Excerpted from the Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, coming in August from Belt Publishing.
By Ian Thibodeau
More than anything, my dad talks about the trees. How branches reached up and intertwined over the street to block out the sun. Turned the street into a tunnel. You couldn’t see the sky. Same thing on every block he and his four younger brothers would have walked. Trees taller than all the Warrendale bungalows. Shelter, and judging by my dad’s affinity for air conditioning, shade. Reprieve for the working class.
There aren’t a whole lot of trees on Braile Street anymore.
My grandparents moved off the block in 1996. They lived in the same house, a three-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1920s brick homestead, for 29 years. Raised five kids there. Watched when their last few boys went to a private high school in Dearborn and had trouble getting friends to come over. That was the ’80s, prime scoffing time. Watched those kids raise kids of their own, and watched several of those babies play on the front porch. Hosted holidays. That’s where we went for the first bit of my life. Papa and Sitty’s. My Sitty (Lebanese for grandmother) had a fabulous rose garden in the back of the house. She had tomatoes where the swing set used to be. Her trick was planting them against the brick that held heat from the afternoon sun. She worked a couple different jobs, one of which had her selling Tigers merchandise outside the old stadium the year they won the pennant. In the neighborhood, she coached girls’ basketball at Saints Peter and Paul, the Catholic grade school a mile down Sawyer her five boys went to. One of my uncle’s fondest memories is the time he got to officiate one of her games. He gave his mother a technical and threw her out. She was – still is – a little loud.
Sitty says she hasn’t seen the house in a decade. And while none of us have ever known her to be very emotional (Mike, the middle child, once asked, incredulously, “You made the Rock cry?!” when he heard she’d read a column I wrote about my grandfather in college.), it might be too hard for her to see that the house she and her husband bought and filled together, spent most of their lives in, now has a blue tarp on the roof over the bedroom, plywood over a few windows. That it may or may not be occupied depending on when the last time you drove past it and, though it’s hard to tell because the most recent occupants put up a curtain in the front window, depending on whether or not the ghost light is on in one of the back bedrooms. The brothers, like a lot of people born in Detroit between 1955 and 1980, more or less unconsciously mark some bit of happiness, comfort or success based, again more or less involuntarily, on their distance from Detroit. From where they grew up. Of the five, only one lives less than five miles from their childhood home. Sitty lives seven miles away in Garden City. And she doesn’t plant roses anymore. My grandfather died in 2015, but Alzheimer’s, like the decay that ripped open the tunnel of trees on Braile, started poking holes in his mind sometime around 2009.
The rest of us still have the memories, though.
I know less than twenty years ago there used to more than just one house on the block where grandmothers would have watched silently, smirking, as their grandbabies ran around the front yard like mad men, children possessed, kids whose mothers didn’t cut the Kool-Aid and let them have a couple Popsicles after dinner too. Hopped up on sugar and innocence. Making their matriarchs holler when they got too close to the street or raised that Little Tykes golf club back, back, back to bring it down on their sisters’ skulls. (Firstnamemiddlenamelastname) don’t you dare! Get your ass over here.
And before that, when those grandmothers were mothers, they stayed up late waiting for their babies to come home. The babies Sitty would discretely sniff for signs of smoke or booze even though she was a chimney, probably had a Winston hanging off her lip, and probably couldn’t smell shit, but got her close enough to watch their eyes. That’s what teenagers don’t get. It’s not the smell, the one you try in a last-ditch effort to mask with peanut butter or gum, that does you in. It’s how big your eyes get when mama bear walks into the kitchen while you’re pounding chips and gulping glasses of water. It’s how long it takes you to get your shoes off. The babies who sometimes got to borrow the Ford Torino station wagon, but mostly had to bum rides. The babies who were two for five in crashing that car. My dad still has the curves and bends and winds of Outer Drive through Rouge Park memorized. We used to get that thing airborne, he says. And I also know each of my uncles had a different point of teenage ingress and egress at that house. Scott used the bathroom window. Tim climbed through the upstairs window. My dad, incapable of lying, probably snuck out through the front door and left a note for my grandparents. Hey, ma. I went over to Brian’s house to play euchre. Be home in the morning. Something like that.
The block on the far westside of the city was a block of families, and that still hasn’t left Warrendale, because you can’t fight design. Someone builds a bunch of bungalows, some (seven) of them might get boarded up, but you’re still going to have people on their porches watching their people do what they’re going to do. Kids still play in the park. Just a few days ago three men stood in the driveway next to the old Braile house, and they were laughing. I mean really holding their belly and hooting. So there’s still joy in Warrendale. Still families. Kids still play in the park and bloated uncles clutch sweating cans of beer next to cheap charcoal barbecues set up behind or between the little brick houses. Or maybe they gather in the park down the road. And kids probably still do stupid shit there, too. And they’re going to fight, and they’re going to steal from the liquor cabinet. But for some reason doing that when the block was without vacants wasn’t sad or typical. It was funny. Still is funny.
Here’s how Warrendale is funny.
Before most of those boys got old enough to drive, they played in Rouge Park just a block away. When I was in grade school spending most of my time playing video games or with friends playing video games, dad lamented his old block. We had enough kids for two baseball teams, he’d say. Pick-up games. We’d play all day. And they played football when it snowed. Mike blew out his knee during one of those games and one of his brothers pushed it back into place, they say. Legendary. Down Spinoza, there’s a hill they’d run toboggans on. They all learned to drive stick shift on the steep road nearby. Dad calls the road Derby Hill. They skated on the Rouge and sometimes they fell in. At some point in our legend, Mike and his friends once nabbed a bottle of something from one of their parents’ liquor cabinets. Sitty remembers it was whiskey. Mike sprinted home from the banks of the Rouge, really tore ass, to pound on the front door. Something’s wrong with Murphy, he told Sitty. I don’t know, Ma, he fell in the river. Murphy was passed out drunk by the river. Sitty delivered him to his parents and let Mike have it when she got him home. Not sure if they ever told Papa, ‘cause then he would’ve got it twice. And Tim more than once got tailed home by the neighborhood bullies for having said this or that at the park. He waited in the homestead, under the watchful eye of his father, for the kids to come knocking. When they did, at least one time, Tim came out swinging, pushing the screen door open, connecting, and pulling it closed before the kid could hit him back. Papa made Tim step outside, and then the kid got him. Tim became the fastest runner in the family. Went to Eastern Michigan on a track scholarship. Came home after two semesters and started an apprenticeship as an electrician.
The 1967 riots broke out the summer my grandparents moved into the house on Braile.I know the 1967 riots broke out the summer my grandparents moved into the house on Braile, having had three sons in four years in a small house in the Barton-McFarland neighborhood they grew up in. Almost exactly two years later, Armstrong landed on the moon and Papa let the neighbor tell him how it was a conspiracy. They had two more kids. They went to church, even though they might have been one of the only non-Polish families in the neighborhood. Weird mix, they were. Half Lebanese, and Papa brought along some Native American and Scottish blood to top things off, so goes the legend. Nearly every one of my uncles’ friends’ last names ended in ski.
My dad had a paper route delivering The Detroit News. On Sundays, he made pit stops (plural) at the Sun Rise Bakery on the corner of Warren and Fielding for chocolate milk and chocolate donuts. When his younger brother, Chris, got a route a few years later, he’d toss the ads from the Sunday paper onto the roof of that bakery because it made the papers lighter. The youngest brother, Scott, got a route, too, but he didn’t deliver from his bike, didn’t have to tow a wagon. Papa woke up early to drive Scott’s route with him in the passenger seat. Sitty avoided Warren Avenue on Saturdays – too busy – but frequented the Kresge’s Five and Dime on Joy or the Woolworth’s on Warren. Polish meat markets, she says, were everywhere if you went past Southfield, and Mike once lit half the park on fire after Chris handed him a book of matches, stood him next to a pile of dried-out grass clippings, and walked away. The cops brought him home that night. They had high school graduation parties in the back yard, and the garage until very, very recently, permanently leaned to the right, and I spent the night on the couch in that living room the night my little sister was born.
Everything that made my family is in that house – came from that neighborhood.
A week after Easter in 1996, Sitty noticed a car circling the block. Rowdy people – black and white – started moving in on to the block, she said, but it wasn’t bad yet. Her friend, Doris, was on her way to the bank and had stopped over to see if Sitty needed anything. We thought maybe the car needed directions, Sitty said. The men stopped in front of the house. Doris told Sitty to go see what they wanted. Before she said a word, one of the guys pointed a gun at her. He got out of the car, ran up the porch and stole Doris’s cash-filled purse. They took off.
We’re going, Papa declared that night. The house sold by the summer.
They’d give anything to go back, I think. You can’t so fondly remember a place or a time without at least some part of you longing to return. Wishing time travel was real. Uncles drive by the place and later tell of how horrible the house looks. I disagree. The whole block is overgrown. The street’s cracked. It’s hard to tell which shops on Warren are open, which are closed. The Burger King my parents worked at through high school (my dad used to tell a story of how he saved my mom from a pistol-toting robber. Found out later my mom dealt with the robber herself. Dad was in the back manning the fryer) recently got a nice renovation. The grocery store next door is vacant. Someone cuts the grass on the old baseball field around the corner, the backstop is still there, but there weren’t any kids whipping through the field. Down the hill, someone’s cut a path through the brush to a small basketball court where a group played pickup on a Saturday in July. Through the midsummer growth, you can make out the bank of the rouge my uncle took me for walks on when we had family parties at the house. The park at Joy and Spinoza has new colorful playground equipment, and grown men fly model planes in the field. On the route my dad would have walked to school, three boys, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, sit twiddling their phones on the porch of a burned-out house. One of them is rolling a joint. They don’t look up as I drive past. Around the block, a group of boys plays basketball in the street. One waves, they move aside to let me through. Pay me no mind. A woman sits on the porch. Two men sit on the porch. A woman lounges on the porch. Two chairs sit empty on the porch of my grandparents’ old house.
And the sun beats down on the beaten down block the remaining trees still try to protect.
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Ian Thibodeau is a Detroit-based writer and reporter who was raised in Dearborn, Michigan. He travels some, reads a lot, and occasionally writes letters to his fiancee, Josephine, on a loud, dusty, electric Smith-Corona she bought him for Christmas a few years ago. Every now and then, he rolls by his Dad’s childhood home just so he doesn’t forget. He lives on the city’s northwest side in a two-flat dominated by twin tuxedo cats, Levi and Gouda.