Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 2012: The City of Detroit

The 1958 Statue known as the Spirit of Detroit

      I am in Detroit… well not actually in Detroit.  I am in Livonia, suburb of Detroit, which is the town my parents moved us to from Detroit in the height of what was then called White Flight.  Back then the City of Detroit was in the top ten largest cities in the United States.  At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States between 1920 and the mid 1950s.  Detroit's population peaked at about 2 million people.  
The current population, as reported in 2011, of the city is 706,585.  Detroit is now ranked as the 18th largest city in the United States.  In the last census, it was reported that the city lost a whopping 25% of its population.  It is simply incredible.  As a metropolitan area, Detroit is ranked 13th but even this population has dropped 24% meaning people have simply left the region. 
It breaks my heart.  Almost anything I read about Detroit is depressing. The number of abandoned and empty homes is negatively impressive.  The number of homes that have been razed is equally depressing.  There is something like forty square miles of the city that is vacant.  That is an astronomical number.  There are stories of packs of feral dogs roaming some areas and people raising chickens and farming in some parts of the city.  There is a March 20, 2012 Rolling Stone article about an estimated 50,000 stray dogs in the city. 
A few years ago, I was a Wayne State University Alumni event in Skokie, IL.  I won one of the many door prizes.  My prize was a book about the architecture of Detroit.  It is a gem of a book and I am happy to have it.  In reading it, there was a very depressing aspect to it.  Many of the buildings featured and photographed in the book were noted to be either torn down or abandoned.  The entire urban renewal movement seems to have bypassed Detroit.
The only time I am ever in the city these days is when I drive from my parents’ home in Livonia to either of the two Armenian churches in Metro Detroit.  St. Sarkis church is in Dearborn.  I drive through Detroit to get there albeit all on expressways or major streets.  When I go down the Southfield Expressway, see burned out apartment buildings and closed business.  When I go to St. John’s, I go east on 8 Mile Rd. which is the northern border of Detroit.  That stretch of 8 Mile doesn’t look so bad by comparison.
I have not really explored the city since I moved away in 1990.  I have not been to the neighborhoods were I grew up.  The most I have looked at one of my childhood homes on Google Maps. 
I should probably make a tour of the city.  I should probably go and see for myself what is happening there.  I have had this notion for several years and have not done it for two reasons.  First, my trips to Detroit are usually weekend trips and often overnighters.  I go to visit family and as often or not for a specific purpose.  Thus my schedule is pretty busy and there is not a lot of free time to do something like this.  Secondly, I am a bit tentative about doing it.  Yes, that means a little afraid.  I am a victim of the negative things I have read about the city.  Is it safe to visit my old neighborhood and see what kind of shape my old schools and other haunts look like?  One solution I have come up with is to make such a tour at dawn on some summer day.  That is the hour when I have no obligations and when a majority of people are sleeping.  It should be safe then and it would not interfere with my other obligations.  It is probably safe at other times and I am just showing my age and demographic. 
My sister Nancy does go into the city regularly.  She enjoys the Techno Music scene which our late sister Laura helped pioneer.  She is downtown often and is encouraged by what she sees people trying to do.  She would probably volunteer to go with me on this tour. 
Not everything I read is negative.  There are a cadre of folks who are trying to make a go of things.  You read and hear about them in the media.  My sister Nancy speaks of some of the positive things.  Mayor Dave Bing seems to be trying very hard to move the city in the right direction but the challenges are incredible.  There has to be a revolution and renaissance of homesteaders and entrepreneurs willing to start up in what are incredibly low real estate costs in the city.  I look to the generation of young people I teach, those that have just graduated and are underemployed. They are the ones that can take a risk and move into the city and renew the abandoned shells of buildings, warehouses, factories and even homes.  The new businesses we read about in Detroit are bars, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, coffee houses, and bakeries are fine and very visible.  I am not sure of the numbers.  Detroit needs more than this.  Detroit needs businesses that create a new industry and a wave of jobs. 
I am a product of the Detroit Public Schools... at least through tenth grade.  I went to Robert Burns Elementary, Cadillac Junior High School, and then Cass Technical High School for half a year.  I finished up my last two and a half years in Livonia.  I would have like to have graduated from Cass Tech which was a renowned magnet school in the City of Detroit for many years.  I was proud to have gotten admitted.  I used to take the bus down to Cass.  I was excited to do so.  I was getting into the city on a different level.   Sadly, it was only for a semester. 
The last time I spent any real time in Detroit was when I was a graduate student at Wayne State University in the 1980s.   I enjoyed being downtown part of that great urban university.  Universities are insular and I really did not get a great feel for the city.
I believe there is a defining point that began the long downward spiral of the city.  It was the 1967 riots.  Many cities experienced riots in the second half of the 1960s.  The riots were in poor black neighborhoods.  The riots usually involved the destruction of property and the looting of stores.  I suppose the stores, in those days, were owned by white folk who no longer lived in the neighborhood.  The riots in Detroit were particularly brutal.  They were perhaps the worst of the hundreds of riots that tore through America's urban landscapes in those tumultuous years. There was, from my perspective, a feeling of uneasiness that hung over the city from that point on.  If the riots did not trigger the white flight from Detroit, it certainly escalated it.  That much cannot be denied.
Jerome Cavanaugh was the mayor of the city during the riots. He was elected as a young John Kennedy kind of leader in 1962.  The riots, however, were his undoing.  He was criticized as being slow to react and things got out of hand.  43 people were killed.  5,000 or so became homeless.  The riots were only quelled when a large number of federal troops were called in.  It was ugly and had a lasting impact on the city.
Cavanaugh did not run for re-election in 1970.  Roman Gribbs became the next mayor.  Gribbs ran again Richard Austin a black man and won.  Gribbs was mayor for only one term and from what I can remember basically treaded water.  He declined to run for another term.  In 1974, Detroit elected their first black mayor, Coleman Young.  Coleman Young was truly polarizing.  Blacks loved him and most whites did not care for him at all.  He was mayor for five terms.  In that time, the city lost half of its population and had a soaring crime rate.  Was the decline of Detroit inevitable or was Coleman Young a catalyst of it.  Probably it was a fair measure of both.
During this same time, the auto industry went from its post war monopoly to having to compete with the Japanese imports on quality, price, and fuel economy.  The industry that was the lifeblood of the Motor City was losing market share and trying to redefine itself just when the city needed it most.  The solution in the auto industry was not favorable to Detroit or the state of Michigan.  The industry needed new plants and those plants were not built in Michigan but rather in other parts of the country and in Mexico.
As a result of the changes in the city and the auto industry, jobs and the tax base left the city in droves.  Coleman Young, to his credit, tried to re-vitalize downtown with building projects designed to bring business and consumers into the heart of the city.  Under his administration, the Renaissance Center, Joe Louis Arena, a People Mover, and the General Motors Poletown plant.  These were good ambitious projects that were just not enough to turn the tide.
I know I should not generalize, but I do not think I am making a wild conjecture when I say that black folk in large part supported Coleman Young and white folk in general did not.  Detroiter's support for Coleman Young was clear from the length of time he served as mayor:  1974-1993.  He was elected the same week that Maynard Jackson was elected mayor of Atlanta.  They were both the first black mayors of their cities.  The cities could not have taken more opposite paths.  This lead credence to the argument that it was more socio-economic trends than Young's regime that contributed to the decline of a great American city.
In the early, 1970s, I spent a summer or two working with my Uncle Ozzie.  He had left General Motors where he was a machine repair specialist to open his own home repair and modernization business.  This was around the time when people began to abandon their homes in the city in greater numbers.  Most of these homes had Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mortgages.  As these homes were abandoned, HUD took ownership of them.  The homes were being abandoned faster than they could be sold.  So, HUD had them boarded up.  My Uncle was lucky to get a contract boarding up these homes.  It was a pretty good business for him and grew to dominate his business. 
I helped him.  We cleaned out the houses of trash and whatever else was left behind.  Full refrigerators were the worst!  We winterized the plumbing by pouring anti-freeze in each drain.  Then we boarded up the windows and doors making the house an eyesore in the neighborhood.  We padlocked the front door.  My uncle got to where we could do one house in less than a day.  He used to cut the plywood on-site but later moved to taking measurements, cutting the boards in his shop, and thus minimizing the time on site.
The houses could be broken into but one would need more than a crow bar to do it.  The plywood on the outside was braced by 2x4s on the insides for the windows.  The houses we boarded were quite secure.  They would be relatively intact until HUD got around to cleaning them up and selling them.  
It was a great experience working with my Uncle.  I will never forget those times.  Back then, I thought we were doing a good thing.  It was bad that houses were being abandoned and that we had to board them up.  But, I really believed it was a temporary thing.  It was not.  The number of boarded up houses grew out of control.
These homes were eventually vandalized, some were burned down in the fires Detroit became infamous for, and the great majorities of them have been or are being bulldozed.  This accounts for the amount of open land in the city.  It is a sad bit of history that I had a small role in.
Detroit and Pittsburgh define the American cities that drove the industrial growth of the country.  Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the country.  Their football team is named the Steelers.  Their team logo is based on the Steelmark logo of the American Iron and Steel institute and was created by US Steel Corporation.  Detroit was the car capital of the US if not the world.  Detroit's basketball team is named the Pistons.  The hockey team is the Red Wings whose logo is spoke wheel with a wing.  Both were gritty and tough towns, a reflection of their primary industries. 
Both cities suffered in the 1970s and 80s.  Steel left Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.  I used to travel there in those days.  The company I worked for had a plant in Newcastle half way between Pittsburgh and Youngstown.  I witnessed old factory after old factory being shut down and left to decay.  To me, there is nothing uglier than a shut down factory. 
I used to believe that the decline was pretty fast for Pittsburgh and the decline in Detroit took longer.  I was right and wrong.  I just read that Pittsburgh lost 100,000 jobs from 1978 to 1982.  I witnessed the tail end of this era.  What I did not know was that the city had lost 100,000 jobs from 1945 to 1978.  It was more likely an exponential decay.  It started slow and then accelerated rapidly.  I would say the same kind of thing happened in Detroit. 
The jobs both cities lost were the high paying blue collar job that defined the status and strength the lower middle blue collar workers enjoyed from the end of World War II until 1980 or so.  These folk worked hard but were compensated well.  They owned houses.  It was not surprising to see people have boats and summer cottages "up north" in the working class neighborhood in Detroit where I grew up.  That is all gone:  the jobs and the lifestyle. 
I have an old friend that I know of who still lives in the City proper.  He is a reader of this letter.  His commitment is greater than that of anyone I know.  He will not move.  His political views have changed with time.  He was a liberal back in the day when we worked together and saw each other almost every day.  Over the years, he has become more conservative in direct proportion to the intensity of his Christian faith.  His love for the city and what it can be is unwavering.  Perhaps the first stop on the tour ought to be to visit him.  He would also be a great tour guide.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

September 22, 2012: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

The Notre Dame vs. Michigan game just ended.  Notre Dame won 13 – 6.  This was the lowest scoring game between these storied football programs since the 1908 game that Michigan won 12 – 0.  I have written about the nail biting victories by Michigan the last two years;  it only seems appropriate that I comment on this year’s game.  This does confirm that I am a wannabe sports writer. 
  Michigan’s streak of three last minute victories against Notre Dame ended tonight.  Notre Dame took their record to 4-0.  Michigan’s record is at 2-2. 
I have not had the frustrating pleasure of saying this about Michigan for a long time but it makes sense again.  Michigan is the best 2 – 2 team in the country.  In the first game, Michigan was crushed by Alabama.  It wasn’t pretty and it was not remotely close.  Michigan then had two wins against Air Force and Massachusetts.  They struggled against Air Force whose disciplined option attack was effective against Michigan’s young defensive line.  There was a glimmer of hope in the last two series against Air Force.  The defense stopped Air Force twice and showed what they were capable of.  Massachusetts is not a strong team, therefore it was impossible to see if they were improving or if they just beat up a team that was struggling themselves.
What makes them the best 2 – 2 team in the nation?  Simply, it was beating Notre Dame in total yardage 299 – 239.  This is a testimony to Michigan’s emerging defense.  It was also a testimony to the Michigan offense that did move the ball against Notre Dame.  They simply shot themselves in the foot with turnovers.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame had beat Navy, Purdue, and Michigan State.  They took care of Navy handily.  They needed an end of game drive to beat Purdue.  Most thought that their first real test was to come against Michigan State in a game that was played in East Lansing.  They crushed Michigan State 20-3.  In two games against the best the state of Michigan has to offer, Notre Dame’s defense gave up three field goals.  This is impressive especially against Michigan which had scored 38, 28, and 35 points in the past three years. In this win against Michigan, as in the win against Purdue, Brian Kelly went to the back-up veteran QB Tommy Rees in pulling freshman phenom Everett Golson.
Certainly Notre Dame’s defense deserves kudos.  They registered five interceptions and a lost fumble.  All the Michigan turnovers were in Notre Dame territory!  Notre Dame was plus four in turnovers.  Their defense was stingy in the red zone and did not allow Michigan in the end zone.   I have to put part of the blame on Denard Robinson.  He made some hurried and bad throws.  Michigan could have had at least one touchdown, maybe two.  One of the turnovers turned in the Notre Dame touchdown.  Denard was magical the past two years with long runs and last minute heroics.  While he had chances this evening, it was not to be this year. 
Kudos to Notre Dame. 

Bloggy Bit about Nothing

This one is for Ara Topouzian.  He is always commenting that I write about nothing.  Actually, he does no use the word write but rather ramble.  He is always commenting on this piece or that saying things like “wow, you will write about anything that comes to your mind.”  Or if we are just chit-chatting, he will add “hey, you oughta blog about this.”  I wish he would say that I just write a lot about nothing.   If he had said that I would have actually been honored.  Hearing that would have been a compliment for it would have reference Seinfeld.  I love that show as does Ara. 
One of the Seinfeld themes was a show within a show.  This theme ran an entire season.  George and Jerry got the opportunity to develop a sitcom pilot for NBC;  NBC was the same network that aired the Seinfeld show.   In the series, George and Jerry tried to work on the pilot but never made progress.  They got diverted by the everyday things they loved to do like going to the diner, to a movie, or just hanging out.  When they were adamant about working, they would make no progress and revert to their comfortable habits.  When the time came to pitch the theme of their pilot, they had nothing to go with.  So, George proposed “a show about nothing.”  As he went on to explain this show about noting concept, he kept referring to vignettes in the Seinfeld show itself.  Seinfeld was indeed a show about nothing that was cleverly and hilariously done.  Probably the reason Ara did not use the Seinfeldian phrase is most likely because my bloggy bits in this vein are simply not clever nor hilarious enough.
I have always thought that the best sitcoms were shows about nothing.  They started out as everyday normal activities that through happenstance became outrageously funny.  Seinfeld was kind of a 1990s recreation, in my view, of The Jack Benny Show which was the original show about nothing.  It is all summed up nicely on the official Seinfeld website::

With its inimitable take on life's most mundane moments, Seinfeld --ubiquitously and ironically referred to as "the show about nothing"-garnered countless accolades, initiated a string of words and terms into America's pop culture lexicon... and continues to draw network-sized audiences into its uniquely comic world.
Here is why I am writing about this today.  This morning, I had an idea to blog about today.  It was a little odd as some of my themes are but I thought it was something that I could develop into a 500 worder or so.  As usual, I did not jot this idea down.  I made a mental note of it.  The problem with my mental notes is the same problem George had with using a label maker on the series; the glue is unreliable.  The glue doesn’t stick.  My mental notes are post-its do not always stick.  Somewhere in the dark corners of my mind, are a pile of dusty old post-its with ideas I have had and tasks that my wife asked me to do that I simply have no recall of. 
Therefore, I have no clue as of this writing what my idea is.   So, I am writing this blog about nothing. 
The one thing I remember about the idea was thinking it was an idea about nothing kind of piece that my friend Ara would have a field day with.  It was an idea about nothing that evaporated into nothingness.  It was an idea about nothing that convoluted and collapsed into nothing.  It was a wisp of nothing that floated away on an ether breeze.  I may have to call Ara and see if it wafted his way.  On second thought, I will not have to call Ara.  He will call me the moment he reads this piece.   We will then have a little George and Jerry dialogue. 
I am waiting George… er… I mean Ara.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Freedom of Speech and Tolerance

The movie “Innocence of Muslims” has caused riots around the Muslim world.  The first of these, which seemed to fuel the remainder, happened in Libya.  People stormed the US Consulate in Benghazi.  The attacks resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his State Department colleagues.  There has been a lot of rhetoric on this from all sides.  President Obama has vowed that justice will be done.  By all accounts, Stevens was a very good diplomat and understood the Muslim world and Libya.  He was highly regarded to the point that some Libyans put themselves in harm’s way to try to save the Americans.  There are also reports that the attacks in the Libya were actually a terrorist plot.
Meanwhile, violence has erupted in many countries.  Here at home, everyone that has a voice is condemning the movie that caused all of this.  I have to agree that the movie was an act of propaganda and definitely anti-Muslim.  I do not know how anyone involved in the making of that movie can sleep at night knowing that their work caused the riots that killed four US diplomats.
Yet, we value free speech in this country.  Most of the time, it is an easy right to support and defend.  It is the cornerstone of our democracy.  I can say whatever I want without fear of being thrown in jail or worse.  I can verbally disparage any of our leaders.  I can preach revolution if I want to.  I can advocate atheism if I so choose.  I can talk smack about any religion I want to. It might be idiotic or just plain rude, but I can do it if I want.  Can’t therefore the folks behind the “Innocence of Muslims” make any movie they want even if they know the Muslim world will be enraged? 
This is a key question that is not being addressed while we are bending over backwards trying to be tolerant.  The filmmakers did not physically hit or hurt anyone.  Yet, Christians are under pressure in many Muslim countries.  Armenian Christians are under siege and being killed in Aleppo, Syria.  Christians have been attacked since the fall of Sadam in Iraq.  Azerbaijan treated a soldier who killed an Armenian with an ax as a national hero.  Where is the tolerance in the Islamic world?  It seems to be a very one way street.
Bad things are being done in the name of Islam.  This has been going since at least the Armenian Genocide.  Christians have essentially been driven out of every country in the Middle East.  Look at the population proportions today as compared to one hundred years ago.  Certainly, historically, bad things have been done in the name of Christianity.  Our hands are definitely not clean.
All I am saying is that, we need to continue to value free speech and insist that tolerance be a two way street.  Easy to say, hard to do.