Silent Night: the El Moore reflects on its revival

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I’m not quite sure why they chose me, but I’m glad they did.

After all, I am hardly the only building in the neighborhood in need of some extra care and attention. There are quite a few of us who fall into that category, and over the past few decades those numbers have only grown. And that doesn’t include those who have been reduced to rubble. I can still remember those early years just before the turn of the 19th century and for several decades afterward when I was considered something special – we all were – and the people who lived inside my rooms were special as well. There was always so much hustle and bustle. I miss those days quite a bit.

Then again, perhaps ‘special’ is not the word I want to use. Because having a lot of money does not automatically define someone as special, and my early occupants most certainly had more than enough money to live comfortable lives. But even as times changed, because times got so much harder in Detroit and in the Cass Corridor, and fewer and fewer of my residents were wealthy, there remained a number of very special individuals that I enjoyed having around. They never knew it because, well, it’s never been a particularly good idea for buildings to speak out loud to their occupants. Doing so tends to spark a rather dramatic reaction that’s not good for business. I know this because I tried it once and who knows where that tenant ran off to except that he disappeared that very night and was never seen or heard from again. So taking that as an unfortunate learning experience, I decided that the best way to appreciate a tenant was through small gestures that they would never suspect, like keeping their room a little extra warm at night.

I had hoped that some of those gestures might somehow keep my doors open, that somehow I could continue to be a special and welcoming place in a neighborhood that was becoming less and less of both of those things. Unfortunately I was unable to hold back the tide of circumstance  and I was barren for a total of 15 years. Still, anxious to at least be of some use, I allowed the pigeons to take up residence on my fourth floor. There were nearly 100 of them, and I do recall how we would spend the holidays together as they would sit on the broken window sills and coo at the Christmas moon as it shone through my windows, providing light and some small measure of hope. I may not have been fit for human habitation any longer, but I could still offer shelter to these poor creatures.

Still, the absence of human companionship could never be replaced by a flock of birds.  I can only describe the feeling of desolation as a slow death of sorts, similar to how a person might feel if left stranded and helpless in an open field over the course of years as one body part after another was removed, and fed only enough to witness his own destruction and decay.

Gruesome. I know.

And so tonight, on this very special Christmas of my rebirth, I prefer to think back to that very first Christmas of 1898 when the Christmas trees were brought to my door by horse drawn carriages. There were no electric lights to be had for decorations, and all the ornaments were actually hand-painted. The fireplaces inside were all lit, but the warmth came from something far  greater than fire could ever provide. And as I marvel now at my new body, more than a century later, I know that I have much to be thankful for. I can see the beginnings of a new Detroit through my new windows. I can feel the heat pulsing once again through my newly restored veins. I have had the good fortune of getting to know a wonderful crew of construction workers and builders who have taken extraordinary care in bringing me back to good health. Plus they have even grown accustomed to my occasional commentary and have resisted the urge to flee screaming into the night when they hear my grunts and groans. Some of them have even engaged me in conversation, going so far as to solicit my opinion on some of the changes they were making out of respect for the fact that it was me they were changing.

And this is what I would call special.

But what is particularly special is the feeling I get when I see the changed expressions in the eyes of passersby as they look at me now. For so many years I have felt ashamed, sometimes even wishing I could hide somewhere to avoid the pitying stares and worse. I have seen too many others give up, or simply fade away. So I never thought this day would come when once again I am beginning to feel somewhat special. It’s quiet inside, but this time it’s a good sort of quiet, anticipating the new residents who will be arriving in just a few short months and will call me their home.

And wondering what sort of Christmas it will be next year…

About Keith Owens

Keith Owens is a freelance writer, columnist, blogger and musician whose most recent work has been featured in Model D Detroit, BLAC Detroit, and the national political affairs blog PoliticusUSA. He has also published three novels through Detroit Ink Publishing (www.detroitinkpublishing.com), the eBook publishing company he co-founded with his wife, Pamela Hilliard Owens. Keith and Pam live in a 100-year-old home in the Historic Boston-Edison District a few miles north of the El Moore.

El Moore