It's Ken Burns' fault.
Having just watched the twelve hours of Ken's latest masterwork on America's National Parks (I got an advance copy), I recently found myself reminiscing about the trips my family took to the Castkills every summer. The house I grew up in on Detroit's Carpenter Street was a two story building on a busy street, and the tall woods were in marked contrast to the big city flatness where we lived. Mom, dad, my brother and sister and I lived upstairs in the two bedroom flat, while my grandparents lived downstairs in asmall studio behind the street-front tailor and dry cleaning shop they ran. In those days, the neighborhood called Hamtramck was populated mainly by Polish immigrants (90% of the population), along with Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans who wound up in Detroit working on the auto factory lines. Dad was proud to work at the Fisher Body plant that made seats for Cadillacs.
Then, after taking in KCET's broadcast of part one of the Ken Burns documentary few nights ago, I started flipped through the photo albums on my coffee table in hopes of finding photos of family excursions to the mountains. I realized with a start that those photos were lost in a cross country move 20 years ago. But I did find an image on my computer that saddened me.
This is what my childhood home in Detroit looks like today. I barely recognized it a few months ago when I flew home for a relative's funeral, but I can report that our old neighborhood church (where the funeral was held) remains intact and as beautiful now as it was then.
After the service I drove through the streets, stunned by the decay and disrepair. Blocks of family homes now resemble a war-torn country, not the Detroit that was once a thriving metropolitan city. The ravages of time and strife have been memorialized by many who are captivated by what was in its heyday the 4th largest city in the country.
A few weeks ago I read an article in The Detroit News that touched me. It was the story of Paulette Bouyer, a woman living alone - like my mother - who decided to move because of the worsening conditions in her neighborhood. My first reaction was to phone my mother; I had a selfish urge. I announced I wanted to move her to California, somewhere nicer, warmer, safer. "But I'm happy where I am," she said. She reminded me of her friends who live next door to her, the family and the grandkids she worships; they're all within driving distance of her modest home in the suburb right across Eight Mile Road. I changed the topic to Ken Burns' film, which she had just finished watching on Detroit Public Television a few hours earlier. We ended up reminiscing about the summer trips to upstate New York, packed in a car with no air conditioning but happy to be together on a two week vacation in the woods. Dad has been gone seven years, my wonderful grandparents twice as long. Our house on Carpenter Street is a former shell of what it was. But the memories of wonderful times past still linger on.