LEFT | OVER
It started when Andy went urbexing, in the abandoned high school next to Hyundai’s downriver plant. He posted blurry cell phone photos of graffitied walls. The floor in the gymnasium buckling with exposure to the elements. Rows of still brightly-painted green and yellow lockers, doors open, as if waiting for the winter coats, the books, the backpacks that will never come.
Andy didn’t know, until after he posted the photos, that Southwestern, on Fort St., was where my father attended high school. It was from Southwestern that my father was escorted home by the National Guard after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was from Southwestern that my father graduated valedictorian, before moving on to the University of Michigan and moving out of Detroit.
Ruin porn—where photographers or budding photographers break into vacant buildings to document the husks of modern civilization. Abandoned shopping malls. Bombed-out remnants of state institutions. Detroit is the Holy Land for these artists, with landmarks more famous in their second life as urban blight than they were as functioning places of industry. The Packard Automotive Plant, featured with other derelict locals on the Netflixable show Forgotten Planet; the Detroit Central Station, a windowless monolith seen from I-75, which hasn’t housed a train since 1988.
And yet, I take a perverse pride in this shared heritage. The ornate ceiling covered in car exhaust and grime in the Michigan Theatre-turned-parking garage. The boarded-up mansions in Brush Park, in plain view of Ford Field and Comerica Park. Sad, yes, but manifestations of our once-great history. This is why ruin porn is a thing—the undeniable tie to what once was, which informs who we are, speaks of what we may be again.
* * *
Four miles away, across the Rouge River, is Oakwood—the neighborhood where my grandparents and several other Sammarinese immigrants settled in the 1940s and ‘50s.
By the time I was born in 1981, my grandparents had moved on, but my mother’s sister still lived at 539 S. Bayside—asphalt shingle siding made to look like bricks; a grapevine trellis in the backyard fashioned from black-painted pipes, hung with grapes that never seemed to ripen, thick green skins and too bitter to eat.
Oakwood was already in decline. My sisters and I never played with the other children in the neighborhood, their bare feet against concrete, dirt caked up their legs. I can count on one hand the number of times my parents let me walk with my cousins to Gonella’s on the corner, for Tampico freezer pops, which you had to break in half to eat, tonguing the jagged plastic edge.
Despite this, I still took Nonna’s hand and walked with her to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church for Saturday mass. A tradition left over from before I was born, we crossed Bayside, cutting through strangers’ yards, in a direct line to Oakwood Blvd. No one stopped or questioned us, an old lady and her granddaughter.
Twenty years and twelve hundred miles away, I can’t just drive through the old neighborhood. Which is why, after touring the remnants of my father’s past in Andy’s Facebook gallery, I decided to take a digital tour of my own. In Google Maps, I traveled down Fort St., using Gonella’s as my reference point, I walked my way down Bayside in Google Streetview.
I was prepared. For boarded up houses. Burnt-out shells vomiting clothes and furniture into the street. Trash strewn yards and abandoned cars. I was ready to see whatever state Zia’s old house was in, a springboard for remembering what it was like before, a crystallization of hazy memories.
But there was nothing. Just grass and trees. In Maps, I could see the beige rectangles denoting where houses used to be. In Streetview, the houses were gone.
As a writer, I know that memory is an imperfect thing. The further into my past I reach, the more distorted the image. Without the expected-ruination of what the old neighborhood had become, I felt trapped, unable to reconcile the place in my memory with the skeletons left behind. In another part of the city, on a street that wasn’t mine, I would have been glad to see the green. Glad to know that no matter the scars that we, as a civilization, have made, nature can always take it back.
But how will I ever know my own truth, when the grass and the trees seem to say: Your past never was.