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Corporate bureaucracy that blocks innovation — and small thinking in general — needs to be squashed in order for organizations to thrive and overcome what Dan Gilbert dubs "horizontal gravity."
Gilbert used a speech this morning to leaders from 72 Gilbert/Rock Ventures/Detroit Venture Partners companies as a platform to talk about thinking big, not getting lost in the weeds of spreadsheets and the benefits of making decisions quickly.
About 200 employees listened to Gilbert's remarks, which served as the opening session to a company meeting of the Gilbert companies, called Family Reunion IV.
Gilbert, describing himself as a science and history buff, said the forces at work in corporate organizations should fight for small gains and big thinking simultaneously. While it's important to sweat the details, like correct spelling and functional details of a website, it's just as important to experiment, allow employees the chance to fail and put investment dollars toward promising ideas.
Spreadsheets, for example, are a way to track data but morale and innovation aren't found there, he said.
"Spreadsheets measure, but they don't create," he said.
"Nobody I know who is successful is a small thinker. Big thinking overcomes horizontal gravity."
While some decisions require due diligence and heavy research before final sign-off, other kinds of decisions can be made quickly so a team can move forward, Gilbert said. Recalling a recent meeting with business magnate Warren Buffett, Gilbert said a big takeaway was that there is no proof that taking longer to make decisions in business life leads to better decisions.
It's also important, Gilbert told the crowd at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center, not to forget the value of relationship-building, the threads that become the basis for success.
Student, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism
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The New Detroit
Posted: 06/12/2012 1:13 pm
As a native Detroiter, being back in the city for the summer is like encountering an old elementary school friend. You remember their name and why you got along for all those years, but they have been altered in nearly imperceptible ways. The person you used to greet with a hug now requires a polite handshake and a relationship that was once second nature has become foreign.
My maternal grandmother came to Detroit from Choctaw County, Alabama in 1962 in search of employment in the thriving automotive industry since General Motors had just hired her two brothers. Around this time, Hudson's was still on Woodward and the Bob-Lo boat could still be seen floating on the Detroit River on a leisurely summer day. My paternal grandmother has lived and worked in Detroit for her entire life. Our clan has been inextricably linked to the city, but these bonds have recently been uprooted with the decline of the housing market, troubled public school system and limited employment opportunities.
The city that once nourished our well-being and daily lives seems to have retracted its welcoming arms, forcing us to move elsewhere. My mother worked in the city for many years as an educator and transferred to a southern suburb in 2001 for work, while still living 45 minutes away in Detroit. My paternal grandmother was one of the many casualties of the cutbacks in the Detroit Public School System, resigning from her executive position after 35 years. A few years ago, my aunt lost her UAW job that she had acquired right out of high school. My maternal grandmother ended up working for GM for 30 years, but soon after retiring she realized that her neighborhood was no longer a safe place for a single woman, so she moved. My family moved out of the city last year, automatically making me an onlooker instead of the self-proclaimed city girl that I once was. A series of circumstances and life choices have left us only faintly involved with the city that shaped so much of our lives.
I'm a die hard East Sider, with the tiny bruises from Belle Isle's Giant Slide to prove it, but my beloved city is now a shell of what it used to mean to me. The people that once breathed life into its already vibrant atmosphere are relocating. Many lifelong Detroiters are now simply "born and raised" or "from the D," but not actually current residents.
My boyfriend, a lifelong suburban boy who has developed a fascination with the city, recently moved to downtown Detroit with a friend to be closer to his summer job. He's discovering Hart Plaza, Chene Park, Campus Martius, Belle Isle and many of the city's other jewels that were the ever-present background of my upbringing. I've taken the role of an unofficial tour guide, recommending local restaurants and sharing anecdotes of times passed. As much as I enjoy seeing people discover a newfound appreciation for the city, it becomes palpably clear that the city is undergoing an undeniable change.
On any given day, downtown Detroit looks like a perfectly sculpted movie set, complete with large buildings and a picturesque landscape, but it seems as if all of the actors and crew have taken an extended lunch break. There is a sense of idleness in the air. The same features that initially enticed my grandmother in the 1960s and supported my family's daily life is attracting a whole new demographic to the city. We are entering a peculiar era as a new group of Detroiters are moving in while many of the lifelong city dwellers are seeking lives elsewhere, oftentimes due to uncontrollable situations. This city is definitely on the brink of something, but will the people that have been there all along be incorporated into this new Detroit? All I hope is that it transforms back into the city that I've grown to know and love.
While there’s plenty of nostalgia for bringing competitive baseball back to the historic Tiger Stadium site, the numbers don’t add up.
BY R.J. KING
Nostalgia in the sporting world is a funny thing. Sports businesses are built on it — we proudly wear jackets, jerseys, and hats from teams long gone. Yet despite our yearnings for yesteryear, no one has figured out what to do with our beloved, but aging, stadiums.
While our professional sports teams have a combined history of being active over three centuries, does anyone recall where the Tigers played their inaugural season in 1894? Answer: Boulevard Park, near Belle Isle (roughly at East Lafayette and East Grand Boulevard). If new revenue had sustained Boulevard Park, we’d be attending minor league and youth games there today.
Cobo Arena, once home to the Detroit Pistons, long since disappeared as a viable sports venue and today is being transformed into a conference and banquet center as part of a larger renovation of Cobo Center.
Olympia Stadium, demolished in 1987, succumbed to old age and a provision in the Red Wings’ lease that prevented the venue from competing with city-owned Joe Louis and Cobo arenas. The Wings also stipulated that the city couldn’t sell Olympia to a competitor.
Down the road, a new use for Joe Louis Arena may be considered (perhaps as an expansion of Cobo Center). The Red Wings are weighing whether to build a stadium in an area bounded by I-75, Woodward, Temple, and Grand River. If the deal is consummated, parking will be a key component in completing the transaction. The Palace of Auburn Hills can offer major recording acts competitive contracts because it drives plenty of revenue from parking and concessions sales — Olympia Entertainment will surely want to take advantage of similar opportunities; Joe Louis Arena, due to its position along the Detroit River, does not have that luxury.
While there’s plenty of nostalgia for bringing competitive baseball back to the historic Tiger Stadium site, the numbers don’t add up. The Tigers left the city-owned complex 12 years ago. Since that time, the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy has raised $150,000. It was far short of covering a $15.5 million plan to preserve a portion of the stadium while operating a museum and a ballpark.
So what happens next to the Tiger Stadium site? Until an entity meets Detroit Economic Growth Corp.’s (DEGC) mixed-use development goal of “highest and best use,” the 9.5-acre parcel at Michigan and Trumbull will remain as is. But baseball nostalgia isn’t completely dead; dreams for the future are alive and well — even more so now that DEGC, Detroit’s Recreation Department, Think Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League), and Chevrolet are restoring Jayne Field, a complex of 11 baseball diamonds near McNichols and Conant on the city’s east side.
Think Detroit PAL, which serves 1,400 youth and sponsors nearly 100 teams each year, operates baseball fields in other parts of the city, as well. “Chevrolet’s support is a grand slam for Think Detroit PAL and our youth,” says George Jackson, DEGC’s president and CEO. “If that money had been poured into the Tiger Stadium site, you’d be looking at one ball field instead of 11 ball fields. If businesses, nonprofits, and individuals would like to support youth baseball in Detroit, we encourage them to embrace existing parks and recreation facilities. It offers the biggest bang for the buck.” db
8 Mile Revisited
Heading east on 8 Mile just past Telegraph, I began feeling a shortness of breath. It wasn't from jogging, or even the heat. It was because my old college roommate, Colette, was driving me into Detroit to see the house I grew up in for the first time in nearly 40 years.
It had been a modest little Wonder Years house in the city's Northwest section -- $13,500 when my parents bought it new back in 1955. In those days, the postage-stamp lawns were manicured, and a Sears above-ground swimming pool was all it took to make you the most popular kid on the block.
My own childhood had been something less than idyllic. My mother was away for long stints at the Northville State Psychiatric Hospital, my dad, a chemical engineer at Chrysler, was paralyzed in a shallow-water diving accident, and my best friend from junior high was later shotgunned to death by a biker gang in an L.A. drug deal gone bad. Stuff like that.
After I left home for the University of Michigan in 1972, I figured I'd escaped. If anyone asked where I was from, my stock answer was: "Detroit. And all I know about it these days is what I see on Animal Precinct when they bust a dogfighting ring." Hahaha. LOL.
But when I spotted the party store on the corner of 8 Mile and Berg Rd., some kind of homing device kicked in. "Turn here," I said to Colette. "Let's go see my old elementary school."
In the old days, St. Eugene's was where, on Sunday mornings, kids stared as my crippled father struggled up the aisle on his clanking Canadian crutches. Now, the first thing that registered as I walked through open doors was empty space. "I went to school here 50 years ago," I blurted to a young man. "Where's the altar?"
"Oh, we haven't had one for a long time," he said, smiling. "We're a charter school now, and this is summer camp."
A dozen kids were having pizza and milk at wooden tables. "Hi -- I went to school here 50 years ago," I said, swallowing hard." Blank stares. "And then I moved to New York City and I was a writer at People magazine." That did the trick. By the time Colette took a souvenir photo, they were all waving for the camera.
Afterward, driving down my old street, everything seemed smaller, except for the overarching trees. The white paper birches in front of my house were gone, replaced by an ugly outdoor lamp. My mother's beautiful roses and peonies were now weedy scrub.
Two houses down, a young girl was helping a smaller one ride a pink bike with training wheels. "Hi," I ventured. "I used to live in that house over there 50 years ago. And I learned to ride a bike on one just like yours." They weren't sure what to make of me, but they were polite about it.
Their dad walked over, shook my hand and welcomed me back to the neighborhood. Then Granma came out and did the same. I told her that I'd worked at Time Inc. for 32 years, and written two bestsellers. "I did good," I said softly.
"Yes you did," she said. "You did real good."
As the day went on, I began to wonder. Could Detroit become the hub of a new, green economy -- reborn as the U.S. manufacturing center for wind turbines and solar panels? Was it really possible to transform abandoned houses into agricultural plots, maybe invite Michelle Obama to town to teach kids about vegetable gardens? What if all the Hollywood A-listers who'd been filming movies in Detroit were chauffeured around in Chevy Volts -- and GM's CEO had delivered the first one off the assembly line to Larry David's front door?
Finally, staring up at a beautiful old factory building downtown, it hit me. I have been to Paris and Pakistan, Istanbul and Bosnia. But I have never seen anything quite like this: Detroit is a state-of-the-art, urban frontier. My tattered hometown has, somehow, become "revisionist cool."
Back in Manhattan, I thought I might have imagined it all. Then, in a week's time, a friend sent word that my old, shuttered high school -- Henry Ford -- was slated for a $17 million renovation. Someone forwarded a front-page story in the New York Times heralding the auto industry's turnaround. And on an Entourage re-run, hipster Johnny Drama was wearing a jersey emblazoned with "DETROIT."
These days, whenever I think of my hometown, I can't help but remember the old, gray-bearded guy I saw hunched over his cane, panhandling near Greektown. "This is all I've got," I told Colette, slipping her a five to pass to him through the open car window.
"God bless you," he said to her, leaning down to eye level. "And also that beautiful lady sitting right over there next to you."
I flashed him a four-headlight smile. "I used to live in Detroit, and I haven't been here in 40 years!" I called out as the light turned green. Waving, he drew himself up to full height, suddenly looking like a much younger man. "Welcome home!" he hollered. "Welcome home!"
By this stage in life, we all know that you can't go home again. The good things always seem smaller and more distant -- never as bright and shiny as you remember them. But maybe the sad, awful parts aren't quite so big anymore, either -- especially after you've seen what the rest of the world can dish out.
Maybe it's only then, after the bad memories have finally been laid to rest, that there's just one thing remaining on the horizon. And who's to say that it isn't the glint of the future's golden promise?
DETROIT IS THE PLACE TO BE FOR FALL 2011
I have lived all over these United States, from the suburbs of Washington D.C., to Seattle, Los Angeles Chicago and Las Vegas. I’ve lived in the midst of pennant races, Super Bowl runs and Stanley Cup winners. There is just something magical about your city’s professional team’s championship quest. For more than a decade, I’ve called myself a Detroiter. Though the true natives never fully believe that us transplanters could fully comprehend their insatiable hunger for NFL glory.
I was talking with my neighbor earlier this week as our 4 boys (all yrs. and under) ran around are neighborhood just living the dream. My neighbor talked about his Sunday with his wife tailgating and attending the Lions’ home opener against the Chiefs. They are a Detroit family that “grew up going to football games” – and he said this year there was just a difference in the energy from Eastern Market all through out the day. That different energy is the hope, the optimism that this is our time. A time that hopefully our young sons will become all to familiar with. There is a ‘new history’ being written in Detroit right now, my suggestion is to stop living in the old history and jump on the bandwagon that’s providing a long awaited joy ride for all Detroit's, natives and transplants.
As good as this roll is, we all know it won’t last forever. Make the most of it. Share the momentum with your friends and family. Enjoy the national bragging rights for something other that corrupt government or high crime rates. Detroit is the place to be this fall – feel it, know it, own it and most importantly don’t take it for granted.
Damon W. Perry
BY KAREN DUMAS
DETROIT FREE PRESS GUEST WRITER
For far too long, Detroit has been experiencing "a comeback." Whether recovering from the riots of 1967, shaking the image of being the "murder capital" of the world, rebounding from the financial crash that disrupted the auto industry, or any other of a number of challenges, it seems Detroit is always "on its way."
At some point, we have to get to and acknowledge that we have arrived at the next step. Yet our validation seems to rest too comfortably in the effort.
The unfortunate reality here is that it seems our expectations -- of ourselves, each other and the city as a whole -- have become dormant. Perhaps it's the apathy that plagues our political elections, the disappointment with a struggling educational system, or simply that we no longer know what we can or should expect.
Yet Detroit deserves and is capable of being better -- much better. In order to realize what "better" is, we must stop duplicating efforts and practices that put us here in the first place. There is no success in the struggle.
We must first recognize that today's Detroit is not yesterday's Detroit. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. A smaller city can be a much better one if we make more responsible use of our land and limited resources; hence the importance of the Detroit Works Project. We can't continue to maintain a land mass for more than a million people with an ever declining tax base of just more than 700,000 residents.
Every resident must begin to realize the connectivity between paying taxes and city services. Taxes are the income of every municipality. On the other hand, those who provide services must realize that doing so at an optimum level -- even if it goes beyond their contractual obligation -- is the best way to keep their jobs. People leaving the city for lack of services will result in decreased need for those same services. No demand, no need.
Citizens must assume some liability and responsibility for helping to keep their city safe. As a large urban area, Detroit will have problems proportionate to its population. However, citizens who tolerate crime and criminal behavior until it personally impacts them are as guilty as any perpetrator. No matter how many officers are put on the street, there will never be enough to cover every square inch of the city. But neighbors who care, and are involved and intolerant, are the biggest deterrent to crime.
A sense of ownership in the city also will yield a level of pride seemingly lost during past decades. It's not someone else's responsibility to pull this city and its citizens up and out any more than it is the responsibility of each and every resident. Stop trashing the very street you live on, or the streets you ride or walk down. And stop buying into the mentality that Detroit is dead, dying or in need of some external force to "save" it.
From services to cleanliness to crime and education, it's time for everyone to own up to higher standards and expectations, individually and collectively. Mediocrity should be unacceptable, and the status quo should be a part of our past.
Detroit deserves better, and it's our responsibility to make it that way.
Karen Dumas is a lifelong Detroit resident and former communications director for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing
Leaders must rethink and retool for the city that is
A decaying house on Vancourt on Detroit's west side. According to just released 2010 Census numbers, Detroit's population has dropped to 713,777. / MANDI WRIGHT/Detroit Free Press
Stop arguing about what happened and start focusing on what to do now.
If there is a single, unifying message to be found inDetroit's population count from the 2010 census, that's it.
The city lost more than 200,000 residents over the past decade. Among U.S. cities, only flood-ravagedNew Orleans hemorrhaged a larger percentage of its population.
They had a hurricane. We had a near-biblical exodus of people who were home dwellers, school attendees and taxpayers. At 713,000 residents, the city has about 5,000 residents for each one of its 139 square miles. That's just a little more dense than Manhattan -- the eighth-largest city in Kansas.
Why so many people left Detroit doesn't matter anymore. Neither does who's at fault.
The important thing now is for everyone to accept that this is a fundamentally changed city, a hollowed-out version of the Detroit that boasted 1.8 million people in the mid-1950s.
New Orleans is not distracted by squabbling over how to rebuild that city to accommodate all the people who have left. Detroiters and their leaders must similarly focus on making their city work for the folks who are still here.
Density is a big part of that. If there was any question about the city's ability to maintain its sprawling infrastructure in the face of a continuing population slide, the sharp decline in the 2010 census numbers put it to rest.
Mayor Dave Bing took some heat for (and then backed away from) his assertion last year that his Detroit Works Project had identified a handful of neighborhoods that would be targeted for reinvestment, and that residents from all over the city would be encouraged to move into them.
But is there any doubt now that he's on the right track? The census numbers prove that the city's nearly depopulated acreage is growing, not shrinking. Bing and the City Council must focus on creating critical mass in the areas that still have solid population bases, and come up with a credible plan to abandon the infrastructure in other areas, or find suitable, low-impact uses for them.
The census numbers mean large-scale farming is no longer some pipe dream, but an imperative part of the discussion about land use. Homesteading, which could also facilitate the low-cost repurposing of the city's 80,000 abandoned homes and businesses, also deserves serious consideration.
At the same time, city leadership must continue to build on the things that are going right. While people were leaving at a rate of one every 20 minutes, the decade from 2001-10 was also one that saw the city re-establish itself as the cultural and economic hub of the region. Three casinos and two stadiums opened downtown; the city hosted a baseball All-Star game and a football Super Bowl, and attracted thousands of suburbanites and expatriates to celebrate its 300th anniversary. Two major employers moved into the city, and General Motors decided to stay.
Downtown and Midtown, which are attracting new workers and residents have to be girded with services that will continue to attract and retain people. And services won't get better until they're not spread over such a large, depopulated area.
Programs such as Live Detroit, which will see the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health Systems give cash to employees who move to the city, are models that might have potential for moving residents around the city as well.
A city of 700,000 isn't inherently inferior to one that has a million or more residents. But a city that is losing people at a rate of 25% per decade is a problem, and a city that is carrying as much unused infrastructure as Detroit can't make it financially.
Bing now has proof that his plans for Detroit are about the city's very survival. He and the council can't get started soon enough putting them into place
POLITICS & PREJUDICES
How to save Detroit
Bing's address, hard realities and a modest proposal
"When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on. But I got here and found out ... things were way worse than I ever imagined."—Mayor Dave Bing, Washington Post, February 2011
A half-century ago, when the mayor was still a high school basketball star, Detroit was a happening place. Downtown Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world.
They were, alas, knocking down old City Hall, thanks to the new modernistic City-County Building. (Historic preservation wasn't much on anyone's mind, because Motown still saw itself as a young and vibrant city.) Sure, it had lost a little population, something the experts at the time put down to the freeways, but Detroit still had nearly 1.7 million people.
Seventy-one percent of them were white. But the black population was not only mushrooming, it was making itself heard. "Please Mr. Postman" would be Motown's first No. 1 nationwide hit that year. The Red Wings made the Stanley Cup finals. The Detroit Tigers would stun everyone by winning 101 games, only to be beaten out at the end by the Yankees.
Change was coming, though. That fall, for the first time, a young politician running for mayor would openly court the black vote. With their help, Jerry Cavanagh would pull off the biggest upset victory in Detroit mayoral history.
When he took office, he was only 33 years old. It was an age of young men; the governor, John Swainson, was only 35 when who took office. The new mayor believed in Detroit, believed in the future, believed in cities.
Today, Detroit city is a very different place than those vibrant leaders must have dreamed it would be. Soon, we'll have the final census figures from last year. The city almost certainly has fewer than 800,000 people, the vast majority of them black.
They are overwhelmingly poor, poorly skilled and poorly educated. The affluent have largely left, the skilled have left, many who want decent public schools for their kids have left.
And the city left behind is being crushed by debt.
According to the Washington Post, which did a long story on Detroit last month, the city's long-term debt is $5.7 billion, a figure the city has no realistic prospect of paying off.
The annual budget deficit had been wrestled down to $150 million, before the city got the bad news about the governor's budget. Among other things, it once again slashed revenue sharing, for the umpteenth time.
That's money the city needed to keep going. Last week, the mayor, a good and decent and talented man, gave his annual State of the City speech.
Dave Bing is more than twice the age of the mayor Detroit had half a century ago, and seemed older and wearier than his 67 years. The governor's budget, he said, "has potentially devastating consequences for the city of Detroit. It threatens the concrete but fragile gains we have made."
"We simply can't afford it," he said. Later, when discussing labor negotiations, the mayor said, "I know change is difficult. I know change takes time. But we are getting there."
But is Detroit really getting there? Can it get there?
Bing meant specifically the negotiations, but also Detroit as well, a city he called "a work in progress." Dave Bing is loyal to the city he moved back to to govern. Yet he is also an honest and realistic man.
During his State of the City speech, he talked about building something that they would have taken for granted half a century ago, "a city that works." Detroit doesn't work now. Dave Bing knows that, and admitted as much — something other mayors wouldn't have dreamt of doing.
He spoke, however, of a vision of his version of Detroit as a shining city on a hill, "a city that reversed the cycle of decline by stopping the population drain and [is] beginning to attract new residents ... a city that transformed its economy and made Detroit a major job center once again.
"A city that attacked blight and turned vacant land into opportunity for economic development, jobs and public use. A city that brought residents together to create safe neighborhoods and deliver outstanding public services."
The mayor told Detroiters that this was, indeed, the future they could build, "but not without dealing with today's reality."
Astonishingly, in his speech, he subtly touched on just how divorced from reality Detroiters are. This is, he reminded people, a city where 50,000 false security alarms get pulled every year, a place where, as the mayor delicately put it, "we must also continue educating our residents about the appropriate use of 911." As in, don't call it if your cat is sick.
One thing the mayor didn't mention, however, was what was even then going on behind the scenes in Lansing. The day after the annual State of the City speech, the Michigan House of Representatives easily passed a bill designed to make it easier for the state to appoint emergency financial managers to run troubled cities, school districts or other local governments.
In addition, the bills would give the EFMs broad new powers, including the ability to void labor contracts, and strip local officials of virtually all their powers. Nor would emergency financial managers have to be an individual. The law would permit the state treasurer to appoint a firm to govern a city.
Does that mean, say, that Nationwide Security Contractors could be given total power in Detroit, if it came to that? Damn right it could. Needless to say, this has sparked a far amount of outrage. But the people who would normally rise to protest this were too busy last week protesting the governor of Wisconsin's attempt to destroy public sector unions.
Without much doubt, the bills will sail through the Senate, where the pathetic Democratic minority doesn't even have the ability to delay a bill from taking immediate effect.
Detroit hasn't, we should note, asked for an emergency financial manager, or given any indication that it might. But I can't help thinking of a conversation I had with Joe Harris a few years ago. He was the city's auditor general from 1995-2005.
He told me that sooner or later, it was inevitable. Detroit could delay things a bit with smart management, perhaps. But the city no longer had the resources to pull itself out of this.
Harris, incidentally, is now EFM in Benton Harbor; and may have been given that job as a sort of audition for the really big one to come. But there is a way to avoid all that.
The only way that makes sense. Former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk noted years ago in his classic little book Cities Without Suburbs that the only cities that do well are "elastic cities," that can keep expanding their territory. Luckiest of all are those city-county units that have thriving metropolitan governments — Nashville, for example. Miami, Indianapolis. Imagine that happening here.
Imagine a Detroit that consisted of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The Legislature could create such a super city. What's more, it should. All these places are really Detroit.
Proud Detroiters and selfish suburbanites would resist this, of course. But there really is no other way to create a city that works, that would have the money to educate kids properly and do the sort of things necessary to turn the city around.
Will this happen? Not right away, and maybe not for many years. But until Detroit is a truly functioning city again, there's no way Michigan can ever be rich and great again.
> Email Jack Lessenberry
Charlie LeDuff: My Detroit Story, Part One
Off The Chain
Published : Thursday, 17 Feb 2011, 5:21 PM EST
By Charlie LeDuff | FOX 2 News
I returned to Michigan as a reporter after being away for nearly 20 years. When I was a boy, was taught almost nothing about the history of the African-American experience or the history of Detroit or even the history of my family for that matter.
Confronted by the hard realities of our time and our city, I went looking for my own story which is inextricably linked to the story of Detroit -- white, black and red. I was surprised by what I found.
In the spirit of Black History Month, this is the first of three essays on myFOXdetroit.com that will culminate in video form on FOX 2 in coming weeks. Portions of these essays will appear in my upcoming book, “ DETROIT: An American Autopsy,” due out this fall. -- Charlie LeDuff
DETROIT -- I finished shaving and dressed. My wife and I loaded up the baby in the SUV and drove to my aunt's funeral in a rural corner of Oakland County, where the land rolls like a ship on the swells. A boat, a house, a lake, a foreclosure sign.
"Jesus, it's Whitey McWhiteville out here," my wife said distractedly, noticing a white-faced lawn jockey. She is a white girl who grew up in Detroit — not the suburbs — which makes her a special kind of white person.
"Have some respect," I barked at her. I don't know why. Maybe it was the idea of the funeral. My people don't handle them very well. There is usually a drunk screaming from an upstairs window, like a stewed sailor on night watch. Sometimes it is a fistfight. One time, a cousin threw a beer bottle at his brother's casket as it was lowered down the hole, screaming that his brother could keep the dime deposit.
I turned up the radio. Manfred Mann was singing, the blackest-sounding white man there probably is. Blue, black and white, can't we get anything right? An appropriated sound of course, but righteous enough in its own way.
The funeral for my aunt was weird in the fact that it wasn't weird. It was normal. It was white. It started on time. Everyone wore a tie and jacket. Aunt Marilyn, my father's sister, had raised the ultimate American family. A husband of 49 years, seven children, 22 grandchildren or something like that. No divorce. No death by misadventure. Catholic to the point of evangelical. Her progeny lining up single-file to each place a rose in a vase. It was simply odd in its normalcy, it’s clean-scrubbed sweetness. Who were these people? Where was their bitterness? Their bite? Their whiskers? They couldn't possibly belong to me. And then a brassy woman stepped out of a dark corner.
"Yes?" I had never seen her before.
"I'm your long-lost Aunt Debbie."
I stood there blankly. She was a well-put-together blond in a black dress, with red lipstick. A smoker, I thought, by the sound of her voice.
"Your father's half-sister?” she offered helpfully. “Your grandmother, she was my mother, Betty. I'm your father's half-sister."
"Her name was Betty?"
"Yes, your father's mother. We had the same mother. Betty."
"Well, first Betty Lancour. And then Betty LeDuff when she married you father's dad. And then Betty Zink when she married my dad. She died when she was 35 years old. Alone."
"Those are a lot of names."
"Yeah, they are."
"How did she die?"
"A heart attack, I think."
"How is your father?"
"I haven't talked to him in a decade," I told my new Aunt Debbie. "Not since my sister's funeral. She was 35 too."
"Oh, wow," she said.
Like a gossip with a secret, Aunt Debbie wasted little time telling me her son's girlfriend just had her feet amputated because of a virus and that the muffler just fell off her car, making it difficult to fulfill her job, which was to shuttle around the Amish back in Pennsylvania.
This was more like my family. I liked her.
Grandma Betty died alone. Who was she? And who was Grandpa, for that matter? It occurred to me, especially now that I was back in Detroit, that for a man who had spent his entire professional life criss-crossing the planet asking others the most pointed and personal questions, I didn't really know much about my family. Or myself. A boat without an anchor, bobbing across the shores of Whitey McWhiteville.
I went looking for Grandma Betty.
The radio dispatcher sent scout car No. 10-1 to see about a dead woman, according to the police report. It was 3:35 in the afternoon on March 8, 1956. It was cold outside. Patrolman Mitchell Adamek found a youngish woman lying dead in the back bedroom of Apartment 207 at 2665 Gladstone, on the west side of Detroit, near the Sacred Heart Seminary. She was dressed in a slip, nothing more. There were no visible signs of violence to her body. Adamek contacted the homicide squad anyway.
On the dressing table was a bottle of Anacin tablets, a bottle of Bufferin tablets, a bottle of nose drops and a bottle of codeine cold remedy in liquid form. In the corner stood John W. Migan, a narrow-shouldered dentist who, at the age of 34, was still living with his mother. He told Adamek that he had been dating the woman for the better part of three years and that he had last seen her about 2 a.m., when her dropped her off after an evening of spirited partying.
When they were done having a good time, Wigan went home to his mother. He returned later that afternoon to find his girlfriend dead. The woman, Betty Zink, was my grandmother, but as I began digging into her story, the more I realized she could have been my sister.
It seemed to me looking over her police report that the dead don't take their sorrows and confusion with them, they pass them on like watches and amulets.
Born Betty J. Freed in 1920 to a traveling salesman and a Chippewa Indian woman from Mackinac Island, my grandmother had married and divorced twice in her short life. Her first husband was an elegant, swarthy-skinned man named Royal LeDuff, my grandfather. She bore him two children — my father, Roy Jr., and Marilyn — before the marriage ended in divorce. She then married Robert Zink and bore him two children, Debbie and Bob. That marriage also rapidly dissolved, Betty divorcing herself of Zink and his fists.
By all accounts, she was a fantastically handsome woman, with dark brown hair, gray eyes and a full, curvaceous figure. A door-to-door saleslady, according to the death certificate.
But she was wild and ill-equipped for the domestic life. Both sets of children would end up living with their fathers while Betty lived with her demons. She danced with the liquor bottle and dined with barbiturates. The coroner determined her cause of death to be heart failure, but he did not perform toxicology tests. He did note, however, that her liver was in an advanced state of failure. She was 35.
More than 50 years had passed since her death, and no one had ever mentioned her name to me. No photographs had been passed down, no story. A ghost in the attic. A beautiful woman who was haunted by something unknown to all but herself. A woman who medicated herself into a slow oblivion, to the point of failing organs. A woman who met a dark and sad death, just as her granddaughter Nicole would.
Why had no one spoken about any of this until a long-lost aunt emerged from a dark corner of a cold Catholic church to tell me?
I asked this of my father, Roy, when he called after hearing through the family telegraph that I was nosing around. I hadn't spoken to him in about 10 years.. In fact, I hadn't spoken to him probably more than a dozen times in my life, and then it was usually at funerals and family functions. We didn't know much about each other beyond the fact that we shared a name and blood.
"You've got to understand the thing about this family," he told me. "We were all just pieces of everything, there was no whole there. Nobody really knows the truth."
I was beginning to understand, now that I was home in Detroit, that things are rarely what they seem — they're an amalgam, a fictionalized version of the truth served up to suit people's needs and help them get on with the difficult business of living.
It is like that in most places I suppose, with most families.
After listening to my father’s recollections of his mother, our conversation turned to his father, my grandpa Roy LeDuff. I had always been told that LeDuff was a Cajun name, with its roots in swamps of Louisiana. This is what my father had been told too. I would come to find out this was a lie.