Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Summer in Detroit - 2013

Twilight in Detroit
I just returned from several weeks in and around my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. I was doing field research with my Detroit counterpart, Ryan M. Place. For the last several years, he and I have been seeking information and documents related to the John Norman Collins coed killing cases of the late nineteen-sixties.

I was in the Detroit area for three weeks in June and July and drove 2,300 miles in my rental car crisscrossing much of Michigan. Ryan and I went wherever we could to find individuals with credible information who were willing to tell their stories. We were very busy.

But because of the somber and dark nature of our subject matter, we made it a point to get out and do something a little different each week. The first week we went to the Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit to meet with Canadian filmmaker, Mark Dal Bianco. 


At Elmwood Cemetery for Zug shoot.
Mark is making an indie documentary film about Zug Island and its environmental effects on Canada and the United States. After a brief meeting with Stewart McMillin (noted Detroit tour guide), Mark Dal Bianco, and Ryan, we all headed to the burial plot of Samuel Zug, the man Zug Island is named after. 

On the strength of the introduction of my book, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel, Mark wanted me to give a brief biography of Mr. Zug, at the site of his grave marker. 

When we were finished there, we drove over to the ghost town of Delray which once existed outside the blast furnace and coke oven plant. I filmed a segment talking about working conditions on the island in 1967, the year of the Detroit riots. 

The documentary will go on from there and delve into some of the current controversies Zug Island finds itself at the center of with its neighbors. Notably, the Windsor Hum.

We were very lucky to catch a break in the rainy weather for the shoot. Afterwards, we had a wonderful dinner at the Polish Village Cafe in Hamtramck, a city within the city limits of Detroit. It turned out to be a lovely day.


On the second week of our quest for knowledge and insight into the John Norman Collins case, we went on a field trip to where Collins began his life sentence behind bars, Jackson Prison. The Seven-Block (1934-2007) tour was led by prison docent Judy Gail Krasnow.

We were taken on a bus to the Michigan Theater in Jackson to view a short film history of the various incarnations of the Jackson prison system over the years, and then we listened to an orientation lecture before going over to Seven-Block. 

Our docent, Judy, asked the thirty or so people on the tour if any of us were from Jackson, Michigan. A smattering of hands went up. "Do we have any former guards or prison employees in the crowd today?" Several more hands went up.

Ryan and I were sitting in the front row when she asked me where I was from. "Originally from Detroit," I said, "but now I live in San Diego."

Old Jackson Prison Walls
"Really?" she said, in surprise. "I just returned from visiting friends in San Diego."


Judy held up her Seaport Village shopping bag to prove it. "What, may I ask, brings you here to Jackson prison today?"

I was hoping she would ask me that. "I'm doing research and writing a book on John Norman Collins."

I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head. "You're kidding me."


Turns out that Judy was given a private prison tour of Marquette Prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula just a couple of months before, and she was able to meet briefly with Collins in front of his cell. She found Mr. Collins to be alert and engaging. 

"Let's talk after the tour,"  she said, to me.

And talk we did. When The Rainy Day Murders is released, Judy will see about getting it carried in the prison stores. Not a bad outing for a field trip.

They serve a box lunch on the tour of Seven-Block in the prison mess area between the five galleries of cells that face across from each other. Nice touch!

For more information and reservations on Jackson Prison Tours, contact Judy Gail Krasnow at 517-795-2112, or check out the link below.

End of an era - old Tiger Stadium
I have a deep childhood memory of walking into a gray cavernous building that was dark and shadowy inside with screened ramps and overhead walkways. The air was heavy with tobacco smoke and stale with Strohs beer vapor. I remember walking along among a throng of adults mostly. I didn't know where we were headed for sure, but I followed my dad with my little brother in tow.

We finally made it. I saw the diamond for the first time and the vibrant field glistened like the emerald jewel it was. I came out into the comforting light of a Sunday afternoon Tiger game at Briggs Stadium. Man, I never knew a Coke, a hot dog, and a bag of peanuts could taste so good.

On the last week of my latest Michigan trip in July, I went with friends and saw my first Tiger game in the modern Comerica Park.  

The stadium is airy and open, not like the fabled Tiger/Briggs Stadium of the last century, and the cigarette and cigar smokers are gone.

After a week of heavy rain, the weather cleared on game day and Tigers fans were out in force ready to take on the White Sox.

But before the game started, my friends and I split a pizza and drank a couple of beers at a local bar to avoid the high cost of stadium concessions. 

In the old days, a person could have a great outing with ten or twenty dollars in his pocket. Now that's what a beer and a hot dog costs at the concession stands. Everything is expensive these days. But Detroit beat Chicago, so there was joy in Mudville, that night anyway. Go Tigers!

For information on the current schedule of Detroit tours, connect with Stewart McMillin's website: 

For information on Jackson Prison tours, contact:

For authentic Polish food in the Detroit area, go to Hamtramck and visit Polish Village Cafe: