Sunday, March 21, 2010

Melancholy

Sometimes looking back makes me happy. I love to remember my mom and my dad, my brothers when they still lived at home with us, my high school years, holding my kids when they were babies, visiting my grandmother and plunking away on her piano, Christmas, Easter, and summer vacations. But looking back isn't always pretty. Sometimes it's littered with trash, it has crumbling walls and broken windows, and it's hard to imagine the glory days.
We recently took a drive to visit the neighborhood where my grandparents used to live on the west side of Detroit. I don't go there often because it's dilapidated, dirty, and dangerous. Some neighborhoods in the city are still pretty well intact. This isn't one of them. In this neighborhood there are more empty lots than houses on every block. Most of the houses that are still standing, aren't occupied.
The streets are empty. No children play outside. Rusted out old jalopies outnumber cars that actually run. The sidewalks are cracked and uneven. The overgrown grass has made them much narrower than they were intended to be. There are all kinds of "old"... the pretty, quaint, old of European villages, the charming old of the well maintained historic buildings at Greenfield Village, the character old of a countryside barn that could stand a coat of paint. And then there's the old, ugly neighborhoods of Detroit that aren't quaint, and have no charm or character. They haven't aged well. They're grey and scraggly even on the sunniest day. They are sad and depressing. They leave you cold.
The lawns haven't been tended in decades. They're strewn with carelessly discarded items that nobody wants. It's a dumping ground for things nobody cares about, on property nobody cares about, by people who don't give a damn what kind of slum they live in. There's a story here and it's one of neglect, apathy, and hopelessness.
The alleys that once provided access to garages and carriage houses are now overgrown, littered, and broken. The gleeming cars of the Roaring Twenties with running boards and enough chrome to blind you couldn't make it down them anymore. They no longer serve a purpose. They are just a catch-all wasteland.
When you look in the front door of a building you see that the inside is just as abused and neglected as the outside. Entrance ways that once welcomed family, friends, and neighbors, are now cluttered with shards of glass, rotting boards, and refuse. They are stark and forlorn.
The insides were long ago stripped of anything salvageable and what's left has been vandalized for no good reason whatsoever. The electical wiring has been ripped from the ceilings and walls and sold as scrap metal to support someone's drug habit. The walls are barely standing, the paint that's left is pealing, the windows that aren't broken are boarded up. There are no rats inside because there is no food to lure them. It's barren.
The ceilings are fallen in. The pipes that once carried fresh, clean, water throughout the structure were long ago sold as scrap metal too. When you look at this kind of devestation you wonder what was going on in the minds of those who destroyed it. And then you think, "No, I don't want to know".
Gaping holes in the floor prohibit you from wandering beyond the doorway. It isn't safe to walk through this place. At one time this was a viable, thriving business, then a church for lost souls, then a chop shop for car thieves, and now it's just another abandoned building in various stages of decay. Oh the stories these walls could tell if only they had a voice! But they have no voice. They are silent sentinels that may not be standing much longer.
At one time these big, once-beautiful windows looked out on a bustling neighborhood full of houses occupied by recent Polish immigrants who worked from sunup to sundown to get ahead, worshiped in the neighborhood Catholic Church every Sunday and holy day, cared for their children, and struggled to learn a new language and become good citizens of America. They swept their porches and sidewalks daily and when their neighbors were feeling poorly they swept their's too. They had pride and hard work was their way of life.
At one time this was the private office of a very successfull businessman. That was before it became a pastor's study. And before it fell into the hands of crooks. Looking at this office, it's very hard to picture those glory days. But they happened. They were real. Now this is.

Ugly.
Very, very sad.

Walking away from this building, this neighborhood, doesn't end the sadness. It says with you and haunts you.

This isn't just any old abandoned building in Detroit. It was originally a modern, successful, baking company owned by my grandparents who contracted with an architect to build this particular section of the building so they could expand their operation. The older section of the facility has been gone (decay? fire? vandalism?) for many years. This is all that's left standing. And I suspect it won't be standing much longer.

I have photos of the baking company in its hey day. And I have a sketch of what it was to become back when my grandfather planned to expand it even more. They were grand plans! This was once a wonderful place full of the smells of freshly baked bread, cinnamon rolls, and pastries. It was all lit up in the wee hours of the morning as my grandfather and his staff prepared their baked goods fresh every day. Even on the coldest of winter nights the ovens kept the place toasty-warm. It was a happy place, a meticulously clean place, a place where neighbors would meet and catch up with each other's lives as they stood in line to buy their bread and baked goods. It provided the most amazing cakes for all the First Holy Communion parties, weddings, birthdays, and graduation parties in the neighborhood. It provided rich desserts, babkas, sweet breads, and paczki, for every holiday dinner table. And when times got tough, during the Great Depression, it provided sustenance to those who could afford nothing more than day-old bread for their dinner table.

But I'll save those photos and stories for another time when I'm not feeling so melancholy. I just couldn't do them justice this day.

20 comments:

  1. Thank you for this posting, Jasia. I too live in the Detroit area. I wish I could have seen the city in it's hey day. I know how important it is to see and know where are ancestors lived and worked, and also can feel your disappointment and disgust with what has happened to this building that was such a big part of your family history. I look forward to seeing what it was like when your grandparents owned it.

    Dave Weller

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  2. How absolutely crushing. It's sad to see even a few abandoned old buildings such as those in my home town in Texas, but to see this kind of devastation on this kind of scale is heart-breaking.

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  3. So sad. I can't help but wonder 'why?' Hopefully someday the area will hold new homes and will be full of the hustle and bustle of years ago.

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  4. Your story is disheartening, that's for sure. But you are telling the whole story. Sometimes we want to leave out the darker parts because they drag us down. But you are inspiring in the way that you were so honest. I too will be waiting to see the earlier days of the bakery.
    Nancy Hurley

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  5. It's good that you visited and recorded the destruction, but I too am looking forward to your post about happier times when your grandparents' bakery was thriving.

    Sadly, sometimes the only hope for a once-thriving neighborhood whose empty buildings are now beyond repair is to remove the carcasses (and trash) and let Mother Nature reclaim it.

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  6. I feel sadness when I drive by abandoned buildings that were obviously the dreams of someone at another time. I wonder what happened that things fell apart.
    The best thing is that you have your memories and sharing them with others, especially your family, and memories about your ancestors' faith is extremely important right now. I feel genealogists' stories of faith, hope, courage, and charity towards others may be what the youth of today need.

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  7. Powerful piece. Well done.

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  8. What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your memories.

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  9. Jasia, What a wonderful post, but oh the pictures, how sad. They will say in my memory for a long time. Thank you for writing this piece and alerting us to the reality of this area.

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  10. Jasia,
    Excellent -- me thinks you have a tad of social journalist blood running thru your veins. I looked at the devastation and cringed. I know that feeling of devastation will stay with me, but I hope I will also always have the image of those beautiful windows as a counterbalance. Thank you for a powerful and gripping story.

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  11. Jasia,

    This is very moving and poignant and an unfortunately true testament of what can happen to those wonderful landmarks of yesterday. I can't even imagine what the areas of Detroit look like where my family originated. I, too, look forward to your stories and photos from this area of yesteryear.

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  12. Very sad, Jasia, but it's good that you can write about it. Change is often difficult and sometimes takes too long, so I hope that someday soon there will be new stories to write about in that neighbourhood.

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  13. I'm so sorry for your loss. It was such a beautiful building. Those arched windows are wonderful! It breaks my heart to see some of the beauties around here abandoned, abused, and destroyed. I can't imagine how I would feel if they had been owned by my family. Well, I can begin to imagine. We visited my hometown two Saturdays ago and found my grandmother's house remuddled and boarded up - though not abused and destroyed like your family's bakery building. Heart-breaking. Too bad you can't buy it back and repair it. It's good that you have photos and fond memories.

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  14. Thank you all for your very kind and thoughtful remarks. This was an emotionally difficult post for me to write, as was the next one (Melancholy Too). There's no getting around it. The city of Detroit is in bad shape and no neighborhood is a better example of just how bad it is than this one. Why is that? Why is this particular neighborhood in such bad shape? I ask myself that over and over but I have no answers.

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  15. Thank you for posting this. I'm a little late to the comment pool. Everyone else has said what I would have said. It's a sad truth, but it needed to be told.

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  16. Great piece of journalism. I don't know if we will ever witness the revival of the city of Detroit but sure hope that it will happen someday.

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  17. Thank you for putting into words what I haven't been able to verbalize. My grandparents were from the same area, they belonged to Assumption Parish too. Their house was on 30th Street that they purchased in 1938 shortly after my babci, mother and aunt were able to join the rest of the family already in Detroit. I recall when houses were being torn down to make way for the I-94 freeway; taking walks with my grandfather to Chester's, a family owned grocery store, going to get an ice cream cone, but the best was going to the bakery to get freshly baked warm bread and cakes. Wonder if the bakery was your grandparents. Have you noticed that there is no fragrant aromas coming from the bakeries today? Guess it's considered air pollution.
    Last year I drove through the neighborhood with my then 86 year old mother, she was in disbelief, she kept saying that I wasn't in the right section, I assured her I was and pointed out the street signs indicated we were on the right street. It is difficult to see such devastation to an area of Detroit that once was so vital. We returned to Poland and buildings from hundreds of years still were standing, but Detroit doesn't seem to take pride in what it has...and my mom is still a devoted Detroit resident.

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  18. Per Nancy's comment, "too bad you can't buy it back and repair it" ... I always have that same little fleeting thought, especially when I see something architecturally cool, like those fabulous arched windows. But there are 70,000 blighted buildings in Detroit at present... SEVENTY THOUSAND!!! To me, that's mind-boggling.

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  19. A wonderful piece of writing. The neighborhoods
    I lived in as a kid in Boston went through a
    downward spiral but are reportedly improved in
    recent years as new younger families bought places as "fixer-uppers" but there are other
    parts of Boston that are far from their glory
    day conditions. Thanks for sharing this. This should be picked up by some news organization to
    spread then word about Detroit's plight.

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  20. I grew up in Detroit too. On the west side. I moved in 1972. Going back makes me feel like I'm in a city that was bombed. Who strips the bricks of of the buildings? Who jackhammers the curbs? Or whatever happens to make them look that way. I remember when drugs flooded the city in the early 1970's but things had started going even before that. The houses where my grandparents lived are both overgrown lots now. The schools my parents graduated from, and that I graduated from, are torn down. It's very, very depressing. Would like to see how your part looked in the hey day.

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