… at a couple of recent documentaries on the disintegration of my hometown, Detroit, Michigan.
Brenna Sanchez, a co-director of “Burn,” who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Los Angeles, was visiting her family in 2008 when she learned of a city firefighter killed in a blaze in a vacant house. Curious why someone would risk his life fighting a fire in an abandoned building, Ms. Sanchez visited her local fire station, where she discovered how badly the Detroit department was besieged. Besides battling more fires than any other city in the United States — an estimated 30,000 calls a year, many of which involve the city’s 80,000 abandoned buildings — firefighters also face budget cuts, shoddy gear and rickety fire trucks “held together with bubble gum and tape,” as one firefighter puts it in the film.
I had the good fortune to attend Cass Technical High School, once the city’s flagship school and a regular stopping point for Nobel Laureate’s on lecture tours. It was downtown, and my family lived on the city’s west side, so I took a 20-mile or so bus ride every day for 3-years to get there.
I started out in a wholesome suburb, and ended at the foot of an area known as the Cass Corridor, one of the city’s roughest areas. I saw stores close and storefronts that remained vacant for years; occasional and clearly doomed efforts to rehabilitate this block or that; spontaneous street blockages because of assembled mobs, on and on. The only businesses that seemed to always be busy were record stores, Motown pumped into the neighborhood with huge speakers out on the sidewalk.
My point is that making that bus trip every day for 3-years gave me a 4-dimensional perspective — x, y, z, time — on what was happening to the city, and when I left home for college I was sure the city was doomed and my decision to never return to live there was firm.
The last time I was back there was my sister’s wedding, 20-something years ago.
I always read news stories about Detroit’s fortunes, and always with sadness at what has happened to a once great city, a city that wasn’t a bad place to grow-up. But always with indignation, too. The picture below is one of the science classrooms at my alma mater, Cass Tech — the classroom, I believe, where I studied analytical chemistry.
Once abandoned, the building was deliberately, repeatedly, systematically vandalized. Nothing, nothing, can cure a culture which tolerates such things.