Tomatoes & Eggs: A hole in my story

By Joel Thurtell

Back in 2005, while writing suburban features for the Detroit Free Press, I combined my historical training with my journalism profession and filed a story that merged colonial history with the story of Michigan’s oldest continuously working, family-owned farm.

It’s called Westcroft Gardens and specializes in azaleas and rododendrons. The owners are direct descendants of brothers William and Alexander Macomb, who purchased Grosse Ile from Potawatomi Indians on July 6, 1776.

A couple years after I wrote the story, I received an email from a colleague, Bill McGraw. Did I know, Bill wrote, that William Macomb owned 26 slaves at the time of his death in 1796? The evidence is contained in the inventory of William Macomb’s property, which can be seen at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.

I’ve written about how I hurried to the Burton, took notes and made digital images of the inventory and wrote a series of articles that attempted to recognize the presence of slaves on Grosse Ile.

None of this would merit much discussion had not the historians on Grosse Ile denied their community’s slave-owning past.

Their denial is stunningly egregious, because it also attempts to negate the incontrovertible facts that a slave — Elisabeth Denison — endowed a chapel on Grosse Ile; that a slave accompanied the corpse of a slain Union general and former Detroit Free Press editor when it was returned to the island; and that two captured fugitive slaves being held on Grosse Ile managed to escape from the island.

Here, with permission of the Detroit Free Press, is the story of Westcroft Gardens that caught Bill McGraw’s attention and led me to do further research into a subject local historians pretend did not exist — slavery on Grosse Ile:

May 12, 2005



By Joel Thurtell

Two brothers, Alex and Bill, had a big problem.

Their cronies back east, where the boys came from, couldn’t agree on who should run the country.

Should it be the immigrant German who called himself George III and thought he owned a big swatch of the New World?

Or should it be those upstarts with names like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, who wanted to dump the king?

Over in Detroit, the brothers Macomb pondered how to run a business when the king’s agents wanted to regulate shipping and collect taxes while a bunch of insurgents made war on them.

Making things worse, their dad, John Macomb, was rabble-rousing on behalf of George III, raising troops to fight the rebels and getting himself branded as a general nuisance.

Nothing for it but to bring dad west to Detroit and then, because business was business after all, plunk down some trinkets or whatever – it’s not clear what the price was – to buy a big island in that body of water the French called “le detroit,” meaning it’s a strait.

So it was on July 6, 1776 – two days after the rebels signed their Declaration of Independence from George III – that the Macomb brothers, William and Alexander, bought Grosse Ile. And, probably without intending to do so, established what is today Michigan’s oldest working farm owned continuously by members of the same family.

What does all this have to do with Denise de Beausset hefting a 25-pound bag of azalea food into a car trunk on Monday, bemoaning the previously cold spring that had kept her nursery’s prize azaleas and rhododendrons from blooming in time for Mother’s Day?

De Beausset is the owner-manager of the farm that was bought on July 6, 1776, by her great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, Alexander and William Macomb (“we say Macooooom, you say Macomb,” she quips)  from Potawatomi Indians.

The farm is 229 years old. And it’s now called Westcroft Gardens.

The brothers Macomb weren’t aware of what had happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. CNN and Comedy Central weren’t invented then. Besides, they were busy acquiring and selling land in what would be Michigan and Ontario, according to a book by Isabella Swan, “The Deep Roots, A History of Grosse Ile, Michigan to 1876.”

On a chilly day in early May of this year, Alexander and William Macomb’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter was busy, too, but her thoughts weren’t about buying islands or dealing with the vagaries of political rebellion.

She answered her cell phone with a hearty laugh: “How are you? We had ice this morning.”

The cold spring has slowed the blooming of the azaleas and rhododendrons for which Westcroft Gardens is famous, making it tough to move the plants outside where customers could view and, hopefully, buy them.

But around the nursery, magnolias and dogwoods were in flower.

As she talked about the events that led to her settling on the family farm, de Beausset, 50, led a walking tour of what remains of her ancestral farm. It’s down to 27 acres.

Pines; spruces; big, wild-looking azalea bushes, a raspberry plantation that struggles, and a virtual forest of trees now dominate an expanse that was flat and treeless until the 1920s, when the farm’s monoculture – hay – had to be replaced because of the advent of cars and the disappearance of trolleys and horses.

For de Beausset, it comes as something of a surprise that she’s managing the family farm, given that she majored in sociology in college and worked as an elementary school teacher in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

“I didn’t think I was going to be doing this,” de Beausset said.

Twenty years ago, she came back to the family farm and began to work casually in the nursery.

“I was a general laborer and then I became more and more interested, and started asking more and more questions,” she said. “The manager before me graciously backed out and said if somebody from the family wants to run it, it would be better to have it stay in the family. So, I took over and learned it by hook or crook. I took classes and became a master gardener and a certified nursery person.”

Just as de Beausset was transformed from a schoolteacher to a gardener, so the farm itself was converted after World War I.

The loss of hay as a cash crop created a crisis. And World War I evolved a solution.

His name was Ernest Stanton.

Stanton, who died in 1974, was de Beausset’s grandfather.

He was studying chemical engineering at Cornell, but left his classes to join the French ambulance service in World War I.

His lungs were damaged when he breathed German gas. Doctors advised him to find an outdoor career.

He studied horticulture and in the first years after World War I, he planted flowers and converted the hay farm into a nursery.

“In his travels, he fell in love with azaleas and rhododendrons, but it was thought they couldn’t grow this far north,” de Beausset said.

Stanton discovered that azaleas and rhododendrons could grow on Grosse Ile “by amending the soil,” she said.

“The soil in Michigan is very alkaline, very clay. If you amend the soil with Canadian peat moss and sandy loam,” it will contain the acid qualities that allow azaleas and rhododendrons to thrive, de Beausset said.

Stanton covered the ground with acidic soil and began growing azaleas and rhododendrons.

De Beausset still raises nine of the hybrid plants Stanton originated. “We grow our own azaleas from cuttings, and rhododendrons I buy in the rooted cuttings,” de Beausset said. “We do 10,000 azalea cuttings a year.”

This week, it was hot at Westcroft Gardens, but the azaleas still hadn’t fully bloomed.

De Beausset helped a reporter buy an azalea plant.

For a long ride home and several hours’ stay in a hot trunk, she advised selecting a plant that had not blossomed.

Cadmium red was the choice.

He bought the 25-pound bag of azalea food.

Two pounds after planting, two pounds after blossoming and two pounds in fall – with enough left over for several succeeding seasons, advised de Beausset.

“Cadmium red is bright red,” said de Beausset. “One of my grandfather’s hybrids.”

Just as Ernest Stanton solved the hay collapse problem, so his ancestors Bill and Alex figured out how to deal with the simultaneous demands of the British Empire and an American Revolution.

According to Swan, Alexander Macomb went to New York and cultivated merchants and politicians connected to the new Republic.

Meanwhile, brother William schmoozed with English pals in Ontario.

Says Denise de Beausset’s mother, Connie de Beausset, “They hedged their bets.”

Westcroft Gardens is at 21803 W. River Road on Grosse Ile. Call 734-676-2444 anytime. Hours vary by the season so call ahead.

Contact JOEL THURTELL at joelthurtell(at)

Caption: RIGHT: A bee checks out a Pieris japonica, an evergreen that loves the same acidic soil as the azaleas and rhododendrons that are specialties at Westcroft Gardens.  BELOW: A rhododendron blooms at the 229-year-old farm.


Denise de Beausset, 50, runs the farm that was bought  by her great-great-great-great-great grandfathers just two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed.



Publication: Community_Tabloid













Date: 5/12/2005





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free Press motto

Old Detroit Free Press motto:

“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.”*

New Free Press motto:

“A newspaper’s duty is to digitize, and enliven downtown.”

* Editor’s note: Oh, come on! This motto was coined by a onetime Detroit Free Press editor, but not for the Free Press. In 1861, former Free Press editor Wilbur Story used the “raise hell” slogan for the Chicago Times. We must be fair to the Free Press, which did not operate under the “raise hell” banner.

Posted in Adventures in history | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The lie under Matty’s ‘Twin’

By Joel Thurtell

I’m tired of writing that Matty Moroun can’t build his much-ballyhooed twin to the Ambassador Bridge.

By now, you’d think reporters would know that the city of Detroit owns the land on the US side of the Detroit River where he wants to build his new span.

But here we go again: The February 14, 2014 Detroit Free Press reported that Matty got an environmental permit from Canada for a new bridge. The newspaper failed to mention that the land where he wants to base the bridge in Detroit is in city-owned Riverside Park.

That’s what journalists call a hole in the story.

Big enough to hold a suspension bridge.

I’m re-posting my October 25, 2011 report on how the media are helping Matty trick people into thinking he can build a bridge for which he doesn’t own the land:


Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge and opposes the public bridge across the Detroit River, said Thursday he expects the Canadian government will now look more favorably on his company’s proposal to use private money to build a bridge beside the Ambassador.

— The Detroit News, October 22, 2011

By Joel Thurtell

What gives with Detroit journalists?

Matty Moroun’s plan for building a new bridge beside his antique Ambassador Bridge linking Canada and the U.S. is hot air.

The twin cannot be built for two reasons:

1) He lacks permits on the US and Canadian side.

2) On the U.S. side, he doesn’t even own the land he needs to site his so-called “twin” bridge.

If you don’t believe me, go over to Windsor and note how the bridge approach stops abruptly. Then, stop by the Detroit side and notice how the city’s Riverside Park abuts the Ambassador.

Matty needs park land to build the U.S. side of his twin, and Detroit officials have refused to sell.

If they were so foolish as to sell the land to Matty, there would be a firestorm of public outrage and most likely a barrage of lawsuits, given that state and federal money have been spent on Riverside Park.

Matty simply can’t build that second bridge.

So why do he and his son Matthew keep talking about it?

Because Detroit’s onetime daily newspapers lend his empty threat credibility by refusing to print that the twin is a fraud.

They give Matty’s propaganda machine a free ride.

Metro Times has written about the scam of Matty’s twin.

But I wonder: Why do the Detroit “dailies” keep giving this piece of crap a free ride?

The truth about Matty’s twin?

It’s a lie.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)


Posted in Me & Matty | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Being Black at UM

By Joel Thurtell

“Being Black at UM” was the headline over my March 31, 1985 Detroit Free Press article about the life of black students at the University of Michigan.

Almost 30 years later, Being Black at the University of Michigan is the name of a group of black students demanding improvements in the way blacks are treated at UM.

My article, “Being Black at UM,” was one of the most important and difficult stories I’ve written. I was a reporter at the Free Press for 23 years. I retired on November 30, 2007. I started as a general assignment reporter in the Western Wayne/Washtenaw Bureau on November 12, 1984. I was barely past my 90-day probationary period, lucky for me, when the Free Press ran “Being Black at UM.”

I got no cooperation from UM officials and after editing and publishing the story, the Free Press backed away under pressure from UM officials.

Though they were angry with me and the story after it ran, UM administrators refused to talk to me while I was reporting it. Even after I submitted written questions to UM Provost Billy Frye and Vice President for Minority Affairs Niara Sudarkasa five days before the story ran, they refused interviews.

UM administrators, it seems, believed that if they didn’t talk to me, the Free Press would go away. If they deprived me of the “balance” so cherished by journalists, we would not in good conscience run a story. That was a mistake. My account of black-white relations at UM was based on student and faculty sources, and official university publications that previously dealt with race. Thus, it was possible to be balanced even without quotations from high officials. Free Press editors believed that just because the bigshots kept mum was no reason to kill an important story.

We ran the story as scheduled in the Sunday Comment section of the paper.

The backlash was instant. Regents called the publisher and top editors of the Free Press to complain. On April 8, the University Record published a one-sided hatchet job. That’s right, after complaining — falsely — that I hadn’t asked them for comment, UM published a story bashing me, and didn’t bother asking me for comment. The U plays by its own rules.

The headline in the Record said, “Frye rebuts ‘biased Free Press article.” The subhead claimed, “Charge that ‘bigotry is in fashion’ wrongs U-M.”

According to the Record, “University efforts to improve black student enrollment and retention have been dealt a severe blow by what Vice President B.E. Frye describes as an ‘inexcusably biased’ article that appeared in the March 31 Detroit Free Press.”

“Inexcusably biased”? UM refused to talk to me despite my multiple attempts and a written request for interviews. UM created the potential for bias by withholding comment. UM assumed the Free Press would never print a story without their input.

UM officials told editors I failed to ask them for comment. I was chewed out for that, but I had proof UM was lying. On March 25, seven days before “Being Black at UM” was published in the Free Press, I called UM and asked to interview officials for the story. By March 27, having received no response from UM, I went to the administration building in Ann Arbor and asked to interview Frye and Sudarkasa. That was five days before we ran my story. I watched Sudarkasa through her office door as she told her secretary that she would not talk to me. I was ready to leave, but the secretary told me to wait. She apparently foresaw that her bosses were setting a trap for me. If we ran the story without their comment, they could say that I failed to ask them for comment and make me look incompetent and malicious. How could I prove otherwise?

So the secretary set a snare for her bosses. Five days before my story was published, she handed me a sheet of paper and showed me a typewriter. “Write a list of questions,” she said. I typed a list of questions. She said, “Take it back and type today’s date [it was March 27] and the names of Dr. Frye and Dr. Sudarkasa.” She made two photocopies. On one, she highlighted Frye’s name and dropped my list of questions in Frye’s in-basket. She highlighted Sudarkasa’s name on the other copy and dropped it in Sudarkasa’s in-basket. She handed me the original. Now, they could say I never contacted them, but that sheet of paper was proof that I sought their views in writing before publication.

A couple days after the story ran, I was called with my editors to the office of Kent Bernhard, the Free Press executive editor. I showed them the document that proved I’d submitted written questions five days before we published. That piece of paper saved me from being disciplined.

As I rose to leave his office, the executive editor remarked, “Next time, contact the university sooner. I’m tired of being treated like a nigger.”

On editors’ orders, I wrote one more story about race at UM — an unbalanced story based only on a belated interview with Frye and Sudarkasa.

Soon, I learned that the secretary who helped me was demoted. Eventually, she was laid off. I proposed to an editor that I write a story about it. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” the editor said.

In fall 1985, the Michigan NAACP gave the Free Press an unsolicited award for “Being Black at UM.” The civil rights organization praised us for daring to write frankly about the normally taboo subject of race relations.

The newspaper did not publicize the NAACP award.

With permission of the Free Press, here is my story, “Being Black at UM”:




Pub-Date: 3/31/1985



Text: Fifteen years after a major strike by students seeking increased black enrollment at the University of Michigan, black student leaders say the Ann Arbor campus still is permeated by racism. The university failed to attain the 10 percent black enrollment it promised,and the students question whether the school is doing enough to retain its minority students. They say U-M has so few black faculty members that black students can’t find suitable role models. According to a recent U-M survey, black instructors are 2.8 percent of the faculty. Many black students share the feeling that bigotry is in fashion on the Ann Arbor campus.

AS EXAMPLES, black students cite racist taunts, stereotyped attitudes toward black culture, an incident last October in which a watermelon was smeared on a black artist’s mural in the Markley Hall dormitory, and library and bathroom scrawls with racist phrases. Fueling the students’ ire are what they see as unresponsive and secretive attitudes among university administrators. That issue was raised anew two weeks ago, when the university refused to release a report by Associate Vice-President Niara Sudarkasa recommending measures to increase minority enrollment. Student government leaders filed a freedom of information request for the report, but Roderick Daane, general counsel for U-M, said the report had a “high probability of being misunderstood.” Sudarkasa, appointed by U-M regents to study a decade-long decline in black enrollment at the university, released only the report’s summary. It called for increasing university money for minority recruitment and financial aid, and eliminating standardized tests as a criterion for admitting minority students whose high school grades and teacher recommendations are good.

INCREASING BLACK enrollment became a university-wide commitment in Ann Arbor 15 years ago, when Robben Fleming,then U-M president, agreed to demands of the Black Action Movement to increase black enrollment from three percent to 10 percent. The school never achieved that goal. Black enrollment peaked at 7.2 percent in 1976 and dropped each year until 1983, when it hit 4.9 percent. By the fall of 1984, enrollment increased to 5.1 percent. Sudarkasa argued in her summary that “if the university could provide the financial wherewithal to enroll a critical mass of black students, there would be less complaints of alienation and anomie.” Her report did not mention dollar figures. But the school’s chief academic officer, Provost and Academic Affairs Vice- President Billy Frye, has recommended that the university spend $1.4 million a year more on minority aid by 1987, in hopes of doubling enrollment of all minorities. Frye and Sudarkasa, however, refused to provide information on what the university currently spends on minority aid. They also declined interview requests, and did not answer written questions the Free Press submitted.

SUDARKASA’S REPORT aimed to satisfy concerns of black students, but raised others. Roderick Linzie, minority student researcher for the Michigan Student Assembly, has posed this question: How can the university think of bringing more blacks to Ann Arbor when the chances are good that blacks now enrolled will never finish their studies? “Seventy percent of the black students who entered the university in 1976 had not graduated by 1980, compared to 53 percent of white students,” U-M sociologist Walter Allen wrote three years ago in the university’s magazine, LSA. “Needless to say,” Allen wrote, “academic difficulties are often rooted in problems of a different bent.” Allen’s study indicated that 85 percent of the black students “reported encountering racial discrimination in some form or other while at the university.”

THE STUDY also reported that 46 percent of the black students he studied said “they did not feel themselves to be part of the university’s general campus life.” “Subtle or otherwise, racial discrimination on the U-M campus does seem to pose major difficulties for black students,” Allen wrote. Racial problems also occur in classrooms, where white professors and teaching assistants can be “extremely racist toward black males,” said Barbara Robinson, who was teaching dental hygiene in Ann Arbor during the student strike and now is a counselor in the university’s Minority Student Services Office. A black student in a remedial class reported being told by a white instructor, “You can’t learn anyway, so I’m not going to waste my time.” That, said Robinson, “is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Linzie believes that U-M’s failure to recruit more black students and black faculty members — and its failure to keep them when it does recruit them — are major causes of an image problem that continues to plague the university.

THAT IMAGE gained national notoriety in 1982, when Brown University published “The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges.” “Relations with white students at this large, co-educational and liberal arts institution are ‘the pits’ . . . ” the guide warned about U-M. Sudarkasa’s summary emphasized the role of economic factors — for example, high unemployment and declining purchasing power among Michigan’s black families — as chief causes of diminished black enrollment at U-M. “The ‘image’ factor is far less a deterrent than the economic factors . . . ” it said. But in a story last year in the University Record, a publication for university staff and faculty, Frye acknowledged that officials were perplexed by the university’s image problem. “What accounts for the inhospitable image of the university and of Ann Arbor in the eyes of minorities?” asked Frye.

LINZIE, a sociology graduate student, said black students could answer that question, but that they can’t get university administrators to listen. He said increasing black enrollment would be pointless unless the environment for blacks can be improved. If the university can make blacks feel more at home at U-M, increasing the number of blacks who earn degrees, its image will automatically improve, he said. Black students now are confronted with a different kind of white student than they were in 1970, Barbara Robinson says: “Bigotry is coming back.” “A lot of them (whites) are very open about it,” said Cheryl Jordan, a black senior political science major from Detroit. In West Quad, an undergraduate dormitory, she said, “there are swastika signs on doors.”

MARSHALL STEVENSON, a black graduate student from Ohio studying Latin American history, also is troubled by the racist graffiti, most of which were removed last week. Two weeks ago, Stevenson showed a reporter racist slogans on the U-M campus. For instance, on the tan formica top of an Undergraduate Library carrel, someone has penned “kill niggers!” Not all of the epithets are aimed at blacks, Stevenson noted as he punched an elevator button. Inside the elevator, in large capitals, someone had written, “JAPS SUCK.” Other messages are anti-Semitic. Leo Heatley, director of public safety and services at the school, said he was not aware of the racist graffiti in the library, but that librarians recently have reported that some books have come back with racist sayings in them. “The first thing I noticed when I arrived on campus was the graffiti,” said Roderick Dean, a Russian and East European studies major from Louisville, Ky. “I was shocked. . . . That is much worse than the graffiti I saw in the South,” said Dean, who is president of the Black Student Union and editor-in-chief of Black Perspectives, a student newspaper.

LAST OCTOBER, a Markley Hall dormitory mural commemorating black struggles was vandalized when someone smashed a watermelon on the painting, said Valerie Robinson, a minority peer counselor at the dorm. Among blacks, the reaction to such acts is fear, said Dean. “It’s done anonymously — it’s just like a phantom who comes in the middle of the night,” he said. Stevenson views U-M as “an elite institution” which, by its nature, erects “certain barriers one has to cross.” “Even though we have civil rights, as white people view us, still in the back of their minds, it’s, ‘he’s a nigger.’ ” Jordan recalled meeting her roommate, a white student from outstate Michigan. The roommate’s first question, Jordan recalled, was, “Are you a Baptist?” That stereotype — that blacks all are Baptists — irritated Jordan, as did another remark: “Hi, gee, I’ve never had a black roommate before.”

“I DON’T GET outraged at it,” said Carl Butler, president of the Black Law Student Alliance. “Everywhere I go as a black person, I feel like I’m struggling for respect and dignity. I think what we see going on here at the university is simply a subset of what’s going on in this society.” “Those people’s experiences with black people have been limited,” said Butler, who comes from Louisiana. “To the extent I can help them experience black people now, I’ll do it. It’s part of the extra burden I carry as a black person.” Jordan objected: “Some of us do mind educating them.” Said Marvin Woods, president of the Minority Dormitory Council: “This university is run and set up to perpetuate a certain kind of thought process. Maybe it isn’t so much a color thing as it is just an ideology, and this ideology may be more comfortable for the majority of white students. . . . ”

U-M LIFE is geared to the dominant white culture, and “they’re not giving any credence to alternative world views or cultures,” Allen said. For instance, “blacks are evaluated by the same standards used to evaluate whites,” Allen said. “Everybody knows that standardized tests . . . are culturally biased. A person who is in the mainstream culture will do better on those tests.” Classwork causes pressure for whites as well as blacks, but having to deal with racism and isolation makes the overall burden for black students heavier, said Byron Roberts, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity, and a senior in economics and philosophy from Flint. The consequences of minor failures often appear far worse to blacks than to whites, said Walter Downs Jr., an electrical engineering student from Southfield. “A white person, when they mess up, they don’t look at it totally, they look at it like, ‘I’m partying now, but in the long run it will work out.’ Whereas, a black person, if they start messing up, (thinks), ‘I’m black, I must not have what it takes to get through.’ ”

BLACK STUDENTS have to take some of the responsibility, said Barbara Robinson. The university provides counselors for minority students, but, she asked, “Do they seek help?” In many cases, the answer is no, several black leaders said. “To some,” said Stevenson, “admitting a problem is admitting a failure. I came here with the perception in my first year as a graduate student that, ‘Wow, if I’m here, I’m going to have t produce this type of scholarship, and if I don’t, I’m a failure.’ Not every black student feels overly pressured. “My feelings toward the university are kind of mixed — good and bad,” said Dean. “I feel quite loyal and grateful to the university,” he said. “It has demonstrated to me that it is not the big, non-caring monster — I feel warm and welcome. There tends to be a genuine effort by the university to assist black students.” But, said Dean, “Only academically and intellectually do I feel good about the university.” Socially, in terms of his relations with other students, both white and black, Dean said his experience has been bad. “Being from the South, my experience has been that blacks always speak to other blacks — there’s a sense of community, a sense of warmth, a sense of family.” “Here,” Dean said, “blacks look away from you. “I doubt very seriously that I could endure the University of Michigan for my post-graduate education.”




Section: COM

Page: 1B




Posted in Bad government, Joel's J School | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Patterson’s wonderful bridge

As Canadian and US governments gear up to spend billions on a replacement to Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, another Detroit bridge project is largely unknown. Kenneth Patterson built a suspension bridge over the Rouge River with a few parts from a hardware store and lumber from a neighbor. When I read about a University of Michigan project to build pedestrian bridges overseas, I thought of how Patterson’s bridge brings people to his parties along the polluted and otherwise mostly hidden Rouge. Here, with permission from the Detroit Free Press, is the June 18, 2006 article I wrote about Patterson’s remarkable span.




Pub-Date: 6/18/2006



Text: Kenneth Patterson’s homespun bridge over the Rouge River in Detroit isn’t listed in any tour guide.

For grandeur, it can’t compete with the Ambassador Bridge. Nor can it match the mechanical wonder of the drawbridges on the lower Rouge River.

But Patterson’s bridge beats them all in two ways: It cost peanuts to build, and it’s the only suspension bridge on the 127-mile-long Rouge River.

OK, so it crosses only 40 feet of water.

For those who use it – mainly friends and neighbors of Patterson – his bridge lets people actually enjoy the Rouge River close-up.

That’s more than you can say for two nearby city parks. Just downstream from Patterson’s bridge, Eliza Howell Park and River Rouge Park were actually designed to keep people away from the water, according to Charles Beckham, Detroit’s recreation director.

For much of the past century, the Rouge was too polluted, too potentially disease-laden, for people to play in or near it. Even today, though it’s much cleaner, the Rouge is still unfit for swimming – or even boating because of all the junk in it.

The river itself causes other problems besides pollution for home owners such as Patterson. His yard drops a good 10 feet nearly straight down to the river, which bends sharply east from its more-or-less southerly course, heading toward Patterson’s backyard before swinging south again as it passes a wooded flood plain a little east of Telegraph.

The river has carved 10 feet of property from Patterson’s lot in the decade he’s lived in his little yellow house on Iliad Street.

“I knew I was going to go over to the other side when I first moved into the house,” said Patterson. “I just had to figure a way to do it.”

From his backyard, where he likes to grill chicken over charcoal on a sunny afternoon, Patterson could look across the river at that flat, shady area.

Great place for a party, he mused.

Neat place also to watch the deer and the ducks.

So he went to a hardware store and bought some U-bolts and some 17,000-pound test cable.

A neighbor sold him lumber.

Patterson, 45, is not an architect. Nor is he an engineer. He works two jobs driving a bus.

He sized up a pair of trees in his yard, guessing they’d be sturdy enough to make anchors on the east bank. A second pair of trees across the river would serve as anchors on the west side.

He slung a pair of cables between the trees, using the U-bolts to attach wooden slats between the cables. The slats are to walk on.

Above the first pair of cables he hung a second pair of cables. They’re for holding onto.

Now, the roughly 40-foot span swings as he slowly walks across it, grasping the wobbly, makeshift handrails.

A pair of Free Press staffers discovered Patterson’s bridge last June  while paddling a canoe up the Rouge for a special report on the river’s condition. In 27 miles, from Zug Island to 9 Mile Road in Southfield, the journalists found Patterson’s bridge – built two years ago – was the only effort to attract people to activities on the river.

With the bridge, Patterson has gotten to know the west bank of the Rouge.

It’s pretty unpleasant. People have used the river and nearby land as a dump. A city-owned dirt road leads north from Fenkell to a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department sewer outfall that disgorges human waste, sanitary napkins and condoms in rainy weather.

The city’s dirt road is littered with trash – bricks, shingles, old furniture, cast-off asphalt, gas tanks from old cars and many other repulsive items. The stench of dead animals hangs over parts of the lane. From this little road, it appears, people have rolled cars and even an old sailboat into the river.

Walking north from the end of his bridge, Patterson has seen five junk cars in or near the river. South, near the Fenkell bridge, two more old car hulks lurk, he said.

Feral dogs roam the woods. But the bridge has expanded Patterson’s social life. He gives parties in the forest on the west side of the river for neighbors.

On the Fourth of July and on Labor Day last year, he hosted bands, and about 200 people crossed his bridge to party down.

His world may expand further: Sally Petrella, public outreach coordinator for Dearborn-based Friends of the Rouge, is hoping he’ll enlist neighbors to help with river cleanup.

“I’d like to have a program to get neighborhood kids to clean that stuff up,” Patterson said.

Meanwhile, he’s planning more  shindigs.

Last year on Memorial Day, he had a sound system, even a DJ. An extension cord powered strings of holiday lights, and a green foil palm tree stood in the little camp.

Patterson’s friend, Anne Jones, celebrated her birthday there.

“I just had to have that palm tree,” said Jones, 42. “We had a luau.”

Her kids slept in tents.

“The kids love it – they call this their safe haven,” said Jones. “We close the gate, and it’s another world.”

Fearing pollution, the city keeps human activity distant from the river in Eliza Howell and River Rouge parks. Further downstream in Dearborn Heights’ Parkland Park, woods mask the river from activity areas.

But pollution doesn’t bother Patterson.

“I guess they look at it as a sewage system,” Patterson said of the river. “I look at it as something God gave us to enjoy.”

Contact JOEL THURTELL at 248-351-3296 or

Caption: Detroiter Kenneth Patterson, 45, heads toward junk cars and trash along the Rouge River that flows through the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit. “I’d like to have a program to get neighborhood kids to clean that stuff up,” Patterson says. Spanning the river behind him is the bridge he built, which leads to a flat area where Patterson throws parties.

Patterson peers into a Ford abandoned along the banks of the Rouge near his home. Nine junk cars, a van and a pickup were removed from the river and its banks during the 20th annual Rouge Cleanup on June 3.

In the spirit of can-do, the suspension bridge was constructed by Patterson with lumber sold to him by a neighbor, U-bolts and cable.

Kenneth Patterson walks through the trees along the bank of the Rouge River near his home in Detroit. The river has carved 10 feet of property from his lot in the decade he’s lived on Iliad Street.




Page: 1



Posted in Adventures on the Rouge | Leave a comment

California to reform school bond practices

By Joel Thurtell

California legislators are poised to enact a law meant to reform the way the state’s school districts borrow through Capital Appreciation Bonds.

Cabscam California was reported first on joelontheroad, which made the 1000-plus percent interest as proportion of principal in San Diego’s Poway schools a poster child for the evils of CABs.

While the proposed law would place limits on the way CABs are issued and would put a ceiling on interest, it would not ban the practice of high-interest borrowing my California municipalities.

It would still be possible for school districts to borrow at rates of interest as proportion of principal that so infuriated Michiganders 20 years ago that the Michigan Legislature outlawed CABs. The Michigan ban resulted from my reports in 1993 on how schools were turning increasingly to this “creative” form of finance with the false promise of “no new taxes.”

Taxes were only postponed by 10 years, with interest meanwhile compounding at times to nearly 600 percent as a proportion of principal.

In California, CABs would be allowed with interest as proportion of principal up to 400 percent. That is still an outrageous amount to charge. It sure upset people in Michigan when they found, or instance, that the $19 million borrowed by Lowell schools in 1993 would turn into $93 million when it came to make payments in 2003.

I warned of this failing in my speech May 10 to the California League of Bond Oversight Committees.

I realized after my visit to Sacramento that, while it worked in Michigan in 1994,  state-by-state reform of muni bond practices is not the way to kill CABs.

A federal ban on CABs similar to Michigan’s is the best way to approach reform of this nefarious form of muni debt.



Posted in CAB scams, Muni bonds | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Arming the Free Press newsroom

By Joel Thurtell

Detroit Free Press politics editor James Hill carries a pistol.

Hey, James — are you packin’ that gat in the newsroom?

It’s one thing to fend off attackers by pointing to your holstered pistol at a gas station.

But in the newsroom of a newspaper?

Well, I can see some sense to it: Your attackers might be enraged reporters and photographers. Not to mention copy editors who assault reporters, photographers and editors alike with their petty corrections.

Editors equipped with sidearms might enforce some much-needed decorum on news staffs.

Arguments about story length, placement in the paper, the very choice whether to run a story or not might quickly be settled with a subtle glance by the editor toward the handle of his six-shooter.

Wouldn’t newsrooms be happier, quieter and more productive work places if there were less bellyaching by reporters about everything from lunch expenses to whose name goes in a byline? A simple tap on a holster by the metro editor might forestall outbreaks of incivility before they get properly launched.

Wouldn’t that be a happy improvement?

There was a reason why Colt named its famous revolver “The Peacemaker.”

And yet, for all its merits, I see a downside to unilateral editorial armament.

There is no mutually assured destruction in having editors ordering story trims at gunpoint when their minions are unarmed.

That is an unstable, unequal state that cannot last.

The balance of power will shift, inevitably, because concealed carry laws were not made only for editors.

If James gets to carry his piece into the newsroom, what’s to stop reporters, photographers, copy editors and maybe even copy aides and editorial assistants from obtaining concealed carry permits?

The result might be newsroom parity. The editor could tap his holster all he wants, but his reporters will point to their own pistols.

But parity is unstable, too.

Reporters won’t be packing wimpy 40-caliber jobs like the one on James Hill’s hip.

How about a .44 magnum? One shot from that butt-buster would end the career of a grizzly bear, let alone a whining editor.

Bazookas, flamethrowers and howitzers anyone?

With an all-out arms race, editors could no longer count on a simple demonstration of weaponry to have their way. A reporter assigned a stinky story might do more than simply glance down at his or her holster.

“What? You want me to write obits for the rest of my career? How about a whiff of forty-five?”

Next thing you know, the affronted reporter has drawn her Glock.

My God! She’s aiming it at the editor!

Will he draw?

Will he back down, a sniveling coward?

Free Press editors do not retreat.

Whether the dispute is over a reporter’s claim for martinis at lunch or an order to re-write a story, a line must be drawn.

Discipline, order.

In its storied history, reporters from the Free Press once commandeered a National Guard tank and aimed its cannon at the rival Detroit News.

If James Hill has his way, the enemy will not be The News. This will be civil war within the Free Press.

The Free Press will need more than one tank, but even a regiment of tanks will be useless if reporters get their hands on cruise missiles.

Imagine a dispute in the Free Press cafeteria.

James “Han Solo” Hill is seated at a table, quietly munching a mayo and pickle sandwich.

I like James Hill. He is a good guy.

The menacing shadow of a dreaded byline-hunter darkens his plate.

(The encounter is recorded by a Free Press surveillance camera installed after lunchroom workers complained that writers were pilfering napkins and plastic ware.)

Nobody likes byline hunters. They are despicable characters. The world could use fewer byline hunters.

We can only root for Editor Hill.

The video will hit You-Tube.

It will go viral.

The question will forever puzzle journalism ethics classes.

Did Hill shoot first?

What next?

Nukes in the newsroom?

Posted in Joel's J School | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Crying wolf on the ‘chilling effect’

The dual revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations. Both were reported by The Guardian, while The Post, relying upon the same presentation, almost simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.

— The New York Times, June 7, 2013, “US Says It Gathers Online Data Abroad”

By Joel Thurtell

This can’t be happening.

According to the Times, “someone” described by The Washington Post as “a disenchanted intelligence official” leaked to the media top-secret information about government surveillance of Internet communications.


Why, if we believe the media, all this hoopla about media surveillance has frightened government officials from leaking for fear they’ll be prosecuted.

It is what the media calls a “chilling effect.”

Now we’re told by the very propagators of the “chilling effect” concept that some intelligence official had the temerity to leak.

Brave fool he, or she.

Leaking in spite of the chilling effect!

These disenchanted officials need to stop this. Right now!

They are making liars of the media.

If people are still leaking to news reporters, what happened to the “chilling effect”?

Was it a lie put out by the media as part of a self-serving campaign to gain a constitutional right that doesn’t exist?

Protection of so-called confidential sources and the ability to refuse to testify in court cases are privileges long sought by the media as part of a campaign to enhance their ability to publish allegations without attribution.

And, yes, in some cases the allegations might be lies.

Lies that nobody can rebut because the liars — media — wouldn’t have to tell us who told them the lies.

That is what the so-called shield amounts to — protection against revealing who the media’s liars are.

Selling that elitist goal to the public requires that the media paint themselves as protectors of the public good. The public good requires there be government leakers who nobly come forward at personal risk to spill the beans. If those noble leakers stop leaking, so the media mythology holds, the public will suffer from not knowing about all the bad things the media have let us know the government is doing.

But if leakers keep leaking, as seems to be happening, then the “chilling effect” is revealed for what it is —  a piece of propaganda manufactured by the media to push their agenda.

The Times wants it both ways — there is a “chilling effect” which is scaring leakers into their holes, except when they come out of their hideouts to leak to The Times.




Posted in Joel's J School, Subpoenaed reporters | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Fox 2 plans re-do of 2005 Free Press canoe trek

Up the Rouge! Written by Joel Thurtell, Photographs by Patricia Beck. Wayne State University Press, 2009.

By Joel Thurtell

A reporter and a photographer paddling the Rouge River over five days in the first week of June, renting their canoe from a Milford livery and refusing help from establishment environmental and river friends groups. Their aim — an independent look at a little-noticed, much-maligned piece of wilderness in a highly urban setting.

Sounds like what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”

Eight years ago, the Detroit Free Press sent a reporter and a photographer on that mission. I was the reporter. Patricia Beck was the photographer. Over five days — 60 hours — Pat and I bullied a canoe over or around 72 logjams, one dam and what was left of three other dams.

Joel Thurtell

Free Press readers got a two-day series of articles and photos that showed the reality of a river that 95 percent of the time was too laden with E. coli to be safe for human contact. The series won the Water Environment Federation’s 2006 Harry E. Schlenz Medal for achievement in public education. In 2009, Wayne State University Press published a book written by me with Pat’s photos: Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River. Up the Rouge! was a 2010 Michigan Notable Book choice of the Library of Michigan.

Now Fox 2 reporter Charlie LeDuff has arranged to rent a canoe from Milford-based Heavner Canoe  & Kayak Rental for five days starting Monday, June 3. 2013.

I’m surprised it’s taken this long for TV to figure out there is a great urban adventure story in the heart of Metro Detroit. But it takes more than a canoe to make this trip. It also takes time, and a willingness to make the sometimes strenuous effort needed to overcome obstacles in the form of logjams, a strong oppositional river current and the rise and fall of a river so “flashy” that its depth can change by 10 feet within 24 hours. Along the way, the Fox 2 team will treat television viewers to sights most people would never see otherwise. As it wends through some 127 miles of Detroit and suburbs, the Rouge and its tributaries are shielded from view by a tree canopy and often hidden by steep, slippery banks.

Sometime Monday morning, staff from Heavner Canoe are scheduled to deliver two canoes — an 18-footer and a 17-footer — to LeDuff and a cameraman. The plan is for the Fox 2 canoeists to put one of the canoes into the main branch of the Rouge River at Nine Mile and Beech in Southfield. They will have to decide whether they want the longer canoe for its greater capacity to store equipment, or the shorter vessel for its ability to maneuver over or around obstacles.

The pair will paddle downstream, heading for Zug Island where the Rouge meets the Detroit River. They will be followed by Fox 2 people on shore whose job, presumably, will be to photograph the duo from land and to lend a hand if the adventurers get into trouble. They may be surprised to discover that some parts of the Rouge can be problematic to access from land.

Pat and I did not have extra help. Heavner staff delivered a canoe to us at the start of the day and picked it up when we were finished. For those hours when we were paddling, we were on our own. No need to go into further details — read Up the Rouge! for that.

I first heard about this project late in April, when Charlie LeDuff called with a proposal that I take part in a kayak trip he was planning on the Rouge River. He’d heard that I canoed the Rouge a few years ago and had written a book about it. Was I interested in collaborating? It might help sell a few books, he said.

Well, I always want to sell books, and I like to encourage use of the Rouge. So I agreed to meet him on May 6. But I urged him to plan his trip for a later time when stream flows historically are lower. With its logjams, the Rouge is a dangerous place to canoe at any time, but more so at times of high water. In fact, even now I hope Charlie monitors the river level following the torrential rains of the last few days. If water is high, he might want to delay his trip in the interest of safety. Pat and I picked the first full week of June because, according to USGS stream flow charts, the river would have enough water to float our canoe but would not be swollen with spring runoff. If we waited till July, parts of the river might be too shallow.

Sounds like Charlie acted on my advice.

I suggested Charlie re-think his idea of using a kayak. We needed the open canoe for Pat to have easy access to her photographic equipment. Just as important, you can move in a canoe, and often that was necessary when we were obliged to haul the canoe over logjams. I can’t picture getting in and out of a kayak dozens of times at logjams.

Charlie has ordered a canoe from Heavner. Sounds like he listened to my advice on that point, too.

Apparently, he wasn’t sold on our idea of paddling upstream. Canoeists like to paddle downstream, getting help from the current. We did just the opposite, by design. The title of our book, Up the Rouge!, is based on our decision to paddle upstream, starting at the river’s mouth. It was Pat’s idea: Early explorers and settlers began at the mouth of the stream and worked their way upstream. As latter-day explorers of the Rouge, why not go up the Rouge? Turned out there was an advantage we had not considered: If you paddle downstream, you encounter ugly messes of debris and foam before arriving at a logjam. If you come to a jam from downstream, your approach to the jam is clean. It’s easier to see the challenge; it’s easier to maneuver the canoe’s bow against the jam and from that point begin the job of disembarking, lifting the canoe and working it over the mess.

I’m curious about why Charlie chose Nine Mile and Beech as a starting point. After five days of canoeing the Rouge, Pat and I took the craft out of the river about 9 p.m. Friday, May 10, 2005 just below the bridge over Nine Mile Rd. near Beech in Southfield. That is the point at which Charlie plans to put into the river. But Nine and Beech was never part of our design. We were aiming for Telegraph and Civic Center Drive in Southfield. But we were given five days for the project, and by the time we reached Nine Mile and Beech on Day Five, our time was up.

If Charlie read Up the Rouge!, he would know that for the last half mile or so downstream from Nine Mile the river was too shallow for the canoe. We got out and pulled it.

Here’s a thought, Charlie: If you launch the canoe at the bend alongside Southfield’s Beech Woods Golf Course, you can avoid a possible dense logjam at Hole Four.

Charlie may have forgotten something else I told him: After our 2005 trip, I purchased from Heavner Canoe the 13-foot aluminum canoe Pat and I used for four of the five days of our trip. The 13-footer is lighter and more easily lifted over or around logjams than the heavier 18-footer we used on Day One. Nowadays, Heavner doesn’t have 13-footers. Their shortest canoe is a 17-footer. I told Charlie we could use my 13-footer. He wouldn’t have had to rent a canoe — mine would be free!

The last I heard from Charlie was on May 3. He called to say he was too busy to see me and canceled our May 6 meeting. But he still wanted me to help plan his Rouge canoe trip and be on camera for parts of it. I suggested he call me after I returned from a speaking engagement in California. I urged him to think about going in June. He said he would call me May 15.

I suggested that meantime he might want to read Up the Rouge! for its detailed instructions on how to organize a Rouge River canoe expedition.

Hmmm. It’s June 1. No call from Charlie.

Guess Charlie doesn’t need me.

And yet….

Tell you what, Charlie — Here’s some more free advice. You want to go on a five-day Rouge River canoe trip, right? Well, bosses being what they are, you might not get all five days, given your downstream plan starting from Nine and Beech. This is a tactical error, Charlie. You have limited the distance you can travel to 27 miles maximum to the river’s mouth. What if the high water and fast current propel you to the river’s mouth before your five days are up? Are your editors going to let you paddle around Zug Island for a day or two looking at freighters and barges and blast furnaces? Or are they going to tell you, “Enough of this fun; go cover the murder du jour”?

If you want to get the max out of those five days, reverse your plan, Charlie. Why aim for Southfield? Aim for Beverly Hills! Better yet, Birmingham!

Start your trek at Zug Island, Charlie, and paddle your canoe Up the Rouge!












Posted in Adventures on the Rouge, Books | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bait and switch for press ‘freedom’

By Joel Thurtell

Would some wise person in the media please explain to me how the government’s surveillance of The Associated Press’s phones translates into a new push for a so-called federal “shield” to insulate mainstream journalists from subpoenas?

Somehow, news of a government inquiry into leaks to The AP has morphed into an urgent need to extend non-existent First Amendment privileges to select reporters.

Who would benefit from this confusion?

Oh, I guess the same people who would have benefited if the US Supreme Court had bought their argument in the 1930s that the National Labor Relations Act guaranteeing union rights did not apply to newspapers because, so newspapers claimed, “freedom of the press” meant freedom from unions.

Or it might have been the same people who argued, again in the same time frame, that the First Amendment exempted newspapers from paying federal taxes.

At various times, newspapers have argued they should be exempt from child labor laws that would have regulated paper carriers, pure food and drug laws they perceived as a threat to advertisers, the Sherman anti-trust law that banned newspaper monopolies, and a post office law that required sworn statements — that is, the truth — about circulation.[1]

“It’s all about me” is the real core value underlying newspapers’ seemingly high-minded call for protection from subpoenas.

Newspapers and now, by extension, news media, would like the right to collect information from whomsoever they in their exalted wisdom deem a fit source without having to reveal to lowly mortals where their sacrosanct data came from. As with child labor, unions, taxes, food and drug laws, the news media would like to be subjected to a separate standard of quality which is no standard at all.

Is the source credible? Let us decide on our own, cry the media. We have the First Amendment, therefore, butt out.

Did we verify our source’s information by testing it against information from other sources?

Hey, we don’t have to do that. We are the media. Trust us — we have our standards.

What are our standards? None of your goddam business. First Amendment.

From a practical standpoint in news gathering, such a privilege relieves journalists of responsibility for making sure what they print is accurate. Oh yes, there still are libel laws, but when it comes to defamation, again thanks to press litigation, the government faces tougher standards of proof than regular folk.

It’s all about journalists — some journalists, that is — being somehow better qualified as citizens than the rest of us and therefore endowed with a special right not to respond to court demands for evidence.

I say “some” journalists, because the proposed federal shield law would exclude all but credentialed journalists. In other words, bloggers like me would go to jail for refusing to give up sources, but reporters from media outlets deemed acceptable by this nefarious bill would have a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

What makes a reporter from The New York Times or, say, my hometown Plymouth Observer, better than me?

Why do those “credentialed” reporters get to thumb their noses at federal judges when, other facts being the same, I would be sent to the slammer?

In my view, we all should be sent to the slammer for showing contempt of a federal court’s need for names or information.

I’m not in a bargaining position here. I’m not willing to shut up if the word “blogger” is added to the proposed legislation.

I just don’t see what makes a “credentialed” journalist somehow superior in moral or personal quality to ordinary citizens who are required to give evidence in civil and criminal cases.

And please don’t try to feed me that “chilling effect” garbage.

Show me evidence that the number of sources — leakers, whistle blowers — has somehow diminished as a result of government prosecutions. There is no “chilling effect” – for better or for worse, leakers with their own lofty or sordid motives will always be there for reporters.

In future columns, I’ll discuss why so-called “press freedoms” are derived from the “freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment, while the “free press” clause is an empty bag. And I’ll report on a singular case where the Obama administration has seen fit not to prosecute government officials who illegally leaked federal grand jury information to a reporter. Yes — I’ll be writing about the Ashenfelter-Convertino case again.

But first, will someone please help me understand how government surveillance of some AP phones equates to a sudden strident call for exempting mainline reporters from giving evidence that all other mortals are required to provide?


[1] Theodore L. Glasser, “Objectivity and News Bias,” in Elliot D. Cohen, Ed., Philosophical Issues in Journalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, p. 178. Branzburg v. Hayes (No. 70-85) and No. 70-94, 358 Mass. 604, 266 N.E. 2d 297, affirmed; No. 70-57, 434 F. 2d 1081, reversed., 1972,, pp. 8-9.






Posted in Bad government, Joel's J School, Subpoenaed reporters | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment