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Things I Lost In The Fire

originally published 2012 / Detroit Free Press

In 1976, my mother and stepfather moved from our two-family flat on Eastlawn and Kercheval, an increasingly dangerous intersection, to a painted gray brick, three-bedroom house on Newport, one block over and a mile north and what felt like worlds apart. My mother divorced my father when I was 2. He stayed in my life but I also don’t remember a time before my stepfather. The apartment on Eastlawn was a rental. I remember a landlord yelling at my parents about the waterbed in the living room. I spent most of my time beneath a faux velvet black quilt on that waterbed because my block and the ones around felt unsafe to me, whatever that means to a 5-year-old black girl, and I chose my developing reading habit over the outside.

My stepfather had owned a home before, with his before-us family, but even as a child I understood how important homeownership was to my waitress mom and mechanic dad. We bought the house on Newport the summer before

I began first grade, from a white family in flight.

They’d built an above-ground pool in the backyard and had decorated the bedroom walls with the fake wood paneling that was then somewhat chic. Somehow, my mother became friendly enough with the outgoing family to be invited to their new home in Adrian. They had a daughter my age, who told me in her new bedroom that she’d miss the cherry tree in the backyard across the alley from the home we’d just bought from her family. When I asked her why her mom was leaving a house with a pool and access to a cherry tree, she whispered, conspiratorially, “…the blacks.” By the following summer, the few white families still left on our block when we moved there also fled, leaving my mother to be, what I believed at the time, the last white person still in Detroit.

During the ice storm of 1978, when we lost power for days, we lost our pool, too, when a giant branch from the ancient oak in our backyard crushed one of its walls beyond repair. The pool was leverage for my brother and me, providing instant neighborhood friends, some who bullied my brother, taking over our backyard a half dozen at a time. Even then, the block was divided by the adults into good kids and bad. Bad kids were yelled off manicured lawns; good ones were paid a dollar to mow.

By the mid-’80s, my brother moved from the mowing crowd to the trespassing crew. Crack seemed to make its nationwide debut on the east side of Detroit, and unlike the boys his age who sold it, my brother, who’d taken to hanging with older boys, became a user. Our gray brick home with the fallen pool and fake wood paneling was burglarized no fewer than a dozen times during my brother’s addiction. Our neighbors began buying iron bars for their windows and doors and complicated locks for their steering wheels, but our family knew our intruder had keys.

By the late ’80s, the black families on our block who could always afford new model cars disappeared to exotic places like Southfield and Oak Park. Chandler Park, where I’d had several birthday parties and spent most weekends, became off-limits because of shootouts. Still, we stayed. Inside, our house began to fall apart, the ceiling above the breakfast nook began to leak and open a moldy hole in the wall in the kitchen. My parents didn’t have the money or interest in home repairs.

My dad went to work every day, came home and sat in his favorite spot in the crook of the staircase watching sports or science fiction on TV. He barbecued steaks on his Weber on the weekends. But he and the men his age withdrew from the outside, conceding our neighborhood to the boys my age who turned Detroit into a murder capital my entire high school career. My mother checked out by drinking. I’d walk from Cass Tech to the library, or sit in the Diego Court till it closed, avoiding my house, our block. When I graduated, I left for New York and didn’t come home three Christmas breaks in a row. My mom got sober, went to nursing school and she and my dad raised my niece in our home. Flush with cash one spring, I paid a friend to repaint our exterior gray. I paid another friend to repair the kitchen.

Those improvements put us back on the side of the people on the block who still invested in upkeep, rather than the ones whose homes had crossed over into total disrepair. By the mid-’90s, burned houses-turned-vacant lots were as common in my neighborhood as they were across the city.

Our neighbor, Mr. Louis, a veteran, died, leaving his home to his four sons, only one of whom was the grass-mowing kind. The house became our block’s burden, with twice monthly police visits usually breaking up parties that began Thursday night and lasted until Monday afternoon.

Then, Mr. Herman, our next-door neighbor whose beautiful flowering plants seemed to nudge my mother to plant salvia each summer, died in his sleep. Ms. Erma and her husband remained, as did a single ex-police officer who took great pride in her house across the street, another painted gray brick. But most of our neighbors were new, people who cared very little for the falling-apart homes they were renting for a few hundred dollars.

One summer night five years ago, after my niece’s birthday dinner, my dad had a heart attack in our home. My mother did what she was trained to do as a nurse, but it was no mitigation against an ambulance that took 28 minutes to arrive. Two days after my dad’s funeral, a man in his thirties, annoyed by our dog’s barking, stopped in front of our house and yelled, “I’ll shoot that damn dog! Now that Bill’s dead, I’ll shoot this whole house up.”

I told my brother, who drove over and dropped off a handgun. I canceled my flight home to New York and spent six weeks finding my mother the Grosse Pointe condo she moved to a few months later. My mother knew how vulnerable an unoccupied house on Detroit’s east side could be, even one as worn as ours.

So she rented. First to a woman escaping an abusive marriage who decorated our windows with silly pink sheer curtains.Then to a young man who neighbors now tell me would open his trunk where he kept an enormous speaker and blast music till 4 in the morning, drinking with his friends on our lawn. Mr. Herman’s grandson inherited the house next door and is doing an excellent job keeping it up so he considered it his right to confront the renter with the loud trunk speakers and the 4 a.m. parties.

Because Mr. Herman’s grandson is a big and self-possessed man, our renters complied, for a time. My mother served her tenant an eviction notice after months of missed rent and bad behavior. One morning around 2 a.m., Mr. Herman’s grandson felt heat from our home, which was on fire.

Firefighters saved his home from severe damage and ours from collapse, but our roof, which we’d replaced a decade ago at great expense, melted. Neighbors tell me our house smelled like gas for days.

The fire department confirmed the renters pulled the stove from the wall to better saturate my childhood home, then torched it after midnight.

I’ve no sweeping, poetic sentiment or condemnation about my city’s particular appetite for arson, just a shell of a home that now contributes to the blight on my block. I’d long ago moved on from that neighborhood, but I did move back to Detroit a few years ago. I want to be a part of the rebuilding of my beloved city. But first, I must tear down the scorched brick house that was my home for most of my life.

published in “Things I Lost in the Fire,” in A Detroit Anthology, ed. Anna Clark (Cleveland: Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014)


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