Detroit’s Plan to Fight the Blight

Detroit-Feb 18, 2013I’ve never been to Detroit.  The image I have of the city comes from what I see or read about it.  And lately that hasn’t been good.  While the auto industry has made a remarkable comeback, the Motor City’s struggling real estate market has so far failed to hitch a ride on the road to prosperity.

Thousands of vacant houses in once vibrant neighborhoods are either facing demolition or selling at prices as low as $1.  For a house.

Zillow-Garland St, Detroit

Detroit-Jan 28, 2013

The soundtrack of life in communities scared by these derelict structures is less the bouncy beat of Motown and more Bessie Smith’s blues standard from the 1920s, “No One Knows You When You’re Down And Out.”  When $1 is the serious price for a house and there are no takers, you know the city’s got problems.

Urban decay moves in quickly when good people are forced to abandon their homes in tough economic times.  Boarded-up, empty houses that nobody obviously cares about are breeding grounds for crime, vandalism, drugs and arson.  Something has to be done.  And it is.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recently announced the formation of the Detroit Blight Authority (DBA), a non-profit partnership of concerned businesses, civic leaders and volunteers.  Its stated goal is to tear down thousands of vacant buildings.  Property owners will retain their rights to the land, but just how these open spaces will be used in the future has yet to be decided.  The priority right now is to remove hopelessly beyond repair structures from neighborhoods in the most cost-effective way.  The DBA recently took a big bite out of blight when its first project cleared a ten-block area of uninhabited eyesores.

DBA photos-Before and After

The authority will also target what they refer to as “ones” and “twos,” abandoned and neglected houses on streets where most of the other homes are occupied.  It’s a scene many Detroit residents reluctantly live with.  Forsaken, dilapidated houses can be found on the same streets as well-maintained homes that display a pride of ownership.  For example, these nice looking homes below on the left are just down the block from the yours-for-a-buck house on the right.      

                St. Clair Street, DetroitSt. Clair Street, Detroit

After having a closeup look at the doomed ghost houses of Detroit on websites such as Google and Zillow, I can’t help but wonder what happened, how things got to this lower than low point.  Every house–the cared for and the abandoned alike–all share a similar beginning.  One day years ago, the last nail was driven into the frame by a carpenter or the final brick set in place by the builder of a brand new home.  A key to the front door was handed to the proud new owner.  Beds, dressers, and boxes filled with all the things that make a house a home were carried over the threshold, maybe even a bride.

For decades, these homes sheltered Detroit families and provided them a refuge from the outside world.  Lives were lived under those now sagging, burnt or splintered roofs. Fathers read the evening newspaper in the living room.  Sons listened to the Tigers game on the radio out on the front porch.  Upstairs, a mother braided her young daughter’s hair in a bedroom she shared with an older sister.  Down the hall, children splashed in the tub before being tucked away in their beds for the night, safe and secure.  These were homes where people shared and celebrated the good times, and consoled each other when the phone in the parlor rang with the sad news that a beloved member of the family had passed away.  They are real life scenes hard to envision ever happening in the forgotten homes of Detroit.  Yet they surely did.

I’m hoping that when I read about Detroit in the future I will have a new, upbeat image of the city and its residents.  They’re off to a good start in their fight against blight, but have a huge job ahead of them.  I wish them the best.

If you would like to learn more about the non-profit DBA or make a donation, here’s a link to the Detroit Blight Authority website.  The Detroit Free Press also has a good article on the DBA’s plan to revitalize and reshape the city’s landscape.

And If you or your family lived in Detroit during better times, consider sharing some old photos taken in and around your home.  Contact me at and I will post your pictures and stories on this blog .


1924 Portland Maine Goes Digital

In 1924, every taxable property in the city of Portland, Maine, was reassessed, photographed and documented. The records were then bound into 131 books containing approximately 30,000 pages and stored at City Hall.  And there they sat until recently when this remarkable, 88-year-old, newly digitized collection was made available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The photos take families with roots in Portland on a fascinating trip back in time to see the city their ancestors lived and worked in.  And for current residents simply curious to know what their Portland home looked like in 1924, a high-resolution digital photo attached to the record provides a clear and detailed picture of the building.

If the Portland collection consisted solely of photos, it would still be great, if not unique.  New York City also shares old tax photos with the public, as does Seattle.  But Portland’s inclusion of the reassessment documents online puts the city in a class of its own.

Each record contains the name of the property owner, the number of rooms and types of materials used to build the structure, its estimated age and general condition, and if a residence, how many families lived there.  There’s also a hand drawn sketch of each building’s footprint and dimensions.  The entire record is literally at your finger tips, easily searched by address, neighborhood, owner’s name and other categories and key words.

I’ve never been to Maine and have no ancestors from the area, yet I found plenty to do and explore on this website.  Trying to match the photo of a 1924 building to its 2012 address using Google’s Street View can be fun, and challenging.  Many of the old buildings no longer exist, and those that do often have added a room, enclosed a porch or have huge leafy trees blocking the street view, making it difficult to know if you have the right house or not.  But most of the time you will be rewarded with “Then and Now” pictures that show how the house and neighborhood have held up over the years.

As I was browsing the collection, one photo in particular caught my eye.  It showed five kids of varying ages playing in front of 41 Arcadia Street.  The tax form revealed that the home belonged to Carmela Cipriano.  Cross-referencing her name with the 1920 U.S. Census showed that she and her husband, Antonio Cipriano, a laborer on the railroad, lived on Arcadia Street in 1920.  The Ciprianos were Italian immigrants and had seven children by 1920, four girls and three boys.  I presume five of them are the kids we see in the 1924 photo.

I also looked up Carmela in the 1930 census and learned that she was living in the same house and now had twelve children, five boys and seven daughters.  It was a decade defined by the Great Depression that brought fear and uncertainty into households across the land.  It was an especially tragic time for the family living at 41 Arcadia Street.

According to the 1930 census, Carmela Cipriano was now a widow, with her youngest child just a year old.  One can only imagine the hardships she endured raising twelve children alone without Antonio.  But she and her family survived.  The 1940 census has Carmela and five of her children still living at 41 Arcadia Street.  Two sons worked at a canning factory and Carmela rented a room to a young married couple for $8 a month.  It’s the story of a family’s perseverance through hard times told here thanks to records now available online.

Visitors to the website may discover much more than they expected.  I found other photos among the collection that contain shots of people a relative might recognize.  Here’s a picture of a young boy taken outside 29 Arcadia Street, just down the street from the Ciprianos.  The tax record lists Ferdinando Fasulo as the owner.  The boy in the photo could be one of Ferdinando’s eight sons.  Hopefully, descendants of the Ciprianos and Fasulos will hear about the records of their old family homes and share them with their relatives.

Providing Internet access to the 1924 Tax Records is a group effort of the City of Portland, The Maine Historical Society, The Portland Public Library and The Maine Memory Network. But only about half of the books containing the tax records have been digitized and placed online.  More funds are needed to insure that the remaining books are added to the database.  If you want to help, please contact the project partners through their links above.

To access the 1924 Tax Records, click here.

Sandy Hits Close To Home

I’ve lived on the west coast most of my adult life, but was born and raised near the Jersey shore.  Many of my relatives still live in the area and none of them lost their home—or more importantly—their life in one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the east coast.  Despite the cold temperatures and lack of electricity for days on end, they endured, they survived.

Others throughout the region were not as fortunate and no words can comfort those who lost loved ones or watched helplessly as their homes and a lifetime of possessions were either swept out to sea or buried beneath soggy piles of debris.

Some of the saddest, most heartrending images of Sandy’s destruction were the people searching through the mud and the muck for their cherished family photos.  Not only had this monster storm wreaked havoc on their present and future lives, its mayhem also reached into their past.

Residents had no idea what they would find as they sifted through the scattered rubble that might contain bits and pieces of their former lives.  You could see the frozen resignation and stunned acceptance of loss on their faces, occasionally giving way to fresh tears of thanks as a piece of an old photo, like a hand rising from a grave, would catch their eye and be brought back from the dead.  A mud splattered picture of a son, a daughter or a parent smiling in happier times at a Thanksgiving dinner or flipping burgers on the backyard grill.

Stained and smeared, they may not look like much now, but any rescued image surely will be treasured and passed down to future generations, not only for who is in the photo, but for how it found its way back home.

Some who lost photos may be able to rebuild their memories using copies of pictures from family members who were outside of Sandy’s destructive path.  And going forward there will be more photos taken as families build new memories.  But for those who lost their homes, the physical building is gone forever.  Even rebuilding on that very spot will not bring the old house back.  There will be no new pictures of places once called home.  I’m reminded of that sad truth every time a natural disaster strikes.

Ten years ago my wife and I decided to sell our house and move into an apartment.  The boys were grown and the house was too much for two people.  We loved our home and wanted to remember it as it was when we lived there, so a week before the movers came I shot and narrated a video about the house, stopping in every room, every nook and cranny, every square foot of the house, inside and out.  California is no stranger to natural disasters, so a backup copy of that video is a thousand miles away safe with my son in Washington state.

I’ve also uploaded to the Cloud around 150 GB of recent digital and old scanned photos, my entire music library and most of the files on my computer’s hard drive.  In addition, everything is backed up on an external hard drive in case I ever need to grab it and run.   Still, some family memories remain vulnerable with way too many slides, negatives and photos yet to be copied.

Regardless of where we live, we are not immune to natural or manmade disasters.  The time to think about protecting your irreplaceable family photos is now, not as the water is rising or the ground beneath you begins to shake violently.  Two Wall Street Journal articles here and here can inspire and help you preserve your family memories.  And if you’d like to share pictures taken in or around a fondly remembered home, check out wikiHomePages.

There’s something special about the place we call home.  It’s our safe haven where we kick off the shoes we wear in the outside world, slide into a comfortable pair of slippers and lean back in our easy chair.  It’s where we close our eyes at night confident that when we wake up the next morning everything will be as we left it, as it was before.  Normal.  Hope all those affected by Superstorm Sandy return there soon.

Unclaimed Property

Researching and preserving my family’s history is very rewarding, in a personal sort of way.  What I didn’t count on, but was delighted to discover, was that my reward would also come in the form of dollars and cents.

1974 was a very busy time for my wife and me.  We began the year living in an apartment near Western Ave. and Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles.  By April, we had moved into our first house, a two-bedroom, one-bath, stucco home in the San Fernando Valley.

The house had an addition on the back, hardwood floors, plus a big yard and a pool, which made it one of the more expensive homes on the block.  The price: $27, 500. Seriously.

Finding the house, searching for a lender, scraping together the down payment, meeting with realtors, signing papers and shopping for new furniture, all combined to make the spring of 1974 one big, blurry whirlwind.

Fast forward to 2010.  That’s when I began work on, a website where people upload and post photos and stories of houses and apartments they or their family once called home.  As part of my research, I sorted through photos I had taken in and around my former homes and any papers I had saved pertaining to those addresses.

Seeing those street names and numbers again after so many years got me thinking.  I had heard stories about unclaimed property—money left behind in bank accounts and other abandoned financial assets—that sometimes get lost when people move.  I felt it was a long shot, but I decided to check it out.

My first stop was, a website that handles free unclaimed property searches for a number of states. I scrolled through a long list of people with my same name, but none of my old street addresses showed up.

California maintains its own website for lost property searches and claims.  I entered my name again and began scrolling through a list of L.A. addresses, convinced I was wasting my time.

Finding money is the kind of thing that happens to other people, not me.  And even if I did have cash due me, it would probably amount to one or two cents gathering dust in a long dormant checking account. So, imagine my surprise when up pops my old apartment address on Harvard Blvd.  An even bigger surprise was the amount due me: $284.40.

My “found money” was from an insurance policy that I cancelled early in 1974 while living at the apartment.  I recall being told by the insurance company that the policy had some cash value, but I didn’t expect it to amount to much.

Somehow the check was never forwarded when we moved to our new house.  There was so much else going on that year, that I simply forgot about it.

The next step to get the money took some time.  I had to fill out a lot of paperwork to prove my identity to the state of California and waited over 3 months for the check to arrive.  It took 36 years to bring me and my money together, but I’m not complaining.  Better late than never.

The total value of unclaimed property held by the states is estimated at over $32 billion.  If you’ve moved often, it’s well worth your time and effort to do an online search to find out if any of that money belongs to you.  And here’s something else to think about.  Unclaimed property is held forever.  As in Until The End of Time.  If you discover property belonging to a deceased relative—even one who died many years ago—and can prove you’re a rightful heir, you too could have a check headed your way.  Just remember to provide the state with your correct mailing address.  Especially if you’re in the process of moving and don’t want to wait decades for the check to catch up with you.

NYC’s Municipal Archives Online Gallery

New York City’s Department of Records recently launched an online collection of over 870,000 photos, maps, and motion picture and audio recordings from the last century.  Many of the pictures in the city’s Municipal Archives Online Gallery are tax appraisal photos of buildings taken from 1983 to 1988.  Browsing the website is free.

The photo below on the left is from the 1980s and shows the Brooklyn house where my father-in-law was born in 1927.  The picture on the right is the current Google Street View of the house.  You can buy an 8″x10″ print or a high-res digital file of a 1980s picture from the city for $45.

The Municipal Archives Online Gallery is an ongoing project with more photos being added on a regular basis.  And while I’m happy to have photos of buildings from the 1980s, I hope the city someday expands the gallery to include their tax photos taken between 1939 and 1941 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  You can order prints of those older photos, too, but it’s sight unseen, you don’t get to preview your purchase.  I ordered a print of my father-in-law’s house from the 1939-1941 collection a few years ago, but the city couldn’t locate the address.  They refunded the charge to my credit card, so it didn’t cost me anything.  Still, it was disappointing to wait for something that a preview search would immediately show didn’t exist.

The online gallery is a great resource for anyone tracing their family history in New York. But even if you have no ties to the city, you’re bound to enjoy browsing through such an accessible and wide variety of snapshots that document life during the 20th century in one of the world’s great cities.

New York City does an excellent job making high-quality photos of old homes available to the public, but they’re not the only one sharing their photo archives.  SeattleSalt Lake County and Portland, Maine also make their old tax appraisal photos available to the public.