Field Work on Field Street

Field Work on Field Street

In Detroit, Michigan

I have just finished my field work for the day. The day of which I am writing was the eighteenth of January, and given the location of my work, it was not altogether a pleasant experience. Though the sun was out, my discomfort was made real by the wind and unreasonably cold temperature (somewhere between 19o – 32o). I am too used to my native Texas where, if the sun shines, outdoor conditions are remarkably mild in the winter, a fact which did not thaw numb toes.

Apocalyptic weather not withstanding, my field work went well though my nerve was tested at several points that morning. The first of these complications was the dog. I say dog as an abstract concept not as a specific animal of concern. There were stray dogs, chained dogs and dogs in the shattered windows of dubiously occupied buildings. I do not mean for man’s best friend to be the first characterizing element of my experience, but my fear of feral urban animals was and is quite real.

After I acclimated to my surroundings, I built up my courage to approach the house which I had long admired from afar on goggle streetview. I stopped abruptly on the first step of the porch. Looking up I saw a small white device fix on top of the door frame just above the keystone. As soon as I realized what I had discovered, I felt a substantial portion of my hope fall to the ground. It was a camera. The aperture had a motion sensor attached to its bottom which made me uncomfortably aware of every temperature induced muscle twitch I was currently enduring.

Slowly, I had to admit to myself that someone had got there first. A house which I spent months coveting had sold to the quickest investor. The owner had affix that device to protect his new purchase but to me it seemed to be a contentious challenge. What was once fear now became my defiance as I straightened up and turned on a camera of my own. “I’ll leave when the police come.”

I started of broadly, taking photographs of each facade and the lot on which the reserved structure sits. As I continued my work with house, though boarded and locked, it began to reveal itself to me. I found a wooden design flourish under a thick layer of dead grass which once belonged to a window frame. It was remarkable in terms of craftsmanship though it had long been separated from it larger master. In a litigious moment of defiance I put it in my bag, it is now in my stewardship.

I started circling the structure trying to commit its form to memory, a daunting task given my limitations. I discovered a side entrance that assumably contained the kitchen. The house had been horrible disfigured by a fire which evidently induced its current hibernation. I knew of this damage prior to my visit, but it was unclear to me how the conflagration began and the deterioration of the building materials. Most fire damage in Detroit is the consequence of social resistance; it is then rather unfortunate that this destruction was simply the result of negligence in the repair an aging gasline.

The richness of my investigation came from this part of the house: stone, glass, wood, and photographs. As I was taking one last panorama I hear a man,

“What kind of pictures you do?”

I had been seen by another device, but this one had the ability to speak. (Think quickly you’re a historian doing research . . . wait, you hardly look twenty-five. You could be taking photos for the owner . . . what if he is the owner? I ultimately settled on the truth however difficult it would make the immediate future.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, I was just askin’ because I take pictures, too”

“Oh, yeah. Um I’m a student. I’m just doing research.”

“What are you studying?”

“Architecture.”

“In Detroit? Man, get yourself to Chicago. Detroit’s falling apart.”

“That’s actually why I’m here. I’m studying how buildings fall apart.”

“Yeah? Well welcome to Detroit. Say, you know who bought that house?”

“No, I wanted to buy it but I guess someone beat me to it. They even put up at camera at the door.”

“Probably one of them motherfuckers from New York. They got enough money to buy all this up!”

“Yeah, I heard this one sold for $800.”

. . .

“Are you being funny.”

“No”

“Wow look at it. That’s stone! Right on the side there, that’s stone! And look at them windows, they big! How do they get away with that man . . . I’d rather have you on my street than one of those New York fuckers.”

“HA! Well that’s good to hear. I’m sure we’d be good neighbors.”

“That’s right man. That just stretched my face when you said that, $800.”

“I didn’t believe it myself.”

“Well hey young man you be safe out here. Ain’t everybody going to be as nice as me. You’re in Detroit now.”

My neighbor left and I stared back at the house, my house.

1739 Field Street

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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3 thoughts on “Field Work on Field Street

  1. Drew, It is amazing what your eyes see in a house in that condition. You see what it can be, not what it is. I would never have looked at it a second time because I do not have your imagination. I would love to go back to East Cleveland, Ohio to again see where if was born and raised. The last time I went by that house, it was in bad shape – not as bad as “your” house though. The house next to is was ravaged by fire. I have been told that it is dangerous to go back to East Cleveland if you value your life! A sad state of affairs, isn’t it?

  2. Andrew my son, I did enjoy your short story although I want to spank your bottom for taking such risks…You take after your mother. I am so proud of your passion for the areas in Detroit which need so much help. I have faith you will help save Detroit….Thank God for people like you in this world….Love you much Your mother

  3. Andrew. I’m so happy that you admire the house at 1739 Field Street. You can learn more about it by visiting altspacedetroit.org. It’s funny to read your various observations about the house and the community. I hope you will find it comforting to know that the camera you mention is simply a solar powered nightlight to make it safe to walk on the pathway in the dark (or maybe it IS a camera…who knows?). You notice the well manicured lawn? That was done through the cooperation of neighbors and community organizers who are trying to improve the neighborhood by taking care of properties, even when the banks that have acquired them through foreclosure fail to do so.

    The neighbor you spoke to was correct: I am a New Yorker. I live in Brooklyn where we recently suffered one of the worst hurricanes to hit the northeast in a century. I’m far from being rich as an artist, adjunct professor and founder of a not-for-profit theater.

    I purchased the house by cashing out part of my retirement thinking I could put my skills as an artists, educator and community organizer to good use here. It was the best “investment” I ever made and I’ve since connected with a number of my neighbors and a few amazing social justice organizations, including The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. I’m currently working with Virtuoso Design + Build to develop a community center for popular theater and sustainability.

    There won’t be any need to feel covetous or that you missed out, since the house will be, for the most part, open to the public and be a space where innovative thinkers (like you I suspect) can experiment with sustainable technology and traditional crafts. There will even be alternative accommodations for interns and visitors coming to work with the community using alternative economic models like bartering, time-banking and just plain old gifting/hospitality.

    Perhaps we can sit down and discuss the plans for the house and other work happening in the neighborhood. In the meantime, I’d like to suggest you read Grace Lee Boggs recently published “The Next American Revolution” or try and catch a screening of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. You may quickly learn that kindness, generosity, neighborliness are not as hard to come by in Detroit, especially on the eastside and Field Street, as your post implies.

    PS. Your mom seems nice. Bring her by the house sometime too.

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