My incredible grandmother, an author, a librarian, and the most optimistic person I know, wrote the guidebook, Walking Portland about fifteen years ago. I remember when she wrote it, my mother and I accompanied her on her walks. I loved the Ramona books when I was a kid, and my grandma delighted me by taking me on her Klickitat Street tour, where we found the house the author had lived that served as inspiration for Ramona’s home in NE Portland. There is a park nearby with a statue of Ramona and her friends. I was probably whiny the whole time, but damn if I’m not so glad I was dragged along. Its one of my most vivid memories, and instilled a love of urban discovery and exploration in me. You can read about my grandma’s love of walking and urban exploring here, but I’ll share my favorite bit:
Looking up to the top of buildings, or down at the sidewalks, yielded surprising bits of architecture and history…
One recent discovery was the Weinhard brewery 100th birthday time capsule, which celebrated the founding of the brewery. Once, it was near the front door of the Weinhard brewery and mentioned in their handouts. I had referred to it in my first book. Since the building was torn down to create the Brewery Blocks a few years ago, it had disappeared, and no one at Henry’s Pub seemed to know. I couldn’t seem to get through to anyone else, and a search of the Oregonian files turned up nothing. Since the brewery itself was gone, I dropped the search.
Then—and this is what is so fun about walking—one day I stopped by the Vera Katz Sliver Park on NW Davis Street, and noticed a little brass circle in the sidewalk near the street. And there it was. It was installed in the original brewery in 1956, then buried here, and is scheduled for opening in 2056. Put the date on your calendars and plan a party! Want to bet there will be some well-aged bottles?
There is so much discussion in Detroit about the value of tearing down dilapidated buildings, ridding the city of blight, removing ruined structures and replacing (restoring?) the city to prairie. But there is always, always loss in tearing down a city’s buildings.
I’ve mentioned this before (and will continue to mention it since its one of my favorite things about living in Detroit), but every day I ride my bike through Brush Park. Brush Park was mainly developed in the 1870′s as a mansion district. Mr. Brush made sure that only super fancy, single family Victorians were built, and the neighborhood was so lovely that into the turn of the century, it was called Little Paris. Detroit’s favorite Romanesque and Art Deco architect, Albert Khan designed some of his first homes there, including his own. Because of its proximity to downtown (Brush Park lies east of Woodward, north of current I-75 and south of Mack Avenue), it was a popular neighborhood with the bourgeois of mid-nineteenth century Detroit. These family’s daughters married minor princes in Europe, and the sons became lumber barons and city councilmen.
But by the 1920′s, Brush Park had been forsaken by the bougey elite of Detroit, who moved (with streetcars and automobiles) to new neighborhoods like Boston Edison and Indian Village. But the intrinsic value of the Brush Park homes–location and quality craftsmanship– remained and the majority of the luxurious mansions were divided into flats for new immigrants who began pouring into Detroit to work for Henry Ford. Census records indicate that upwards of 30 people occupied single homes. Once regal and proper, Brush Park soon became busy and crowded. Store fronts, bars and restaurants were added to the exteriors of some of the mansions to serve the new residents.
As Brush Park became more dense, it became an extension of Paradise Valley, the historically black neighborhood (I think) near present day Ford Field and Comerica Park. Here’s where the generic research I’ve found goes pretty quiet, preferring to skip over any mention of the 1940′s race riot’s effect on the neighborhood. I dug up a picture or two, and it was odd to see some of the buildings that guide me home in this context, surrounded by men in white t-shirts, lined by busted cars.
I could go on speculating on what I think might have happened to Brush Park from 1930 to 1990, decades where the Detroit Historical Society’s entry on it goes quiet, years where the park lost over 50% of its structures. In those 60 years, Brush Park went from lively, full of ruckus, to the epitome of Detroit’s Urban Prairies. Now, in the mornings and evenings, when I ride on John R street, Brush Park smells good, the way I remember the Oregon rural country side to smell. I’ve picked wildflowers there, bringing them back to my apartment only four blocks away on a decidedly urban street.
But I like the ruins of Brush Park. I try to imagine if they had all been cleared– like a certain king of the city suggests. The few fairly well-preserved structures that remain (especially the apartments built in the 1920′s), are occupied, taken better care of than structures in Midtown, restored to their pre-1930′s glory. I think if those ghost houses (now gone to grainy photographs and lithographs) remained, the neighborhood would be stronger. If nothing, those homes (in whatever form) stand as a memorial to an old way of living, an old idea of what it meant to be American and successful.
The blighted homes all over Detroit’s neighborhoods pose serious problems to redevelopment, reinvestment, public safety, property values, etc. I get it. But let’s not be so hasty for once. Let’s think about what we say when we tear down entire neighborhoods of homes, claiming that they are worthless, that no one– the families who lived there, who bought them, the architects who designed them, the construction crews that built them, the children who grew up in them, the city that encouraged them– values them. Without carefully considering what these homes stand for– an modernist American dream, realized!– how are we able to ensure our children understand what their grandparents worked for? What Detroit, what America, once worked for?
If we tear down our past, what will remind us of it? If there is no brass circle on the sidewalk to discover on a wintery jaunt around town, no plaque on a building to read about the hidden stories that once unfolded there, what will we remember?
A building destroyed can never be rebuilt. It can never stand as a memorial, a testament, an icon for what it meant. In our haste to improve and look forward to the next 20 years in Detroit, let’s not forget where we came from. Let’s not forget the Brush Park’s of our city, once grand and full of dreams, re-purposed and recycled to fit a new economy and a new city. Let’s carefully consider– is it blight we’re busting? Or is it an embarrassing past of unproven potential?