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I've been meaning to post this for a while, and then I kept… - Summer in the City

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November 22nd, 2004

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11:25 am
I've been meaning to post this for a while, and then I kept forgetting. :P But in English we had an assignment to write a personal narrative, and I did mine on Summer in the City. Some of it's a bit fictionalized...not too much, but I'm pretty sure that besides Ben's mantras no one actually said anything I quoted. But, yes...indulge yourselves in nostalgia of Summer 2004.

Discovering My Detroit

The parking lot was deserted. Lindsey and I sat in my Honda Civic, munching on Burger King fries and hoping that someone would pull into the parking lot and ensure us that we were, in fact, in the right location. We glanced at the clock—still five minutes early. Shouldn't the director arrive before the volunteers? Certainly we weren't the only ones coming.

Finally, a mini van pulled into the parking lot and dropped a girl off near my car. Lindsey and I recognized her immediately and were relieved. Her name was Sammi, and we knew her from both camp and school.

“Oh, cool. You're doing Summer in the City, too?" Sammi said with a smile.

"Yeah...shouldn't someone be here?"

"Neil's usually here by now...this is really unlike him. I'll give him a call and see where he is." She pulled out her cell phone. "I think we're finishing the MLK house today; it should be fun."

So many questions were racing through my mind. Who is this Neil guy? Why does Sammi have his number in her phone? What on Earth is she talking about…is that some sort of project? Am I in over my head?

Neil turned out to be the assistant director of Summer in the City, a kind of gangly guy who was more than a little obsessed with transit. In addition to being a University of Michigan bus driver, he designed the route shuttling students to and from the airport and studied maps in his spare time. He also had unrelated obsessions with Winston Churchill and romance languages. Neil kept a picture of Churchill on his dashboard and often said random phrases in Spanish or French. While driving, he talked animatedly, with his left arm flailing out of the window.

Before I knew it, Neil became one of my favorite people, and his number was programmed in my cell phone (in case I got lost). I almost always knew the activities ahead of time and looked forward to them with utmost enthusiasm and anticipation. And, going to Summer in the City that first day was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

What is Summer in the City? It's a community service program (organized by Ben Falik, a rather attractive class of 2000 Andover grad) that brings high school-aged volunteers from the suburbs into Detroit to make it a better and safer place to live. We clean out houses, paint over graffiti, plant flowers, and help distribute food. The purpose, other than improving the city, is to expand the teenagers' sense of community. That it's not just about our suburbs—it’s all of the Detroit area. For me, it has accomplished all that and more.

I saw a lot of things in the five weeks that I volunteered with Summer in the City, and I learned from all of them. Some of those things were personal limits and skills, such as how much debris I can haul, how to “pack a mean dumpster,” how to apply geometry to real life while painting a mural, the easiest way to wire phone lines, and the most productive way to pack a box of food. Other lessons came from the people I worked with and seeing the gratification of the work I did. I learned what types of conditions a lot of people live in and manage to accept; how to grin and bear it, because it’s the only thing you’ve got; to appreciate what I have; and to always smile and say thank you, because you never know when it can be making someone’s day.

Most of the work I did was cleaning out and demolishing abandoned houses in Redford and Cork Town. You would never believe the amount of crap you can find in these houses. When we get there, they’re filled with trash and soot, free-standing, with a roof. Sometimes they’re charred—then we demolish it. Sometimes they’re in fairly good shape, apart from the trash and maybe some broken boards—then we rehab it. But one thing is always the same: the excessive amounts of garbage.

My second day, we started work on two new houses in Redford that were next door to each other. Both houses were slightly charred (not as bad as the first house I worked on—that house was so burnt that everyone left completely black), so they needed to be demolished. At that time, we didn’t have a demolition permit, so all we could do was what Ben called “pre-dem” work, which involved hauling out the trash and taking out the insulation. The rule for the day was “If the house falls down, you’ve done something wrong.”

We started an assembly line from the house to the curb, because the dumpster had yet to arrive. Bricks, burnt stuffed animals, melted toys, a broken TV, pieces of a rusty bed, old food containers, planks of wood growing things, and strange articles of clothing passed from Lindsey’s hands, to mine, to Stacy’s, and eventually to the street. After a couple hours, we could actually see the floor. The dumpster finally arrived, and we spent a good chunk of time recreating the assembly line to pack all of the trash as efficiently as possible. (It costs $500 to get the dumpster emptied, so every Summer in the City volunteer learns how to conserve space.) Once all of the trash was gone, we started shoveling the foot thick layer of dirt that covered the floor into trash cans. Then we peeled away at the carpet, layer after layer after layer. I think there were nine total, under all that dirt. Then three more layers of linoleum tile.

And that was just one of the houses. I never really got a chance to see the other, but I know the one that I worked on was worse in terms of how badly it was burnt. However, from the amount of work that they were doing and the load of trash that was in that dumpster, it would be fair to say that the other house was in about the same condition.

Later on, Motor City Blight Busters (the organization we were working with on that project—Summer in the City doesn’t have the funding to buy their own houses) got a demolition permit for both buildings. Two weeks after that day of “pre-dem,” there were no houses on those lots, just two cellars and the memory of a job well done.

The actual demolition was by far the best part. We showed up that day ready to demolish the second house, the one I'd spend the most time on. Blight Busters had already demolisehd the first one, and I spent the beginning of that day helping to pry up the floorboards. Ben reminded us of the Golden Rule: "Do not walk where there is no floor." A couple people fell through, and Stacy joined the "foot-in-the-nail club." (She was okay - it didn't break the skin.)

While I worked on the first house, the other volunteers stripped the second house to just its framing and attached chains to the beams. Then the Blight Busters volunteers attached the other side to a pick up truck and drove it. Everyone just stood there, totally still, in complete silence, waiting for it to happen. I tried to question the process, but I got a dirty look and “shh…the house is coming down!” It happened very quickly, especially when compared to the hours of work it took to prepare for this. With a big crash, the house leaned in the direction of the truck and fell over. Wood split, nails snapped, and five seconds later, a pile of debris loomed where the house had stood. As we started to pick it up, piece by piece, and move it into the dumpster, we noticed that a few of the neighbors had gathered to watch the spectacle.

I think neighbors like those really made the summer. One day in Cork Town, we were planting flowers outside a school, and the directors of the summer program there came out and thanked us for what we were doing. A woman stopped us outside of the Friends of Detroit headquarters and gave us a five minute speech about how amazing the things we do there are. The little African American children we tutored were adorable, asking us “Why you all white?” and telling Neil “You so hansom.”

But the best people we met that summer were those who benefit from the services of Focus: HOPE. They run their food distribution services like a small grocery store. They get a “shopping list” of what they’re allowed to take and how much, and they have choices. For example, if it says they can have three vegetables, it can be any combination of the canned corn and potatoes. They take a shopping cart, and the volunteers walk those who need help down the line and help them select their “groceries.”

They tell wild stories when you walk with them. One used to be a college professor in Russia. Another had been coming to Focus: HOPE since it was founded, and told us about its history. A third was a Vietnam vet. Everybody has a story, and it makes no difference how much money you have to the validity of the story of your life. My rabbi once told me that that ti's the story behind things that make them holy, and I believe that everything is holy because everything has a story.

I gained a new perspective doing Summer in the City, because I probably never would have thought to say the above comment without the things I saw there. I never really thought about Detroit as a part of my life before, or thought much about the people who live there. But I learned that they’re just as much human as you and me, and their lives are every bit as important. It’s our job to help them now, because they need it. If you are always there for others, in your time of need, someone will be there for you.

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[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2004 01:14 pm (UTC)
wow!! good paper, and hehe i love the part about the kids we tutored...and the little girl calling neil "you so hansom" i remember that..good times!!

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