Jack Ohman

In Detroit, it's worse than you think...

Hearing the news of Detroit's bankruptcy filled me with melancholy, so much so that I really couldn't muster a comment on that city's financial collapse.

I used to be the editorial cartoonist for the Detroit Free Press from 1982-83, and my father and grandparents lived there in the 1930s and 1940s. To see Detroit go from the V-8 of the U.S. economy to a two-stroke lawnmower engine is disheartening. To see some people kind of engaging in a tsk-tsk moment is worse; this city went from 2 million residents to about 700,000 in about 40 years, and it was the fault of a lot of different people going back decades.

To politically illustrate this, one of Detroit's congressional districts contains Grosse Pointe, one of the ten most affluent cities in the United States. In 1983, it happened to be located in the poorest per capita congressional district in the country. 

I was just in Detroit visiting last year. In some ways, particularly the downtown core of Detroit, there are some bits of good news, such as the new baseball and football stadiums. Many of the beautiful old gothic 1920s office towers are still in place and awe-inspiring; other buildings, such as the Detroit Free Press building, are vacant.

And whatever you think you know about the devastation in Detroit, it's a thousand times worse.

Detroit is still a massive city in terms of land: it has about 140 square miles within the city limits, but about a third of that area is completely abandoned. On the street where my father grew up, I would say that 80 percent of the once grand old homes are empty, and when I say empty, I mean: collapsed, burned, garbage-strewn, graffiti-covered, sagging, and otherwise returning to the earth. You would need a million urban homesteaders to fix it and thousands of bulldozers working round the clock. Weeds grow in the bombed-out looking streets. That's not an exaggeration.

For some reason, many people, probably retirees who have been in these neighborhoods since the 1950s and '60s, hang on, with neatly tended yards and gardens. These incongruous and oxymoronic structures punctuate boulevards than look like a huge Addams Family set. Some streets are about to be cut off from police, fire, and utility services because the city can't afford to do it, or it is almost too dangerous to venture out there. 

A good friend drove me out to see my father's house. He told me that he wouldn't stop the car as we went by, because he was afraid we might get robbed or hijacked, and that he also feared that police would think we were cruising to buy drugs.

As we went by the house, I could see that someone lived there. Curtains were up, windows looked secure, and mail was visible. In about 1935 or so, my grandparents paid about $6,500 for the house.

It would sell for that now. Maybe. 

I wondered what the lives of the current residents were like compared to my grandfather's, who had a good job at the Packard Motor Co. as a steel purchaser. We then drove out to the Packard plant.

Packard went out of business in 1956, a few years after my grandfather died at a very young 54. The plant now looks like those photos of Berlin just after the war: blocks of piled rubble, missing roofs, and small, telling artifacts: a wooden tool shelf, vestiges of beautiful old tile, a rusted gear. There were dozens if not hundreds of abandoned boats and thousands of old tires. We did get out of the car to marvel at the intricate graffiti that now covers the walls; it's a destination resort for these artists.

I climbed up onto the rubble; I picked up a brick and put it in my suitcase as memento. 

I'm not sure why, really. Sometimes it reminds me of grandparents I never met, sometimes I think about my old life in Detroit, and other times it just makes me feel helpless.

Imagine how the people feel there now who can't just leave town with a brick in their suitcase.

It's tied to their necks.