Poor old Delray has seen better days. At its peak in the 1930s, the Delray neighborhood of Southwest Detroit numbered over 23,000 residents, and pictures from that era show vibrancy and activity that is only imaginable today. Currently, that same neighborhood has about 2,700 residents, and many of the once beautiful Art Deco commercial buildings lining West Jefferson Avenue are now boarded and in need of major repair.
On my recent ride through the area, I noticed most of the residential side streets have a limited number of occupied, old frame homes that seemed to have taken on an ashen hue. It was clear to me that at one time, those same streets were once jammed with houses where immigrants from Eastern European countries such as Armenia, Hungary and Poland once lived. Unfortunately, most of the area reminded me of a ghost town. Not a western ghost town with tumble weeds blowing about, but an urban, industrial ghost town tucked into a small, isolated section in a vast city that covers 140 or so square miles.
However, there are subtle changes happening in Delray today. These are positive and noticeable changes to the landscape, as compared to a year ago when I last rode my bicycle through that bruised chunk of Detroit. Sure, heavy industrialized Zug Island, at the mouth of the Rouge River just below Jefferson from Delray, is still home to huge steel mills that have operated there since the early 1900s. Thousand foot ore carriers and train engines pulling hopper-cars still work their way to the island to feed raw materials such as coal, iron ore, coke and other elements to the mills in order to keep them humming along.
The Detroit wastewater (sewage) treatment plant, the largest of its type in the country, continues to operate around the clock, purifying our waste water before it is released into the Detroit River. Many of the heavily, burned out and wide open blighted commercial buildings I saw just last year lining W. Jefferson (the main road through the old village of Delray) have been knocked down and carted away. However, a few of the secured classic Art Deco commercial buildings from the boom times of the 1930s still survive; waiting patiently for new life that will, no doubt, never come.
I was also encouraged to see the few remaining viable businesses from last year’s bicycle journey, such as a hardware store and a tavern or two still holding on. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the surrounding abandonment of the commercial strip. Plus, the once heavily populated residential streets are only a remnant of what they once were, with many open fields having replaced row after row of small frame houses that are today nothing more than an image in a photograph.
Even the air quality seems to be better. I remember a time when chemical and other industrial smells overwhelmed the area, but much of that throat-drying stench is gone. Nevertheless, the combined aromas of the wastewater plant and the chemical odors of Zug Island can still stimulate the sense of smell in unusual ways. Rambling through poor old Delray is far from a casual stroll through a rose garden in full bloom.