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One Detroit House

September 28, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


[Photos from the Wall Street Journal]

Can a house’s history tell the tale of an entire city? That it can is the premise of a fascinating front page piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. (See too the accompanying slide show.)

The city is Detroit; the house is 1626 W. Boston Boulevard. It “has watched almost a century of Detroit’s ups and downs, through industrial brilliance and racial discord, economic decline and financial collapse. Its owners have played a part in it all. There was the engineer whose innovation elevated auto makers into kings; the teacher who watched fellow whites flee to the suburbs; the black plumber who broke the color barrier; the cop driven out by crime. The last individual owner was a subprime borrower, who lost the house when investors foreclosed.”

I’ve written several times about Detroit, first following two trips there last winter and most recently in my post on Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. I believe that Detroit’s fate will continue to provide important clues about our country’s society. The WSJ article is a good short introduction to where Detroit is today and how it got here.

In the rest of this post, I’ll review some of the highlights of the article. If you have access to the article, skip what follows and read it instead.

It’s quite a story, beginning with Truman Newberry, who won a US Senate seat in 1918, only to resign in scandal in 1922. Earlier, he and his brother had begun to develop land in the Boston-Edison area, selling one of their lots to Clarence and Lura Avery. Clarence Avery is famous as a time studies pioneer. As a teacher in Detroit, Clarence Avery had Edsel Ford in one of his classes, thereby coming to meet his father Henry Ford. Avery was hired by Ford in 1912 and by 1913 had developed (with others) the moving assembly line. He and Lura bought their lot in 1917.

The Avery’s daughter Anabel was born in the house. In the WSJ article, the 91-year-old Anabel comments, “I loved that house. I don’t think I ever felt quite the same about a house as I did about that house.”

The Averys moved to a larger home in 1924, renting and then selling the Boston Boulevard house to John Crawford, Edsel Ford’s assistant, and his wife, Minnetta. They would move to Massachusetts in 1942, selling the house to a Detroit public school music teacher, Marie Ryan. In her years there, white flight from the city began. She would sell the home in 1965 to its first African-American owners, Herman and Ida Adams. Ida would die the next year of lung cancer, and a year after that, the riots took place. The article notes that this provided Herman with an unexpected opportunity. As white workers stayed home, he did some plumbing work at the auto plant where he worked, leading to a recommendation to participate in the union apprenticeship program and ultimately a position as master pipe-fitter.

Herman died in 1989. His daughter Veronica lived in the house until 1999.

The idea of being urban pioneers appealed to David Andrews, a young, black Detroit police officer, and his wife, Ruth. Scouting Boston-Edison for a house in 1999, they spotted Veronica Adams pounding a for-sale sign into the yard at 1626 W. Boston.

They closed the deal for $79,900. “It was in some disrepair,” Mr. Andrews recalls. “But we thought, given the values in the neighborhood, it was such a steal.”

The Andrews turned a blind eye to the vacant house across the street. They borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for improvements and to buy a car. They refinished the oak floors. They replaced the furnace and pipes.

Mr. Andrews, now 42, used the third-floor maid’s quarters as his hideaway. Soon after they moved in, Ms. Andrews, now 40, became pregnant with their first child.

Starting in the 1990s, American car companies enjoyed a brief interlude of optimism brought on by low gasoline prices and a boom in sports-utility vehicles. Detroit, like the nation as a whole, got caught up in the housing bubble.

The Andrews watched happily as their own house’s value rose. But crime drained their enthusiasm. Three times, thieves broke into their cars. “When they come into my house, I’m out of here,” Mr. Andrews told a neighbor at the time, they both recall.

Not long afterwards, Mr. Andrews found his house pillaged. The antique chairs were gone. A trail of his CDs crossed the front lawn. The couple found a house they wanted on a golf course. But it took them a year to sell 1626 W. Boston Blvd.

The sale took place in 2005. The story becomes a bit murky at this point, with the new buyer qualifying for a questionable loan, never moving in, and not maintaining the house. After foreclosure, the house was put up for auction in February 2007, but no one bid the $170,000 minimum. The lender sold it to another firm, which put it on the market at $75,000. Finally, this past April, the house sold for $10,000 to the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., a nonprofit.

One day this summer, Lisa Johanon, the group’s executive director, undid the padlock on John Crawford’s boarded-up front door. Sheets of peeling paint hung from Marie Ryan’s kitchen ceiling. Advertising fliers littered the porch where Veronica Adams’s neighbors played jacks. The glass was missing from the window on the staircase to David Andrews’s third-floor sanctuary. Kimberly Carpenter’s radiators had been stolen.

Usually, Ms. Johanon’s charity provides subsidized housing in the poorest neighborhoods — where ice-cream cones are sold from behind bullet-proof glass — not high-end areas such as Boston-Edison. But now some 100 out of the 900-odd houses in Boston-Edison are vacant.

If you can’t save 1626 W. Boston Blvd., Ms. Johanon wondered aloud, what hope is there for the rest of Detroit? Walking through, she noted the heavily stained carpet and the rickety back steps, but also the rich woodwork and the clawfoot tub.

She hopes her group can revive the house and find a new family willing to bet on Detroit. “A minimal spec, I’d say, would be $30,000 to $35,000, and it would be in pretty good shape,” she said.

Categories: Culture, History, House
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  1. June 29, 2010 at 3:51 PM

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