CBC S1 E2: Detroit- A Day in District Five

Nov 15, 2020

Collage of COVID victims created for Detroit memorial. (Used by permission of artist)
Credit Eric Millikin

"It's like you woke up one morning and gravity was gone." In one of the poorest large cities in America, the fight against the virus took resourcefulness and resilience.

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From mid-March into April, Detroit was an epicenter for COVID-19 in the U.S. The coronavirus dealt Michigan a massive blow, the punch landing in Wayne County.

Rochelle Riley is the Arts and Culture Director for the City of Detroit. She said,  “By the time this was announced as an outbreak and then a pandemic, I had lost eight people in a week, not family members, but I lost eight friends.”

It wasn’t a fair fight. The median household income in Detroit is less than half the national level. Over a third of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Until recently, Detroit had the dubious distinction of being the poorest large city in America.

Cynthia Butler is a local volunteer.  “Everything in our communities is cheap, fast, not as healthy as it can be.”

There was so much we didn’t know then about prevention and treatment for COVID-19. That combination of ignorance about the virus and extreme poverty made the outcome predictable.

The Very Reverend Barry Randolph said, “There was a feeling of guilt- Do I got to work and if I go to work can I get COVID and bring it home, but I need to take care of my family at the same time.”

Friends died. Family members died. Neighbors died.

Pastor Robert Olive said the inability to grieve with families was one the worst aspects of dealing with the virus. “It was the first funeral I ever experienced on Facebook.”

The virus was winning.

Church of the Messiah

The sanctuary at Church of the Messiah Episcopal Church in Detroit's District 5.
Credit Steve Burger

If you want to interview Church of the Messiah pastor Barry Randolph, you might have to appear on his daily radio show. True to his word, I was allowed to take up some of the air time with my questions.

Question: “Were there any instances where someone caught the virus from another family member and the sort of stress that causes?”

Randolph said,  “Oh my god, yes. There was a couple things we found out. One, a lot of Black and Latino families live in intergenerational families. Most people live together and it's a very strong, tight family unit. But part of that is not just because everybody love each other, it’s out of necessity.   So sometimes, you may have parents who are working, and a grandparent is taking care of the children because that’s cheaper. What would happen is one of the parents- most of the time they were working low pay jobs, and they may be working in the service sector. Grocery store, home health care worker, nursing home, things like that. And you got parents who have to do that to take care of their families. They’re going home after being in a high risk situation in the public, and this is their job and they go home and they may have COVID and it infects the grandparent or sometimes even the child. We were dealing with people who were making these really hard decisions and it did affect them and their lives and their livelihoods. Some people did lose a parent or spouse.” 

I was in Detroit to report on District Five, an area of historic neighborhoods that runs east and west just north of the downtown area. I visited two organizations, Church of the Messiah on East Grand and Lafayette, and the Cass Community Social Services organization on West Rosa Parks Boulevard.

To all who know him, he’s Pastor Barry. The Very Reverend Barry Randolph has been the priest at Church of the Messiah for the past eighteen years. His work helping people out of poverty landed him in the 2019 class of Michiganians of the Year.

In a mostly older, rich, white denomination, this Episcopal congregation is sixty percent black males under the age of thirty.

As the cultural and assistance hub, the neighborhood turned to the church during the pandemic.

Robert Olive is associate pastor at Church of the Messiah. He said,  “We went from a thousand, fifteen hundred meals a week to twenty three thousand meals in one week. The good thing about it is that we ran that race with endurance and there were good people who was truly dedicated and understand the big picture.  It was more of a selfless thing and we just kicked it into overdrive.” 

Pastor Randolph continued,  “It was something that I was glad that we did, but we did not expect the need to be as great as it was, so thank God that we worked with Eden Farms, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, World Central Kitchen was amazing. And then we were working with other churches. It was a good collaboration of people working together. The need has not stopped, but at least that coalition was there at the very beginning, dealing with COVID. The other issue we were dealing with COVID was keeping peoples’ spirits up. Which was really kind of difficult because there were so many people who were literally terrified because of pre-existing conditions, things like diabetes and lupus and sarcoidosis and lung problems. These people had to really, really be careful and we spent a lot of time keeping morale up.  It wound up being a lot, but I think we did a pretty good job of rising to the occasion and there were a lot of other churches and community groups working with us, so it wound up being an incredible experience that I don’t want to ever have to do again.”

Associate pastor Robert Olive and Pastor Barry remembered the early  days of the pandemic.

Whatever the neighborhood needed, the church delivered.

Dwight Roston is a long-time member at Church of the Messiah. He said,  “What I saw was a large amount of people gather selflessly to help others. And this is like Robert said, it’s regardless of whether we think you have COVID or not, we’re going to bring food to your house because we know you need the food.”

Resilience

There is a quality I observed in Detroiters that can only be described as resilience. COVID brought the city to its knees, but when I visited in early October, I was struck by the hardiness and strength of these people who have seen so much misery during the pandemic.

I got a hint of where their resilience may come from as we finished a tour of Church of the Messiah in what’s known as the Sunshine Room. Pictures line the walls and cover every surface. Pictures of parishioners and others tied in some way to the church who have died. As Roston rattled off the names and stories of those remembered here, a truth emerged.

“This is Hardy. Hardy used to be one of our members, and Hardy is the reason we do so much work as far as mental health is concerned. Hardy had a mental illness and pretty much got into an altercation with another man who didn’t know he had a mental illness and the guy killed him. This is Serena. Serena is Nikki’s Ginger Tea, her cousin, and she was a victim of gun violence. Next to her is Paige Stalker, so Paige Stalker was not from this community or this congregation. She was from Grosse Pointe and in solidarity with their community, Pastor Barry held a march just to bring attention to the fact that she had been murdered. So, we keep her picture in our church as a memorial as well. Keon was another one who was a victim of gun violence, but he grew up in this church from a very young age. His mother and father still come to this church.”

In the Islandview neighborhood of Detroit, COVID is not the only way to die quickly and alone, it is merely the most recent.

Roston put it in perspective. The pandemic is just a another form of what the residents of District Five face every day. He said, “For me, I think it would be how short life is, or how abruptly it can end. A lot of the people I’ve known in the past year,  whether it’s been COVID or whether it’s been something else, none of them with the exception of my granny who was 89 years old, none of them thought that death would be anything that they would be experiencing any time soon. Yet, when it comes, it’s very quick and very abrupt.”

Resolve

For many Midwestern states, the graph of coronavirus cases looks like waves with several peaks. In Detroit, it looks more like a ski jump hill with a huge crest early in the pandemic, and then a fairly flat line extending to now. Just like the rest of the Midwest, Detroit is seeing an increase in coronavirus cases as the weather gets colder and people move inside. But the curve is much flatter and nowhere near the devastating months of March and April.

Rochelle Riley is the Arts and Culture Director for the City of Detroit. She said,  “Initially, there was just a humongous sense of grief, because once again, when America gets a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia. And, we were just thinking this cannot be happening this way. I can tell you I’ve never been prouder to work with folks who immediately took this seriously, and decided we were not going to be the poster child for not handling this right. One of the sort of controversial things that has just driven me mad is that if you do have something that you’re living with that makes you a weaker person, when you get the coronavirus, you are somehow not a COVID victim, as if, well, you were going to die anyway. That’s not the case. It’s very horrible of people to think that way. But that was what happened to us early. We had a lot of people who were not a hundred percent. So when COVID struck them, we had more deaths than you would have in other cities.”

Riley  makes an important point- officials took the virus seriously early and despite suffering devastating losses, they were unified in their response. They respected the virus and came together to fight it. Riley says it’s the reason Detroit’s coronavirus curve peaked early and has stayed relatively flat while other cities and states have experienced several peaks and face a bleak winter season ahead.

Cass Community Social Services

If you take the John C. Lodge Freeway from downtown to the opposite end of District Five, take the Webb Street exit and go south to Rosa Parks Boulevard, you come upon an old brick building with a small sign proclaiming it as the home of Cass Community Social Services. That’s where I met Faith Fowler, who’s been executive director for over a quarter century. 

Cass serves the poorest of the poor, requiring a different type of memorial for COVID victims.

On a walking tour of the Cass facilities, Fowler said, “So this is the park we created. The nice thing about it is that it has a place for a campfire and horseshoes and swings and we do picnics out here all the time. But in that corner over there, you’ll see a fence. In that fence are little bits of colored glass as if they’re stained glass and that’s our memorial park. During the pandemic, we’ve had two memorials out here for people who have died.  So, folks can spread ashes of their loved one- most poor people get cremated instead of buried so there’s no expense to people. It creates a place to go for folks to mourn and to be together outside which is obviously safer.”

Tears shed over the ashes of a loved one in a place meant for laughter and picnics. You get that a lot in Detroit right now- deep sorrow ever present among the details of daily life.

Fowler continued, “Now, I’m here to tell you, I’ve never been so proud of our staff, because they kept coming. They pulled extra shifts, they did dirty jobs, they had family members who were dying. They came the day of their death, they came after their death. Now, they couldn’t visit in hospital or have funerals, but still I’ve lost family members and I’m not sure I would have had the heart, the will, the soul, the gumption, the reserves to come and serve others the way they did, and yet, they did."

Artist Mary Aro

I wanted to finish my reporting on District Five on a high note, and I found one in the form of visual artist Mary Aro, who lives in Grosse Point now, just north of Detroit, but there is an ongoing tie to District Five in her story. I caught up with Mary via Zoom on a special day.

SB: “I guess Happy Birthday greetings are in order."

Aro: "Yes, ninety one today.”

Aro is an accomplished artist who often uses found objects in her work. Mary’s daughter Karen Shephard was in the room when Mary described how the practice of taking objects home to paint had an unfortunate consequence a couple of years ago.

Aro recalled, “I was going to do one of medium sized rocks and that’s how I had my automobile accident. I had the rocks in the back of the car and I didn’t bring them in at the end of summer. One of them gradually worked itself forward under the brake. I went through an intersection. I could not stop. There were two cars in front of me so I swerved around them and into a house. That stopped me from painting for awhile, and driving.”

No one was seriously injured in the accident, but Mary stopped painting. Until, and here’s where the District Five tie comes in, a woman named Beth Sutherland saw Mary’s painting of a crushed can one day and told her she liked it. Beth is a nurse at Henry Ford Health Systems.

Mary said, “This winter, my daughter had a party at her house.  Doctors and nurses were there. One of the nurses loved my beer can painting. I was so pleased that somebody liked my art work so I got my paints out again and painted her a picture of her favorite beer can which was Bud Light. Then, COVID came along, and I began to think about the trash that might be- what kind of trash might be out there with COVID. People were going on walks a lot, my family was going on long walks. I said if you see any interesting cans, pick them up for me. So, they did that and they found all kinds of things- a cigarette package, Pepsi can, Red Bull, Corona, Dorito’s. So these were the kinds of things that people were bringing back to me to paint.”

According to Karen Shephard, Henry Ford is considering displaying Mary’s COVID objects series in the hospital. And, at ninety one years old, Mary is taking photos of doctors and nurses for possible paintings in a new series of pandemic heroes.

After the year we’ve had, I think we’re all rooting for her to do it.