"Hide your 'whiteness,'" was a piece of advice uttered to me just before we crept through an open field that was once filled with kids enjoying their recess from school. "What? Really?" I replied to our guide. This wasn't the time for debating Detroit race relations, the fact was that we were some out-of-towners in a high crime neighborhood where you apparently don't see too many white people. "You just want to attract as little attention to yourself as possible," I was told. Our group walked along what was once a sidewalk, now overgrown with weeds and grass, to the first stop of the day: George W. Ferris Elementary School - or at least the remains of it.
Highland Park is a city within a city, a Detroit suburb completely surrounded* by Detroit (It's also where the film "Gran Torino" takes place). Like its Motor City neighbor, Highland Park faced similar economic/social challenges and decline. After the 1967 "12th St. Riot," Highland Park began a steady fall. Automobile companies began leaving, crime rapidly increased, the tax base was gone and the city was out of money. In 2001, the state of Michigan disbanded the bankrupt municipal government and took over the city's operations. Neighboring Detroit provided Highland Park residents with public services such as police and fire. By 2010, Highland Park was back on its feet, reinstated as a city and began a "Return to Excellence" campaign. However, the financial crisis had left behind casualties in the form of modern ruins, the public library was closed and the city hall abandoned along with the police and fire stations (which we checked out last time). In the days of fiscal emergency that lead up to Highland Park's temporary collapse, Ferris Elementary was shut down and the students sent elsewhere.
The hallways were lined with debris thrown about by the scrap metal thieves who had torn this building to shreds. Peeling paint lined walls that bordered stairways covered in paperwork and dust. Drop ceilings decayed above empty classrooms and the cold wind from outside flowed freely through a building where very few windows remained.
Ferris has been built in sections between 1911 and 1925. Judging from the bland interior, I think it's safe to say that the building had been given a "renovation" sometime in the 1970's.
A stairwell lead us to a basement area, by the far the most beautiful section of the school. A courtyard, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass windows once provided a light well for students in the library and cafeteria.
For some reason, I've noticed my comrades and I have a tendency to be extremely quiet when exploring, often just whispering. Maybe it's subconsciously out of respect to the location, maybe it's because in some eyes we're trespassing or maybe it was because we didn't want anyone to know we were there with expensive camera gear. Ironically on this day though, we whispered back and forth in what had once been the school's library - a room where children had done the same, a room where no one had to be quiet anymore but for some reason we were anyways.
Books were gone from the shelves and all over the floor or packed up in boxes stacked waste high in a corner of the room. Slips of paper with student's names jotted on each line could be found amongst the leaves - a system that my elementary school also used for keeping track of who checked out what book and when.
I could've spent hours just looking through the boxes upon boxes of books, most of which were geared towards the elementary school kids who would've read them. Being here reminded me of the library in the basement of the Catholic grade school I had attended. The aging books we had were from the same era and we too used to write our names on note cards in back of the books. We left the library and headed towards the cafeteria on the other side of the courtyard, passing more remnants of the former school.
The cafeteria also once served the dual purpose as an auditorium. A room that had once been host to so many young lives' conversations and Christmas pageants was now covered in water, debris and destroyed vending machines.
Before we left, we stopped to see one last area of the school. Walking into the darkness, using a keychain flashlight to see, my eyes slowly adjusted. A spinning fan on the wall let in a small amount of light. The camera was set for a one minute exposure, revealing a warped gym floor, detailed ceiling and basketball hoops.
Assuming the school's last graduating class was in 2000 and it followed the traditional classification of elementary schools being grades K-5, that would mean the last kids to graduate from here are now the same age as me. The school I went to still operates to this day, I don't know how I'd react to seeing it in a condition like this. I wonder what the kids who went here would think of what's become of Ferris and what their memories of it are, I'd love to hear from someone.
Part 2: The Mighty Motor City - Part 2: St. Agnes/Marty's of Uganda
Part 3: The Mighty Motor City - Part 3: The National Theatre