Jul 12, 2013

(SALON) -- The gaunt man was sitting on a bench in the overgrown park at the corner of Chene and Ferry streets in Detroit, drinking an Old Milwaukee tallboy he’d bought at a Yemeni party store, and trying to peddle an old point-and-shoot film camera for $3. He was an ex-con who’d served 15 years for using a knife to rob a chicken shack of $81, so he had no other way to make money.

“My name is J.C. Hood, all good in the neighborhood,” the man introduced himself. “My people have a house over here they let me stay in. It’s an old house, almost on its last legs. No utilities, no heat, no water, no lights. No phone. I got a propane heater and a bed. I eat out and I bathe out, at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen at Mount Elliot and St. Paul. I earn about $5,000 a year, hustling. I collect cans at Tigers games. I ride my bike, man, for hours, looking for stuff. I found a pair of boots. I can get $5. Houses, doors be open. You go in there, you can find a lot of stuff. Foreclosures, people just leave their stuff there. I’ve found TVs, stereos.”

There was a time, Detroiters claim, when only New York’s Park Avenue generated more retail dollars per square foot than Chene Street. In the middle of the 20th century, Chene (pronounced “Shane” after the French habitant who farmed there when the land still belonged to the Sun King) was a Polish Broadway, a self-contained ethnic village where housewives bought furniture from Moliszewski, sausage from Jaworski’s Butcher Shop, and dressed the family at Rathenau’s. Every Saturday, Polish truck farmers and Jewish vegetable peddlers set up stalls at the Chene-Ferry Market.

The 20th century was simply an urban interlude in this part of Detroit, between colonial agriculture and post-industrial dereliction. The Chene-Ferry Market closed 20 years ago, leaving only a fading sunrise mural. The local bank slid down the retail scale, becoming a Coney Island stand, then an empty storefront. Since 1980, the neighborhood’s population has dropped from 2,571 to 623, while the ratio of occupied to vacant houses went from 9-1 to 2-1. The only difference between the East Side of Detroit and the rural South is reliable cellphone service.

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