INTRO: The Governor’s staff has sold the state fairgrounds to Joel Ferguson, Marvin Beatty and Magic Johnson. On June 26th, their team will present a revised plan to the public at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers in Detroit. The public saw the first plan in Nov. 2012. The men’s company, Magic Plus LLC and their partner company REDICO, say the community will like these new plans better.
Farmers around the state are still bitter that the fair was closed. So are local community activists. Nor are they happy with what’s supposed to replace it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus met a man near 8 Mile and Woodward who some consider the soul of the community.
I stuck my camera through a chain link fence to take pictures of a house on the other side 100 feet away. It’s a modest, two-story, all wood with faded white paint. Then a thin, bearded, middle-aged man with a hat and sunglasses came from the street.
“This is the childhood home of Ulysses S. Grant. It was brought here to Michigan and placed right here as a center piece for the Michigan State Fair. It was the first state fair in the country and it would have been the oldest one had it still survived.”
State taxpayers put $500,000 a year into it. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm wanted to save that money so the fair closed in 2009. New York had the first state fair. Michigan’s was second. But otherwise, William McKenney’s knowledge of the fairgrounds is intimate.
“I’ve got a lot of fond memories going back to 1992. My first year out here,” McKenney said.
“What were you doing here at the state fair?” McCarus asked.
“I did private security. I started and worked my way from the bottom all the way until 1999 when I was appointed with the last company. I had the keys to everything out here. I got to know every nuance from the corner gate where you come in and the war monument all the way over to softball city. From E. State Fair Avenue all the way up to 8 Mile.”
“What are some other features?” McCarus asked. “What is that bandshell?”
“That’s where all the concerts took place. For the most they were free.”
“Nothing got out of hand?”
“Oh yeah,” McKenney said. “One year we had White Zombie out here. There was a riot. There was more than 10,000 on the other side of this gate. They stormed it. It was all over the news. We had the Detroit mounted police come in, the state police, police from surrounding jurisdictions that had to come in to handle that massive crowd. There were over 30,000 people on this side of the fence and 10,000 inside. There wasn’t enough of us that day.”
“Did you carry a gun?” McCarus asked.
“I got to carry one because I was a supervisor.”
“So what are you doing for work now?”
“I’m homeless right now. I’ve just survived colon cancer. I’m just coming out of a dark period of my life.”
These days, William McKenney carries his belongings in a shopping cart. He pushes it along E. State Fair Avenue.
“I’ve got food in here. I’ve got a tarp. It got a little cold out here so I had my scarf, extra coats and hats. Someone just gave me some shirts. Got some bottled water in here. I got a broom and a dustpan to keep my space and area clean. That’s how I was raised. Homeless does not have to mean filth.”
McKenney’s cart can be seen next to the wall of the bridge over 8 Mile. He sleeps on a mat next to it. Sometimes in the day. Sometimes in the night.
“8 Mile and Woodward. I have been there for four years. I lived there at that bridge. I kept it clean. All the while people would pick me up as I had cancer. I would go do odd and end jobs. I found more work standing at the corner and having people pick me up and surviving off of that than I did going out and going on computers and going to places, knocking on doors and putting in applications.”
The fairgrounds cover 157 acres. McKenney feels small compared to the fairgrounds size and age.
“I’ll be 43 this year. But I was a 21 year old young man when I came out here and started working. My mom used to bring me when I was an infant. My life and certainly a lot of my memories are attached to it. Just the 90 years it had been here. My mom told me stories about when she was a kid and had been here. Her mother. This was like a family heirloom heritage for us, the state fairgrounds.”
Most people don’t want to live near places that they knew and loved for years then got torn down or abandoned. Governor Snyder himself has an arm of state government working on a “sense of place.”
“The suburbs and Detroit met right here. There was more than just animals and concerts. There was a cultural exchange. You met people out here who you would end up having a connection for life with. There are not too many places like that anymore.”
McKenney is homeless. But he thinks beyond himself and questions what politicians are doing for the common good. Last year the Michigan Land Bank sold property to Magic Johnson and Lansing based developer Joel Ferguson. They planned big box stores and parking lots.
“That is what really surprised me… shut it down and gave it away like it was nothing without trying to see if there was anything that the people wanted to do about it. Without even consulting us. They work for us. It was something put on for us. Why shouldn’t we have any input as to what would become of it. I would certainly like to see this house not be destroyed. Be put someplace where it would be cared for. This is an American landmark.”
The fairgrounds could be an American landmark. But they are set to become forgettable, like thousands of malls, parking lots and national chain retail stores. 43 year old William McKenney will survive to see them. But he’ll be sad.