Archive for the ‘urban decay’ 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… 🙂

Advertisements