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Trading Tree Houses for Abandoned Buildings: Holiday Time in Detroit

Here’s to all Detroiters who have stuck with the city. And to new memories for Detroit. Merry Christmas.

My parents were Detroiters. They lived in downtown Detroit for years, but like so many others, fled to the suburbs soon after the riots in 1967. That meant I grew up a few miles from the city limits—far away enough to feel like an outsider, but close enough to feel the city’s pull. Thankfully, Grandma refused to leave and lived in the city for most of her life, which meant Christmas for us was a Detroit experience.

Grandma Ewing lived in Northwest Detroit, at 18049 Faust Street, on a modest, working-class block dotted with identical brick row houses. My dad grew up there in the 1950s and remembers playing hockey at the pond across the street with bands of boys with names like Noonan and Sullivan. By the time I was a kid those families were long gone and Grandma was the only white lady on the block. (My first black friend, April, who lived next door to Grandma often told me so.) She was well-liked, and no-nonsense and tough as you’d expect a Detroiter who had raised four boys on her own to be. I always hoped her grit would rub off.
Christmas night at Grandma’s Detroit meant an aluminum tree with flashing lights and rivers of tomato sauce—as well as very loud arguments between my dad and his brothers about the price of steel and potential financial ruin for all. They owned a manufacturing business that serviced the auto industry, and the 1980s were tough on suppliers. Talk of Japan’s rise and products like the Sucker Rod or the T Bolt were common over scotch and nut roll. As a child, I did not know what these words meant, but somehow I knew they were crucial to the future of everyone in the room.
When the gloom and doom business scenarios were exhausted, conversations sometimes turned to our parents’ memories of Detroit in the 1960s. Mom and dad would recall La Plaisance, their high-rise apartment in Lafayette Park that overlooked the Stroh’s brewery sign. They had parties with bottles of Cold Duck champagne in the bathtub and drank high balls and anything else that required Vernors. Shopping took place at J.L. Hudson’s department store, where the elevators had operators and the restaurant served salads with celery seed dressing.
I finally got a chance to live in Detroit for a year, in 2010, while making “DETROPIA,” a documentary about the city and those Detroiters who refuse to leave it. One of the subjects we follow is Crystal, a vibrant 20-something who makes a habit of going through abandoned buildings in search of the rich history of her city. We suburban kids may have had tree houses, but they had the vacant buildings to explore, she told me. She’d enter these old palaces with her flashlight in one hand and a book about Detroit’s history in the other—finding along the way old photos, wigs, 8 millimeter films, and party invitations printed on heavy paper. She’d climb to the top and sit in old kitchens, looking out the giant windows, panes long gone. “I have the memory of this place when it was bangin'," she used to say.
I know the feeling. Here's to all Detroiters who have stuck with the city. And to new memories for Detroit. Merry Christmas.
Heidi Ewing is a filmmaker living in New York. Her latest documentary, “DETROPIA,” is still in theaters and will be released on DVD January 15. For information go to\n

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne


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