Detroit on My Mind: Lost Communities

My father, Bill Sapiro, grew up in Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s. His parents moved there from New York in very different ways. My grandfather, Abram, was born on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1880s, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Unusually, he made his way to Ann Arbor to pursue a law degree, which he completed in 1909.

Somehow, perhaps back in New York to visit his family, he met his future wife, my grandmother, Celia, born in the mid-1890s. The Census reports that her mother was from Poland and her father from Russia. Her family was in a very different situation. She lived on the Upper East Side (as I understand it) and went to the Ethical Culture School. Founded by Felix Adler, the Kantian/Hegelian son of rabbi who opened a free kindergarten for the children of the working poor in 1878 that later grew into the Ethical Culture School in 1895, now charging tuition and serving more wealthy families as well. It was popular among a certain set of secular Jews or, as my mother used to say disparagingly, “the Germans”. (This is what many Jews traditionally regarded as a “mixed marriage;” the more “Jewish” Russian Jews and the more secular “German” Jews. My grandfather won an important skirmish with my grandmother by assuring that my father had his Bar Mitzvah.) My grandmother and her brother went to the predecessor school of Juilliard (The Institute of Musical Art, founded 1905), and my grandmother and her mother went on a Grand Tour to Europe.

This couple settled in Detroit, where my grandfather started his own private legal practice, they raised their son, and they remained until my grandfather’s death in the mid-1960’s. A lot of family was there – someday I will have to figure out how that happened. I visited my grandparents in Detroit a couple of times when I was a little girl. The main thing I remember is the excitement of travelling there over night from New York on a sleeper coach on the train.

My father never returned to Detroit after the death of his father. But from time to time he would talk about his love of his hometown. He remained loyal to the Tigers to the end, even after over 60 years in and around New York. He talked about going to the Fox Theater, and was very happy when it was restored. He teared up when he talked about the demise of Detroit as it depopulated and lost its status as one of the great American cities. He blamed the Fords. (“Anti-semites!”) He strongly believed that while the great robber-baron families of the other major cities invested in the central city, using their philanthropy to build great public buildings and institutions, parks, and other supports for the city, the Fords invested outside the city. He was staunch in that belief. Late in his life, he wanted me to take him there, wanted me to drive him around his old neighborhoods. I regret that I didn’t so when his mind was still strong enough to handle the changes. But by the time I knew time was of the essence, it was too late.

I did not spend more than a few days in Detroit, and even when I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, we only went in a few times, say, to go to Greektown. But I have wondered what has happened to my family’s old neighborhoods, how they are faring.

It was mesmerizing to pour through the New York Times photo gallery of the over 43,000 Detroit properties that were on the brink of foreclosure in 2014.

It all struck home – even more – when I was chatting with Daniel Bluestone, the architectural historian, and I realized he could help me find out something about where my grandparents lived. He traced them n the 1930 and 1940 census records, and found them renting in succession, two different houses on Calvert Street in Detroit. It is the picture of the house they lived in in 1930  that struck me especially. Here it is in a recent picture he sent me:

Sapiro 1930 Calvert Detroit

As Daniel wrote to me, who knows whether it still exists. Detroit is demolishing 200 structures a week, and for all we know, this is gone.

This is what I can’t get out of my mind: Looking at that picture, I think about what a sweet home that must have been for a young couple who were the children of immigrants, most of whom never learned to speak English fluently. They came from New York, and although they were renting, it was a pretty house surrounded by pretty houses. I imagine my grandfather going off to his law office each morning, the first in his family to go to college. And my grandmother home, taking care of her young son. I imagine one of those windows on the second floor with a 6-year-old gazing outside, dreaming of all of the fun things he might do. I’ve seen pictures of my father as a little boy. Cute kid.

And I think about the young and growing families who occupied that house during the many decades that followed. Families who dreamed, and talked with their neighbors, and the children who went off to school together.

All of this until the economic infrastructure of Detroit crumbled, and people left, and more people left, and more, until there were far more houses than people. And for thousands of houses in so many of the neighborhoods of Detroit, there are no more 6-year-olds looking out of the windows, thinking about all the games they might play.

There are many people and groups working hard to strengthen and revitalize Detroit. I was fortunate to hear Maurice Cox, the Planning Director of the City of Detroit a couple of weeks ago at a BU Initiative on Cities Seminar, Dynamic City: Futures for the Past. . It was inspiring. I hope it works. For the sake of the future of 6-year olds of Detroit.     @VSapiro