By Michael A. Van Kerckhove
Of all the fathers and sons I know, I’m fairly certain my dad and I are the only ones who would spend part of a hot spring Wednesday afternoon peering into a sewer grate. However, this is not just any sewer grate. Its location, 277 miles east of my current home in Chicago, marks the root of my relationship with the Rouge River, the Southeast Michigan river known for both its pollution and the efforts surrounding its recovery.
This corner is at Riverdale South and Ridge Roads in working class northwest Detroit. In front of us, across the street, the Rouge’s main branch travels downstream toward its mouth at the Detroit River. It flows through wooded banks that buffer the residential neighborhood from the heavy city traffic of McNichols Road, otherwise known as Six Mile. On our left is a field whose baseball cage is long gone and where the surrounding trees creep in closer and closer, threatening to swallow the open space whole.
Behind us is the basement-less ranch house where I spent my first thirteen and a half years from 1974 to 1988. A handful of houses in the neighborhood — houses I once delivered the Detroit News to — are gutted and falling apart. But our house is in better shape now on this visit in 2013 than the boarded-up and scorch-marked state I found it in the last time I drove by in late 2008, mere weeks after the current owner purchased it from HUD (the US Department of Housing and Urban Development) for a steal at $6K. But the house, according to my dad, should never really have been built. Much of Ridge Road and some of Riverdale South are located inside the Rouge’s floodplain. Dad points out the utility pole that has since replaced the original pole that marked the record flood height in 1968, and then again in 1980. During the latter flood, I could look out our dining room window and watch people canoeing down the road toward the underwater Ridge Road bridge (also since replaced) linking Six Mile to our neighborhood. Our house, built in 1955, rests on a hill, a hill the original builder created in order to lift the foundation out of the floodplain. Yet the elevations of our house and several of our neighbors’ are still not high enough to access the city’s sewer system. My childhood is pockmarked with holes dug in our expansive backyard as Dad waged war with our oft-backed up septic tank. Our sewer alternative couldn’t quite keep up with our growing family.
The sewer grate into which Dad and I peer was once the destination of some jerry-rigging he constructed in an attempt to get our house “online” so to speak. Dad points to the digital voice recorder hanging around my neck to preserve our conversation. “You’re recording my sins,” he says.
* * *
The Rouge River may not enjoy the iconic status of the mighty Mississippi. While it does run through a few higher profile public spaces, the main river, its three branches, and endless creeks and tiny tributaries, create a watershed that runs mostly through quiet residential or near rural areas throughout Detroit proper and forty-seven other suburban municipalities. I doubt most people outside our corner of Michigan have ever heard of it. But the Rouge River serves as an integral connection to Detroit’s story, the nation’s story, and my family’s story.
I’d once heard tell from a now forgotten source that the Rouge was named for spilled Civil War soldier blood. But since no such battles were fought anywhere near the Rouge, I hold this story as a romantic myth. The truth is, the Rouge was named by the Detroit-founding French explorers in the late 1600s. Before the river was tainted with industrial waste and sewage, the water sported a red tint from the rushes and berries that grew along its banks. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701 in part to create a base of operation for the burgeoning fur trade (the Europeans loved their beaver pelts). Six years later, he began dividing land along the Rouge and Detroit Rivers into “ribbon” farms, parcels of land approximately 250 feet wide and three miles long. Logging for lumber and to make room for agricultural enterprises became the norm in the early 1800s.The Rouge’s most famous resident was Henry Ford, who from 1917 to 1928 built his world famous Rouge Plant complex in Dearborn, which consolidated automobile manufacturing into a single area one mile wide and one and a half miles long. From 1942 to 1945, the plant manufactured tanks for its contribution to the war effort. Ford’s ingenuities and efforts, however integral to modern life as we know it, were part of the industrial and immigration boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that as a whole, contributed to the river’s decline. Oil pollution culminated in the winter of 1948 when 11,000 ducks and geese were killed when they landed on oil-soaked open, unfrozen patches of the Detroit River. Another 12,000 birds died in 1960. And in October 1969, oil-soaked debris floating on the Rouge caught fire near Interstate-75 just upstream from the river’s mouth, sending flames fifty feet into the air.
In 1970, a then 22-year-old Al Van Kerckhove, my dad — who is now a retired civil engineer with more than forty years of work with the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department — heard talk of an organization called Rescue the Rouge. In the wake of the 1969 fire and the cultural zeitgeist responsible for the creation of Earth Day in 1970, Rescue the Rouge was formed by members of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the Department of Natural Resources after exploratory canoe trips deemed an organized restoration effort possible. Its mission: “To clean a river choking with pollution and through its rehabilitation, to foster within the community, a feeling of pride, accomplishment, and determination to maintain it.”
…by the mid 80s, we’d dubbed the then near terminally polluted Rouge River, “Stinky Creek.”My dad attended the first Rouge Rescue project in 1970 where he met several of the Rescue the Rouge founding members, including Ernest Forster (or “Grandpa Ernie” to me) who wrote a brief history of the group. They met in Eliza Howell Park, about a mile south of our house on Riverdale. My dad is a native East Sider, born and raised east of Woodward Avenue a couple miles north of the Detroit River. A blue-collar topography densely populated with block after block of houses dominates the area. The breadth of green space — the trees and open parkland — on our side of town enamored him. “I looked at this area and it looked like Heaven,” Dad says. My parents purchased the Riverdale house from Grandpa Ernie and his wife Liz in 1972, thus making my three younger brothers and me native West Siders. Our corner, with its woods and river and field, and our huge tree-lined lot and raspberry bushes and hibiscus growing tall beneath each backyard window, was the closest thing we could get to living in the country while still living in the city. Even if by the mid 80s, we’d dubbed the then near terminally polluted Rouge River, “Stinky Creek.”
My dad’s current suburban man cave is a basement spread of maps and data. Content to be a little old map maker with his paper maps and out of touch with twenty-first century digital technologies, his current project involves using a standard Triple A map of Detroit to draw in all the streams and creeks and other Rouge tributaries long since covered with concrete in the name of urban development. Dad’s always been a map man — when we went to the movie theatre to see the first Lord of the Rings film in 2001, he brought along the atlas of Middle Earth I bought him and a small flashlight to follow along. My dad also has a loquacious streak. Casually say to him, “It’s a nice day,” and expect him to launch into a detailed explanation of why it’s a nice day to the point where you glaze over like my brothers and I have done many, many, many times ourselves.
On the way to our old house, Dad and I pass the corner of Keeler and Iliad near Eliza Howell Park where he first experienced the Rouge River after receiving his Rescue site assignment. This corner is located in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood, an area originally developed in the 1920s with quick, cheap housing for auto-industry workers, and now filled with run-down and burnt-out houses. On the upside, the neighborhood is also home to the Children’s Garden, which takes up two once empty lots on Grayfield Street, and serves as a fine example of the urban farming Detroit is becoming known for. Dad couldn’t even see the river when he first arrived at the site, so filled with its infamous logjams and other debris.
“conservation is constant — it’s a full time thing.”Dad continued with the group until it disbanded in 1974, even serving as president in its final year. The group’s demise was not his fault, however, even as I kid him about it. He credits the end, in part, to the construction industry mentality common amongst the group’s members. Their efforts were sporadic: go in with the heavy equipment, get the job done, and get out. “But,” Dad says, “conservation is constant — it’s a full time thing.” He also cites the group’s tunnel vision: they focused solely on the river proper and paid little attention to the surrounding wetlands.
The key to contemporary conservation efforts is its wider vision of the entire watershed, the basin as a whole.
* * *
Founded in the wake of the 1985 tragedy of a man who fell into the Rouge and died from rat fever contracted from the sewage-seeped water, Friends of the Rouge picked up the mantle from Rescue the Rouge and the smaller neighborhood-based efforts in the late 70s and early 80s.
In the absence of an overall watershed director, and while groups such as the Alliance of Rouge Communities and the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project play their part, Friends of the Rouge is the go-to Rouge River conservation nonprofit organization. The group’s small band of full- and part-time staffers, which includes River Restoration Program Manager Cyndi Ross and Volunteer Monitoring Program Manager Sally Petrella, coordinates its programs and dedicated volunteer-members from a former preschool on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. It’s here that I begin the day’s journey of forging a deeper relationship with the river that flows through my hometown, through my childhood, and through my father’s passions. It almost feels like I’m on a “take your son to work” day with Dad, even though I’m the one in charge.
Friends of the Rouge uses its education programs to build an army of “citizen scientists” who, along with science professionals, work to gather data to monitor the health of the river. They take to heart the group’s mission of citizen involvement and collaboration and the inclusion of the watershed. Orin Gelderloos, a professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at UMD who has a history of Rouge conservation involvement, echoes the importance of the whole system. “The Rouge River is not just water in a ditch,” he says. “A watershed should be a very important unit of geography.” Now in his early 70s, he celebrates his perspective. His students, including those in his field biology course—or “teaching about the real world” as he calls it—often chide him for dating himself. His response: “You bet I am! Because I’ve had this experience and you haven’t.”
The Friends’ Rouge Education Project instructs junior high and high school teachers on how to perform various chemical, biological, and physical surveys. These teachers then take their students into the field to conduct the tests. “There are things in the river we can’t see,” Professor Gelderloos says, “so we have to extend our vision.” The stuff we can’t see makes a huge difference in a river, things like dissolved oxygen to sustain life, acids & alkali levels (or, PH balance), nitrates and phosphates, plus E. coli and other bacteria. Professor Gelderloos adds that we’ve been using tried and true methods for years. Methods like titration, which determines the concentration of a substance; an instrument called a spectrometer, which identifies chemicals through the wavelengths of light they give off; and the measuring of the water’s velocity by dropping an orange to see how long it takes to travel a hundred meters downstream.
If we’d have kept it clean in the first place, we wouldn’t need “all this so called wonderful technology.”As for cleaning the water itself, our technologies have more to do with ground water. They allow us to run extracted polluted water through various filters, and then reinsert the clean water back into the ground. But that takes an incredible amount of energy. If we’d have kept it clean in the first place, we wouldn’t need “all this so called wonderful technology,” as Professor Gelderloos puts it. Ultimately, nature will take care of itself, cleaning its water through evaporation and soil filtering. “We think we’re such geniuses by making filter apparatuses and we have a hundred thousand dollar vehicle that goes out and cleans all that stuff up,” Professor Gelderloos says. “Cause we screwed up. We didn’t look ahead. That’s a problem.”
Friends of the Rouge’s education programs also focus on the public. The Frog and Toad Survey teaches volunteers to identify the breeding calls of these ubiquitous wetland amphibians. Their presence and abundance is an indicator of a healthy habitat, as they need clean wetlands for breeding as well as healthy uplands for their adult life. Healthy wetlands equals a healthy river as they store floodwater and filter pollutants. Detroit’s Wayne County has lost 86% of wetlands to development, and neighboring Oakland County has lost 65% since the start of recording this data.
Another public program is their Benthic Macroinvertebrate (or, bugs and stuff) Monitoring. Volunteers monitor the presence of aquatic insects and other small creatures which serve as food sources for river fish species. The Friends also conduct workshops to teach Rouge watershed residents ways to maintain the river in their own yards: by planting native plant gardens and installing rain barrels to hold water for later use, by directing downspouts toward vegetated areas instead of impervious surfaces, and by vegetating stream banks to help prevent erosion. All of these methods help soak rainwater back into the ground versus rushing straight into the river and overwhelming the system.
Volunteers act as the eyes and ears of the watershed, reporting small incidents that ultimately could have a wider effect, such as misconnections in the sewer system, areas where cattle are able to walk in and out of a stream wrecking havoc with their waste, and sites where erosion is collapsing roads into the river. Newer technologies such as GIS — Geographic Information Systems — aid in monitoring by indicating different pollutants via color and by indicating the presence of thermal discharges where they shouldn’t be, such as radioactive hot water or oil dumping.
“This is a change in thinking, not a change in technology…It’s so much more than the land.”The health of the Rouge and its entire watershed isn’t perfect, though it’s improving. But “science isn’t everything,” Professor Gelderloos says, which is surprising coming from a man of science. “This is a change in thinking, not a change in technology…It’s so much more than the land. It’s politics; it’s law; it’s social history; it’s technology; it’s political will; it’s values, and it gets down to your basic beliefs….And these beliefs, that’s what I talk about in class to my students — your world view based on faith. Things that you cannot prove scientifically, but you have to accept by faith. In other words, what does it mean to be human?”
In the late 1960s, Gelderloos’s UMD mentor and predecessor Calvin DeWitt took a group of engineers from the now defunct Wayne County Road Commission to where they planned to extend scenic Hines Drive through old growth forest and floodplain near campus. He said to them, “Okay, here on the plans is where the road is going to go. Well, what about the river? And you’re going to have to build bridges over the river because the river curves like this, and you want the road to go straight.” And the engineers replied, “Well, we’ll move the river.” They also said they’d move the monolithic, centuries old trees. Professor Gelderloos says, “I don’t think you’ll find anybody that would come along now and say that.”
Ross and Petrella have also noticed this change in attitude in their years of working with the Friends. Their signature event starting with the group’s founding in 1986 is the annual Rouge Rescue — a name connecting it to the previous efforts of Rescue the Rouge — on the first Saturday in June. The early years saw volunteers clearing huge dump sites. “Large appliances and kitchen sinks, you name it, everything they were pulling out,” Ross says. (I recall those same large items piling up near the Ridge Road bridge near home.) But today, the event has expanded into additional related events throughout the month and has evolved into less hauling away toilets and more stewardship activities, such as removing the invasive garlic mustard along the river and within wooded areas in order to maintain the region’s biodiversity, and the abovementioned riverbank stabilization and native planting. “It’s amazing to have witnessed the evolution,” Ross says. “People are recognizing that the river [is] an asset to our community and that it’s not just an open sewer and a place to get rid of our waste.” She also adds that local nurseries are more readily supplying these native plants, such as trillium and wild geranium, due to a stronger demand for them.
My hometown is a trendy topic these days, for better or worse. Sure, there are the positive stories of urban farms and other efforts to harness vacant land to produce vibrant green infrastructure. And there are efforts in place to “daylight” or uncover some of the buried waterways my dad is painstakingly drawing on his map. But there are also recent book subtitles such as Charles LeDuff’s Detroit: an American Autopsy and Mark Binelli’s Detroit Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, which paint a bleaker picture. And the first thing Google suggests when typing in “Detroit is” is “crap.” Even though my family has dispersed to the suburbs or moved out of state, this tug-o-war over the city breaks this Detroit boy’s heart.
This heartbreak leads to my lofty question: “Might rescuing the Rouge equal rescuing Detroit?” Petrella says that, “it would improve the environment. [But while] a big portion of the watershed is in the city, a big portion of the city is not really part of the Rouge River watershed. Like all of downtown is east of the watershed.” She adds, “I get jealous of Chicago — they now have canoe races and water taxis even though the water quality is still poor…. But we don’t — the big part of the river where you can have restaurants and bars is not in Detroit. It’s in the industrial area southwest of the city.” Detroit’s main water focus these days is really on the Detroit River, including the new River Walk, a connective riverfront promenade that first opened to the public in 2007.
Professor Gelderloos’s answer to my question focuses on quality of life. If people stop seeing the river as a sewer, they might come back. With Detroit’s population down to less than three quarters of a million people, the city can’t afford the infrastructure. More people create more tax revenue to improve services and schools, all of which really does seem to be part of the ecology that is a watershed. He adds that keeping the parks in good order is also important.
Eliza Howell is one such park, and Rouge Park is another in need of attention (Petrella leads the efforts here as head of the Friends of Rouge Park organization, founded in 2002). Our first destination upon leaving campus is a drive through Rouge Park, a 1,184 acre park south of Eliza Howell where Dad would take my brothers and me, as well as my Cub Scout troop, for cleanup activities. And where my Scout friends and I once found a pile of discarded Playboys, which was way more interesting than the nature stuff my dad was talking about. We stopped the car and Dad unfolded his infamous contour line — or elevation level — map of the park, a section of the 1949 Wayne County Road Commission map filled with his own special markings. We drove along the field where Dad would have us all stand along a particular contour. No longer a mowed lawn, the field has since been restored with wild growing native plants. Dad pointed out “Al’s Creek,” a small connective stream he discovered that flows intermittently, primarily during the spring snow melt. I’m not surprised my dad finally has a stream named after him.
* * *
Back in front of our old house, where I sort of have to remind him to not step onto the property since we don’t live there anymore, Dad marvels at how tall many of his once fresh-from-the-nursery trees have grown, particularly the pin oak he planted when I was around five years old. Some trees thrive, but their success shades out others such as one of the birch trees and one of the blue spruces that aren’t doing so well. Dad’s happy that the trees and vegetation on the property’s perimeter have remained, even as the bushes and other trees right along the house had been removed years ago for security reasons.
So much of my dad’s world is water, conservation, and restoration. And while his environmental enthusiasm has definitely rubbed off on me, I have decidedly entered his world, a place where I can let him talk and indulge his passions with near reckless abandon, even if I need to rein him in every once in a while. In doing so, I do feel closer to my dad, which in the end can only be a good thing. He sees the world like no one else I know — he is in tune with the closed-up streams that run hidden beneath our feet; he can look past modern city and suburban sprawl to see old Indian trails and glacial ridges created when all of Detroit was under water beneath an ancient Lake Erie.
We cross the street to the Ridge Road bridge, and peer upstream into the Rouge. The water looks clearer than I remember, or at least I hope it does. And it isn’t quite as “stinky” anymore, though Dad has to take my word for it as he lost his sense of smell after a roller skating injury several years ago. The river may have changed, but in some ways, my dad has not. He’s still as passionate today at 67 as he was at 22, hanging out in the Wayne State University Commons and learning about Earth Day and Rescue the Rouge. As for me, I now feel a little more in tune with both where I am and where I’m from.
We walk back to the car, saying “hello” to the girl who lives in our long-passed back neighbor’s house. We drive up Ridge, and cut across to Hazelton where so many of my friends used to live. One more pass by the house, we turn onto Ridge and cross the bridge. At Six Mile, we notice a hulking rusted bathtub, its split halves lying on their sides like some once buried, ancient ruin revealing itself from the woods. A monument to the past; a reminder of the continuous challenges of the present. And a hope that we can all make the places we’re from a little less “crap.”
- Interview with Cyndi Ross and Sally Petrella at Friends of the Rouge (http://therouge.org), Dearborn, Michigan. May 15, 2013
- Interview with Doctor Orin Gelderloos, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at University of Michigan Dearborn. May 15, 2013
- Interview-Travelogue (and Life) with Alan M. Van Kerckhove, retired civil engineer for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department. May 15, 2013
- Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught Fire by John H. Hartig, Ecovision World Monograph Series, 2010
- Rescue the Rouge, an unpublished narrative of the group, by Ernest J. Forster, 1972
- River Rouge Park: http://detroit1701.org/River%20Rouge%20Park.html
- See-hear Al in action at http://goo.gl/bv4sup. He’s shown right at the beginning and is featured about a minute in (red hat) and is featured throughout. Sally Petrella is recording.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a Chicago writer originally from Detroit. He is a 2013 graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing. His nonfiction and interviews have appeared in Off the Rocks, Midwestern Gothic, Consequence of Sound, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, and TYA Today. He is active in Chicago’s vibrant live lit scene, and has told stories as part of Guts & Glory, Serving the Sentence, Mortified, You’re Being Ridiculous, and many others. He serves as Executive Director of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com.
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