The weather rarely gives us a break at this latitude. We had one week — a single week — of glorious, sunny, summertime weather earlier in April, and since then? Cold garbage. Finally my reserve cracked, and I ran some errands, taking the long way there and back. For some reason, I ended up near Camden Street in Detroit, where I shot this photo in October 2008, while escorting a pair of French journalists around town on a two-day pulse-of-America visit:
They wanted to see the famous $1 houses that were flooding the market, a story written by my old colleague Ron French that went all over the world. They were going through one across the street from this one, which was being stripped of its bricks by a couple of raggedy men. Note the professionally wrapped pallet of bricks to the side; someone was making money off this project, probably pretty good money. Old bricks are in demand for new housing. Luxury housing.
In Detroit, wave after wave of foreclosure, much of it due to mortgage fraud, was leaving neighborhoods like this rapidly emptying, and arsonists and scrappers did the rest. America was about to elect its first black president, and the agony of financial-crisis Detroit notwithstanding, optimism was in the air. It was a very strange time.
This was shot with my first iPhone, and thanks to the geotagging, I was able to pinpoint the exact spot it was taken. Which is good, because on Tuesday, there wasn’t much left:
The vacant lot to the left is where the men were working. The house on the right is still standing, but barely. Spindly volunteer trees reach the second story. The porch steps are in pieces. And the $1 house the French guys were so eager to document is gone, too. The whole neighborhood is pretty much toast, but for a few stubborn hangers-on. I went around a couple blocks and found this, too:
You know what I remember most from that visit in 2008? The realtor brought along his handyman, the guy who went through these wrecks and decided whether they could be brought back. He looked around and said, “This used to be a neighborhood.” Only a year before, he said, it’d been more or less fully occupied, with poor people to be sure, but they were hanging on. Now it’s urban farmland and construction debris.
For some reason this sent my brain cartwheeling back to the ’90s, working for Knight-Ridder, the newspaper chain. The editors had been tasked by corporate with coming up with a mission statement (yes, really) and a so-called master narrative for each city. We sat in meetings for this project and asked perfectly reasonable questions: “A mission statement? For a newspaper? Isn’t it, ‘cover the news in our city?'” To his credit, the editor running the meeting seemed as baffled as we were. And Fort Wayne’s master narrative, which we were instructed was the overarching story of the city, was only a community-theater version of Detroit’s grand opera: Once-thriving industrial city struggles to find its footing in new economy.
And to think, that was probably some vice president’s quarterly project. And they kept us inside for those meetings, when we could have been outdoors, looking for stories in houses just like that.
That’s really a non sequitur, I know, but like I said: My cabin fever is bad this year.
I guess I should say a few words about Gordon Lightfoot, recently departed. He was part of the aural landscape of my youth, but I paid little attention to lyrics. In recent years, I corrected that. “Sundown” fascinates me as a song about a man who’s thinking of hurting his cheating girlfriend, and still might. The woman in question was, of course, Cathy Smith, the background-singing, drug-dealing bit of bad news who sold John Belushi his fatal speedball. I think lots of men might be tempted to hurt her, but she did the damage herself. (Went to prison, deported to Canada, died a few years back.) As for the song everybody knows, about the ore carrier known around these parts as the Fitz, well, it’s a great song. A friend and I were discussing how often people who have never been to the Great Lakes can’t believe how big they are, once they see them. Imagine being in a ship, 729 feet long, that’s losing the battle with a storm, and not only that, an ice storm, a hurricane of sorts, the lake treating it like a toy. It must have been terrifying, the waves turning the minutes to hours, and all that.
But I snickered when a journalist friend noted on his Facebook today that he once “heard a folksinger at the Old Shillelagh, weary of endless requests, abridge the Lightfoot song as follows: ‘There was a big boat, and it sank.'”
And they’re all still down there in Lake Superior. Which never gives up its dead, but you’ve already heard that, many times. Ah, well: Rest in peace, Gordon. It was a great life you had.