks a bit like what you see here.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

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.

Skylines of the Midwest, Cleveland and Detroit

Detroit and Cleveland, once proud Midwest cities that defined America’s economic might, now symbolize what has become of America’s industrial economy. Both cities have lost residents by the tens of thousands (in Detroit’s case by more than 1 million residents in five decades). They have seen industrial production shift overseas, and now are struggling to define themselves in the new American economy. Wonks label cities such as these as part of the “rust belt,” in part to diminish what industrial production meant and means to America’s overall economic health.

The jobs that once accompanied heavy manufacturing are not coming back. There is still a lot of heavy industry in both cities, including steel plants and in Detroit’s case, automobile assembly and manufacturing, among many others. But the future is likely more tied to firms like Quicken Loans, owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has properties in both cities and sees declining Detroit as a bargain for real-estate acquisition. (He recently raised hundreds of millions in junk bonds for his Detroit property schemes.)

I also have ties to both cities through my adoptive and biological families. I was born in the Motor City. I spent a fair bit of time in Cleveland over the years because of my adoptive father’s family ties.

Here is how the two former majestic American metropolises look today, in a way they would like the country to perceive them: strong, modern and proud. But behind that facade, there is a lot of struggle, felt by the people trying to re-invent their lives in the “new economy.”


Detroit public schools, abandoned and left to the scrappers

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While driving in east Detroit, near the long-abandoned Packard Plant, I stumbled on another abandoned building, the recently shuttered Crockett Technical High School, originally known as the John Burroughs Intermediate School. It sits on the corner St. Cyril and Georgia Street. As recently as 2011-12, it was a functioning high school. Then, it was closed, and within less than three years, a perfectly fine and even upgraded school, dating from 1925, was left the scrappers and vandals and plundered beyond any reasonable repair.

In 2012, amid Detroit’s fiscal woes, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) announced a round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. All told, 16 schools building closed permanently. The Detroit Free Press reported that the DPS had lost about 100,000 students in the past decade, and 2012-13 enrollment was expected to be about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Seal of the City of Detroit on the front of the now closed building

Seal of the City of Detroit on the School Entrance

As recently at 2011-12, the Detroit Public Schools released an annual report on Crockett, noting, “Crockett High School made adequate yearly progress (AYP) in the tested subjects (mathematics, reading, science).” The same report noted, “Parents and community members are an integral part of the school program at Crockett High School. Parents and community members are included in decision making at the school levels through their involvement on committees and special programs. The Local School Community Organization (L.S.C.O.), provides programming for parents/guardians and the entire community.”

Another high school, Finney, also was slated to closed, and students from there and Crockett were to be sent to a new $46.5-million East English Village Preparatory Academy being constructed on the former Finney site. Meanwhile, the DPS allowed Crockett to fall into total disarray and be gutted and destroyed by scrappers.

I spoke to two guys working on a car across the street from Crockett, who told me this story. They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.

I casually walked around the school. It was easy to enter it. I jumped in a window. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Perfectly good school furniture was left to rot in the elements. Science labs were ripped apart. The structure of the building, however, looked perfectly sound, appearing better than public schools I attended growing up and have seen elsewhere in the country. The neighbors I met with said the school had even been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

It reminded me eerily of the film Children of Men, in a future world where humans are sterile and are unable to reproduce, and schools are left to rot without children to fill them. Crockett was one of the saddest things I saw in Detroit. In nearly any other major American city, such a situation would provoke outrage and activism. Here, no one seemed to care. Meanwhile, the DPS–whose motto is “see it, believe it”–is looking for a buyer for a school it decided it could not even protect. And another piece of Detroit slides into decay, without much fanfare to accompany the fall.

A garden in the rough, and I mean rough

The urban gardening scene in Detroit has been making waves for a while, far beyond the city. It has been written up in thoughtful tomes about the city–books by good authors describing the challenges of a city that painfully downsized in the last 40 years. I met a Detroiter, an African-American musician, who talked a fair bit about them too, positively and with a smile of pride. The Kellogg Foundation has made a passionate effort to improve healthy food access as well, funding gardens as a way to promote health and community.

I am glad these are happening, here and everywhere. As to whether a once and still industrial city can be transformed into an urban gardening hub in the 21st century, I find that about impossible to imagine without some corporate-run farm scheme. What I do imagine are local efforts by residents to promote community pride and good food. Gardens will never restore Detroit to its former status, and they will not create a middle class that is disappearing. They do represent a good thing, that diamond in the rough, and hope is always a good thing.

For more on Detroit’s illustrious urban garden history that precedes all urban gardening movements by a century, read up on Mayor Pingree’s Patches (great story, and history is now repeating itself).

Click on each picture to see a larger photo on a separate photo page.