The Ever-Blowing Winds of Change

Gary with Lakewood tree, July, 1969. (Photo by Robert Rice)

Having just been walloped by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy, I thought that when we finished chasing down our garbage cans and recovering our porch furniture, we might remember one of Lakewood's other major storms from the last century with this updated reprint of a classic "Pulse of the City" column.

A while back, I wrote a column about Lakewood in 1969. I suppose that year set the stage for many of the changes we are living with today. In many ways, that year changed everything. Just about anyone alive at that time knew it too. Much of what is remembered as "the '60s decade" transpired in that year, or soon would. It was also quite a time for this young writer, who was about to graduate from Lakewood High School.

Let's step back in time to those 1969 Lakewood streets. You would have seen a city much different from today. Giant elms, sycamores, and maple trees stood along the serene tree lawns of Lakewood's side streets, lending cool green shade and a womb-like sense of security and peace to the residents. Most impressive of all were those elms, with their V-like branches reaching heavenward and overarching the nearby homes, providing the illusion that every street was in its own little world. Many of those streets had not yet been paved with asphalt. They still retained their red-brick luster. While that made for slick driving during the rains, and bumpy moments for our bicycles, the overall effect was much like that of a halcyon, idealized portrait of front-porch middle America. Milkmen home-delivered daily milk to your home chute. Ice-cream trucks, bicycle-borne knife sharpeners, and fruit vendors all advertised their presence by pleasant bells and plaintive calls.

Many of those moments were captured by the family's fantastic Polaroid camera, a fold-out black-and-brushed-metal affair that you also had to manipulate with a multi-step process of cocking it, clicking the button, pulling out a little paper, and carefully pulling out the picture as it was squeezed through metal rollers. You then set a timer and waited. If the photo was black and white, you had to carefully coat the print with a jelly-like substance after you pulled it away from the backing. It was amazing how Dad got the great pictures that he did. It seems as if there was more time for all of that stuff back then.

There was also time to get on my Sears J.C. Higgins Flightliner bicycle and enjoy a ride. That red-and-white vehicle gleamed like a space ship, with its twin headlights, fancy horn, and comfy seat. Let's take an idealized bike ride into the past, shall we? Because that time that I just wrote about? You know...that time frozen underneath that jelly-swathing of Dad's old Polaroid pictures? It was about to run out.

First, that's me over there on the front porch, with those funky black horn glasses, plucking out a folk-rock tune on my little acoustic guitar, accompanied by a good friend. Anyway, we finish our jam session and I put my guitar away.  It's after rush hour now, and it's time to take the bike out. I had yearned for one of those new 10 speed racing bikes when I was younger, but Dad seemed to feel that the Flightliner's big balloon tires and coaster brakes would be safer for me. That Flightliner's fenders and center tank had finally been stripped away, so that it would be as light as possible, but I still found it hard to keep up with the other guys on the block. Before long, I bought my own 10 speed. Maybe I even had one by that time, I just don't remember... but let's bask in that imagined sunny 1969 spring evening for a bit longer, while we take our virtual ride back into time. We hop on our bikes and start cruising along Madison, heading east, with the warm sun at our backs, and we pass Jameson's Barber shop and MG Motor Sales.

Earlier that day, we'd enjoyed a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches made with inverted hamburger buns at Prange's Diner at the corner of Hilliard and Madison. We try to decide whether to drop into Elmwood's or Wagner's Bakeries for dessert. Either place would have been a good choice, but instead we settle on a cone at Coneland, having had a banana split at Malley's the last time, and a sundae at Bearden's on Warren the time before that. We turn north, by Union Carbide, onto Highland (now called W.117th Street) and soon make a left onto Detroit. We pass Fairchild Chevrolet and Koepke Mercedes. We pass Bobson's Hardware and Hornack's Bowling Center. We savor the great smells wafting from the doors of Chicken Delight and Kelly Donuts as we proceed past Educators Music and the Lakewood Elks Club.

Coming into the downtown area, we pass the hospital, along with Lorbach Opticians, Geigers, First Federal, Carson's Dress Shop, and both Keith and Everden Jewelery stores, as well as McCollum Insurance and Lakewood Camera Shop. Farther along, we pass by the Masonic Temple, the Christian Science Church, the Detroit Theater, and of course Miller's Restaurant (no alcohol served, and there were always plenty of those sticky buns!). Along the way, we also pass the numerous bars and churches that dot Lakewood like the daffodils of springtime.

As evening's shadows lengthen, I remind myself that my bike no longer sports that streamlined center tank with those twin headlamps to light my way. That tank had been lost, along with a great many other things in life. I had no idea what else (and who else) was about to be lost, before very long...

In those weeks before graduation, all of that ubiquitous mixing of hopes and dreams transpired in the class of '69. There were elements of fear and uncertainty on the part of the guys, as the military draft was going strong, along with the war in Vietnam. We were losing sometimes hundreds of guys every week to warfare, and it was time for many in our class to serve. Some of us were planning for college. The gals were asserting more independence, as "Women's Lib" became an everyday term. Schools were losing more and more battles over hair length, and freedom of expression in speech, dress, and behavior came into the classrooms. Radio was big back then. Lakewood High had even won a stereo console from a radio station for their "L Room" social area. As seniors, we hung out there a lot, lounging on those hopsack couches. We often shared our straw-served drinks from the same red and white wax-paper cups with the gals there too, as we enjoyed those pretzel rods from that see-through container sitting on the counter. Our class motto? Yesterday, only a dream--tomorrow, just a vision, but today we live.

Some of us did. anyway...On July 4, 1969, Lakewood changed forever. A horrific storm roared off the lake and through our city about 7 p.m. Trees toppled like matchsticks, and people died, including a very dear classmate of mine. Nowadays, those elms are gone, either victims of that storm or of Dutch Elm Disease. Most of the brick streets are gone too, along with so many other things in life. Many other friends are long gone as well, victims of alcohol or chemical abuse, disease, war, and life in general.

Our country changed too. A few weeks later, men were on the moon. Violence increased in the streets. Campuses erupted in protest. Cities burned. It seemed that anything on a pedestal got knocked off, never to be placed back on again. Trust went from being a given to a taken. The ever-blowing winds of change had again been felt in the world, and in our city as well.

Would Lakewood ever be quite as beautiful as it had been in those halcyon pre-storm days of 1969? It would, in fact, take awhile for our city to bounce back, much as it will also take time to recover from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. At the same time, those ever-blowing winds of change can offer opportunities to reconnect with others, and to reassess what is really important in life. Thankfully, the pulse of our city continues.

Read More on Pulse of the City
Volume 8, Issue 23, Posted 10:37 AM, 11.14.2012