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.

Looking Down From Above

One of my favorite features of Google Earth is the Historical Imagery view.  It lets you turn back the clock to see what the same area on the map looked like from the air years ago.  While Google Earth offers historical views of anywhere in the country, many are relatively recent, while others go back only as far as the 1980s and 1990s.

Google Earth is still a fun destination with many great features, but I’ve found another website that I prefer to use while building house histories on offers a bird’s eye view of streets and homes from as far back as the 1920s in some areas.  A killer feature lets you slide or dissolve to compare aerials from different time periods.  That is really cool.

The color photo on the left of the split screen is a 2005 aerial view of my first apartment in Los Angeles.  On the right is the 300 block of S. St. Andrews Place and Manhattan Place as they appeared in 1948.  What today is apartment building after apartment building was once a row of tidy single-family homes with lawns, trees and driveways.  Switching to other years and moving the map around, I can also see how the surrounding neighborhood has changed from when I lived there in 1972.

The only thing I don’t like about these old aerial photos is that I can’t get enough of them, they don’t cover the entire country.  But is adding new, or should I say older, aerials every day.  You can view them for free online, but with watermarks.  If you see a family home or other must-have photo, you can purchase a clean copy from their website.

Horseshoe Romance

One of the most important street addresses in my family’s past is in Jersey City, NJ.  My maternal great-grandparents, Patrick Ryan and Delia Donnellan, came to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1880s and settled in Jersey City’s Horseshoe district, an area teeming with Irish immigrants.  Patrick and Delia were married in 1891 and had six children when 37-year-old Patrick died suddenly of tuberculosis.

With the money from Patrick’s small life insurance policy, plus the little she had in savings, Delia opened a candy store at 581 Grove Street and moved her family into the apartment above the shop.  My grandmother, Mary Ryan, was the oldest daughter and worked in the store after school.

A young undertaker, Lee Thompson, worked at the Thomas F. Carey Funeral Home next door at 579 Grove Street. It was the perfect location for him.  He had a good job with a bright future at the funeral home, and a candy store just steps away to satisfy his sweet tooth.

The June 10, 1910 edition of The Jersey Journal is filled with headlines of murder and mayhem.  “Woman’s Body In A Trunk Sunk In Lake” “Murdered Man Found In River” “Penitentiary For Boys Who Attacked Girl”

But tucked down in the left hand corner of the page was this non-violent headline. “How a Romance of the Horseshoe Ended.” Anyone reading the short article soon discovered how off the mark the headline was. It had nothing to do with a romance ending. Quite the contrary. It was the story of how my grandparents met, fell in love and were soon to be married.

Lee and Mary Thompson celebrated 61 wedding anniversaries together until they passed away in the 1970s. Who knows how their lives would have turned out if Delia Ryan had rented a shop blocks away from 581 Grove Street and its next door neighbor? Would Lee’s and Mary’s paths have ever crossed? Would my grandfather have found his sweets–in every sense of the word–someplace else? The one thing I do know is that I wouldn’t be around to write this post.

That little store with the apartment upstairs was much more than an inanimate building. It was a real-life matchmaker that played a pivotal role in my family’s story. Unfortunately, the building was torn down years ago and I’ve never seen a picture of it. Here’s what you see of the location today on Google’s street view.

581 Grove Street would be somewhere along the sidewalk on the left, across the street from the Home Depot. The entire block sits between the entrance and exit lanes of the Holland Tunnel. The pointed spire in the background is St. Lucy’s church where Lee Thompson and Mary Ryan were married on June 22, 1910.

Many of our priceless family homes have been torn down and replaced with roads, parking lots, new houses or apartments. That’s life. There’s nothing we can do about that. What we can do is take the time and effort to preserve the aging photos taken in and around our old homes. If not for ourselves, then do it for future generations before the photos fade beyond recognition or are lost in some future move. And if anyone knows where I might find a photo of the original buildings along the 500 block of Grove Street, please let me know.

3D Maps Soar to New Heights

Last week, Google introduced its “next dimension” in 3D mapping software.  This week, it was Apple’s turn to rollout their latest 3D maps.  And from what I’ve seen, both companies have a lot to shout about.  Their crisp 3D images are nothing short of spectacular.  I definitely like what I see from an eye candy point of view, even though I’m not sure what practical purpose 3D serves in helping me get from point A to point B.  Then again I didn’t understand all the hoopla over HDTV at first.  These days I feel like someone’s messing with my pursuit of happiness when I’m forced to watch non-HDTV.  Maybe I’ll also view 3D maps as a birthright someday down the road.  For now, though, they are cool.  Very cool.

Speaking of cool maps.  At, when you click on a residential address, up pops a visual history of the home, containing photos and stories contributed by former residents or their descendants.  These unique time capsules show what the house or apartment looked like in the ’30s, ’50s or ’80s.  You’ll also discover the very personal role the homes played in the lives of those who once lived there.  Now, that’s what I call a new dimension in mapping.  Check out the future with a look into the past at