Crossing Lines

In a bombed-out Detroit neighborhood, a new blog works to rekindle a community
July 1, 2008

A few miles east of Detroit’s gleaming new ballpark and glittering new casino hotels, a few miles west of the sprawling mansions lining Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive, north of the General Motors assembly plant, south of the Daimler-Chrysler assembly plant, and just west of the regional airstrip known as City Airport, you’ll find a five-acre parcel of land known as Fletcher Field. At first glance, Fletcher could be pretty much any park in urban America: it has a baseball diamond in one corner, an asphalt basketball court in the other, a large swing set, and a bright-red jungle gym. It has two electric-blue plastic picnic tables and one spring rider, origin unknown, in the shape of a dolphin. As of last year, it has mowed grass. As of last month, it has a small garden of flowers and a few stalks of corn, guarded by a cheerful scarecrow salvaged from the wreckage of a nearby home.

Zoom out, and the perspective changes. Fletcher lies at the heart of what is perhaps the most dangerous section of what is perhaps the most dangerous city in America. Once a working-class neighborhood, its residents employed in those nearby auto-manufacturing plants, the City Airport neighborhood, as the area is known, has crumbled. As the plants closed—and as Detroit’s overall fortunes plummeted—residents (white, then black) fled the neighborhood. The exodus was under way before the 1967 race riots convulsed the region, but it accelerated in their wake, exacerbating the misunderstanding and mistrust between the two races that were trying, unsuccessfully, to share the city. Today, homes that haven’t been condemned or destroyed by arson have been left to rot, some of them transformed into drug houses—cocaine and, later, crystal meth. The neighborhood school has disintegrated from the inside out, its windows shattered by stones and the occasional bullet, its metal fixtures—pipes, doorknobs, screws—stolen for scrap metal. Residents often find themselves without phone service: copper is especially valuable on the black market, and it’s common to see phone lines slackened nearly to the ground, their rubber skins sliced open, the sparse remains of their inner wiring spilling out.

But it’s rare, these days, to see people out walking on the streets near City Airport, or to see children playing in the park. The few residents left in the area often stay inside their houses—the drug dealers to avoid the cops; the other residents to avoid the drug dealers. “It’s safer that way,” says Esther Etheridge, a longtime resident who is hanging on despite the dissolution.

Neighborhoods like City Airport’s often fall through the cracks when it comes to the journalistic record, victims of news outlets’ tendency to focus their reporting on those who can afford to pay for it. (Ask City Airport residents what they think about the treatment they get in the press, and you’ll almost always hear, after the What-treatment? laugh, “They only cover the crime.”) When they’re given attention, it often comes in the form of a “problem piece,” an exploration of crime patterns or public-policy concerns, or of a vaguely anthropological study of “the other America.” As reporting budgets tighten, though, and as reporters themselves get spread ever thinner, journalists’ ability to immerse themselves in communities, get to know their residents, and attune themselves to their nuances is a luxury few big-city papers can afford.

Two things, however, distinguish the City Airport neighborhood from its counterparts: it has a small but determined group of citizens who advocate for it, and it is the subject of a blog. Both can be traced to Detroit’s second-largest newspaper. On its Web site, the Detroit News hosts Going Home: A Journal on Detroit’s Neighborhoods, which gives voice, with a regularity and an intensity that a resource-strapped newspaper simply cannot, to the neighborhood. Don’t let its expansive tagline fool you: Going Home, at least for now, is exclusively about this neighborhood. Through prose and pictures, it introduces the area’s residents and documents the neighborhood’s physical devolution. It links to regular News stories, audio slideshows, and interactive graphics about the area. As a piece of journalism, Going Home is stubbornly anti-anthropological; its posts are not mere vignettes, narrated in the detached tones of reportorial observation. Going Home, as its name suggests, is highly personal.

The blog’s guiding force and principal writer is Michael Happy, a News sports reporter who grew up in the City Airport neighborhood but moved away when he was twelve, in 1976. Though the neighborhood Happy remembers—mostly blue-collar factory workers, mostly Polish-Catholic—was a rough one even “back in the day,” he says it was home. When he and his family left their house on Dobel Street, part of the mass exodus to the suburbs, the departure was, he says, “heartbreaking.”

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Happy speaks—and writes—with a sincerity that is almost anachronistic. He commonly refers, without irony, to miracles. His sleeve bears not only his heart, but also his humor and his joy and his anger. (“That Mike Happy,” his childhood friend Jim Morey puts it, “you know he means it.”) Happy came of age in a time and place where Elks Clubs and Cub Scouts were the norm, and when a neighborhood was distinguished by more than just geography. He spent eight years in the Navy. Community, to him, is not a goal, but an assumption.

For Happy, writing and maintaining Going Home—which he does in addition to his full-time News beat—is equal parts personal catharsis, reportorial documentation, and moral crusade. The blog’s evolving narrative starts with the writer himself. In an early post, Happy describes his emotional return to the neighborhood. His old house, he writes,

was completely gone and the lot was littered with debris—old tires, hubcaps, furniture, clothes. Of the 30 or so houses that made up our end of the block back in the 70’s, about a quarter of them were gone and another quarter of them were boarded up. It looked like the scenes from New Orleans after the levies failed.

The bitterness here is apt. Witnessing the area’s blight firsthand, and meeting the people who live among it, it’s impossible not to feel outrage—even if it’s not your childhood home. Yet outrage in isolation is impotent; and over a tumult of introductory posts rolled out in late August 2007, the blog found a narrative arc that transcends atomized emotion. Happy had two realizations: first, that there are other former residents of the City Airport area who love and miss “the old neighborhood” as much as he does; and second, that those people might be enlisted to work on the neighborhood’s behalf.

He was right, and as more people discovered Going Home, it soon shifted its focus, becoming less about Happy and more about community. Happy enlisted his friend and colleague, Jonathan Morgan, the News’s multiplatform editor, to write the blog with him. He met a community leader named Edith Floyd—“Captain Edith,” he calls her, likening her to “a diminutive U.S. Navy captain of a half-sunken ship”—who became both a friend and someone instrumental to his work in the neighborhood. He introduced readers to other residents, many of whom had moved in right after his family had left. The process was haphazard, as many things blog-related often are, but by September 2007, narrative-building had evolved into coalition-building. Telling the neighborhood’s story had become working to give that story a happier ending. Happy and Morgan had begun advocating for the neighborhood. Loudly. Passionately. And their audience—mostly suburbanites—shouted back.

Comment from: 7561milton
I wanted to add my voice of support for all the work people are doing for the old neighborhood. I joined the service and left Michigan. I recognized some of the names in the blog and just want to say “Hi” to all those working hard at Fletcher Field. Community service is a tough job to do, just want to say, hang in there.
JOE Sokolowski
11/23/07 @ 11:12

Comment from: michael zielinski
Over the years I,ve been through the old neighborhood. And to tell the truth it made me sick to my stomach to see or not see most of the houses in the area. but I don,t want to dwell on the negative.ever since my brother (little joe)called me and told me about this site,i,ve been pooring over the letters and pictures.Thinking about the way the old neighborhood used to look and the great friends I had back then really hits home. thanks so much michael happy great job.and remember you can always go home!!
03/18/08 @ 22:02

In the year since Going Home has been live, Happy, Morgan, and a team of community leaders have mobilized those who feel a claim to the neighborhood—residents both current and former—to clean up Fletcher Field, turning it from urban wasteland to playable park. They have formed an advocacy operation, Friends of Fletcher Field, to ensure that the park remains a safe place for neighborhood kids to play. They are taking steps to register Friends as a nonprofit. They have organized a reunion of now middle-aged students from the neighborhood’s old high school, enlisting many of those who came out for it—some from across the country—to dedicate time and money to the neighborhood. They have met with the members of the Rotary Club and other service groups to ask for money and manpower to help the neighborhood. They have arranged for groups to speak at City Hall on its behalf. They spend so much time, in fact, either in the neighborhood or thinking and writing about it that when they laugh with each other about their wife (Happy) or their girlfriend (Morgan) leaving them over their “other woman,” they’re only partially joking. It’s common to see a Going Home post time-stamped 2 a.m. “We’re trying to be abstract and high-level here,” Morgan says, “but we’re also learning the resources it takes to keep things going on the ground.”

Ask Happy and Morgan what Going Home is, fundamentally, and they’ll tell you, without hesitating, that it’s journalism—a logical extension of the work they do and the skills they’ve developed as professional reporters. But Going Home is more than storytelling. It is community building. It is advocacy. And Happy and Morgan aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.

“It’s just not right,” says Christine MacDonald, a Detroit News metro reporter in the paper’s City Hall bureau. Going Home’s blatant agenda-mongering, she says, no matter its good intentions, compromises the paper’s overall credibility. Dave Josar, MacDonald’s colleague in the City Hall bureau, shares her concern, and wonders, “What are the rules here?” It’s a fair question, and one that newspapers around the country are struggling to answer as they incorporate reporters’ blogs into their online strategy. (Going Home shares space on the News’s Web site with forty-four reporter-written blogs on everything from politics to parenting to crafts.) Where to draw the line—between opinion and reporting, between advocacy and journalism—in such an uneven landscape is difficult to say with any consistency. The traditional take—that caring leads to compromise; that for journalists fighting isn’t a right, but a luxury—seems simultaneously outdated and more important than ever. “You give that up to some extent when you become a reporter,” MacDonald says of the former propositions. “All we have at the News is our reputation.”

Happy and Morgan, though, see the work they do in the community—even the political activism—as bolstering, rather than threatening, that reputation. “There are two sides here,” Happy says. “Either you help or you don’t.” To him, and to Morgan, journalism isn’t just about telling stories; it is about using those stories to affect people and effect change. And credibility, they believe, lies less in objectivity—“I hate that word,” Morgan says—and more in caring, actively, about sources and stories. “Michael doesn’t cover the city,” his editor, Nancy Hanus, the News’s director of new media, points out. “That would be a different kind of an issue. But the fact that, as a native Detroiter, he got involved in something, and wanted to share the power of what he could do through this blog with others, and got other people involved—I don’t think we do hardly anything that resonates so deeply with people anymore.”

Going Home, Hanus believes, fights the reputation of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am journalism (get in, get story, get out). Happy and Morgan are committed to the neighborhood. They’re there before work, after work, on weekends. Observing, listening, learning. In other words, doing classic immersion reporting. “As we change as an industry,” Hanus says, “people out in the community are coming to be a part of making the story, and I think that’s a good thing….We can only be doing a better job of covering our communities. And the fact that community is part of this report is, to me, where community journalism needs to go.”

Happy and Morgan often describe themselves as “wearing different hats” when it comes to different aspects of their work in the neighborhood. When they’re reporting and writing about the area, they’re journalists; when they’re making presentations to Detroit’s City Council on behalf of the neighborhood or applying for grant money, they’re private citizens. And yet the lines they draw for themselves, they’re the first to admit, are as slack as the felled phone lines that sway on Dobel Street: when journalism meets activism, the divisions between narrator and player are necessarily muddled. There’s no off switch for outrage.

09/01/07 01:52:46 am, by Michael Happy
Categories: Dobel Street
Where’s the beef?
I had all intentions of sitting down tonight and beginning to write the story about how a group of former residents of the City Airport community joined forces with current residents of the area—including a church, a community group, a neighborhood watch group and local businesses—to turn back the clock at Fletcher Playground. It’s a story I will tell in the days leading up to the celebration at the park on Sept. 8.
But today I’m not in the right state of mind to do justice to that story and to the wonderful people I have met and been reunited with along the way. I’m angry, and I want to raise your blood pressure as well, inspire you to write a letter, make a telephone call, get involved—whether you live in the city now or used to call Detroit your home.

Happy goes on to discuss the city’s failure to maintain Fletcher Field—“despite the fact that it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain the park’s grounds and equipment.” Anger, he believes, invested with the agency of the communal, can lead to healing. Yet Happy and Morgan’s ultimate goal is not to be activists themselves, but to help others to be. For the neighborhood residents who don’t have Internet access, Happy and Morgan have tapped into on-the-ground networks—“Captain Edith” and others—to ensure that, to the extent they want to be, everyone is plugged into the project. Their current leadership of that project, Happy and Morgan say, is one they hope other members of the community will eventually fill.

Still, they defend their advocacy work. In an October post, Happy writes,

There’s been quite a bit of discussion over the past few weeks about the merit of this blog….Some say the blog teeters on the line between ethical and unethical journalism….

If we had gone back there in June, done the report and left, there’s a good chance very little good would have come of it. People would have watched the audio slideshow, shed a tear of two, then have chalked it up as another Detroit sob story.

Because we stayed, got immersed in the story, befriended current residents of the neighborhood, gained their confidence, Fletcher Field is a viable park again. Children are expending their energy playing in the park, not partaking in mischievous activities, breaking windows in a school that might someday be their saving grace.

With the improvements made at Fletcher Field came a groundswell of hope that other parts of the neighborhood could change for the better as well. Ideas for that renewal pop up on a daily basis, connections are made, incremental steps are taken to alter the course of history.

The bottom line is, I got into this business to try to help people. I think the park project, its aftermath and this blog are doing just that.

Detroit’s story—from the national press perspective, at least—is often told within the inflated contours of caricature. The lusty-texted mayor. The Vegas-wannabe casinos. The foreclosed-on homes. The Most Dangerous City in America…again. The city that forged its reputation through innovation is now suffering, not from disease, but from something perhaps more regrettable: atrophy. Politicians and pundits don’t just talk about improving the city; they talk, these days, about saving it.

The 1967 riots still form a kind of psychic smog over Detroit and its suburbs. Racial tension is woven into the fabric of the city’s political rhetoric. Just this March, in his State of the City speech, Kwame Kilpatrick blamed his scandal-plagued mayoral tenure—the most recent being perjury about the affair he’d been conducting with his chief of staff, sometimes on the city’s dime—on white bigotry:

In the past thirty days I’ve been called a nigger more than anytime in my entire life. In the past three days I’ve received more death threats than I have in my entire administration….This unethical, illegal lynch mob mentality has to stop.

Detroiters in general are quick to admit to a complex relationship with their city and its peak-and-valley history. There’s a T-shirt popular among residents. “I Love Detroit,” the shirt proclaims on its front. On the back? “I Hate Detroit.”

One of Going Home’s goals is to leverage the “Love” to work against the “Hate.” The blog, of course, has its racial undertones: one of its key functions, after all, is to convene mostly white suburbanites to help a mostly black inner-city neighborhood. You could read a kind of misplaced colonialism into it. You could chalk its motivation up to white guilt. You could focus on the fact that Happy and Morgan, both white, live in Detroit’s comfortable suburbs. And you could wonder how much difference a single playground actually makes in the scheme of things. Maybe you’d be right. But Going Home, its advocates will tell you, is as much symbolic as it is practical—a small-but-important step in moving on from the mutual pain of the past. The blog’s potent combination of anger and understanding will, they hope, provide a bit of the heat necessary to help dissolve the racial tensions—city versus suburb, which is often used as a euphemism for “black” versus “white”—that have stymied the neighborhood’s, and Detroit’s, development over the years. “Unfortunately,” Happy writes in a post,

we have a political climate in the city and surrounding suburbs that hinders us from creating the necessary bonds for massive movements in Detroit—in the bowels of the city, far from the Riverfront, casinos and ballparks. I read a Free Press editorial recently that said if you’re a black politician in Detroit who reaches out to the suburbs, you’re labeled as an Uncle Tom; if you’re a white politician in the ‘burbs who reaches into the city, you’re committing political suicide.

Shame on the system.

The coming together of the past and present—whites and blacks—to work on the Fletcher Playground project has produced incredible dialogue and innovation that could benefit other bruised and fractured neighborhoods around the city.

Happy sometimes takes his young children to play at Fletcher Field; Lou, Shaun, and Amanda have become friendly with kids in the neighborhood. One day, Happy says, four-year-old Mandy, after an afternoon spent at Fletcher Field, announced to her mother, “I want braids like the girls at the park have.”

“So Shannon sat there for almost an hour, trying to get her thin, blond hair into braids ‘like the park girls,’” Happy says. He smiles at the memory. It’s moments like this—small but powerful—that he’s been working for. To him, they’re the whole point. 

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.