Detroit Coda: Built to Last

by Etienne Brule

The fourth installment in the five-part series by the Detroit News about one Detroit neighborhood concerns a single building -- a four story apartment building originally called "The Shirley Apartments," which stands to this day.

The construction workers who built it did a proper job of it:

The edifice, to this day the tallest on the block, was built to last. Developers broke ground in 1925. Masons carved cornerstones and archways in a Tudor style, even adding a narrow faux archer's window and decorative stone flourishes under the front windows.

One chiseled over the doorway entrance:
Shirley Apartments.

The reason for that name is lost to history.

Workers laid red bricks by the ton. Electricians wired all 20 apartments and the hallways. While the top stairs were made of wood, stone was used for the first-floor steps, to give the entryway a little class.

It must have been a bitch to build, especially for the masons. In those days they had powered cranes, but these were huge heavy monsters, and it's unlikely they would have used one for a project in a residential neighborhood. So, the tens of tons of bricks and stone must have been hauled up 40 feet to the scaffolding using block and tackle, powered by apprentices. The journeymen probably laid the bricks, while the masters cut and set the stonework.

The men who built the Shirley, and hundreds of other buildings like her, were working for much more than just their paychecks. Putting in the time and effort to make sure that the details are done just right, even when he's hot, tired, and late for dinner is the hallmark of a good skilled tradesman, one who "does it White."

Partly this is functional, but mostly it is not. Good electricians run their conduits plumb and level, though it doesn't matter to the electricity inside them. Some of it is due to love of the craft, showing what he is capable of achieving. But more importantl, it's a reminder to future tradesmen when they come to repair or modify his work, "This was done right the first time, so you better not 'nigger-rig' *this* job." It's a way of looking over the shoulder of the next guy, and if he's any good, it will usually work.

When attending kindergarten, I would often spend the afternoon at a neighbor's house, while waiting for the other kids to come home from school. An old couple lived there. The old lady would feed me cookies and other treats while her husband smoked his pipe and talked about his life.

He was a retired construction worker, a stonemason. He would bring out pictures of the skyscrapers in downtown Detroit that he had helped build over the years. One of the last was the City-County building, a modernistic government building with a big green statue in front of it, called "The Spirit of Detroit." I can never look at that statue without remembering the old guy with his pipe and his pictures. I'll bet that's exactly what he had in mind, too. Just because a man works with his hands doesn't mean he isn't after a piece of immortality.

So, the Shirley got off to a fine start. But soon, the era of negro stewardship began. For those of us lucky enough to have never witnessed this first-hand, the article describes it in detail:

In the first step, vandals would break in, taking what they wanted. Then thieves would enter, stripping buildings of any chunks of metal that could be sold to dealers. Next bums would come, building fires to keep warm and also burning the building in the process. After one too many fires, when all of the windows were broken out, the bums would stop coming.

Finally, feral dogs would move in, transforming the structures into gigantic fecal-stained doghouses. Eventually, even the dogs would leave. But the buildings would remain, becoming dumping grounds for garbage and the occasional dead body.
In the case of the Shirley, even the other blacks were terrified by the feral negroes the building attracted:

So the building sat vacant and open to anyone. It became a magnet for creeps, lowlifes and homeless people.

"Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe the people who would come out of there," said Jessie Haywood, 47, who grew up two doors down. "I can't imagine being in that building."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Weeds and weed-like trees overtook the building, including the foul-smelling "Tree of Heaven," known to botanists by the nickname "ghetto palm." The building's hallways accumulated detritus: rotting family Bibles (the last entries from 1991), piles of decaying underwear, empty bottles of Richard's Wild Irish Rose.

Fires broke out periodically, but the solid brick-and-stone structure remained standing. Prostitutes used the building when desperate. Homeless people went inside to sleep on the upper floors or urinate in the dank basement.

For most structures, years of this kind of treatment would have left very little for a demolition crew to dispose of. But the Shirley was tougher than most, and the city kept begging off tearing her down. It's easy to see why when you consider a typical demolition job of theirs:

Once a building was demolished, crews would often just pour the debris into the foundation and fill it with mud. It was cheaper and easier than hauling the debris away, though it created huge problems for any future developers.

In other words, city employees don't expect to have to do much beyond showing up, talking on the phone, and sipping malt liquor in exchange for their paychecks. When they do manage to assemble a crew for a demolition job, bulldozing the charred remains of a wood-frame house into the hole formed by its basement requires a maximum effort, both in sweat and in skill, from that crew.

The Shirley is still standing because she was built so solidly that the blacks are *afraid* to try to take her down -- the bricks could fall from the sky and bounce off their thick skulls, and possibly even mess up their corn-rows. Even they have sense enough to realize that demolishing her would require skill, organization, and hard work; that is, it's something best left to the White folks.

We White folks should refuse to do it, on general principles. I love the Shirley, and hope she stands long enough for our race to reclaim her. If this is not to be, let her stand as a symbol of our defiance.

Early in the article the author writes, "the gutted corpse of the four-story brick-and-stone edifice stood for years, haunting the street where it once thrived."

I know who the ghosts are -- the White workmen who built her. I can picture them sitting on the edge of the roof, some wiping sweat from their faces, others hoisting a beer. I spot my old neighbor in their midst, talking with them in a low voice. As he steps up on the parapet, they laugh and cheer him on. After one last puff on his pipe, he shouts, "To Hell with you niggers, you'll never see the day you could pull this old girl down!"


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