Google Street View tells a story of Detroit’s struggles


Last night, I discovered a story how Google Street View can be used to tell the story of cities, including the agony of my home city, Detroit. I wish I had discovered this earlier, because it is a great tool to document change, despite the weirdness of Google’s spy cam on all of us, in our neighborhoods. I decided to use the time machine portal to see how the former home of my Michigan relatives fared between 2007 and 2013. So this is a very personal issue for me.

What I found was not surprising, and I had reported on this on an earlier post. What I discovered today was a more rich visual tale of the decay that really is the story of Detroit’s ills over the past six years (2007-’13). I think this kind of storytelling should be used in the face chirpy “Detroit on the rebound” news coverage that some want to promote that seeks to ignore the full story.

About a month ago, I published a blog about my reaction to seeing parts of Detroit that had fallen into disturbing decay, complete with ravaged neighborhoods, arson-torched homes, and the collapse of communities. This sparked a bit of a backlash by a group of current and former Detroit area advocates (all white, like me by the way) who rushed to Detroit’s defense and said negative storytelling ignores the “good people” and “good stories” and tales of the recovery. I then reviewed the data, and think rose-colored perspectives can be naive at best given the indicators of crime, poverty, employment, population health, and more. I do think balance is critical, but you cannot ignore what you see, particularly with tools like Google Street View, and in the work of recent documentary photographers.

This is an American story and an American tragedy, with many villains, many victims, and a still uncertain future. Recovery will take decades. Right now many people are struggling, and many people have just walked away–like my relatives did decades ago. Many in leadership positions in our country  would prefer to have our country spend tens of billions to preserve our strategic priorities in foreign lands and willfully ignore a once great city that is, by all definitions, an “African American” community that many in this country care very little about.

I talked about this with an old public health classmate of mine and how young Americans go overseas to address global issues of poverty and development. He wryly commented, maybe some new grads can work on “third world” issues in our country. I think he is right.

Detroit, my home town

This is the final post I am making, for a while at least, on the city of my birth, Detroit. I wanted to capture the industrial area located in Dearborn and southwest Detroit, around the River Rouge and Zug Island. The neighborhood filmed is called Delray. The murals shown in the video are by Diego Rivera, at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. They capture the world-famous Mexican muralist’s impressions of industrial production and Ford’s River Rouge complex, then the world’s largest factory, in the early 1930s.

And then there were the ruins … 1989 and today

My recent visit to Detroit still lingers in my mind, particularly in light of some recent comments I have heard back in Portland. One person said, oh, I heard there are some innovative community gardens there. Such comments, which mean well, reveal a distressingly strong disconnect from the painful reality that still faces hundreds of thousands of residents that is beyond Detroit’s ability alone to fix. Even Mark Binelli, author of the 2012 portrayal of his ancestral home, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, does not hold punches when trying to frame the efforts to revive the city in positive light. “And then there were the ruins,” writes Binnelli of the 90,000 abandoned structures as of 2012. “When it comes to the sheer level of decay, Detroit is a singular place … .”

So it was inevitable I had to look up where my relatives once lived. What I found took the air out of my lungs. This is a home of relatives from my biological family (I am adopted) as it appeared in in 1989, when I took the picture. The home is a tract house on the city’s westside, not far from River Rouge Park. It was an OK looking neighborhood when I stopped to take the photo. I did not, perhaps thankfully, visit it during my trip. I did find the Google Maps street view, which I provide for comparison. The Wayne County Tax Assessor’s office now lists the owner as the Detroit Land Bank Authority, meaning the emptied and gutted structure is in receivership waiting to be sold at auction with thousands of other distressed properties. The value is pegged under $50,000 according to numerous real-estate web site, but I doubt anyone will live here again. It looks dead.

This is hardly anything new for residents. This was a street where working-class couples could buy into the middle-class dream, which is what my relatives did. This was before the ending of redlining that segregated African-Americans from these areas, before integration, and before upheavals of the 1960s. Then they left, as the city began its downward slide, for reasons I still do not know. Racial issues, global trade, outsourced industrial jobs, NAFTA, white flight, and more all had a part to play on this street, not to mention a host of other federal policies that transformed cities like Detroit.

What is troubling for me is to know that a public park and now-closed school are across the street. Lives were lived in this neighborhood. Lives are still lived here. And this home is now a corpse, among many in this once great city. Now when I look at abandoned homes I think of the lives of those who had all their dreams wrapped into them. This just happens to be part of my own family story. I simply want to cry.

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.

God has left Detroit

In April, I spent a couple of eye-opening days in my home town, Detroit. I was born here. My grandparents lived here for decades. My biological family (I am adopted) grew up here on my birth mother’s side. I only lived here a year, before my adoptive parents left in 1966, a year before the deadly race riots of 1967, one of several that have spanned more than 120 years.

Photographers who parachute into Detroit, like me, are rightfully accused of being disaster voyeurs. Photographing Detroit is now its own photo genre many dub “ruin porn.” Taking pictures of a dying place, where real people are struggling just to survive, is by definition schadenfreude.

I guess I have a saving grace. I am a native son. I really was born in a hospital here. My family, on my birth mother’s side, has true Detroit roots, and for that reason I feel a strong attachment.

I wrote a short essay about my trip in April, and I find myself feeling deeply unsettled now about how the last eight years of our Great Recession have been handled and the wars that preceded it. Going to Detroit you cannot ignore the massive impact of trade policies like NAFTA and the globalization of manufacturing in the years before and after its signing, when the United States began to export its manufacturing jobs overseas.

Jeez, here we are the wealthiest country on earth, and yet we let our great industrial center literally collapse before us, all while venturing overseas to preserve our strategic interests. We all watched and let the patient wither in agony, at times laughing at the patient’s demise. Today the lethal court clown of a city titillates us with reality TV that delights in the destruction of Detroit and the goofy exploits of its charismatic preachers, reality star cops, and wacky urban survivalists.