Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Personal Essay - Fanning the Flames

Essay written by me, for Prof. McCloskey's Advanced Writing (ENG 380) course, Fall 2008.

Want to take a gander? Currently, The length is hovering between 10 and 11 pages. If you have a few moments, would you mind giving it a once-over? I'm most interested in your personal reactions to it (but any typo/error spotting is excellent). It's an easy read, and you might even learn something from it!

The essay is still, obviously, in progress. Although the style is somewhat non-linear, the transition breaks serve as signals to keep readers from feeling to jostled. If you like or dislike the organization of the essay, please let me know! If it parts seem unresolved, that's because this essay feels as if it'll never end! Let me know what bits bother you, and I'll focus on them, first.

Fanning the Flames

We roamed the field behind my house in a pack of tanned, rowdy neighborhood children. Our sun-bleached hair and browned skin served as natural camouflage amidst the golden prairie grass, and in the dusty drainage ditches. We were field children, running wild under the great Texas sky. Hot, dry winds made the grasses bend and dip, itching at our legs. After a snack and a glass of cold water, we brave four ventured into the wildness of the field to play out the afternoons of late spring.

Acres of field stretched for to the left and right, down to the shoreline of Lake Ray Hubbard. To the left were the drainage ditches. Dusty crickets hopped up and down their walls, which served as army trenches during warfare and various dining rooms and bedrooms when we played house. Behind us, up the hill, houses were perched and watchful. My mother peered down at us from the porch, sipping her special extra-tart lemonade and solving crossword puzzles. We were bound to only the parts of the field from which we could see her, and no further.

Trees were rare, but the small grove to the right offered enough shade from the bright, stifling sun. They also functioned as the perfect fort. There was a passage between the tall pine and the few other prairie trees, all stunted by the drought-like conditions. A scabby-kneed seven-year-old could crawl between the broken branches with ease, to find our secret hiding place. We were not the first to find this oasis of imagination. The packed dirt floor was accessorized with an old kitchen rug, and candy wrappers served as decorations around the perimeter. Old beer bottles littered the dusty ground beneath the pine tree. In our third summer, we found an abandoned motorcycle wedged into the prickly holly bushes. These lost treasures were carefully stowed away within our fort’s recesses.

Our countless days of adventuring created a network of paths through the tall grasses, as we civilized our lands, creating a world of our own. Past the original fort, we discovered the remains of a forgotten hideout at the end of a little-used trail. Our own fort paled in comparison when we found a rickety bench and a broken walkie-talkie. Under our ownership, this new outpost became a favorite part of our expanding civilization. With each summer, our boundaries expanded to conquer new areas, such as the old storm drain, the rusted box springs, and finally, the abandoned Buick. The world was ours for the taking.

At the end of each day, we tramped back over the paths, and stretched out on the porch’s wooden planks. Dusty socks peeled away to reveal clean white ankles and feet. Our pale toes wiggled freely in the evening light.

With June came the fire. Dad usually spotted the smoke first, a few miles down, away from the subdivisions. From our safe roost, we climbed up onto the porch railings to peer at the jumping flames. We never knew what sparked the field fires, and did not bother guessing as we watched the dark smoke billow up into the blindingly bright blue sky. What the fires took would grow back anew each spring, and they never spread close enough to our forts, our lands. When the licking flames came each summer, we sipped tart lemonade and watched the field turn to ash.
- - - - -
“Five! Four! Three! Two…”

Detroit’s Hudson Building has turns to dust before our eyes. We count down as if it were New Years Eve, but why? Rather than the beginning of something new, we watch the demise of a beautiful treasure with baited breath.

“It’s a real shame, you know?” Dad sets aside the paper to watch an instant replay of the implosion, muting the chatter of the news anchors on television. “They should have done something with it. A hotel, or something.”

“And who would have stayed in it?” My mother sips her coffee, eyes glued to the footage. “No one comes to Detroit, anymore. No one would pay to renovate it.”

The footage runs on the television a third time. Where once stood a retail monument is now a heap of rubble. Plumes of dust rise like smoke, obscuring the grey Detroit skyline.

“Still,” Dad sighs as he shakes the paper back to its upright stance. “Somebody should have done something.”
- - - - -
I wish I could go back to the days of playing in the field. Worries were few and far between, and the world was comprised of the grasses before me, and the hours before dinner. The field is 1,000 miles and a lifetime away, and however hard I try, I will never be able to return. Distance and time are not the barriers keeping me from revisiting my childhood. Simply put, the field no longer exists.

Through a system of satellites, cameras, and the Internet, Google’s map website can show an aerial view of any place on Earth. Earlier this year I found this website, and was thrilled when the search for my old address in Texas took me back, virtually, to the old neighborhood on the hill.

“What the hell?!”

With my nose only a few inches from the computer screen, I clicked the mouse to zoom in and out, not able to get my bearings. “Where is it?”

The old brown roof of my house blinked blankly at me. I knew I had the right address, but something was horribly wrong.

“Mom?” I leaned toward the open doorway, calling into the kitchen. “Mom, there’s… there’s something wrong with Texas…”

Together, we toyed with the map, puzzling over the unfamiliar landscape. Our house stood in the same place, as did the houses of our old neighbors. Lake Ray Hubbard sparkled in the sun a few acres away. But the space in between, what should have been our golden field, had been replaced by rows of cookie-cutter houses.

Dozens of gray roofs stood in orderly lines, the perfect specimen of a new-age Dallas subdivision. Every third house has a chlorinated swimming pool in the fenced-in back yard. Their driveways were inhabited by fuzzy grey blobs – SUVs, most likely. Everything was blue and gray, and unnatural.
- - - - -
From the safe roost of the suburbs, Detroit seems like a dangerous, decrepit pit. Suburbanites have spread out in the surrounding empty spaces, leaving behind a grand city for a subdivision within commuting range. Detroit is a donut city, empty and struggling in the center while suburban pseudo-Detroiters watch from the sidelines.

If left alone for too long, Detroit’s forgotten factories and other abandoned buildings will be reclaimed by nature. In some places, it has already begun. Traditional urban wildlife creatures – squirrels, raccoons, rats, and pigeons – are now joined by less traditional urban animals that call Detroit home. Pheasants have taken up roosts in the old boat yard along the Detroit River. Their presence, in turn, has brought suburban hunters downtown with silenced rifles and a hunger for game. Factories and other complexes open to the elements are often overgrown and unkempt, serving as an oasis for animals in the city. Additional echoes of wildlife and nature can be found within forgotten parts of Detroit. Urban explorers frequent the more popular abandoned buildings, like Michigan Central Station, as well as the National Theatre and the Metropolitan Building. Decked out in sturdy boots, cameras, and flashlights, these city-styled hikers are as clever as squirrels when intent on exploring and abandoned structure. Various websites contain a dazzling array of photographs taken during these excursions into “forgotten Detroit.” These architectural treasures from yesteryear are left to crumble.

Fires burn in Detroit, consuming the abundant kindling made that is wayside factories and houses. These blazes are commonplace, and often go unmentioned on the nightly news. The remains of a neighborhood’s blight smolder and drip morning light. The City, an ambiguous group of government people, will clear away what was left of the deteriorating house. Once, it was someone’s home. It was part of the American Dream of prosperity and love. Now, it is another empty, scorched lot. This empty space could become so many things, like a community garden or park. More likely, though, the vacant space will become the dumping grounds for dead Christmas trees and old refrigerators.
- - - - -
Progress destroyed the field. They sold parcels to strangers, like so much of America, without the understanding that it already belonged to someone – to all of us. To an uninformed person, the coming of a well-maintained and populated subdivision is a welcome replacement to an old and eroded field full of rattlesnakes and mold. The field was simply a place to be bought, cleaned up, and built upon. No longer would the field fires threaten those houses too close to the lake, because manicured lawns have replaced the kindling prairie grasses.

From an aerial view, what is left of the field is a strip of dull beige around the perimeter of the new subdivision. The few trees that had struggled for life in the unforgiving climate were gone, replaced by swimming pools and basketball hoops. To the field’s newest residents, the field was a dangerous wasteland, not suitable for children to use as a playground. Chunks of cement, scrap metal, box springs and dead Christmas trees littered the drainage ditches, serving as an ignored dumping ground of unwanted junk, hidden by the unkempt grass.
- - - - -
Detroit is in a perpetual state of autumn. In nature, death is merely part of the cycle of life. Spent leaves blanket the ground, and become food for the following spring reawakening. Through the decomposition of dead leaves, or burnt grasses, come the nutrients needed for the next year’s growth. Detroit lacks this decomposition and new growth. Death is not an end, but a necessary part of the circle. This idea is what Detroiters need to understand, invest in, and believe in order to save the city.

Not all of Detroit, however, has been left for dead. In fact, pockets of the city are bustling with life and excitement. Greektown hosts a myriad of landmark restaurants, as well as the new Greektown Casino. The nearby MotorCity Casino found a home in the renovated Wonder Bread Factory. The renovation of Campus Martius, in the heart of Detroit, is a beautifully revamped centerpiece where Detroiters gather to ice skate, watch parades, and enjoy other downtown events. This creation was funded in part by a handful of Detroit-based businesses that saw the merit in bringing visitors (and customers) back to the downtown area.
- - - - -
The fires of Detroit come and go, but life does not flourish in their wake, as a field might. Without intervention, this epidemic of decay will spread beyond America’s major cities. Even now, not only the city center suffers. Metro-Detroit’s sprawling suburbs have shown signs of struggle. Public libraries throughout the area have closed in droves, boarded up and left to crumble. Admission prices were raised by the Metro Parks to make up for lost profits and increased maintenance costs. The Detroit Zoo, the setting of countless childhood memories, has struggled to meet ends for years, only managing to keep their doors open through surges of generosity and public interest.

Detroit is one of numerous 20th century “donut” cities whose hey-day is now seems to be a mere memory. We cannot sit and wait for some extraordinary stranger to swoop in and save Detroit. Our great city can set an example for others, finding ways to rebound from this slump. We are the masters of our own histories, and our own futures. Community involvement is the necessary component to reviving Detroit. Preservation with a purpose can and will restore prosperity to the city and its inhabitants. Individuals came together to found and propel this city into the spotlight. Now, people are again needed to help right what has gone wrong.

Tiger Stadium is another casualty of progress. Last year, a portion of this celebrated stadium was demolished, after the city government’s unsuccessful attempts to find a more suitable use for this Michigan Historic Site. Prior to demolition, valuable parts of the stadium were sold to fans as memorabilia. Those willing to spend a few dollars for a tangible piece of history were rewarded with stadium signs and seats. One less traditional buyer was a man building a new home in the neighborhood, just across the street from my own house. His purchase was not folding seats or posters, but the actual bricks of Tiger Stadium. His impressive home’s shell is comprised of these bricks, and he proudly tells each passerby the story of his own great moment in preservation. Although that portion of Tiger Stadium no longer stands, the reuse and resale of usable items from the stadium is a great example of preservation with a purpose.

These are our American ruins, similar in some respects to the iconic Coliseum or Oxford’s redeveloped Oxford Castle. To many, Detroit’s sleeping giants are blights in the public eye. While still young when compared to other cultures, America is undeniably aging. Unfortunately, Detroit has not aged as gracefully as other tri-centennial American cities, and wrinkles are deepening.
- - - - -
The most telltale sign of urban decay is Michigan Central Station. Once the bustling hub of Southeast Michigan, the abandoned train station now sits empty and derelict. The website ForgottenDetroit.com and a handful of other online urban exploration photo galleries offer an astounding selection of images. The old train station is decayed decadence at its finest, and these city adventurers return to the Michigan Central repeatedly (and illegally) for amazing “urbex” experiences. The turn-of-the-century Romanesque plaster work appears to be beyond repair. Once stately and refined, the d├ęcor is now graced by graffiti and debris from years of vandalism. The station’s most valuable accents, such as copper and marble, have been looted in the twenty years since the station was left empty.The longer Michigan Central sits waiting, the more work will be necessary in restoration.

Detroit’s beautiful old theatres have also fallen into disarray. Although the destruction seems irreversible at first glance, these cultural facets of Detroit can and must be saved. The 1912 National Theatre, for example, has been stripped of its beautiful plaster statues and moldings. However, the entrance hall is covered in beautiful Pewabic tiles, another Detroit cultural icon. These pieces of history, once the pulse of the city, suffer from years of neglect and abandonment.
- - - - -
There are multiple groups (mostly nonprofit organizations and government programs) working in hopes of returning Detroit to its former glory. Their hope is to rejuvenate the city and bring people back into urban center. With the increasing interest in “green,” environmentally friendly living, there are plenty of untapped job sources waiting for the right entrepreneurs. Purposeful preservation is spreading throughout the city in the form of living and working lofts, storefronts, clubs, and galleries. Community gardens are sprouting up in and around Detroit, as well as populous across the nation. On the fringes of the city center, a few empty lots have been converted into public vegetable and flower gardens. These select neighborhoods buzz with interest and involvement, and the gardens bring together generations of Detroiters looking for food, friendship, and entertainment. Thanks to volunteers and sponsors, groups like EarthWorks, the Greening of Detroit, and Michigan State University work to improve the quality of urban life by establishing a growing number of community gardens.

Eastern Market, Detroit’s sprawling farmers’ market shopping destination, overflows with people each weekend. Eccentric shops line the old streets, and the sidewalks overflow with wandering shoppers and vendors. The area is home to a growing community of neighbors living in rehabbed and refurbished loft-style apartments, such as those in what was once the fire department’s repair warehouse. New and old intertwine in special areas of life within Detroit, and people with a keen eye are bound to stumble upon something special. The pheasants and have the right idea. Today’s Detroit is a fertile field of forgotten dreams and future successes.
- - - - -
I can almost feel the hot Texas sun warming the back of my neck as we trundled down the beaten paths of the field, on what we thought would be the next great adventure. What’s gone is gone, though, and I can never return to my field. In order to retain its identity, Detroit must come together to regain and protect their history from its greatest enemy – itself.

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