Archive for the ‘Detroit’ Tag

Closed, but not forgotten: faith lives and shines in Detroit


Detroit Lutheran West, my high school.

by Keith Yancy

I recently had a very eye-opening experience.  I went back to high school.

In my case, that would be Detroit Lutheran West High School, home of the Leopards.   My high school was one of many high schools in Detroit, a smaller high school that, like most others, had its highs and lows.  To an outsider, Lutheran West was just another high school; but of course, a kid’s high school is always his or her own, a place of memories (good and bad) and usually a place that has a marked impact on their lives.   Lutheran West did that for me.

But, like so many other high schools in Detroit, Lutheran West didn’t survive.

My high school closed years ago.  Another school moved in for a few years, but the forces of decay and population flight were still present, and it eventually closed too.  Like so many Detroit institutions, the problems of our area were just too large to overcome.  Nowadays, the occasional reunion and a devoted Facebook page keep the memories of my high school alive, with former graduates sharing news, renewing friendships, and trading memories.

It was that Facebook page and the pictures on it that made me decide to take a drive over to school to see it once more.  I confess, I’ve been a poor alumni.  I hadn’t physically been there for at least 20 years (class of 1985), even though it’s only a 20-minute drive from my home.  Only when I saw that the property had been sold to a land developer did I decide to visit, and on this occasion, I had my 10-year-old daughter Clara with me.

Even before I got there, I knew things had changed.  Dramatically.

Just for fun, I intentionally went out of my way to re-create the route I took to school each morning.  And while the street signs bore the same names, the trip was strange and unfamiliar; office buildings (some vacant) had replaced empty fields, old buildings were replaced by new ones; too often, those old buildings were either replaced by empty, weed-wild lots or simply boarded up.  I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty about how long it had been since I had driven through the area.

All these strange feelings steadily increased as I got closer to where my old school was, and when I saw the familiar railroad tracks across Greenfield Road, I braced myself for what lay beyond.  (I remembered how I — and a lot of other kids — used the “got caught by the train” excuse on more than one occasion to explain why I was tardy for first hour.)  I bumped over the tracks, slowed down my car, and pulled into the parking lot of the school I had attended all those years ago.

It was a sad sight to see.

I stopped my car, and stared so long at the building and grounds that my daughter finally piped up from the backseat, “What is this place, Dad?”  I took a deep breath, exhaled, and finally said, “This was where I went to school, sweetie.”  She paused, gave it some thought, and finally said, “That’s sad.” 

We didn’t say another word while we were there. 

The front driveway. When I went to school there, the tall fence on the left didn’t exist.

Tall fences stood where once was an open parking lot.  Tall grass and weeds were everywhere.  Everything from the concrete driveway to the building was crumbling.  The forlorn school sign, still standing in front of the property, said “Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”  A playscape, added after my school closed, sat silent in a sea of overgrown grass. 

A front view, complete with abandoned playscape (added later). The gymnasium is in the background, with athletic fields behind it.

Time, neglect and scavengers had definitely taken their toll on the building.  Metal fascias had been torn off, doors boarded up, windows broken, awnings sagging.  Fences leaned back and forth.  Broken glass and peeling paint seemed to be everywhere.  The sports fields in back — where we played our games, cheered our teams, and held our phys ed classes — were now silent and empty, overgrown and abandoned.  The windows that remained gave glimpses of what I once knew as our school cafeteria, the band room, classrooms, principal’s office.  All empty, all silent.

The gym locker room entrance, located in the dark hallway toward the right of the photo. Scavengers have torn some of the metalwork off of the outside of the building here, perhaps because this area isn’t visible from the street.

Now, I’m a realistic enough person to know that my school wasn’t perfect.  We had plenty of problems, like all schools do, and while I had many good memories of high school, I have some that aren’t very pleasant, either.  I was neither popular, nor athletic, nor a scholar.  (In fact, I was Napoleon Dynamite before Napoleon Dynamite even existed.)  We had the same cliques, issues and dynamics every high school does.

But Lutheran West taught me a lot of valuable lessons, too.

Lutheran West was the place where I learned that white kids and black kids are, well… kids.  We made friends with each other, could tease each other, laugh with each other, play sports together, occasionally fight with each other, and make up again.  It was a place where I saw teachers and administrators who were characters, but who genuinely cared about the kids they taught, even if that meant running extra laps or getting sent to the back of the lunch line.  It was a place where I learned that a good education could be gained even if we didn’t have all the money and “stuff” that bigger schools had.

The baseball field. The field itself is virtually unrecognizable, except for the backstop. Like the other fields, the players helped care for the field after every practice by picking up stones out of the dirt.

And Lutheran West was, in my opinion, unique.  Instead of today’s fixation with the color black, our school colors were maroon and white — still my favorite color combination.  No one else we played had those colors.  And I don’t ever recall, even a single time, where we played another sports team called the “Leopards.”  That was us, and us only.  We knew we didn’t have as many resources as some other schools, and while we didn’t all have matching uniforms on the JV baseball team (there weren’t enough, so a few of us had older-looking versions), we loved — LOVED — when we beat the “rich kids” from the prep high school with their fancy uniforms and palatial baseball diamond.  We had our rivalries with — who else? — Lutheran East, which eventually closed also.

Religion was, of course, important.  One of the best experiences I had in high school was being required to read the ENTIRE Bible as part of the curriculum.  I’m amazed, even now, at how many Christians haven’t done that.  We studied — with respect — other religions, too, and we had chapel for the entire school every Wednesday morning, no matter what.  Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, this gift was the greatest gift Lutheran West gave to me, and I remain grateful for it every day.

The entrance by the school principal’s office, now boarded shut. If my memory is correct, many of the older class pictures were located just inside on the walls. Several windows were broken in this part of the building, and even from outside, it was evident that the interior damage was extensive.

All those memories came back to me in a flood as I slowly drove around the school.  My daughter and I sat in my car for a long while, staring at the building and listening to the cars driving past.  The entire place seemed utterly forgotten and invisible; it was as if the surrounding neighborhood didn’t even see the school (or us) there at all.  Before I finally pulled out of the driveway to go home, I found myself looking one last time at the school sign out front.

The school sign. This sign used to have the Lutheran West logo on it, before Detroit Urban school moved in after West closed. Eventually, Detroit Urban was forced to close also. The old city school bus depot still exists in the background. Greenfield Road is just to the left of this picture.

“Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”

Whoever put that message on the sign was right. 

The building is empty, the people long gone.  Soon, I suspect, the building will be gone as well.  But the true purpose of Lutheran West lives on, its mission accomplished.  Graduates of all ages — and colors — are productive citizens, in all sorts of professions (many students went on to become teachers and pastors themselves).  Some stayed local, like me, while others moved to Florida, or Texas, or California, or other far away places.  And while it’s sad knowing that my high school is gone, I feel better knowing that the lessons I learned there live on in many other people’s lives as well.

“You can’t go home again.”  Yes, perhaps that’s true.  But maybe you can take home with you.  For those of us from Detroit Lutheran West High School, that’s what we have left: our memories, our friendships, our faith.  And those gifts are greater than any brick and mortar building could ever be.  Faith does live and shine in Detroit, and beyond. 

And no matter where I go, or how old I grow… I’ll always consider myself a Leopard.

Until next time… 🙂

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200: Another example from the city of self-destruction


Ever wonder what “major homicides and shootings” looks like? This. But only for the last 75 days. 200+ incidents, 200 protesters, 0 progress.

by Keith Yancy

Ever make a mental connection that, once inside your head, you can’t seem to forget?

A few days ago, there was an article in our local newspaper about a political rally in a Detroit park called Belle Isle.  Obviously, this park is an island on the Detroit River, and like many landmarks in Detroit, was once beautiful.  It’s now — again, like many landmarks in Detroit — largely falling apart.  Bathrooms renovated only a couple of years ago are shuttered due to lack of funds.  An aquarium that should be a wonderful attraction for tourists and citizens shuttered due to lack of funds.  Roads that lately have been used for Grand Prix racing have huge potholes and repair issues (even during the race) due — you guessed it — to lack of funds.

Well, three Detroit Council members (try not to snicker) held this rally to save Belle Isle from the state, which offered to let Detroit retain ownership while negotiating a 99-year lease for maintenance, upkeep, etc.  The local newspaper described it this way: “About 200 city residents and supporters sent a resounding message to state leaders Wednesday: Keep your hands off Belle Isle.”

What a joke.

Let me be clear: what’s NOT a joke are citizens who care, and I believe Detroiters should have a say in what happens on Belle Isle.  I can even respect the fact that 200 Detroiters oppose state intervention for Belle Isle’s preservation.  I don’t agree with them, but I respect their right to their opinion.

No, the joke here — or rather, jokes — are these:

  • The silly newspaper article, first, for declaring 200 people — from a city of around 700,000 residents — to be a “resounding message” of anything.  For the junior journalist at the Detroit News who whipped up that little puff of hot air, that represents exactly .0003% of the Detroit population — and I rounded that number UP. 
  • The utterly lame and incompetent three City Council members, second, for showing the world the power of their political and social influence by focusing their collective might to rally .0003% of the population to their so-called “rally.”  For good measure, these three — Kwame Kenyatta, Joann Watson and Brenda Jones — put an ideological cherry on top of this mess by describing themselves as the “just say no trio.”  This mentality, one that is rampant on the embarrassment that is the Detroit City Council, can be summed up thusly: “Leave your money at the door, go away and let us mismanage it like we have done for the past 40 years.  Repeat as needed.” 
  • And, finally, the complete absence of alternative ideas to save the park from further decay.  In a city that cannot keep streetlights functioning, cannot pay its bills, cannot even demolish burned out homes (with federal funds that risk being lost due to lack of use), what alternative ideas does those like the “just say no trio” have to offer?  The only one they could come up with was — you guessed it — having the state give them money and provide maintenance and upkeep while allowing Detroit politicians to have overall control.  Given their horrific track record and “it would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic” leadership, why would anyone give that Council any money for anything?

This episode is just a glimpse at the total circus that is Detroit city politics.  Multiply this in number and scale and extend it for decades, and you can understand why Detroit has such incredible problems, and why the city has fallen so far from what it once was.

So… what was that mental connection again?

It was this: just before I read this story, I found an interactive map of Detroit in the Detroit News.  A map that showed, by location, all of the “major homicides and shootings” committed inside the city between May 14 — MAY! — and the end of July.  (Is there such a thing as a “minor” homicide or shooting?)  You can see it here: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/99999999/SPECIAL01/120606001

And, by my count, for every person who bothered to endure the “just say no trio” at Belle Isle, there’s more than one shooting or murder in Detroit.  And that’s just in the last 75 days or so.

I’m still wondering why I connected these two stories, but I think it’s because I’m so incredibly frustrated with politics in Michigan and Detroit.  It’s so bad, so short-sighted, so divisive that we not only can’t seem to help each other anymore, we can’t even agree if help is needed… in a city that’s witnessed over 21,000 murders since 1969.  21,000!  Trust is virtually gone, the political parties are an embarrassment, the so-called “jewels” of the city rot and crumble while political dullards point fingers, and progress seems further away than ever before.  How bad is it?  Reading the comments in local political stories, and you’ll find a lot of people HOPING for bankruptcy, and many who sum up their despair like this recent three-word comment: “Let Detroit rot.”

Maybe that’s why I’m open to the idea of Emergency Managers — individuals appointed by the governor to have near-absolute political power in cases of municipal bankruptcy.  As much as I’m concerned about the seeming inconsistency with democratic process, I’m increasingly convinced that local governments in Detroit, Benton Harbor and elsewhere — specifically, the incompetents and even criminals elected in these cities — have failed so completely, for so long, that such a drastic “reset button” measure like an Emergency Manager appointment is the last alternative to bankruptcy court.  These politicians have failed the people, and there are no political leaders (see the “just say no trio” above) who have the vision, intelligence, courage and political independence to make the hard decisions. 

I don’t care what party they’re from, what color they are, what gender or sexual orientation they are — just find people who will DO THE JOB and be a leader.  And if it means such a person assumes the temporary role of Emergency Manager, so be it.

200 protesters.  200 “major homicides and shootings” since May 14.  To the journalist at the Detroit News: if you’re looking for a resounding message, 200 “major homicides and shootings” is a real resounding message… a message that the days of “just give us money and leave” politics is simply another verse in Detroit’s 40-year road-to-oblivion dirge.  A message that it’s time for the rotten local, regional and state politicians to — at last — drop off the political tree once and for all, and for local and state government to work together to benefit the citizens, city and state.

Stop fighting about control and ownership when you’re on the brink of bankruptcy and the forced sale of city assets.  You’re holding a losing hand in this game of political poker, and it’s time to accept it and make the deals and compromises needed to put Detroiters first and re-build the city.  Otherwise, you’ll be hearing some new “resounding messages” from an Emergency Manager, or in bankruptcy court.  And your power, what little there is, will be gone.

Perhaps — gasp — it’s even time for Detroiters and the suburbs to admit that they need each other, and accept the fact that we need solutions that help both Detroiters and suburbanites.  Wake up and smell the coffee: suburbanites enjoy the benefits of Detroit’s sports teams, landmarks (DIA!) and businesses… just like Detroiters enjoy the shopping, landmarks and businesses in the suburbs.  Anyone who thinks we’re not all mutually dependent upon each other is fooling themselves.

Until next time… 😐

Dead Fish and the Struggle to Save Detroit


Photo of Detroit skyline courtesy of Rob Terwilliger Photography.

by Keith Yancy

Senseless.

That’s the first word that came to mind when I heard the news today — that someone poisoned the fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit.

First, a bit of background: the Belle Isle Aquarium has been closed for years.  Once a key attraction on the beautiful island of Belle Isle, a small island in the Detroit River, it had long ago been closed and fallen like so many other city landmarks into disrepair.  Recently, a small group of volunteers had worked hard to refurbish the aquarium, and had at long last returned fish to the repaired fish tanks.  All this effort was to culminate in a public viewing before the Grand Prix race which was to be held on the island June 3.

For those who had worked so hard for so long, this was a milestone event.  And then, in the news today, stories were printed (incorrectly, it turned out) that, in an act of utter senselessness, someone vandalized the Aquarium’s tanks, pouring bleach into them and killing the fish.

Before I learned that this incident was misreported, I found myself surprisingly angry about it.  After all… people had worked, without pay, to try to give Detroit back a small jewel, just one gem on a city crown virtually stripped of every precious stone it had.  It’s a small symbol of what so many people in this region hope for — a renewal of a once proud city.  And while no one expected Detroit’s crushing problems to go away with the revival of an aging landmark, it was — and is — a sign that the city can rise up from its ashes to be great once more.

To many, at least judging by the comments in the news and on social media, it felt like a punch in the gut.  It hit me the same way.  Later in the evening, however, I learned that there was no vandalism; there was a mass die-off of fish, but there was no poison, no vandals, and that the aquarium and most of the fish inside were just fine.

But before the story was refuted, I was talking about it with my 17-year-old daughter (who was depressed about the news of the Aquarium also).  It occurred to me as we were talking that this incident, while sad, paled in comparison to what goes on in Detroit every single day.  Murders that happen so frequently, people become numb to the news of them (even when infants and children are killed).  Neighborhoods so blighted and burned out that city officials are considering the possibility of not fixing the streetlights — in essence, abandoning them.  A political system that seems only to produce scandals, incompetence, infighting, and a consistent, pervasive failure to overcome Detroit’s many challenges.

When I stopped and really, clearly thought about Detroit, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I was so annoyed and deflated about a few dozen dead fish was because I had forgotten a very essential point: turning around a city gripped in a 50+ year decline takes much, much more than cleaning up fish tanks and repairing crumbling city landmarks.

It takes finding leaders that care more about the city than their egos (and their wallets).  It takes — once and for all — cutting through the endless maze of regulations and paperwork that inhibits businesses from investing here.  It takes creating neighborhoods — not just landmarks and businesses — that provide Detroit with a stable tax base.  It takes providing children with schools, teachers, and funds necessary to break the bonds of poverty and give them the high-quality education they need to truly achieve success.  It takes Detroiters, suburbanites, and the rest of Michigan’s citizens working together for the benefit of all.

Bringing Detroit out of its death spiral will be long, hard, and costly.  The work of the Friends of Belle Isle, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the island, is greatly appreciated by me and everyone else… but it will take more, much more, to bring Detroit back.  For every dead fish in that aquarium, there are three or four dead people every year, city residents who should be alive today… but aren’t.  For all the anger and disappointment people may have felt about this now-refuted senseless act of vandalism, there are decades of neglect, corruption and indifference that created an environment that such vandalism is commonplace.  For every landmark that today’s civic-minded activists attempt to save, there are entire swaths of land where neighborhoods lie in darkness, marked by empty, weed-filled lots, burned out houses, and rampant criminal activity.

Killing fish at the Belle Isle Aquarium, had it been true, would have been a heartless and stupid act.  Thinking back to my angry and depressed reaction to the story, though, made me realize that the forces that hold Detroit in its grip — poverty, crime, hopelessness — aren’t easily defeated.  I’m sure that the good people who worked so hard to refurbish the Belle Isle Aquarium see this as a minor setback rather than a defeat, and I’m glad that this false news report didn’t serve to demoralize other volunteers and workers who struggle every day to improve the city. 

To do so — to give up hope that Detroit can and should be saved — is the one sure way to ensure Detroit falls further into despair and ruin.  A failed, defeated and destroyed Detroit, contrary to popular opinion, is bad for the region, bad for the state, and bad even for the country. 

Thankfully, those reports of intentionally poisoned fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium were a false alarm, and that there was no crime committed.  Still, for those few hours when everyone thought the aquarium had been vandalized, those dead fish were a sad reminder that, sometimes, the good guys don’t always win.  Decades of crime, poverty and neglect can’t be easily or quickly wiped away by a small group of volunteers, no matter how dedicated they may be.  Margaret Thatcher, one-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said that sometimes you have to fight a battle more than once to win it.  I hope that people keep fighting, keep working, keep struggling to bring Detroit back.

The struggle is worth it.  People care.  The hope, motivation, and hard work shown by those who care about Detroit is far, far stronger and far more enduring than any single act of vandalism, and certainly stronger than a bunch of  unfortunate fish in a fish tank.

I look forward to seeing the Belle Isle Aquarium, restored, with new fish inside.  And I look forward to a renewed Belle Isle, a renewed Detroit, and better days ahead.

Until next time… 🙂

My Latest Traffic Jam Experience


 

by Keith Yancy

An hour and 40 minutes.

Not long ago, on an average, not particularly interesting weekday morning, it took me an hour and 40 minutes to get to work.  Traffic jams going to work are worse than the ones going home — at least after work, you can relax when you get home (eventually).  But traffic jams heading to the office are like running 10 miles to get to the starting line of a marathon: you’re already stressed, annoyed, and late by the time you get to work, and then you wind up being annoyed, late and stressed on top of that throughout the day.

The trip began both good and bad, for the same reason: it was a bright, sunny morning.  So, while it might be nice and pleasant to drive in the sunshine, veteran rush-hour drivers know that this is often worse than rain — if you’re driving east.  Which I do, every morning.  And, as usual, I’ve misplaced my sunglasses, which means I’m squinting for the first 15 minutes of my drive.

That morning, a lot of other drivers seem to have forgotten their sunglasses, because everyone seemed to be squinting and driving at least 15 miles per hour below the speed limit.  What’s worse, my eyes (for reasons I don’t quite understand) water profusely when I squint,  which means I was constantly wiping tears off my face as I crawled through traffic.  While this might be embarrassing anywhere else, I didn’t get too worked up about this, as I’ve seen enough make-up appliers, nose and teeth pickers, and singing, dancing and flailing other drivers to not have much inhibitions about the tears streaming down my face.

Finally, I got to the point in my drive where I travel north… after waiting at a light for a good 7 minutes.  This is because the line of cars is so long, I got to watch it cycle between green, yellow and red at least 5 times before I going through it.  This experience was brought to us, in part, by one confused/distracted driver who somehow forgot to go when the light turned green (despite the horns of people behind him), making all of us wait until — as the light turned from yellow to red — he woke from his stupor and stomped on his accelerator to get through the light.  Hey, thanks for that!

I’d hoped that I could make up time going north, but in just 30 seconds, I realize that I’m doomed.  Northbound traffic was WORSE than it was going eastbound, with a sea of cars and brake lights in front of me.  Despite the fact that no one is moving, a cop sat in his patrol car, radar gun to his eye, checking for speeders.  Speeders?  Not a single car across four lanes was going faster than 5 miles per hour, but Mr. Policeman refused to see what everyone else already knew — no one was going anywhere.  After a while, I suspected he stayed there checking for speeders because he was too embarrassed to put down his radar gun and admit he looked ridiculous.

The reason we were all going five miles an hour becomes obvious after another 10 minutes — the streetlights at a still far-off intersection weren’t working.  While Mr. Cop back there was checking bumper-to-bumper traffic for speeders, there wasn’t a cop in sight at this intersection, nor at the next two intersections, which didn’t have working traffic signals either.  It’s complete chaos, as no one bothered to take turns, and people edged into traffic further and further until they eventually bully their way through the intersection.

As I tried to inch my way through all that mess, I had plenty of time to observe the scenery.  Lots of empty storefronts, run down buildings, and a woman who was walking down the street VERY SLOWLY, wearing a hunter’s orange sweat suit.  As I wondered why anyone would intentionally wear a hunter’s orange sweat suit, she turned her head and spat toward the road.  Judging by the volume and consistency of what she spits out, she apparently has a very bad cold.  She uses her sleeve to clean up her face.  Nice.

By this point, I was past the 50-minute mark of my drive, and I was considering calling ahead to warn my co-workers of my lateness when another pedestrian caught my attention.  It’s a young African-American guy, maybe 20, dressed neatly but casually.  He was, with great accuracy and enthusiasm, goose-stepping down the sidewalk, arm raised as if he were performing a Nazi salute to the standing traffic.  It occurred to me that  I’d never seen an African-American performing any sort of Nazi impersonation before.  Despite the fact that he seemed very serious — he even looked angry — he followed up his goose-step march by doing not one but two cartwheels before standing straight and motionless, facing traffic.

A few minutes after I left Mr. Goose Step behind, and over an hour and 10 minutes into my drive, I noticed the radio playing a steady stream of “male enhancement” ads.  I listen to two of them before I turn it off, and the only reason I do is because both ads rattle off a laundry list of symptoms: Are you losing your muscle mass?  Do you have belly fat?  Feeling tired?  Losing your hair?  Not EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO BE in the bedroom?  YOU COULD HAVE LOW TESTOSTERONE!!!  They promised that, if I take their product, I’ll re-discover what it’s like to be a man again.  Sort of tempting.

I spent the last half hour with the radio off, considering what the effects of testosterone supplements would be for me.  All of those things sounded pretty good, but I got an image of me sprouting hair everywhere on my body and flying into a rage whenever I’m stuck in traffic, and I decided that some of the “symptoms” they want to cure are just part of middle age.

I finally get to work, where I was forced to park a good quarter-mile from the building because all the closer parking spots are taken.  (That gave me something to grumble about during the walk in.)  I tried sneaking into the office, but I was quickly spotted by some co-workers, several of whom promptly and very sarcastically thanked me for showing up.  I’m also informed (much to their enjoyment) that the two meetings I missed because of the traffic have been re-scheduled at the end of the day.  Sigh.

Anyhow, while I’ve been in a lot of traffic jams in my lifetime (including rush hour in New York, Mexico City and Los Angeles), this latest one was unique.  If nothing else, I’ll make sure to bring my sunglasses.

Until next time… 🙂

Detroit: Hope vs. Despair


Abandoned business, Davison Avenue, Detroit.

by Keith Yancy

Detroit.  It seems like a city that demands an opinion from us.  A city that can’t be ignored, if only because — for many people — it serves as a modern-day “worst case scenario” of crime, urban decay, and economic decline.  Perceptions of Detroit typically range from “urban wasteland” to a city poised for rebirth.  It always surprises me how many people have opinions about Detroit, usually founded on police-blotter news stories, dramatized television documentaries, and — sadly — the citizens themselves, whose “if you can’t hack it, leave” attitude feeds the city’s social isolation and provides critics with confirmation that Detroit somehow deserves whatever dark future is forthcoming. 

Former site of a nursery, now completely overgrown with weeds and trees. Davison Avenue, Detroit.

Of course, the truth is always somewhere between absolute optimism and despair.  Murders, for instance, are up over 20 percent in 2011, but overall crime is down.  Homes continue to be abandoned, but businesses are moving back downtown and encouraging employees to relocate there.  The city still struggles just to get the streetlights to work — an ongoing and as of yet unmet challenge — while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra resolved their union strike and is now back to entertaining audiences again.  Political corruption still continues to flourish (yes, I’m talking about you, Bob Ficano), while our local sports teams enjoy a long-awaited and much appreciated resurgence.

In other words, Detroit is a city of contradictions.  A city struggling to return to its knees — forget it’s feet — after spending years sprawled on its proverbial face.  A city that continues to witness tremendous generosity and charitable giving while so many of its citizens remained chin-deep in poverty.  A city of hope amidst the ruins, a haphazard renaissance pock-marked by decay and indifference.

I see the contradiction every day on my drive to and from work, in the form of new pedestrian crossings in the street.  Seems silly, perhaps, but there’s a story behind those crossings, and I witnessed when and how it started.  

Detroit streetlights. Vandals steal the metal panels at the base of these lights for scrap.

Last year, as I was driving to work one morning, traffic came to a standstill on Davison Avenue in Detroit.  The morning was cold, typical of late autumn in Michigan, when the frost covers the ground, steam puffs out of manholes and the sun seems to struggle to rise into the sky.  As traffic inched forward toward the cause of the backup, a horrific and sad scene came into view.  A child’s backpack lay in the middle of the street, a pink canvas bag resting on the ground reserved for the left turn lane.  A child’s shoe lay in the road a few yards away.  And while the poor child had already been rushed to the hospital, news stories published later that day confirmed what I instinctively knew — a child going to school had been killed, struck by a car while trying to cross the street.

The next Spring, the city installed pedestrian crossings — curbed and raised areas periodically placed in the left turn lane, complete with crosswalks, warning signs, and reflective posts around these “islands” to encourage kids to cross safely (and drivers to yield to pedestrians).  They also have crossing guards now in place at a couple of the intersections to guide children across the street.

Pedestrian crosswalks, recently installed. Davison Avenue, Detroit.

Progress.  But, in typical Detroit fashion, halting and partial progress. 

Why?  Because, since these “islands” were built, the temporary construction barriers set up to protect the workers during construction were simply left there.  The result is that these barriers have become piles of junk, scattered all over these protected areas, complete with splintered wood, twisted metal, and various other debris littering the ground and obstructing walkers from using these areas safely.  As a parent, I wouldn’t want my kids crossing at these places, in part because they don’t do the very thing they were intended to do: be a safe, “halfway point” in traffic at which children can cross the road.

Abandoned home, Davison Avenue, Detroit.

What’s worse, these “improvements” were made in an already blighted area of the city.  Empty storefronts are common, burned out houses are located mere yards away, streetlights (both functioning and non-functioning ones) teeter and lean over cracked sidewalks.  Overgrown weeds mark a vandalized playground.  Litter is seemingly everywhere.

And that’s what’s so sad.  These new “improvements,” despite only being a few months old, fit so well into this landscape.  It’s almost as if these new pedestrian areas, designed to make things better and safer for children, were simply absorbed by the hopelessness around it. 

Abandoned home, Davison Avenue, Detroit.

These pedestrian areas mark my passage every day, and as I drive past them, I find myself wondering if Detroit really can be saved.  My heart says that it can, that the attitude and courage of its leaders and citizens will eventually succeed.  But in the months that these improvements have been in place, I have never — not one time, morning or evening — seen one person crossing at or using these walkways.  Not one person.  And while my heart says otherwise, my head keeps wondering if the reason is that people don’t use them because they still don’t feel safe crossing the street.

This morning, I spent some time looking at photographs of the Detroit Central Depot (here’s the link to the picture gallery: http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Site=C4&Date=20090425&Category=NEWS&ArtNo=904250807&Ref=PH&Profile=1318).  It’s once grand architecture has been covered in graffiti.  A once beautiful building, now sitting as a silent ruin, an empty socket in what once was a jeweled cityscape in downtown Detroit.  And I know that, recently, it’s owner is now installing new windows at the Depot to attract investors and prevent further decay.  Another example, albeit a small one, of a city and it’s people trying to stem the tide of hopelessness and create a new, more promising future.

My heart has hope.  As for my head — my mind — I’m deciding to remain optimistic about my hometown.  But it’s an optimism tempered by the memory of a child’s backpack, lying in the street… and new, unused pedestrian crosswalks already marked by blight.

Until next time… : |

You didn’t ask for my opinions, but here’s a few anyway


I don't care what anyone says... there's no better place to be than Michigan during Autumn.

by Keith Yancy

A few thoughts on a beautiful, albeit windy Fall day:

  • Lost Causes.  Try as I might, I can’t help rooting for the Detroit Lions.  No matter how awful they may be, how inept, how completely frustrating… they are, and will always be, my team.  That’s the price I pay for living in Detroit and caring about the city.  Rooting for another team is, to me, faithless treason.
  • Stubborn, unfeeling acts.  I confess: When it comes to people who try to cut in front of a long line of cars because they don’t want to wait, I am the guy who is willing to drive approx. 1 micron behind the next car to keep them from getting in front of my car.  And if you’re one of the people trying to pull this stunt, hear this: I have no problem with leaving you and your car on the side of the road.
  • Facebook.  I am going to work hard to avoid being narcissistic on Facebook.  Just my opinion, but there are people on Facebook that come across as insufferable narcissists because virtually every one of their posts are entirely about themselves.  Quick quiz: Have you ever posted something that wasn’t focused on… you?  If not, please take a break — and give the rest of us one too.  My goal is to either share ideas, make people laugh, or at least try to get people thinking about something interesting with at least half of my posts.  For those of you who think that posting a nugget like “hamburgers — YUMMY!” is profound insight, consider using Twitter instead… the 140 character limit shouldn’t be a problem.  As I said… just my opinion. 
  • More Facebook.  And another thing… I’ve learned that I’ve been “unfriended” by a couple of people.  I know this is devastating for some, but I can’t seem to generate much feeling about it one way or another.  I have no issue with people blocking me — honestly — but to remove someone from your friend list seems childish.  I don’t even know how to “unfriend” someone.  If your goal is to make me feel bad, you can forget it — I have a very low tolerance for people who try to manipulate me this way.  EXCEPTION: those people who “drop out” of Facebook.  Congratulations!  I mean it!  You’ll be a lot more productive!
  • Chrysler.  I know, I live in Detroit… but I always get my back up at people who cry to the heavens that the automakers should have been allowed to fail.  Anyone who thinks so needs to take a good, hard look at the effects: hundreds of thousands of people out of work (remember, suppliers, ad agencies, etc. would die too) and a significant chunk of our manufacturing base wiped out.  I’ve had a front-row seat in the auto industry, and know this: the employees where I work care about their jobs, work very, very hard, and are people with families, children, dreams, etc. — JUST LIKE YOU.  I’m proud to work with these people, and their talent and commitment would make any company envious. 
  • On being fat.  I’m still trying to get motivated to lose weight.  Gained way too much in the last 18 months… but can’t seem to gather the energy and motivation to eat right and get exercise.  Any tips would be appreciated.
  • Baseball.  I absolutely despise the New York Yankees… but dislike the Minnesota Twins even more.  I confess, I take a grim pleasure in seeing both teams get stomped on in the post-season.  So… to my Yankee-cheering friends: Good luck trying to buy another championship next year.  Bring on… anyone else!
  • Marriage.  I put this opinion near the end of my list, because my wife only sometimes reads my blogs (she has to live with me, after all; can’t blame her for that), and I didn’t want her to see this one right away.  I have, without a doubt, married the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.  Beautiful in body, mind and spirit.  If anyone ever asked me to name one person as an example of the best characteristics humanity has to offer, she’d be my one and only choice.  Smart, kind, independent… the best gift God ever gave me.  SECRET:  I find myself thinking about this fact more and more as we get older.  GOAL: Tell her more often how much she means to me.
  • Health.  About two years ago, I had heart surgery.  It was a surprise (I had not known I had a heart condition), but the bigger surprise was how the experience has affected me after the surgery.  I may have healed physically, but the tricks such surgery plays with your mind and emotions has lingered on long after I left the hospital.  There is not a single day that I don’t think about the effects my surgery has had on my life, nor is there a day I don’t think about my own mortality, death, and beyond.  Like most people, I never had to consider my mortality much when I was young… but that event (and the aftermath) gave me a crash course that has marked me in ways I’m still trying to understand.  I’ve never blogged about this topic because I truly do NOT want attention because of this, or pity, or concern… but I’m still dealing with it every day.
  • On WordPress’ Mystifying Lack of Useability.  Why, in the name of all that’s right, does your blog posting toolbar not have an “undo” button?  To whom it may concern at WordPress: Find Microsoft Word.  Open.  Imitate everything you find, and place it in your blog-posting program, like you should have done long ago.  TODAY.  How could you guys miss such obvious and basic functional features?  Honestly, what were you thinking??? 

Again, just my opinions.  I’ve got a lot more of them, but that’s enough for one sitting. 

Until next time… 🙂

Detroit: My Hometown


by Keith Yancy; photos courtesy of RT Photography (rtphoto.smugmug.com)

I always find it interesting to see people’s responses when I tell them I’m from Detroit.

As you’d expect, some people can’t resist the urge to make sarcastic comments about my hometown.  And there’s no denying the chronic, ongoing problems that continue to cast a pall over what was once such a proud and thriving city.  Whether they’ve been to Detroit or not, people often seem very quick to criticize it.

Not me.

I don’t live in Detroit, and I’ve never lived in Detroit.  But to say I’ve not been affected by and influenced by the city of Detroit is like living in Antartica: you don’t have to live precisely AT the South Pole to know and feel the effects of living there.  Crime.  Unemployment.  A polarized, divided population often marked by fear and distrust.  A latent hopelessness punctuated by government scandals, mismanagement and criticism from nationally-known politicians, pundits and publications.

And while I could talk about the opposite end of the spectrum — a beautiful skyline, great sports traditions, a genuine willingness of Detroiters to help those in need — that’s not what this post is about, either.  There are many people who provide plenty of good and bad commentary about Detroit, and I’m not prepared to add anything to their discourse.

That said, I can’t help but see a certain beauty among the ruins of what was once such a great city.  A talented friend of mine, Rob Terwilliger, took some great photographs of the Detroit skyline as well as Detroit’s Central Depot (pictured above).  In contrast to the modern-day skyline, the Central Depot features once-grand architecture now covered in graffiti and littered with trash.  Birds nest in relative silence where once the proud and powerful walked and worked.  These images have affected me in a way that most images do not: a vision of a proud past I’ve never experienced, a physical memory of a time I’ll never know.  Sad.  Empty.  Yet not lost, not forgotten, and — in my case — not overlooked.

Like many people, I hope for a re-birth of Detroit.  A new and bright future where every person — black, white, and every other color — can live as neighbors and friends.  But I also hope that we can retain what made Detroit what it is — the landmarks and places that made it so great so long ago.

There’s more than just the crumbling, sad Central Depot that needs saving.  Driving down Woodward Avenue to the Detroit River offers a host of such places: beautiful, grand churches, once full on Sundays, now struggle to attract parishioners.  Mansions that either bristle with alarm systems or show clear signs of neglect.  Storefronts that once bustled with customers and activity now marked by security gates, boarded windows, or burned out interiors.  Graveyards that once served the rich and powerful now overgrown and ringed with rusting, leaning chain-link fences.  Sidewalks choked with weeds and garbage. 

Yet there is beauty.  Beauty amid the ruins.

When I look at these places, I always think of what once was… and what could be again.  Today’s architecture — while beautiful in its own way — can’t quite capture the elegance, the style, or the stateliness of those old buildings.  These reminders serve as sad, quiet monuments among the frenetic pace of our current time.  They’re islands amid the crime-ridden, poverty-gripped hopelessness of the surrounding neighborhoods.  And yet they still stand, silently awaiting salvation and the redemption of a dispirited, demoralized people.

Overstated?  Perhaps.  But I can’t help feeling a strange, melancholic pride in my city.  My city may be in ruins, but it was once great and beautiful.  Many other places I’ve been have their own kind of beauty, they’re own landmarks, but none are quite like those of home.  Most places don’t have the vibrant, colorful history that Detroit — my city — has. 

I get somewhat upset when people make judgments about Detroit.  Being from Detroit has made me, like many others from this area, a champion of the underdog… we cheer our prodigal sports teams when they flirt with greatness; we pull for the poor person who made good; we offer a helping had for the down-on-their-luck.  Above all, we endure.  

Today, talk of “downsizing” the city dominates the local headlines.  Proposals to convert some city property into farmland have evolved from near-comic fantasy to serious consideration.  Knocking down abandoned buildings is a top priority for a new mayor — a mayor attempting to heal the damage caused by widespread political corruption and scandal.

Yet I hope they find a way to redefine the city without losing its soul… the places and landmarks that make Detroit what it is.

Hopefully, a new day will dawn on my city — a day when people of all colors and backgrounds will live and work together, in a town that celebrates what it is, not just what it was.  Hopefully, a new time will come when people will appreciate Detroit for all it is today, not all it once was or all it could be.  Hopefully, a new place will emerge from the ruins — a place of light, of history, of beauty.

Hopefully.  The people in and around Detroit deserve it. 

Until then, I choose to see the beauty in what is, and what could be.

Until… next time. : )