A Drive-By Shooting in Detroit

 

I was born in The Motor City.   I graduated from U of M, and headed West to seek my fortune. I’ve lived in Seattle for over thirty years.  It was love at first sight, it’s the home of my heart, and where my children were born…

 

 

…but I still feel unexpected tugs on my Midwestern roots.

Detroit is where my parents and grandparents are buried.

In French ‘Detroit’ means ‘channel or strait connecting two bodies of water.’  That would be the Detroit River that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

That would also be my Aunt Loena, who connects me to my mother–through memories, blood ties, and love.  Last spring I returned to the river that spawned me.

My Aunt Loena and sister Lee are still in Michigan, and are always ready for a visit.

We did a drive-by shooting of the old neighborhood…with a camera.  We took shots of the little house I grew up in.

Many other houses were already pretty well shot.

Across from Newton School, a woman kept cranky geese in her yard, but the geese were long gone, and so was the house.


My high school was for sale.  It was named for Thomas M. Cooley ( 1824-1898), a local boy done good.  He started out with a small law business and ended up on the Michigan Supreme Court.  In The Cooley Doctrine, he wrote “local government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot…take it away.”  Cooley must be spinning in his grave since Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder gave himself the power to take over cities, remove locally elected officials, install puppet governments, and destroy labor unions.  Not in Russia.  Not in North Korea.  This is happening in the United States of America.

Yes, there are financial woes, and the economy and tax base of the area were dependent upon the auto industry.  Highland Park, a town engulfed by Detroit, managed to stay independent despite efforts to incorporate it.  Ford closed its Highland Park factory in the 1950s and Chrysler pulled out in 1993.  The population, once over 45, 000, has decreased to 11,000.  Now it’s ‘The Detroit of Detroit’, so poor Detroit doesn’t even want it anymore. My grandparents’ Highland Park house was gone.  So was the school across the street.


If not for this sign, I wouldn’t have known Highland Park still existed.

But there must be better ways than total dictatorship to save the city.  We went to Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River, halfway between Canada and the United States.  It became a city park in 1904, and in 2014 it became a state park to avoid operation costs to the city.

 There used to be an elephant house, a bandstand, and a boathouse.  I learned to canoe in its waterways.

Honey Buckets are probably cheaper to maintain than the elegant brick restrooms…

…a compromise so the park might be used and enjoyed.

There was still beauty.

And history.

The Belle Isle Aquarium was built in 1904.  As kids we watched the electric eel touch an underwater wire in its tank to light up electric light bulbs.  It was the longest continually operating aquarium until 2005 when, after 101 years, it closed its doors due to lack of funding.

But in 2012 the aquarium was reopened–Saturdays only–and is run completely by volunteers from the Belle Isle Conservancy.  Admission free.

 

Next door is the Whitcomb Conservatory.

My folks used to turn seven kids loose in there; we played Tarzan, and our Johnny Weissmuller jungle calls bounced off that glass ceiling.

At the Detroit Institute of Art we found culture, art, and history.

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As kids we loved the shiny suits of armor in the great hall.

As adults, we admired the Diego Rivera mural, a powerful statement about Detroit Industries.  In 1932 it was scandalous that workers with black, white, and brown skin were depicted working side by side.  But Edsel Ford, who paid the bill, said he thought Rivera captured the Spirit of Detroit.

“Watson and the Shark,” my favorite painting from childhood visits to the museum, told a true story.  Copley portrayed a multiracial crew rescuing their shipmate from a shark.  Painted in 1777, a time of revolution against tyranny, artists began to depict common people as heroes. At least in Michigan, where the sharks are still circling, it is still a relevant message.

 

I was saddened to read so many hateful bigoted comments when researching this sculpture honoring Detroit boxer Joe Lewis.

In Detroit there was and is despair and poverty, racism and anger.

But I also saw positive action, innovative ideas for bringing life and art back into the city.  Are you a writer?  Want a free house?   Check out Write-a-House.  This organization buys abandoned houses, renovates them, and gives them to artists willing to come live in them, practice their art, enrich their community.  There are pea patches growing where, on my last visit, I saw burned out houses.

L-O-O-K.

The Spirit of Detroit is still strong.

I saw soul.

And hope.

 

Sweetness.

Pride.

I saw the future in a city park, where kids were playing.

 At the conservatory I saw cactus blooming in the desert, a public park taken over by volunteers who made it available to the public.

I saw open hearts.

In the most unexpected places.

 Detroit still has plenty of room to grow, room for hope.

Please watch this two minute video for another look at Detroit. 

 All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Unexpected.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Room.

Remembering Fort Detroit

 

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At Isaac Newton School, my third grade Social Studies teacher walked out of The Far Side into our classroom.  Mrs. Glotzbecker was a plump middle-aged woman who squeezed into dresses suitable only for Doris Day in her prime.  She wore pointy rhinestone-studded glasses, and bleached blond hair in a French twist.  She’d taught all my big sisters, and whenever she called on me, it was by one of their names.

On the first day of class we opened our history books and read about Fort Detroit.  Our assignment was to draw a picture of it.  Every day we read aloud, then worked silently.  If Mrs. Glotzbecker caught you chewing gum, like Jerry Fink, she made you wear it on your nose.  If she caught you talking, like Jerry Fink, she made you sit in the wastebasket.  Repeat offenders felt the sting of Old Harry, the paddle on the wall.  Jerry became the stuff of legend after Mrs. Glotzbecker sat him in the cardboard wastebasket and it split into pieces.  He was elevated to folk hero when she broke Old Harry on his backside and he just grinned at his buddies, who cheered him on.

Every day in class I worked on my drawing.  Fort Detroit looked better and better.  I added a canoe on the riverbank, a fish in the water.  After a week or two, I couldn’t think of anything else to add, so I used crayons to color it, but details were lost beneath the wax.  I erased stuff and started over, but that left smudges and wore holes in the paper.  I suspected something was going terribly wrong.  I was sick of Fort Detroit, but kept working it like a hangnail.  Finally Mrs. Glotzbecker collected our notebooks for grading.  She got to mine, and called me to her desk.

“Where’s the rest of your work?” she said.

“You said to draw a picture of Fort Detroit,” I whispered.

“That was weeks ago.  Where are the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter?  And the next five chapters?”

I swear I never heard her tell us to answer any questions.  But, dangit!  I should have known.  I’d had a feeling, but was too shy to ask for help or even clarification.  I was confused, and when Mrs. Glotzbecker reached for Old Harry, I was mortified.

What I learned from Mrs. Glotzpecker that day, I’ve applied to my writing.  Follow the submission guidelines!  And your gut.  When in doubt, raise your hand, ask questions.  Cut the fat for a cleaner read or add a scene to flesh it out, but don’t polish the silver off the teapot, or edit until you’ve worn holes in your paper.

What I learned from Jerry Fink was even more important.  Be resilient.  Build up calluses—in all the right places.  Let no one, and certainly not your editor, intimidate you.  Find a support group to cheer you on—there are local, regional, and national organizations you can join.  Most importantly, remember that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but let no one break your spirit.

 

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Leonardo Da Vinci, Italian Renaissance Polymath (1452-1519)                                    

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

–Paul Valery, French Critic and Poet (1871-1945)

“Remember Fort Detroit!”

–Naomi Baltuck, Author, Storyteller, and Native Detroiter (1956- )