Sunday, July 31, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 2 - Zug Island, the Firemen, and the Police

A couple of days before my first book talk, I decided to cruise the Detroit Riot areas and look at the current state of some of the neighborhoods. There are still signs of the devastation, but much of the area has been cleaned up, the vacant lots awaiting reinvestment and redevelopment, thanks to Detroit mayor, Dave Bing.

One area I drove through was old Delray, now, all but a fading memory. Most of the buildings have been razed, but so have some of the rust belt industries. The Solvey Chemical works has been taken out, and Scott Paper is no longer there, but Zug Island's blast furnaces still dominate the skyline and the olfactory senses. One of the blast furnaces continues to operate, and coke oven battery #5 still belches out smoke and steam like clockwork.

In the past, I've been denied official admittance to the island to do research for my novel. I took another approach this time. Driving up to the security booth, I rolled down my car's window and waited for someone to come out of the shack. When I showed the security guard a postcard with my novel's cover and title on it, I knew I had his interest. By this time, a second guard wanted to see what was taking soon long. I pitched my novel for three minutes and they agreed to pass out a bunch of bookmarks for me at the plant. Then I turned the car around and left. If nothing else, my visit will generate some conversation.

Fresh from that success, I saw the only building still open for business in Delray, the local fire station. It struck me that the fire fighters are part of the Detroit riot story, so I walked into the fire hall. A fireman took me in to talk with the chief in his air conditioned office. "What's it about?" the chief asked.

Delray Firehouse #29
"That monstrosity across the street," I answered. I gave them my mini-pitch, which they were very interested in. They agreed to put some of my bookmarks in their mail room. The chief suggested I go to the area's main station house at the Southwestern Safety Center.

"Joe over there is crazy about anything having to do with Detroit. You should go over there."

The center has a police station next to the parking lot, so I went in there first with the same story. By now, I perfected my pitch. They took some bookmarks and wished me well. The fire hall was on the opposite side of the building, so I walked around and found someone polishing the chrome on a fire truck. "Hey!" I said. But before I got too far into my pitch, the fireman said, "Come into our lunchroom. The guys are eating back there."

Former party store and soda shop.
Six or seven firefighters were waiting around for the next emergency run. "Hey! This guy is an author and he wants to talk to you." At that, they all stopped what they were doing and politely listened. I left the rest of my promotional materials there with them. What an interesting day in the neighborhood!

I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to try and find the house I spent the first five years of my life in. I hadn't been back to the old place since we moved out in 1953, but it wasn't far from Zug Island. As I drove down Oakwood Blvd, I recognized a brick building and turned right. Then I saw the old soda shop on the corner of our street. It was now boarded up but not burned down. I remember my grandmother buying my younger brother and me penny candy there, and if she had enough extra change, she bought us ice cream cones too.

Home Sweet Home
I turned left and found our address--444 Bayside St. There it was, a vacant lot. All of the homes on this short, three block street were intact and lived in--but ours.

Sometimes, it is too late to go back home. Still, I can't believe I found the spot after fifty-eight years. What I wouldn't give for one of those ice cream cones now.

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