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Dealing With Closure

My mother was on the line, going on about the announcement that Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb will close 41 school buildings by summer. When I'd called her to chat about the news, she'd started by admitting that she hadn't followed all of the events closely but was in reluctant agreement that something drastic needed to happen to save the city's school system.

"I guess it's a business decision he's got to make," she said. "I don't like it, but the schools are in trouble. We've got to do something. I understand that people don't want this to happen, but you know, sometimes we get too emotional in Detroit. Sometimes, we let our emotions get in the way when we need to make tough choices. Nothing wrong with feelings, but we have to -- ."

"Ma," I interrupted softly. "They're closing Carstens."

There was the sharp sound of someone sucking in a short breath. Then a pause. Then, swiftly, an outpouring of shock and dismay and disappointment. Emotion.

"Oh Darrell, nooo," she said. "Carstens? But Carstens is a good school. Carstens has done some wonderful things. I can't believe that. I don't know if that's right."

And Hattie M. Carstens Elementary School is a good school, one of the best in Detroit and in the state. Last year, for instance, Carstens was named one of 25 "high performing" schools in Detroit by the Skillman Foundation, earning a $100,000 grant as part of the foundation's Making the Grade initiative. Still, it's one of the schools slated to close this year, the result, say school officials, of its location in a struggling east-side neighborhood that seems to be growing more desolate by the day. (Only about 235 students attend the school currently.)

But on the phone right then, it wasn't the awards or grants that weighed heaviest on my mother's heart. What mattered most to her was that Carstens Elementary used to be my school, the first place her baby started his educational journey, the first institution she had ever enlisted to help her with the task of teaching and nurturing and raising her only child. What mattered right then was that someone had made the hard decision to shutter a part of our lives.

As I listened to my mother's pained response, I imagined that all over metro Detroit, a place where people's ties to this side of town or that particular block still run hard and deep, many families were meeting news of the closures of some  schools with the same reactions — surprise, heartbreak, anxiety over what it all means and what comes next. And sadness over how it all got like this in the first place.

Located just up the block from my old house on Coplin Street, Carstens, with its loving teachers and smiling lunch aides and rambunctious children, wasn't just any school when I was coming up. It was an integral part of the 'hood, a beloved and permanent fixture in the backdrop of our collective upbringing. Like the corner stores and two-family flats all around us, the hulking brick building near the corner of Coplin and Charlevoix, with the sprawling playground and towering trees and net-less orange metal basketball hoops, was an extension of home.

Over the years, of course, the neighborhood morphed. The white families bolted. Many of the middle-class black families followed. The businesses that lined thoroughfares like Mack and East Jefferson and Gratiot avenues-- the drugstores and theaters, the pastry shops and travel agencies -- closed down or moved away. Manufacturing plants left. Crack cocaine came.

Carstens, though, never flinched. Through it all, that school taught whomever came through its doors, embracing us all with a warm optimism that openly defied the worsening conditions outside. I'm sure many of the teachers and administrators who taught us back in the '70s knew that what we were facing would only get worse. And I'm sure that some of them didn't expect us all to make it in life -- but they sure acted like they did.

I won't front like every memory is a fuzzy one. I can recall a big gang rumble between the Errol Flynns and BKs on the playground one afternoon after we'd all left school. I can remember learning what the phrase "dope fiend" meant after I'd asked a friend why another classmate's mom had such large, puffy hands pocked with scars. (Of course, this was the same mom whom, whatever her addictions, was known to never miss a parent-teacher conference.) I remember learning the scary truth about mortality after being told in school that a classmate's sister had accidentally fallen into the Detroit River and drowned.

But Carstens laid the foundation for our growth as kids, too, from the first-grade teacher who used to send me home with free books because she sensed my love of reading, to the fifth-grade teacher who used to try to slip lessons about social consciousness in between lectures on math and writing. It was the place where I first heard someone other than a relative tell me that I could be anything I wanted. And it was the place where my mother first took her little boy into a room filled with new faces, let go of his hand and walked away.

Now, mothers throughout Detroit are wondering what comes next. Sure, the district needs an overhaul, but what of those who were already making strides? What happens to the successful programs at places like Carstens once the building is shuttered or sold? What becomes of those award-winning, dedicated teachers and administrators once they are scattered to the bureaucratic winds? What will our schools, our neighborhoods, look like then?

In her head, my mother, like many around the city, recognizes that spiraling conditions in the schools mean that there are some hard choices to be made. But in her heart, not unlike many Detroiters who have had long and rich relationships with the community institutions that most impact our lives, she's having a tough time with closure.

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  • 1

    Powerful memories, poignantly recalled.
    What a timely example, Darrell, of the not-so-elusive goal discussed for seven hours today at WSU, where scholars, journalists, bloggers and others jabbered about 'Telling Detroit's Story.'
    This one stimulates the mind to imagine:
    * How many others were shaped and motivated through bthe decades in that hulking brick "extension of home."
    * How many professionals once were first-graders treasuring free books.
    * Who else was inspired to hear they could become anything they wanted?
    Perhaps we'll meet one or more here.

    • 1.1

      If a documentary filmmaker focused on your elementary school's saga as a way of Telling Detroit's Story, she or he would introduce us to Hattie M. Carstens.
      I was curious, and see from a very superficial search that she was among pioneering, progressive women active in Detroit during the first two decades of the last century. Embracing a new era and higher profiles for women in the suffragist period, they formed the 20th Century Club and undertook civic projects.
      "Hattie Carstens established model gardens at some of the schools. Soon several hundred acres of back-yard gardens were blooming over the city and children who had never been to the country were knowing for the first time the joy of digging in good earth and watching something grow from the seeds they had planted.
      "To stimulate interest, the women worked with the schools to arrange fall festivals and exhibits, offering prizes for the best entries of flowers and vegetables and for the prettiest home gardens. They even arranged markets for the vegetables and got
      children to start bank accounts with their proceeds. The work took time and physical effort, but the returns in beauty over the city as drab little yards burst into bloom and in health and character building among the children were satisfying."
      -- 'Courage Was the Fashion,' Pages 127-128
      by Alice Tarbell Crathern
      Wayne University Press, 1953
      The school and neighborhood gardens program was started about 100 years ago . . . and "the returns in . . . character building among the children were satisfying."
      Sure seems like a decent documentary hook, a way to Tell Detroit's Story.

  • 2


    It seems as if all hell has broken loose and crazyness has gone exponential.

    Sort of one flew over the Coo Coo's Nest Super Bigtime.

    Irrationality is hitting huge benchmarks and pushing the limits more and more.

    In the last Bond Issue the Politicians brought in a General Contractor, calling themselves a Construction Manager, and then designated as the Program Manager. So what happened?
    Well the General Contractor, never heard of demographics and so what did they do? Well they just went around, made a list of the schools diveyed them up with a bunch of architects, had them create drawings and specifications and then went ahead and fixed them all up.

    Well what a wonderful decision the politicians made. Problem is they never heard of demographics either nor had they heard of PLANNING.

    Nope the Politicians didn't think much of Planning either. Maybe they were Republicans and thought that was a thing that the Communists or worse, the Democrats had invented. So Detroit has not had a legitimate Planning department ever since Charles Blessing retired. Be clear about that, no real live legitimate, highly intelligent and creative person has headed up Detroit's City Planning Department so they dumped it into another department called Economic Development... Just look around to see all the wonderful things that they came up with... virtually zip!

    I worked on 7 of those Schools. And I learned about the corruption going on in the School Board and in the contracting. Did the School Board try and work with the City planning Department on the last Bond Issue? No, there wasn't one doing a proper job.

    And I came to learn about the wonderful school buildings that abound in Detroit.
    Detroit has perhaps the finest school building stock of any large City School District in the nation.

    Some of those are so well built and so beautiful that they defy description and could easily be placed up in the Cranbrook Community and fit right in. They are very servicible. Older buildings can be wonderful, just look at how Doug Ross is fixing them up and reusing them. He's a clever guy and I for one would never believed that he said that we had to tear all the old ones down and start over despite the quote in the Freep. And he has a very special quality of spotting and using Intelligent, Cerative Architects. His stuff is good.

    BTW Have you heard about Cranbrook tearing all the old buildings down and starting all over?

    No? Well they aren't because they are of the same age and better built than what we do this day and age. And people in the Cranbrook community are probably a lot smarter that what we have to deal with at this point in time.

    So Dave Bing finds himself as Mayor and probably never new a thing about planning so some interesting moves have been made to fill in the holes at City Hall that are sort of like the Black Holes of Calcutta.

    Carol Goss did a terrific thing in funding DDD and when the maps started getting printed in the paper I was exstatic. And the writing pointed out that maybe Robert Bobb should verify his decisions about abandoning certain schools in the light of the new data. Shouldn't someone be doublechecking?

    Now Mr. Bobb is a tough guy and has and can take a lot of abuse but is every decision carefully made?

    He stated that we would tear down King and Finney and start over and then he held a meeting at the auditorium at King and wondered what the hell we were doing tearing down a fine auditorium. Well that is a bright moment. But he's got an awful lot on his plate... much like a 6' high pile of Hamburger Helper in front of him. So who in the hell is assisting him in these pronounced decisions?

    And then the next thing we hear is that we are going to tear down 70 schools or is it abandon them like Sherril and Dexter Ferry. Boy, won't that be a wonderful sight. All those schools with new aluminum insulated glass windows now to be trashed. Isn't that great planning?

    One of my friends, the retired City Architect, keeps a close watch on the city and he pointed out that abandoning a building refurbished in the last Great Bond Issue, is the kiss of death to the neighborhood. Those aluminum windows get ripped out by the bastard scavangers and then the homeless move in and start fires to keep warm and then the fires get out of hand. Go look at Dexter Ferry, or even the Old Cass Tech.

    BTW, the Old Cass Tech, were it in any other city full of intelligent people would be in use right now, perhaps as the new Commerce. It could be made ready far less costly than the one than the amount the Thompson Group is spending in refurbishing the old Kahn builing on the near east side.

    People simply get crazy stupid about architecture. The lay people can really get out of hand.

    So what has DDD done to help Mr. Bobb, is it too little to late?

    One of the interesting things about the maps was that they showed the annular rings of development that I was trying to tell Karen about and there is a ring of ballon frame houses that were once viable and many of them are not anymore. Too many Devils' Night attacks.

    They also showed the east side swath destroyed by the hideous incinerator that Coleman was sold a bill of goods on. The place stinks like hell. Do you really expect people to move back in that area? Not on your life. We should send the philosopher down there to expound.

    Another interesting fact is that in the 20's and 30's you had to have an architect to design the house that you were going to build. And a funny thing happened in that. Many of them are gorgeous, witty, intelligent, well constructed and look good now. In fact the Architect designed houses have lasted the best of all. But remember in the Engler administration they virtually lifted any restriction so that anyone could go do anything and then you get the hideous yahoo stuff like along lakeshore in Grosse Pointe or East River on Grosse Ile.

    So now the politicians stepped in again and demanded another huge bond issue. They blamed the CM for the way that the last one was handled, unwilling to shouldder any of the blame and stupidity in not making the choices rational. Unwilling to admit that they did not request demographic statistics which could have guided the selections and saved lots of money. So now how many and what % of the buildings repaired will be abandoned? Can Chastity figure out that one. Profligate is a good word here.

    And boy is this ever going to be a demolition contractors paradise. Watch them come on in.
    As an architect who worked on the restoration of Independence Hall, something about demolition makes me want to throw up. Such a waste in human time and intelligence and probably a high carbon activity.

    So now it has been pronounced that we are going to abandon and demolish 70 schools and build 40 new ones??? Sounds nutcase to me. Surely it is.

    So when are we going to see the population curves for Detroit for the total population, the school age child population, the teacher population, the school building population since 1900? Those will be very telling curves and they need also to be done by school district. When will we get the facts to look at? How do we know that Mr. Bobb is making good decisions if they are all kept secret and sancrosanct? When I asked Ken's demographers some questions they got real weasely very quickly and refused to give me anything.

    You have to make regressions upon those curves to see if what he is planning for won't even exist in another 10 years. Where are the regressions? Anybody done them? No? You'v got to be kidding me again.

    And now everything is under a CM again. Didn't we learn anything from the last Bond Issue? Apparently we haven't learned the core issue. This CM has an architect in tow and I can assure you that they would never be hired by Doug Ross. And apparently Mr. Bobb does not know the inherent conflict of interest when an Architect is in tow by the contractor. It's never a clean relationship.

    And this time there has been invented a new term, a new phase called the Bridge Plans. One thing nice about inventing a new task in the logic diagrams of construction is that someone has to pay for that phase. Who is paying for this one since it is an unrecoginized phase in the lexicon of Architecture and not listed in the AIA professional work items? Well I guess that Chastity can figure that one out.

    And having done America's first and fastest Fast Track School Project where I layed out the parameters and developed the schedule for the SUNY Stonybrook Medical School's project of 300,000sf in a virgin wooded rolling site that had to be up in 9 months from the receipt of the program to open the doors for the newly enrolled Med Students and it worked and it was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1974 within an article on coming trends in Architecure and Construction, I simply will not be bowled over by false screams of urgency when the proper work has not even been done yet.

    So I am deeply concerned about all the grandiose pronouncements lately.

    It does seem as if insanity is in vogue, the current thing to do. And again it scares the hell out of me when I think of the “wisdom” of the Politicians. They screwed up last time and it appears to be underway again.

    Why is it that accountants know so little about architecture? Probably because they think that knowledge about architecture is trivial and irrelivant. It simply isn't.

    And I visited my friend, the former Chief Architect of the City and he gave me a helpless look and pronounced that he had lost all faith.

    My answer to that is it's up to the Press. Are they going to seek to make sure that all is correct?
    The answer to that is no if they don't talk. Everything lies in communication.


    • 2.1

      I understand about 70% of what you write about local architecture, etc., and I am fascinated by it all! Please keep enlightening us. You seem like a well reasoned, informed person, and I look forward to reading your posts on architectural treasures, etc.

  • 3

    Nice comment about Hattie and she sounds very much like Dr. Deborah Jenkins at King... very similar ideals very similar expressed desires.

    Funny thing, I really don't care for the way she is being abused in the current situation.

    She is great and needs support and must be treated with full respect.

    Any more and it will be a full blown outrage.


  • 4

    Dear all,

    Watch the documentary 'Grown in Detroit' on the young women and amazing staff at the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit and tell me, a Dutch filmmaker, why this school is on the list... I truly don't understand this decision...

    "pay what you want" for Documentary on Demand!

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