Another line for the rap sheet

Posted by jdg | Thursday, April 30, 2009 | ,

This school closed in 2007; most of the windows are boarded up, and nearly all are covered in graffiti tags. The interior of the school is still filled with everything you'd expect after seeing some of my other photos. The dying 12-volt batteries in the smoke detectors still inspire morbid chirping alongside the birds building nests in the overgrown courtyard. In 2009, outside this boarded-up window through which generations of bored students might once have daydreamed, fourteen red tulips bloom.

This time of year, in every neighborhood you see the flowering shrubs that once decorated backyards or ran along the edge of porches that no longer exist: dogwoods, ornamental maples, hydrangeas. Soon forgotten lilacs will turn the neighborhoods purple, but right now they are yellow as the forsythia are in full bloom, silhouetting their missing houses. Sometimes neighbors even maintain and trim these plants though they grow in a long-gone neighbor's yard:

Onion bulbs, like tulips, survive years after the gardeners and even the garden are gone:

Every few days you walk around the abandoned university building across the street from where you live, trying to determine how the scrappers are getting inside. You have the owner's security guy on speed dial. While checking out a scrapper entrance in a hidden courtyard you notice that there are daffodils blooming away from anyone's sight:

This is the sort of place where many years ago employees or students might have taken a smoke break or eaten their lunches on a warm Spring day. Someone once planted these bulbs around the perimeter just to make that experience more pleasant.

These days the courtyard is strewn with trash and a scrapper ties up the gate with an old belt to keep anyone from going in to see how he's accessing the building.

The daffodils don't know there's no one there to enjoy them, so every year they bloom again amid the trash and then start to whither within a matter of days. You tell your daughter she cannot pick the daffodils planted in your own yard. But in this hidden courtyard you pick a few before they're gone and bring them home to a girl you love. You leave the bulbs (of course).

Never boring, however familiar the scene

Posted by jdg | Monday, April 27, 2009 |

In the seven years I spent on Michigan college campuses, I don't think I ever noticed a flower blooming. After months of trudging through snow among hunchbacked, goretexed students of indiscernible gender, the only sign of Spring that ever mattered was the day every March or April when---in an act of collective behavior as mysteriously coordinated as the generational awakening of cicadas or the emergence of bears from hibernation---every girl on campus woke up and put on a tank top and then decided to leave their sweatshirts at home. The delirium of that magnificent day eclipsed all other signs of seasonal transition; I cannot recall ever admiring a flowering forsythia or taking the time to notice buds on the branches of trees, because, you know, suddenly boobs were everywhere.

Now that I'm old enough to walk around a college campus on a Spring day wondering only whether those girls fathers' know they are leaving the dorm dressed like that, I find myself paying much more attention to ornamental trees and flowering shrubs. My wife and I wander our neighborhood admiring cherry blossoms and monitoring the progress of our lilac bush. After all those years in the perpetual spring of San Francisco, we are acutely attuned to every change in the foliage. "Were we just too young and stupid to notice how beautiful all this is?" we ask ourselves, unsure if our increased interest in flowering plants isn't some evidence of our increasing irrelevancy on earth, shuffling along as we are to that Byrds song towards the cold, inevitable grip of cursed Thanatos. Before we know it we'll be buying track suits and identifying with Wilford Brimley's angst in Cocoon: The Return.

There is no doubt having small children has been a big part of this newfound interest. My daughter is at an age where every flower is the more beautiful than the last, where every bud on every tree is some magical sign of unexpected renewal, and where the first opportunity to go outside without a coat was an ecstatic experience eradicating the gloom of a long winter. I have to admit her vernal joy is viral. To go outside with my children this Spring is to understand how Mozart felt humming out notes in the SchloƟpark; how Wordsworth felt in that field of daffodils. The cold is a retreating army cut down by a thunder of cavalry; the birds and the wind sing the tulips open; the new leaves deaden the sound of scrappers stripping the abandoned building across the street. I almost believe my daughter when she tells me something this magnificent can only be the product of fairies.

My 14-month-old son's reaction is simpler but equally enthusiastic: he cannot go outside without shedding off all his clothes. A year ago he couldn't hold up his head and now he's combined the skills of running and stripping at the same time. By the time we get back to our front door from a walk he is usually wearing only shoes and a cloth diaper. And the diaper will go as soon as he learns how to work the snaps. Until then, I'm thinking of buying him a little velcro bowtie.

But one of the most important developments around here is that pink is no longer my daughter's favorite color. I know that might not seem like such a big deal, but if you'd told me a month ago that my daughter's favorite color would soon be something other than pink I'd guffaw and be more likely to believe that the Israelis were abandoning the West Bank or Lindsey Lohan was giving up cocaine. But it's true. Thanks to the daffodils, her new favorite color is yellow. I'm so happy I could buy a yellow unitard and choreograph an interpretive dance called Blessing of the Narcissi.

Just to be safe, though, we're bringing six bags of pink clothing to the thrift store before she notices the begonias.

Miss Pickens' porch

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | ,

This is Miss Pickens' house. It's the only one on its block. When I stopped one day to tell her how much I enjoyed her yard decorations, she told me they were there to keep people from driving across her gardens. "People just don't care at all anymore." When I told her I've always admired her house, she informed me it was for sale. She showed my kids her Easter decorations. She pointed to where all the "drug houses" once stood on her block, now empty lots. "They're gone now," she said. "But I'm still here." She told us all about how her neighborhood used to be, good and bad.

It was a Wednesday when we stopped but she was wearing Sunday clothes. I peppered her with heartfelt flattery. "I always dress this well," she said, and told me about the church she attends not far from our house. I asked if I could take her portrait. "Oh yes, honey," she said. "But not today. My hair isn't right today. Come back," she said. "We'll talk again." I've been back several times, and her hair has been lovely but never right. All I have to share is a picture of a proud little house alone on its block.

Buildings never care what they look like.

* * * * *

Last week I was invited to speak on a panel in Ann Arbor before some non-profit folks hoping to integrate blogging into their outreach and fundraising efforts. During my presentation, I showed them the photo of the tree growing from the books to explain how social bookmarking sites like digg and reddit can help reach beyond a particular audience or region to attract potential readers from all over the world. During the questions afterward, a member of a group of Detroit community activists stood up and angrily accused me of distorting the image of the city to the world, portraying only its ugliness, and she told me I should be ashamed. She had never read this website; she had only seen a few photos during the presentation.

After the room cleared, I tried to initiate a dialogue with these activists. The argument they posed was that there are many people working very hard to do positive things in Detroit and they have been doing so for many years before I arrived (I was called a carpetbagger, and replied that Detroit needs more carpetbaggers: about a million of them). To those working hard for positive change, any media attention perceived as negative (be it about crime or failing city schools or neighborhoods turning to prairie), is somehow a rebuke of their good deeds. These people attacking me were good people. But they were, in a sense, no different from the right-wing ideologues shouting endlessly during the worst days of the Iraq War that "the media never reports the good news in Iraq." I suppose I sympathize with any journalist unable to see past the dismembered corpses of suicide bombers and their victims to write only positive news.

I told these angry activists that I am not a reporter. I am just one man telling his story. If you don't like the story I'm telling, start your own blog and tell yours. That's how this works.

I happen to believe that this blog tells a positive story. It is the story of a family unsatisfied with a typical yuppie trajectory in San Francisco who intentionally moved to the most maligned city in America. It is the story of a man who finds that city beautiful in ways that may be difficult to understand at first, though if you stay long enough he'll try to explain. It's the story of thousands of people around the world who for some reason return to this website despite having no connection to this failing Rust Belt, one-industry town wounded by racism and poverty but surviving with a compelling grace. This is, I believe, ultimately a story with hope: another family choosing to root itself where so many are warned never to go. A city full of beautiful people surviving among the ruins. Strangers who come here to read with care and concern in their hearts. A seed that germinates in words never before read.

* * * * *

This blog started as a place for me to write about the experience of parenting. I think I'm going to return to doing more of that. Because of the increased attention I had intentionally been writing my kids out of this story, mostly because I had convinced myself that no one really wants to read about someone else's kids, that this blog was the equivalent of a woman shoving pictures of her grandkids under your nose in the checkout line. But whether we're sitting on some lovely old lady's porch, islanded by the ghosts of homes long ago churned into the earth and her stories of a neighborhood that no longer exists, or foraging for apples in some abandoned backyard, or returning from the weekly radio flyer ride to the market, or learning to garden on a plot of land that was trash-strewn and empty a year ago, they are a part of this story. One of the best parts, I hope.

* * * * *

This post has been difficult to write as I'm sure it has been to read. Admittedly, I've been in a rut. I'm still figuring things out. I'm not going to let those critics affect me (trust me: I am even more certain in my convictions now that they have been publicly challenged). But I do struggle with my tendency to allow buildings, blocks, and books to become proxies for people. I'm certainly not going stop taking pictures or writing about the things I find interesting.

But we will keep returning to Miss Pickens' porch. Someday, I'm sure, her hair will be right.

The Brewster Projects are where Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Smokey Robinson grew up. They were the first federally funded public housing development for African Americans, remnants of a time when black citizens faced restrictive covenants in land deeds that prevented them from moving into white neighborhoods. The projects were built when the development of I-75 displaced residents of the black neighborhood of Paradise Valley. Last year at this time, people were still living in several of the towers until the housing commission shut operations down for good. By June 2008, the only people living in the towers were squatters and scrappers diligently removing all recyclable metals from the four towers and numerous low-rises. All summer you could hear the terrible sound of refrigerators falling 14 stories and crashing on the concrete below. Scrappers meticulously removed every aluminum window pane, sending down cascades of glass. Different groups of scrappers claimed territory throughout the projects. It was like the Wild West. There's copper in them buildings.

Not long ago, a Dutch journalist and her photographer were carjacked while reporting from what remains of the Brewster Projects. That hasn't been an issue for me. I walk there.

This is a high-rise kitchen half deconstructed by scrappers. They'll be back.

I quickly became interested in what was left behind in the hundreds of walk-in closets throughout these projects. This one smelled like it had been occupied very recently. I can only assume the stolen gas tanks were just there as a way to get high as fuel for portable heaters and that the pack-n-play was there for a sleeping baby.

Some of the furniture looks like it has been there since the 1950s, when the high-rises were built. Some of the occupants may have spent most of their lives in these rooms. Of course this leads to the question: where did they all go?

There are abandoned photographs in many rooms, small hints of the human beings who used to live in these dead buildings.

There are quite a few fake houseplants and fake flowers, deceptions of lingering life.

This was once a display board at the funeral for a beautiful baby boy. It had several photographs of him playing, smiling. Surrounding the typed words, "Family," "Home," and "Love," were departing messages from those who attended his funeral. "One Love---Your Big Brother, G Mack". . . "Little man, I will miss u." It lay trampled on the same floor where the baby might once have played, or taken his first steps. In the rush of eviction, it was left behind.

Some of the closets were full of things, but I was most interested in those where only a few items remained. Like a hanger, a bible, and a bottle of cologne.

A 1960s suit jacket, still on the haberdasher's hanger.

A cane, a fanny pack, and a cheap, blue faux-fur stole.

A creepy Styrofoam head with a church hat and part of a weave.

In one apartment I found an elderly woman's record book, and on pages where she wasn't keeping track of bills or crafting long lists of lottery numbers, she was keeping track of her love life. This page reads, "I am going to buy our ring and ask him to marry me. I know he going to say yes. We are going to get marry in Sep. We will go over to Ohio and get marry. And later have a big dinner to let people know we are marry." On other pages she writes out her first name with his last name over and over like a schoolgirl. I won't say how it ends.

This was her bedroom.

This was one of the offices where files were maintained. To live in these projects you had to have a job but you couldn't earn too much. And you had to prove it with paystubs, tax forms. Living with relatives who committed crimes could subject residents to eviction. The housing authority kept detailed records about everything and just left these private files and reports in the buildings when they were abandoned.

* * * *

I talk about some of these things, and more, in an interview with Dick Gordon on today's edition of The Story (one of our favorite programs on public radio). I'm afraid it makes me out to be much more of an urban explorer than I actually am (there are many, many people who do this stuff far more and far better than I do). I just have a bully pulpit. That said, I did get to spend part of yesterday driving around and exploring Detroit's ruins with Camilo Jose Vergara. That's sort of like a foodie getting to hang out with Anthony Bourdain or a trekkie hanging out with William Shatner. In other words, it was awesome.

If you're visiting for the first time after hearing me on the radio, welcome. On this website I write about far more than just buildings and the city where I live. But you can read some of the things I've written about Detroit here.

The story about the building with all the books on the floor is here and here.

The story of Detroit's abandoned Belle Isle Zoo is here.

The photos of Detroit schools that appeared in Vice Magazine are here (this post describes more recent adventures in schools).

And if you're looking for hope, you might find some here.

This week's selection comes from the career shelf in our library of photo-illustrated Nixon-era children's books (published 1971). As always, some of the captions are real (but I made most of them up because the real ones were boring).

Charles Lawrence is a Chicago police officer. There are 13,000 policemen in the city and 500,000 policemen in the United States. The main job of a policeman is to enforce the laws of his city and state. Charles is going to show us what it's like to be a policeman.

It takes a lot of training to become a good policeman. After applying for his job, Charles had to pass several tests. When he was accepted for training, he was sent to the Chicago Police Academy, a school for policemen. "You chewin' gum, rook?" his teacher asks. "Do it again and I'll give ya detention.

Policeman school is a lot like regular school, except that at Policeman school you get to shoot guns all the time. Charles says shooting guns is as much fun as he always thought it would be. “It makes me feel powerful,” he says.

Charles learns to wield his night stick in formation. "Hippies show no mercy," his instructor barks. "So neither can you."

Man, Charles thinks, I hope the Tear Gas final examination is multiple choice.

Charles inspects some recently-confiscated weed. "Now that's some good shit," Charles notes.

Charles passed all his tests. He's a real cop now. "I can't wait to start waling on some hippies," he says.

Charles attends his first roll call. "That had better be powdered sugar on your jacket, Wakowski, or your days in the evidence room are over!"

Charles likes to go to the gun room and look at all the guns. "This room is cool," he says to the guy with the pocket protector.

"Yeah," the guy says.

Many big-city police departments have policewomen on duty. Although they do not have to chase after suspected car thieves very often, the women who are accepted for police work have to take the sane sort of physical and classroom training as their brother officers. Women police officers do all kinds of jobs---from investigating drug offenses to finding lost children and getting them home. [ed. note: I wish I had written that one]

Sometimes when Charles and his partner are on patrol, they spot a known felon, in this case a crooked Certified Public Accountant.

"You should know better than switching from the accrual method to the cash method!" Charles shouts in hot pursuit.

Charles brings the CPA into Central Booking. “What have we got here, Patrolman Lawrence?” asked the Sergeant. “Another book cooking swindler? You no good dirty piece of scum. You make me sick.”

The Sergeant congratulates Charles. “That’s another great collar, son. But dispatch just called in about some investment bankers loitering down on E. 119th. Be careful, though: they scatter like cockroaches.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Now book this mope, boys.”

Charles used to think those CSI shows were phony with their attractive investigators and non-conformist lab technicians, but not after meeting Ms. Peeples and seeing Harvey’s sideburns. “You guys could use some ambient lighting in here, though,” Charles told them.

If you're lousy at catching criminals or you don't listen to your superior officers, you may end up directing traffic like Officer McNulty here.

Traffic cops hardly ever get to shoot anyone.

Charles knows that if he always follows orders, respects the chain of command, and maybe catches a break, perhaps one day he’ll be asked to join the ranks of the Chicago Police Department’s elite Motortrike squadron.

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hey folks. I haven't had anything interesting to share for a few days and I've spent the last several evenings scanning some seriously weird children's books from the sixties/seventies instead of writing. I just wanted to note that even when I'm not writing entries for the middle column here I'm still posting a new photo every day, and writing posts about various things that inspire me every couple of days over there in the left-hand column. I love these posts because they're a chance to be a little more casual than I usually am in all the serious regular posts about gloom and doom and childherding. My wife is also writing about some of her craft projects (this week: Easter outfits for the kids). Since we added these features about eight months ago, I've received a number of e-mails complaining that the new posts in the left column don't appear in feed readers. So I finally figured out a way to blend the RSS feeds for all of the content on this website. If you're interested, you can switch the feed in your reader to the new one (RSS or Atom).

If not, I should have a new terrifying Nixon-era children's book up shortly.

The Singularity

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 03, 2009 | , ,

Last week I read in the morning paper about a street here where 60 out of 66 homes were vacant or abandoned on a single block. The reporter called it a "ghost street." Yesterday I found myself in the area. Other than an errant sofa, the street was completely empty, almost peaceful. I took a photo of every house on the north side of one block and then stitched them together. If you were to compare the current international housing crisis to a black hole sucking the equity out of our homes, this one-way street near the northern border of Detroit might just be the singularity: the point where the density of the problem defies anyone's ability to comprehend it. These homes started emptying in 2006.

Click on the image below to load a large file in your browser and then zoom and scroll right. This is the entire north side of the block: every home, every lot. You'll notice the fourth and seventh homes appear occupied. Pay attention to the state of all the other houses rather than the terrible stitching job:

This is just another virtually-abandoned block in Detroit. Eventually the burned houses will collapse; the boarded-up houses will burn. Someday it will all be green.

But this is what it looks like today.


I went back and took pictures of the houses on the south side of the road, just to show the extent of vacancy on this single block. Again, click on the image and try to ignore the stitching job: