Daniel N. White
Detroit, its economic and physical collapse and failure, has been a staple story of the press for better than three decades now. Everyone who ever lived there has their story about it, and me here in Austin, Texas, hell, I now have mine. Just got back from a funeral of an aunt on my mother’s side recently in rural Michigan, and went through Detroit, that side of the family’s old stomping grounds on the drive back. But my Detroit story is a whole lot different one, one with a lot of questions attached that need answering.
In Detroit I visited my grandparents’ graves for the first and perhaps last time in my life. Grandpa Dan died in ’64, when I was a little kid. Twice before then, and once when we got back to the States, I’d spent a summer vacation at their place on Lake St. Clair, in the Huron Point neighborhood, Mount Clemens township, Macolm County. I remember having a good time of things up there, being spoiled by Grandmother and going out on Granddad’s cabin cruiser and swimming in the lake a dozen times a day. Grandmother sold the place in ’69 and moved down here to Austin to be near my family and when she died in ’89 we had the services here and I don’t think there were any services up in Detroit when she was buried alongside Dan. I’m glad I finally made it up there to pay my respects to them both.
Detroit itself is mostly on the Detroit River, which dumps into Lake St. Clair just past downtown. The tony—very tony—suburbs with Grosse Pointe in their names somewhere are just north of Detroit proper and are on the shores of Lake St. Clair. You see those neighborhoods sometime in Hollywood—Grosse Point Blank comes to mind—they are as pretty, and upscale, a neighborhood as there is anywhere in the US.
As you go further north the lakeside area turns into sort of a redneck Riviera. Lots of folks up in those parts are seriously into boating and boats and as pretty as the Great Lakes are you can’t blame them. Huron Point is about 20 miles north of downtown Detroit proper and was a place where boat-happy blue collar types* would buy one of the canal lots—developers had dug lots of canals in the area to increase waterfront real estate—and if you’d done good you’d buy one of the lakeside lots—and build some modest house that allowed you your boat habit. Fairly modest houses back in the ‘40’s and 50’s when the area got developed—1100 or so square feet—it was hard to build a bigger house generally as the lakeshore lots were mostly 50’ wide. Lot of people up there then spent their money on boats instead of real estate—serious boats have never been cheap.
Lake Shore Drive runs for two miles or so along the lake and is the heart of Huron Point. Zoning restrictions made all the houses on the lakeside single-story, while on the shoreside of Lake Shore Drive you could build two-story houses. Sensible, that–that way more people had a view of the lake. Back when I was last there in ’68, my grandparents’ place had the only two-story structure along the entire lakeside of Lake Shore Drive, their boathouse. Grandpa Dan had been in the Coast Guard Reserve in WWII and had pulled some sort of scam involving national defense in wartime, plus political connections, to build it.
Grandpa Dan probably worked harder than anybody else I know. He worked two full-time jobs most of his working life, until he bought out his partners in the gravel pit operation around ’54. By then he’d already bought his house on a double lot on Lake Shore Drive and had sold an adjacent third one to my mother. Owning the county’s largest sand and gravel operation made him enough money for his 35’ Steelcraft** and his and hers Cadillacs. Comfortable but not rich; what you are supposed to get if you play your cards right in the USA.
So I went looking for their old place on Lake Shore Drive, but couldn’t find a trace of it, couldn’t find a trace of the Lake Shore Drive I remembered from 1968. Everything had changed. Every single house on Lakeshore Drive, both sides, along the entire two mile length, had been torn down and replaced with new construction. And it was ugly.
All the lakeside, and most the shoreside, construction was red brick box McMansions, the usual upscale featureless architecture in brick, two or three story, that filled the entire lot. No more zoning restrictions on keeping the view of the lake for everyone—every single house on the lakeside was two- and some were three-story. Most of the original 50’ wide lots had been joined together, something rare and expensive in real estate practice, in order to create more building space for the McMansions. Nothing was less than 5000 square feet and some topped 12,000 square feet.
I didn’t see any boathouses in the back yards of the McMansions, or any boats docked up in the back yards either. It was pure ostentatious, build the biggest possible building you could build, redevelopment. Ostentatious, and tasteless as hell. Identical look architecturally—red brick with white detailing–the construction dollars had bought square footage at the expense of the craft work and detailing that real high end construction has, that real distinguishing feature that separates true high end construction from ordinary subdivision construction. Any practiced eye could see that. All low-class show junk, and junk that ain’t gonna hold up to the big winter storms that Lake St. Clair can produce.
Everyone else’s Detroit story is about how their neighborhood was abandoned and allowed to go to ruin and how it all got burned down and is gone. Mine’s different. My family’s old neighborhood got completely destroyed by rich people coming into the ‘hood and buying everything up and building trashy egotistical tasteless showplaces.
They moved out to the lake and don’t have boats because what counts is their showing off with a large red brick box in a trendy neighborhood. These people right off killed the social equity in the old zoning height restrictions because it got in their way of building themselves a big enough McMansion. Tasteless rich people, greedy, and cheap and shortsighted in their building construction quality. Why did they do this instead of buying into Grosse Pointe Shores? Why didn’t they build anything as attractive as Grosse Pointe Farms? They are our present financial elites; who are they? How did they get there?
And the mystery of it is how the hell it happened in Detroit, the poster-child city of the American industrial heartland economic failure. Who are these people and how did they make the money enough to build multi-million dollar houses in an industrial failure zone in a city whose population went down by 60% since 1968? Another mystery is how nobody, at least nobody in the news media, ever noticed Huron Point’s upscale redevelopment all the time Detroit went to hell. Didn’t any reporter doing the Detroit failure story the past three decades ever drive past 8 Mile?
The Detroit story hasn’t yet been told right, that’s one thing for sure. And that means the story of the decline of the American industrial heartland hasn’t been told right either. And that means that all the public policy prescriptions we have that are based on the wrong story of why Detroit and the industrial heartland failed have to be wrong too.
Being so wrong is going to cost us big time—we’ll waste public funds on public policies that won’t work and those wrong policies will waste valuable time and energy too and delay us from solving the real problems they are trying to fix. It’s all out in the open, and just waiting for someone to tell it.
And the sociological questions about just what this says about us now, versus fifty years ago, need looking at too.
Here’s my take on what I think is the biggest one of them:
One important underlying truth of real estate is that people buy things until they fill their living spaces up. It’s pretty much always been that way. Building a McMansion yields great shopping opportunities for the people living in them; the bigger the box the more shopping you can do until you fill it full up with things.
Nowadays, disposable income and time gets spent buying things for the big brick box. But one difference now versus then in Huron Point is that then boats was where the disposable time and income went; people spent their time enjoying themselves on their boats. There’s one hell of a lot more enjoyment of life out on a boat in the Great Lakes than there could ever be sitting in your house, no matter how full of pretty things it is, but that is how many Americans live nowadays, at least the upper income cohorts.
Being happy to buy things and stay indoors in your house looking at them is a miser’s mindset and a closed-off and unfriendly and unopen to the world attitude. And you know, that is a pretty fair description of a lot of Americans, one that I’ve heard lots of foreigners abroad say about us. Miserly and closed-minded attitudes are a result of our affluenza; the red-brick McMansions are just another symptom of it. These attitudes aren’t doing us good now and they won’t in the future either.
We lack a 21st century Vance Packard to tell us this about ourselves to where we can face up to it and do something about it if we choose to. It’s not like conventional reportage or academia/sociology, both of whom missed the Huron Point redevelopment happening right in front of them, are likely to do anything useful about it.
Tom Wolfe’s saying that you can’t go home again is mostly about the impossibility of stepping in the river of time twice in the same place. We all know from childhood that that’s true. But when you see the past obliterated like Huron Point’s, as rapidly, in the circumstances it was, it’s telling you something different. Changes have happened in us, ourselves, in a big way for things like this to happen, for them to be so commonplace nowadays, and for us to accept it unthinkingly and say nothing about it. It has to lead you to ask about who we are in this countryand where we are heading.
And perhaps that’s why the Huron Point story gets ignored—the powers that be in this country don’t want that question asked, as the answers aren’t likely to be savory ones. I leave it to you, dear reader, to open your eyes to them and ask them and think about the answers. That’s a part of life, an opportunity of life and living, we shouldn’t pass up the way we have been.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*White Detroiters, that is. Detroit was about as segregated and redneck and racist as Montgomery Alabama ever was. Huron Point was exclusively white until at least the ‘70’s.
** Anybody who knows boats knows about Steelcrafts. They were quality. That 35’ Steelcraft, new, cost $11,000 in 1948 dollars, in 1948. That bought a good sized house in those days. I’m sure Dan Bollig the canny businessman bought his used, like his Cadillacs were all year-old dealer trade-ins.