Bloggers vs. Blight

An online community beats back urban decay in Detroit

Detroit

Image by Friends of Fletcher Field

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A few miles northeast of Detroit’s gleaming new ballpark and glittering casinos, a few miles west of the sprawling mansions lining Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive, north of General Motors, south of Daimler-Chrysler, 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 looks like any other city park in urban America: It has a baseball diamond, a basketball court, a swing set, and a jungle gym. It has two plastic picnic tables and one spring rider in the shape of a dolphin. As of last year, it has mowed grass. As of last summer, 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 Field lies at the heart of the City Airport neighborhood, arguably one of the most dangerous swaths of real estate in what is arguably the most dangerous city in America.

A working-class enclave, City Airport was home to autoworkers in the 1950s and early 1960s. As plants closed and Detroit’s overall fortunes plummeted, though, residents—white, then black—fled. 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. Today, homes that haven’t been condemned or destroyed by arson have been left to rot, some of them transformed into drug houses. The neighborhood school has disintegrated from the inside out, its windows shattered by stones and bullets, its metal fixtures stolen for scrap metal.

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.

Neighborhoods like City Airport 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. Two things, however, distinguish the 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 website, the Detroit News hosts Going Home: A Journal on Detroit’s Neighborhoods. 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 City Airport residents and documents the neighborhood’s physical devolution. It links to regular news stories, audio slide shows, 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 is, as its name suggests, highly personal.

The blog’s guiding force and principal writer is Michael Happy, a News online editor who grew up in the City Airport neighborhood but moved away in 1976, when he was 12. Though the neighborhood Happy remembers—mostly blue-collar factory workers, mostly Polish-Catholic—was a rough one even “back in the day,” it was home, he says. 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.”

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, joy, and anger. Happy came of age in a place where Elks Clubs and Cub Scouts were the norm, in a time when a neighborhood was distinguished by more than just geography. 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 ’70s, about a quarter of them were gone and another quarter of them were boarded up.

Witnessing the area’s blight firsthand, and meeting the people who live with 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 August 2007, the blog found a narrative arc that transcends atomized emotion. Happy realized that there are other former residents of the City Airport area who love and miss “the old neighborhood” as much as he does, and that those people might be enlisted to work on the neighborhood’s behalf.

He was right, and as more people discovered Going Home, it shifted its focus, becoming less about Happy and more about community. Happy enlisted a friend and colleague, editor Jonathan Morgan, to write the blog with him. He met a community leader named Edith Floyd—“Captain Edith,” he calls her—who became both a friend and someone who is instrumental to his work in the neighborhood. He introduced readers to other residents. 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

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 called me and told me about this site, I’ve been poring 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.

In the year since Going Home has been live, Happy, Morgan, and a team of community leaders have mobilized those who feel a tie to the neighborhood 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 kids to play. They are taking steps to register Friends as a nonprofit. They have organized a neighborhood reunion, enlisting many of those who attended to dedicate time and money. They have asked the Rotary Club and other service groups for money and resources. They have arranged for groups to speak at City Hall on the neighborhood’s 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.

 

Ask Happy and Morgan what Going Home is, fundamentally, and they’ll tell you 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. Happy and Morgan aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.

To Happy and 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 in caring, actively, about sources and stories.

“Michael 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,” says Nancy Hanus, who was his editor but has since left the News. “I don’t think we do hardly anything that resonates so deeply with people anymore.”

Happy and Morgan are in the neighborhood 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.”

Happy and Morgan often describe themselves as wearing different hats. 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. Yet 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 a.m., 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 residents who don’t have Internet access, Happy and Morgan have tapped into on-the-ground networks—“Captain Edith” and others—to ensure that people are plugged in to the project. Happy and Morgan hope members of the community eventually will lead the project.

 

Detroiters are quick to admit to a complex relationship with their city. 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 larger 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 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, 4-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. They’re the whole point.

Megan Garber is a Columbia Journalism Review staff writer. Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review(July-Aug. 2008), a media monitor published bimonthly by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism; www.cjr.org.