Many people have distinct recollections of the Derecho Storm (which I thought was a hurricane) of July 16, 1980. An impression I am getting from most of the stories were that people had never seen the sky turn a deeper, more depressive shade of green than they had ever seen, either before or since.
Were it not for a loud, electronic smoke detector in our house, I would have slept through it.
I did awaken to a banging sound coming from my window, and recognized quickly it was a significant rain event. However, anticipating our annual family vacation a day later, I was too lazy to arise and see the event for myself.
Then, one huge gust of wind, a loud CRUNCH at my window, and a smoke detector emission later, all was quiet, as most stories have told. Our power was out, which I would have guessed given the outdoor commotion. However, one look at the backyard told me something was indeed out of sorts: our freshly-planted green ash tree in the backyard was uprooted and standing to its side. Half of our cyclone fence lay on the ground. And the crunch I had heard was half our TV antenna detaching itself from its rooftop prominence and smashing into my window.
Fearing neighborhood-wide damage, I finally awoke, along with my parents, and we took a look outside at the street. Surprisingly, all the houses looked intact (they were, at the time, only two years old and built to "last"). But no one on the street had power.
Neither did the neighborhood adjacent to ours. Or the one next to it. It seemed the entire city of Southgate was completely in the dark, even though I had awoken to sunny skies. The Derecho (the weather service's official name for what had hit us) had left as quickly as it came upon us. I had seen green skies only three times in my life, and this was not one of them due to my excessive slumber.
Our biggest concern though was the lack of power; not only to the kitchen appliances that needed it, but to our sump pump downstairs. Being one of the first neighborhoods to require pumps, any pump down longer than a day could result in a basement backup. Somehow, Schafer High School (behind us) had power, and we borrowed a 200-foot extension cord from their shop department, ran it over the downed cyclone fence, and operated our pump, which had about ten minutes' worth of water to drain.
We ended up delaying our vacation by two days, but we could not cancel the trip, having invested heavily in lodging and other preparations. It actually took a great deal of convincing ourselves not to cancel, and two days later, we were on our way to Canada.
What I saw on northbound I-75 just froze me, and explained why we had not had power for three days: all the high-voltage power line pylons were knocked down like dominoes north of the Southfield Road exit, piled next to a train that had been blown off the tracks. Taylor and other suburbs Downriver had incurred more severe damage, as the Ecorse Drive Inn was among the casualties.
To make a long story shorter, it was three days into the vacation before we finally had a "While You Were Out" sticker given to us by the hotel front desk. From our neighbors: "Power back on, everything okay. Don't worry."
I was still too young at the time to realize the extent of the damage done to our area by this fast-moving derecho. But the downed pylons off I-75 were cleaned up by the time we returned the following week; the metal pylons replaced by wooden ones. Observe the pylons on the west side of I-75 between Northline & Outer Drive some time -- when you see the metal ones turn into wooden ones, there is the proof that the 1980 derecho hit and made a permanent mark.
Through the years, there have been many home improvement stores, large & small, general and specialty, to have dotted the Downriver landscape.
In the earlier days the names were more mom-and-pop oriented. Pine-Cashway. Sibley Lumber. Church's Lumber. Mans Lumber (which still goes strong today). And in Monroe County, Wickes Lumber. Here we detail what may be the first "big-box" home improvement store Downriver, Forest City.
It is interesting to note, although the company name has vanished from the landscape for nearly 20 years, the company is still in business. More of that below.
Forest City had two Downriver locations, Southgate & Taylor, dating from the 1960s into the early 1990s, but the chain had its beginnings in 1922 as Forest City Material, began by the Ratner family in Cleveland, which was a contractor (and not retail as yet) supplier. A sister company, Buckeye Lumber, was formed by brother Leonard Ratner about the same time, and by 1929 the two companies combined operations as Forest City Enterprises, still concentrating on the contractor market and gaining a specialty in designing and building garages.
In the 1930s, the Ratner family began dabbling in real estate, acquiring some parcels in the general Cleveland area while still growing their lumber business. During World War II, they began building pre-fabricating housing and also helped supply building materials for some of the nation's first strip shopping malls.
The Forest City format we remember best came into being by 1955, as the company converted their lumberyards into customer showplaces; among the first major lumber companies to go do-it-yourself. By the mid-1960s, two Downriver locations had been built and in operation: Telegraph Road south of Ecorse in Taylor, and Eureka Road in Southgate next door to the old South Lanes bowling alley.
Competing with small chains like Cashway and Sibley, Forest City stood out for a generation of home builders and improvers as the first main, big chain of stores. The company, though, continue to diversify their investment moves as, by the 1970s, they owned seventeen shopping centers and 39 apartment buildings throughout the country.
It wasn't until the mid 1980s that local competition began to intensify. Church's Lumber moved into larger quarters in Lincoln Park, replacing the old Spartan Department store at Dix & Champaign. The new kid on the block, though, was Builder's Square, a spinoff of the K-Mart Corporation (slogan: A Square Deal That's Right For You), which immediately gained a fervent following for those seeking alternatives to the aging Forest City stores.
Having continued rapid success in the real estate development business (the University Park project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology now among its biggest projects), the company decided to sell off their home improvement chain to an upstart Illinois company, Handy Andy. The transaction was complete by 1987 and the stores renamed by the following year.
Competition continued to grow in the Downriver area, as by the early 1990s, a third chain, Home Quarters (HQ) Warehouse built a superstore at Northline & I-75 in Southgate. The city now had three major home improvement chains at one time. Struggling to keep up in the fast economic times, Handy Andy filed for bankruptcy protection and, by 1995, was out of business, vacating the two Downriver stores it owned.
The Taylor store remained vacant for several years, eventually housing a Haunted House provided by the Taylor Jaycees, and was demolished by 2005. The Southgate store saw new life after a few years with the incorporation of A.J. Wright, a dollar store, and Salvation Army thrift store.
Forest City Enterprises continues to this day, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, still operating on its 1930s hunch into real estate. As they continue to build, one likely wonders who provides the building supplies for them in this day and age.
Off Telegraph Road between Van Horn and Vreeland Roads, at the point where Brownstown, Flat Rock and Woodhaven all converge, resides one of Downriver's largest mobile home parks, Deerfield Estates. A quiet, secluded area at its construction, and again today, there was plenty of unrest among its residents in the late 1980s, as the contamination dangers at Petroleum Specialties, Inc. became distressingly apparent.
Located on Peters Road south of Van Horn, PSI was a small petroleum processing and storage facility, one of three located Downriver back then (Marathon in Melvindale and Socony in Woodhaven the other major producers). Given the type of damages eventually found on site, the facility was not in production for that long; having opened in the 1930s and closed by sometime in 1964. With a storage capacity of 17 million gallons, the property lay abandoned for nearly twenty-five years, all its contaminating fluids still in place, seeping into the groundwater and making for a hazardous situation.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources began examining the blighted property in the summer of 1989 and came up with the horrifying results: Petroleum open to the air, several toxins, asbestos, cyanide, PCBs, and chemicals leaking from electrical transformers still on the property that the occasional urban explorer had access to. With the Deerfield Estates property now extended east (and an access road built from Peters Road), the dangers to the community became all too well-known.
The PSI lands and property, though not in operation since 1964, was still in control by the company under Marvin Fleischman when the initial case was presented in 1991, ordering the company to provide funds and means to clean up the site (as had been done at the old BASF South Works plant site in Wyandotte in the 1980s). The case progressed, as PSI did not satisfy the Department's demands in a timely manner. MDNR pressed suit by November 1991, while PSI counter-sued. All the while, nearby residents began witnessing the horrid smells eminating from the property on hot summer days.
Finally, by the mid 1990s, judgement was rendered and the property underwent the beginnings of a massive cleanup which took several years, with thousands of truckloads of chemicals and equipment removed from the site. The various outbuildings, leaking electric equipment, lagoons, and other structures have been removed from the site, the soil treated, and the property secured by a more suitable barrier. A motorist driving by the site today does not take note of, and perhaps will not recall, the facility which has been closed nearly 50 years but, most unfortunately, had a sticky story which lasted much longer than it should have.
In my opinion, this was a heart-felt letter to the editor written by News-Herald staff on June 19, 1985, addressing the then-deplorable condition of the railway viaducts running above Eureka Road near Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte. Every year when the Wyandotte Street Fair would roll into town, Eureka, as the major east-west street, would be traveled by thousands of visitors, most of whom were likely appalled by the condition of these viaducts. This one may have been the one to finally get the ball rolling and now, of course, they are well maintained with the help of Roosevelt students.
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness" goes the adage. Certainly, it ranks with Mom and apple pie
... However, one blemish on the face of Downriver is the Eureka Road viaducts in Wyandotte. The weedy growth and graffiti combine with the aging train bridgework to make for an eyesore.
Wyandotte Mayor James Wagner has said that since Eureka is the only major east-west thoroughfare in the city, motorists and pedestrians are confronted with these unsightly conditions. In fact, Eureka is the principal east-west road Downriver, feeding right into the heart of downtown Wyandotte, where an array of ethnic festivals, shops and outdoor events... attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
... This problem is more than just that of the city ... It is that of Wayne County, which is supposed to maintain Eureka, a county road, but only cut weeds by the viaduct for the first time this year earlier in the month (June). It is also the problem of Roosevelt High School, whose students use the viaducts as a hangout, sometimes to throw junk at passing cars or to deface the aging structure with graffiti.
Also at fault are the railroads, whose trains have caused wear and tear on the five viaducts beyond their age.
(Mayor) Wagner has called for a meeting of all the parties involved. Pressure should be brought to bear on the county to maintain the viaduct area regularly... Wyandotte Public School officials ought to consider ways to limit access to the viaducts from the Roosevelt parking lots.
... For far too long now, men and women with responsibility have let the viaducts go to seed. However, the Project Pulchritudes (a Downriver cleanup project of the time) of the area have proven infectious in heightening community awareness.
If our civic and business leaders make good on their concerns by restoring the viaducts to their original condition, we suspect the graffiti-mongers will take their activities elsewhere."