I haven’t written much lately because I’ve been working long hours at both my nonprofit and radio jobs. I took a writing class early this fall and wrote some interesting pieces. This is just one of them.
The scene is surprisingly underwhelming. I look around and see people going about their business, as if nothing had happened. Not even a strand of police tape or chalk outline remain. People are waiting at the bus stop at Woodward and Chicago, trying to get to work on time. No one would believe that just three hours earlier, someone had been murdered on this street corner.
Philipus Ockstadt arrived in Menominee Michigan from Hesse, Germany in 1881. He came to the United States seeking opportunity in Northern Michigan’s mining country. As with many recent arrivals, German was forbidden to be spoken outside the household. Their customs were quickly replaced with American ones. In 1891 he married Louisa Brohman, also of German decent. Life wasn’t easy, but he managed to provide for his family.
In 2014, Detroit saw just 300 murders. That’s the fewest homicides the city has seen in 47 years. Still, Detroit is the third most violent city in America. As much as locals want to defend Detroit, it’s hard to argue against the facts. Embarrassed by the actions of a few, they try to downplay the violence that dictates the local media. My heart aches for the city of Detroit.
Among Philipus and Louisa’s seven children was Frank. Frank grew up watching his father work in the mining industry. He watched his father work long hours for little pay. Frank knew that he wanted a better life for his own family and moved to Detroit around 1930. He and his wife Marie would raise six children on the City’s east side.
They call it the brain-drain. It’s when the most intelligent minds leave a country in search of better opportunities elsewhere. It’s the reason why you see so many foreign doctors in US Hospitals. When the great economic crisis of 2008 hit, Detroit began its own brain-drain. The best and brightest fled, leaving little left in their wake.
When the great depression hit, Frank did just about anything to survive in the city. He started working as a day laborer. Supporting his six children and his elderly in-laws, he did whatever work he could find. His daughter recalls at times having little more than bread and lard for meals. Following FDR’s new deal, opportunity found Frank when he gained full-time work as a postal carrier.
Detroit has around 700,000 residents today. At its peak in the 1950’s there were around 1.86 million people living in the city. Every morning, just like this morning, I’m confronted with the shell of what it once was. I gawk at the homes in the Beautiful Boston-Edison District. I tell myself that, someday, I’ll buy one of these abandoned masterpieces and restore it to its former glory.
By the mid 1940’s, Frank was successfully caring for his large family. With their hearts set on an even better life, they left Detroit for the suburbs. Frank and Marie bought a house on West Troy Street in Ferndale. Frank worked hard so that his kids could attend a private Catholic School. In the years that followed The Great Depression, the Ockstadt’s had gone from renters to home owners.
The most iconic symbol for Detroit today is not the glass structure of the Renaissance Center. No, the national news media does not like to paint this picture. Instead, Detroit’s unofficial mascot is the old Michigan Central train station. Its owner, billionaire Matty Moroune, has held onto the property for decades, refusing to make improvements. A massive and beautiful façade, it’s empty. Its haunting presence serves as a metaphor for the city.
Frank’s daughter Dolly graduated high school and took classes to become a secretary. Dolly loved being active and working in the city. Each morning she would walk to Woodward Avenue and take the street car in Detroit. Eventually she would meet a young man by the name of Charles Yodhes who lived on the other side of the rail road tracks. Charles came from the poorer neighborhood of Ferndale but eventually gained Dolly’s heart. But, that would be short lived. When Charles was drafted into the Korean War, stubbornly independent Dolly would return his ring to him.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was adopted in 1993. Touted as economic opportunity for North America, it became the pallbearer for a city still recovering from the 1980’s recession. When the plants opened in Mexico and Canada, Detroit was abandoned. Its industry gone, the city fell into a coma.
On July 11th, 1953 Frank and Marie’s daughter, Dolly, married Charles Yodhes at St. James Parish in Ferndale. Charles and Dolly would eventually move back into that house on West Troy Street to care for her aging parents. Charles and Dolly went on to have 9 children and adopt their niece. Frank spent his retirement building a cottage outside Lapeer, helping care for his grandchildren, betting on horses, and taking risks in the stock market.
In 2015, the unemployment rate in the city of Detroit is about 10%. It’s tough to find work when there aren’t any jobs. Of course, this is a stark contrast from the height of the city in the 1950’s and 1960’s where someone could drop out of high school, go to work in a factory, and support a family of four comfortably. Today, a large supermarket moving into the city quickly becomes a competition for the city’s best and brightest praying for minimum wage jobs.
Charles found work as a firefighter with the city of Ferndale. Not rich by any means, Charles found a way to provide for his family by working two jobs, helping at a nearby funeral home on his days off. In July of 1967, Charles responded to urgent requests from the nearby Detroit fire units. Charles was being called in to help put out the flames of the once great city as it burned to the ground. Charles would be shot at, trying to control the flames that erupted throughout the city. The race riots of 1967 would mark one of the last times he would step foot in the city.
Detroit is a city of slogans. T-Shirt stores pop up everywhere with sayings like “Say Nice Things About Detroit” and “Detroit vs. Everybody”. (My favorite among them, ‘Bitch Please, I’m From Detroit’.) National press loves to cover the failures of Detroit, its long abandoned buildings the backdrop for a popular genre of photography called ‘ruin porn’.
In 1979, Charles and Dolly would see their third eldest child married at St. James. Susanne, a teacher at a Catholic School in Detroit married an automotive worker from Livonia. Keith, too, came from a modest background. A factory worker with little more than a high school diploma, he would out earn Suzie for most of her career. Seeking better opportunity for their future family, they moved to Three Rivers, Michigan.
Detroit has become a land of opportunity again, for some. Mr. Gilbert gives his employees a bonus for living in the city. With Detroit Public Schools abysmal graduation rate, with nearly 40 percent dropping out, Gilbert and others are looking outside the city limits. The new economy of Detroit consists of tech jobs and mortgages. A scarce few DPS graduates are prepared for these positions. There are windows going into the old train station now, but rumors say it’s only because the city threatened to seize the property if he didn’t.
I remember sitting in the kitchen of the West Troy House with my great-grandfather. Great-Grandpa Frank was always up early listening to the news on News Radio 950-AM WWJ. Frank lived to be 91 years old. He had the opportunity to meet not only his children, but also his grand-children.
The house on Warren Avenue that Frank bought, it’s now a gas station. The neighborhood has lost its former glory. When they tell you about the rebirth of Detroit, they like to leave out the story of the longtime city residents. They ask the national media to visit Midtown and New Center. They hide the family on the east side, living in the only occupied house on the block. They don’t want you to know about the grandmother that was once Frank’s neighbor, who’s now too afraid to leave her house.
There’s little outrage over today’s murder. The city just carries on like it always does. People, eager to make a life of their own, push it to the side. They line up at the same bus stop. Praying the busses arrive on time. Detroit has become desensitized to its own violence, a coping mechanism to navigate through the hollow streets.
In 2011, my fiancé and I bought a house on West Troy Street. It is walking distance from Frank’s Ockstadt’s house, where Dolly and Charles still live. Kevin Botos and I were married on June 30th, 2012 at St. James Parish in Ferndale where my grandmother continues to work as a secretary. Both children of factory workers, we sought a better life for ourselves and went to college. Now with Masters Degrees following the great recession, with student loan payments greater than our mortgage, we’re struggling to get by. My husband has been out of work for three months, and he’s running out of leads.
I’ll go home from work today and take a different side street through the Boston Edison to study a different street. On Saturday, I’ll go to work at CBS. I’ll pause outside the studio for WWJ Newsradio 950 and think of my great grandfather. And, on Monday, I’ll interview at another radio station, in another state, just praying we can find our better future.