Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Going Home

Preparing for a trial the last few weeks, one thing I made the decision not to give up is watching my son play baseball. He pitches on his high school's freshman team, and one of the teams they faced plays its home games on the field of my old elementary school. I took advantage of the game there to take a look at the school and drive by the house where I grew up.

I went to Immaculate Heart of Mary elementary school in Detroit, graduating from the 8th grade in 1971. A Catholic school, attached to a Catholic church. There is still a mass there -- one mass-- on Sundays, but the school now appears to be a public school academy, also known as a charter school, for grades 3-5.

Looking around, I was amazed at how small the school seemed, particularly since there were eight grades when I went there, two classrooms for each grade.

The statue of the Virgin Mary has been moved from near the school to a spot near the church, about as far from its previous location as it can get. Have to separate church and state, you know.

When I attended IHM, all of the students came from the immediate area around the school. Most kids walked to and from school, some rode their bikes, and a very tiny percentage were driven by their parents. Now, I saw very few students walking after school, almost all of them leaving on several school buses. And there are no bike racks.

Driving by my old house (which we left in 1977), I was struck by how many of the homes have iron bars on the doors and windows, in a neighborhood where we used to leave the doors unlocked. I also noticed that a fair number of the trees are dead, perhaps victims of the emerald ash borer, but dead nonetheless, and the neighborhood's appearance, which couldn't take it, suffered further.

Some things were the same -- the trees by our house were still there, including the one I tried to chop down with a 7-iron when I was quite young. We lived on a corner lot, with a detached garage and a fence running about three quarters of the lot along the side. Much of the fence was gone, and the garage looked unusable. The garage windows were boarded up, I couldn't tell if the garage door was functioning, and the entry door was just gone.

One improvement that, in my mind, diminished the lot, was the side street, which had been paved. Growing up, that was a dirt road, and the opportunities for imaginative play were unlimited. When we played baseball, we drew the bases in the dirt, and the area behind my garage was the bullpen (which, unlike a major league bullpen, you had to jump the fence to get out of). We burnt leaves there, after piling them as high as we could for jumping-into purposes. We played football, marking the line of scrimmage and first down lines in the dirt, and we even had our own version of Olympics, consisting of races, high jumps (into piles of leaves), and long jumps, the results of which were also marked in the dirt.

In all, looking at my school and my home, I experienced a great sense of loss. Things that had been constants as a young boy -- my home, my church, my school -- have changed irrevocably, and not for the better. A sizable number of the homes in my old neighborhood are boarded up or burnt out, including the homes where some of my friends lived.

Is this the natural course of things? The house my dad grew up in isn't even there anymore, and my old house is on its way. Will my son and daughter see the same thing happen to the house we live in now? What can we do to stop this cycle?

Our old neighborhood in Detroit deteriorated because of crime and declining property values. People who cared deeply about our neighborhood and our neighbors moved out, replaced by people who didn't care as much. Our Catholic parish, a focal point of community life, declined in importance as the community changed. The school closed, and masses declined from 5 or 6 a weekend to one. The school now seems like just a building to be rented, and Mary's statue has been removed to a distant location.

God, family, neighborhood. These are the things that bound us together, made us strong, and made life in our corner of Detroit a wonderful thing. I knew everyone for blocks around. We rode our bikes and played baseball from breakfast to dark in the summer, all without a parental escort, cell phones, or play dates. Now, I am ashamed to say that I don't know that many of my neighbors, and my kids leave our sight under tight restrictions and always with their cell phone tethers.

I certainly don't have answers for the problems of today's neighborhoods or our impersonal, isolated existences. Mostly, I just wanted to get these thoughts down. But it occurs to me we have lost the common, unifying themes of American life -- God, family, neighborhood. In the name of diversity and tolerance, we celebrate our differences, but downplay our similarities. We trumpet our divisions, but silence that which unites -- or united -- us.

It's too bad we can't simply ignore race, creed, or national origin. These things are almost always irrelevant to any decision that needs to be made, and they are irrelevant to any consideration of the worth and value of a human being. The more we focus on them, the farther we drift from our American ideal, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

God, family, neighborhood. Let's get back to basics and save ourselves.


  1. This was a very enjoyable walk down memory lane with you, and oh so bittersweet. That St. Martins was paved is a sure sign of decline.
    When my inner child astral travels (haha Wiz I wrote that just for you) it is difficult for her to find Mary, now, to crown her with fresh flowers - likely the move was to thwart vandals? (Not to mention Visigoths...)
    Variety is the spice of life yet it is only the commonalities that can truly unite us.

  2. I did not include that Coffey Jr. High's (n/k/a Coffey Middle School's) playground has been cut in half with enclosed play areas, and the one remaining half suitable for baseball, etc., is completely grown over with weeds, and the huge trees along Vassar by the fence are gone. How do weeds grow in that gravel? Man, if I had a nickel for every piece of that #@*&# gravel I pulled out of my knees and elbows . . .

  3. Dan, thanks for stirring up my memories as well. It's been a while since I drove by there and I always seem to have to drive too fast because I'm nervous about being in that neighborhood. But when I dream of our house it is always with happiness that I'm back there.

    And don't forget to see if the gate that you ran into on your bike is still there!