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Home Free: Remembering Detroit

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The news that Detroit has declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history prompts me to publish this excerpt from Chapter 2 of my new book, Home Free: An American Road Trip. About Home Free, Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, says: "Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he's listening to America."

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Navin Field Grounds Crew founder Tom Derry on the infield where Tiger Stadium stood on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues, Detroit, 2011. Photo by Sarah Aittama.

In this passage I narrate conversations with my longtime friends Tom Derry and Kathleen Conway. Tom and Kate both were involved, as I was, in the highly-charged political battle in the late 1980s and 1990s to save Detroit's historic baseball park, Tiger Stadium -- and to save the hundreds of millions of public dollars that any new stadium would cost, in a city with a Third World-level infant mortality rate.

Since the stadium's demolition, Tom and other volunteers maintain the field, famously situated at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues, as the Navin Field Grounds Crew, in defiance of the city authorities. (Tom himself has not worked on the field since suffering a workplace injury on August 28, 2012.) Navin Field was the name of the first portion of Tiger Stadium, which opened in 1912. To make a long story short, there's a lot more to tell about Detroit.

- Ethan Casey, July 18, 2013

*

We left Tom's living room, got in his big red pickup truck, and drove downtown. Tom was sheepish about the bigness of his truck, which I drove because of his injured leg. "I know a lot of people think it's obscene, and it probably is," he said. "But I wouldn't be able to cut the grass at Michigan and Trumbull without it." As we exited off the Lodge Freeway onto the service drive, the familiar Brooks Lumber sign was visible from Rosa Parks Boulevard, behind the left field corner, but it shouldn't have been. "I hear there used to be a baseball stadium around here somewhere," I said sourly.

"Yeah, but there's still a flagpole," said Tom.

I had been in town the previous January to speak at a Pakistani community fundraiser, and I had stayed then with Kate Conway. Kate's mom, whom I had known, had been avidly following the Tigers for ninety years. Kate's grandfather, James Conway, had been a groundskeeper at the stadium. Kate had also been involved in the fight to save it, and it meant something to me that it was with her that I saw the empty lot for the first time.

Kate was living in Dearborn then, so we drove down Ford Road into the city. It was Kate who had burdened me, when I fled Detroit at the end of 1992, by saying, "Leave if you have to, but at some point you're going to have to turn back and face Detroit again." An outsider needed someone like her, with personal memories, to get the right kind of tour. Otherwise you either devolved into voyeurism, ogling the awesome scale of Detroit's ruination, or became complicit in the enforced collective aversion of eyes, because you didn't know what you weren't seeing. As Kate said about Tiger Stadium, "They had to get rid of it so that it would just sink into the background." Or, you saw Detroit only as what it now was: an impoverished black city. It is that. But to dwell only on that obvious current fact, and the politics and racialized bitterness that go with it, is to skip over what brought it to this point, which is nothing less than the entire history of America in the twentieth century, in which we're all complicit. Detroiters, including white Detroiters like Kate and Tom who have lived its history and not left it behind, remember Detroit.

Kate and I had passed the Ford-Wyoming drive-in. "I remember as a kid going there," she said. The drive-in was at the city line, where Ford became McGraw. "What I'm always struck by is how stark the difference is. It's like you can feel Detroit closing in on you."

"People think it's about Detroit, but really it's about America," I insisted. That was a truth I had taken away with me.

"That's what people don't understand," said Kate. "It could be like this anywhere. And it is, in many cities that don't have the bad rep. This is the Kronk Center, where boxers like Tommy Hearns and Joe Louis trained. And, as you can see, it's closed. ... And this is Grand Boulevard, which used to be the northern border of the city. It's called West Grand Boulevard because of all these grand houses." She showed me Northwestern High School and the empty twenty-story building next to it. "It's been like this I don't know how long. For years. So what I'm gonna do," she then said abruptly, "is go down to Michigan and Trumbull. Prepare yourself. Then we'll take Michigan downtown, then come back up."

And there it was. Or rather, there it wasn't.

"It's so ironic and weird that the only thing that's left is the flagpole," I said. There was even a big Stars and Stripes flying, in a big empty lot, behind a locked fence, in the middle of winter.

"Yeah. And why the flagpole? You know Catherine Darin died a few years ago? We scattered her ashes there." Catherine was a delightful and tough woman from Ireland who had come to Detroit in the forties as a war bride. She had been to more than five hundred Tigers games and had become the Tiger Stadium Fan Club's backbone. She and Tom Derry had been great friends. "It's just so depressing," said Kate. "It used to give me my bearings: 'Okay, there's the stadium. I know where I am.'"

"It still pisses me off, Tom," I said now. "I know you've had a lot more practice at not being angry."

"You know," he said, "I think it's because I've gotten so involved in cleaning it up."