A Boyhood in Detroit

Remembrance; Commentary – by L.E.Taylor, author of Elgan and Grace

In the Eastside neighborhood where I grew up there was an understanding among families: When the streetlights come on, the boys go home. Enforcement was the job of parents; no-nonsense reminders by adults on street corners were not uncommon.

Within a couple of generations after the new century dawned, Detroit had drawn a flood of laborers from farms and mines in the South, from Canada across the river, and from afflicted peoples beyond our shores. Quickly, the town became a city of homeowners. (By mid-century, at well over 70%, it had far and away the highest per capita home ownership of American cities.) For most, the homes were their first, mortgaged on the strength of dependable employment in the planet’s greatest industrial metropolis.

Inside the homes that comprised each neighborhood lived a family. A tiny nuclear corporation, headed by a father and a mother. Their property was precious beyond its financial worth.

On the last day of each October in the thirties and forties, when those street lights came on, something odd happened. Eastside-to-Westside, and in all the suburbs, the boys didn’t go home. Instead, the neighborhoods came alive in one mammoth block party for children in costume. “Halloween” was harmless fun, an outdoor indulgence before the numbing embrace of another Michigan winter – a ghostly presence, crouching “out there”, just days away. Kids trundled from door to door in their false-faces and cheesy costumes “begging” for candy and apples, caramel corn and cookies. Mournful cries of “Hel-lp th’ poooooor” carried eerily on the cold, smoky night air.

Then, in the late forties, Halloween morphed from a two hour street performance into a two night event. Those War-Years tikes muffled behind the Woolworth clown masks and decorated with Indian paint were now in their teens – too old for dress-up, but immature enough to want to hold onto the fun. The night before Halloween was taken over for mischief. Girls stayed home. Boys scooted around dark corners and up allies, often in small packs, giggling through much of pre-midnight, doing wicked things. Deliciously awful things. They would (brace yourself) “soap windows”. With bars of Ivory Soap… by Proctor & Gamble. Car windows, basement windows, even front windows of homes. Bold as brass, some of these rapscallions would actually mount the front porch steps, and SOAP living room windows!

Don’t laugh. It got worse: For the first time in history, ordinary families could actually afford to look the other way as their brats festooned neighborhood trees with… valuable toilet paper!

Okay, enough.

All of that is just my personal witness. Subjectively innocent, rebellious foreshadowing, muted by time. The memory came to mind against the news last week of my hometown’s final destruction. Let’s just call this boyhood reverie, “back story.”

Last week the word of our City’s murder/suicide came naked into the cruel light of reality. The deconstruction of Detroit was not a surprise to those who’d endured the barbaric acts of ignorant, malevolent men in power, to tear down the great idea that was known in its golden era as “The Arsenal of Democracy,” and “The Paris of the West.”

Do your own research and draw your own conclusions.

We expatriate native Detroiters have watched and agonized for three decades now as, block by block, the street lights went out across the neighborhoods, and “Help the poooor” degenerated into a poisonous, “Trick-Or-Treat.”

Onward.

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LETs Blog

 

References (books):

  1. Chavets, Zev;  Devil’s Night – and Other True Tales of Detroit, Random House, NYC, 1990.
  2. Taylor, L. E.;  Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, FriesenPress, Victoria BC, Canada, 2012.
  3. LeDuff, Charlie; Detroit – An American Autopsy, Penguin Group, NYC, 2013

References (on-line commentary):

  1. Baron, Michael; TownHall.com, Tragedy of Detroit Shows Big-Unit America is Out-of-Gas, June 3, 2013. http://townhall.com/columnists/michaelbarone/2013/06/03/tragedy-of-detroit-shows-big-unit-america-is-out-of-gas-n1610728/page/full
  2. Galen, Rich; Detroit Bankrupt, TownHall.com. July  http://townhall.com/columnists/richgalen/2013/07/19/detroit-bankrupt-n1644599
  3. Derek Hunter; Detroit – My City Was Gone; TownHall.com; July 29, 2013.  http://townhall.com/columnists/derekhunter/2013/07/28/detroit-my-city-was-gone-n1650664
  4. Householder, Mike; Trying to Save Part of Rosie the Riveter’s Factory – AP News – July 30, 2013. http://townhall.com/news/us/2013/07/29/trying-to-save-part-of-rosie-the-riveters-factory-n1651309

 

3 comments to A Boyhood in Detroit

  1. John Dayton says:

    Were I grew up in West Michigan; Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to be precise, we only heard of Detroit. We heard about the factories producing the products of war and later the cars for America. In the mid fifties we also heard about “Devils Night” in Detroit and began to emulate those shenanigans. Battle Creek took sort of a warped pleasure for being called “Little Detroit” In 2013 I would guess that Battle Creek no longer wants that designation. Now when the occasion calls for it and I fly to Detroit I leave the airport and turn west on I-94. I do though think of the times when I went the other direction to cruise Woodward all the way to Birmingham.

  2. Joan Lottner says:

    I remember going to Tiger Stadium in the early 1970s for a Detroit Tiger baseball game against Kansas City Royals, my little red glove in my hand and excitement in my heart. We dared walk from the stadium to the White Castle shop, my mom, my aunt, me and my brother (both us kids not even teenagers yet) and I don’t remember my mom being overly concerned about anything bad happening. Before Tiger Stadium was destroyed, I went again and was too scared to make that walk again. I will still hold on to the earlier memory rather than the latter as that is how I would like to remember the home of my favorite baseball team of the “Bless You Boys” era. It was also the first big league game I ever went to, Tigers won 2-1 and I almost caught a home run ball from our left field seats, yay! I grew up in Grand Rapids and have lived my whole life in that area, yet I have a special place in my heart for Detroit and am disappointed to see how far down she has fallen. This once great city has lost sight of her light and no one seems to be able to help her find it again.

  3. [...] the corpse that molders in its place. I am not sad; I’m furious. Old Detroit didn’t die; it was murdered. How do I know? Because I remember. I choose to [...]

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