Houses in Detroit

This entry should be entirely in pictures, but instead, it is entirely in words. I’m sorry. I’ve failed you. Words are all I have.

On Monday, while making the long drive back from Minnesota, my parents and I stopped and stayed the night with my mom’s younger brother in Detroit. Last summer he bought a house there in a neighborhood called La Salle Gardens. It’s a two story, four-bedroom Tudor with a big, open attic, and stained glass in the dining room, and a beautiful carved bannister on the stairs, and a basement that has two bathrooms, a bar, and pool table which maybe used to be a speakeasy. He paid $20,000 for it.

I don’t know a lot about Detroit. I’m very willing to admit that I haven’t really done my research. I know that they make cars there, and that there were race riots in the sixties, and then everything got dangerous and over a million people left (I don’t know which happened first) and now everyone in the country seems to feel scared and sad and bitter about Detroit. And I know that before my uncle even closed the sale of his house, someone came in and stole all the copper pipes.

At some indeterminate point during my freshman year of college, when, as a dorm dweller, I was in the throes of a bit of a house-obsession, I had stumbled across this website: http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/. What the photographer had captured was cold and crumbling and beautiful and lonely. I returned over and over to stare at the houses, all of which seemed to whisper, in their hundred different voices, I once was.

And then, five years later, on Monday, there I was in Detroit. We were there for less than twenty hours, some of which necessarily involved sleeping, but we walked and we drove and we walked again, and I saw those houses. In my uncle’s neighborhood, children played in the street, ramming into one another happily with their bikes, older siblings bossing and cajoling the younger ones. Houses in good repair and houses still clearly stuck in tough times sat next to houses marked for demolition, and houses with their whole back ends fallen in which were probably still years from the top of the city’s demo list. My dad said the neighborhoods were like a mouth full of broken teeth.

We walked and I stared at the houses. I know so little about architecture that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I loved about them. (So much for “words are all I have.”) Most of them were big, some of them huge. Every window and door seemed to be broken or boarded or barred. Some had box air conditioners spilling out of them. There were pillars and many-paned glass windows, and yards full of weeds that looked older than me, and generous front stoops, and turrets with overgrown trees leaning into them, and sloping slate roofs, and stone facades with bullet wounds, and gingerbread molding, and gables that sagged like sleeping eyes, and intricate brickwork, and worn steps adorned with enormous concrete fleurs-de-lis and lions, brought in to urge tired houses on to former glory. We walked and we looked and every time my mom said, “Oh, it’s so sad,” I found myself saying, “Oh, it’s so pretty.”

People who saw us from their porches or their cars looked and waved at the gawking white people with friendly confusion, like we were desert animals wandered into the tundra. One lady named Addie Tyson, age ninety-one, stopped us and talked almost non-stop for twenty minutes, mostly about how proud she was to live in the house she lived in, and then wanted to give me a hug, largely, I think, motivated by her surprise that I was twenty-four, and not fifteen, like she had thought. We walked on and saw several pit bulls, one happily roaming free.

Even before this very brief visit I had talked about my fascination with Detroit and the strange appeal the shattered houses held for me, but I am not built to be an urban homesteader. I am white and single and female, and while I know this doesn’t entirely preclude me, the fact that I am easily frightened, less than usually resourceful, and more than usually uncomfortable even in the safest of cities probably does. Detroit is dangerous. It is no longer the murder capital of the United States (Hooray, Chicago!), but there is still a bullet hole in one of my uncle’s front windows. Many other houses have them too. And though with a few more years of teaching I could probably afford to buy a house there out-of-pocket, the work to be done in most of them is enormous. A few of the doors in my uncle’s house are salvaged from other places. And when we left on Monday, there were holes in the living room ceiling and the upstairs bathroom floor, all on the docket to be repaired in the coming weeks.

But even if I don’t go to Detroit, there is something to be learned. (There is always something to be learned.) There is something that Kevin Bauman’s 100 Abandoned Houses project did not capture, or at least which I could not capture from it. His photos show individual houses, alone in their desolation. But when I stood in front of those houses and rode down rows of them, they cast a different spell on me. They sat all pressed up against one another in their various architectural styles and their levels of decay and repair, and they reminded me of people. I don’t just mean that as a some lightweight personification. I know houses don’t have immortal souls, but they reminded me of you and me and him and her all added on next to one another, side by side in our memories and our oddities and our destruction and our hope and our waiting.

Monday evening, as we drove around neighborhoods full of slightly-dilapidated mansions and long-abandoned houses with trees grown up through them, my dad marveled at such devastation existing so close to such wealth. But I looked into their eyes and I could not be surprised. Those houses were tired and wounded, some with their guts ripped out. Made of dust, they looked ready for resurrection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s