DETROIT -- Bobbie Zeweke, a well-built sassy blonde, would often find it comforting to drive by the old place on Grayton Street even if the house was a wreck, burned and stripped naked by scavengers and dope addicts.
So imagine her surprise when she was watching television last week and saw her childhood home, a Cape Cod at 11819 Grayton on the far east side city, being demolished. Play the video.>>
“That was my home,” she said, standing at the hole where the house stood until last Friday when it was torn down by the city, the 3000th under Mayor Dave Bing. The city celebrated with a news conference. Bobbie just cried.
“It was a wreck, mom,” her son Rob said with comfort. He drove her here to take a last look. He purposefully left his wedding band and wristwatch at work. She had a hammer in her purse. “It’s better for everybody this way,” he said
“Not for me,” she answered, trying to hold back the tears. “Those were my memories. Those were my ghosts. I can still see my brother standing on the front lawn in his police uniform.” View photos of house>>
She could have been my mother standing there. My mother had a little flower shop on East Jefferson. A single parent, she supported five children from that store. In late October 1983, someone burned it down. We were a senseless victim of Devil’s Night. That’s when my mother turned her back on the city.
A house is just four walls and a roof -- more or less -- unless it was your life that was lived within them. Or it was the porch where you got your first kiss. Or it was the basement where your father fashioned crucifixes out of palm leaves for Easter Sunday.
Looked at in this way, 11819 Grayton was more than brick and board, more than a victim of the wrecking ball. It was a testament to a family, to the American way of life and to the city of Detroit, which created them. And for that reason it is worth remembering the story of the people who lived here.
Stephen Strauch and Cecelia Komora were young immigrants from Central Europe who made their way to Oliver, PA, a hard-scrabble coal-mining town. Both sang in the Catholic choir there and he passed a note intended for another girl. Cecelia intercepted it and thought it was for her. Long story short: they married in 1918 and had six children and raised them in a slat board house owned by the mining company. The shack had no electricity, no plumbing and an outhouse.
When war broke out in 1941, the Strauchs, like hundreds of thousands, moved to Detroit. They rented a two-bedroom flat with a leaking roof on Raymond Street off Gratiot. It let for $36 a month. That place too is gone. In fact, the whole block has been razed.
“We slept on the floor,” recalled Bobbie, a 76-year-old saleswoman at Macy’s. “But it had a bathtub and rusty faucets, I remember that.”
Her father went to work in a chlorine plant and then Chrysler. Her mother went to work in the Jefferson plant building B-29 bombers, a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Three of their sons went off to war.
By 1948, Detroit was home to 1.9 million people. The fortunes of post-war Americans were soaring and it was no different for the Strauchs. They purchased the house on Grayton for $5,000.
“I remember the shiny faucets and a bathtub that went all the way to the floor. I was overwhelmed,” Bobbie said. “When people complain in America, I can’t understand what they complain about. Nobody’s living in a coal miner’s shack.”
There is an interesting footnote on the original deed worth noting: “None of the lots...shall be sold, leased, occupied owned by any person not of the Caucasian or White Race for a period of 99 years.”
Bobbie married that boy who kissed her on the porch and moved to what is now Eastpointe in 1956. Her mother Cecilia stayed on Grayton until her death in 1990. Stephen passed four years earlier. They are buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township.
And despite the restrictions in the deed, the house was sold. It changed owners a handful of times. It fell into disrepair. Then it burned.
“Junkies. Junkies. Junkies,” Bobbie said. “It’s gone, but it’s still here. At least to me. Detroit gave us so much. It’ll come back one day, I hope.”
And with that Bobbie got back into the car with her son and was gone.