In slowly gentrifying Detroit, you might see a fox, or even a coyote, but where have all the stray dogs gone?
By Laura Bernstein-Machlay
September 5, 2017
We hope you have enjoyed Laura Bernstein-Machlay’s portraits of Detroit in the summer of 2017. She also writes about her hometown in our Autumn issue: an essay about the Motor City’s neglected—four-legged—population.
Abandoned Dogs Roam Detroit in Packs as Humans Dwindle
—Bloomberg News headline, 2013
Dog-Donna and I work from home, on our handsome through street in the University District, where tree canopies shadow the cars and their harried occupants as they zoom by without a wave. Our neighborhood’s comfortably middle class, located near the popular suburbs, but still fixed south of 7 Mile, still firmly within the limits of my city. With the Frank Lloyd Wright house down the road—weird, cement-block house, poor, unloved-stepchild house—which Wright supposedly disavowed because he hated the location of its patch of property. After languishing vacant for years, it finally has new owners, and I’m pretty sure they have a dog—a mastiff or wolfhound. We’re down the block from the congressman’s house, the place he never visits. His disgraced city-councilwoman wife still lives there, or so I’ve been told. Don’t know if she has a doggie to keep her company, but she ought to. No matter your crime, dogs always forgive you.
Donna and I are pretty domesticated these days, and our neighborhood reflects it. Where we live, you’ll find colonials and Mediterraneans and deco houses. There are Tudors galore, so all the rest of us have turret envy. In those houses reside thousands of dogs, all within a cohesive cluster of historic districts, blocks and blocks of bricked and stuccoed and columned grandeur. No bombed-out, apocalyptic disaster zones far as the eye can gaze.
I spend my days grading papers, maintaining online classes, occasionally glancing mournfully at my manuscript of never-gonna-be-finished love poems. Or maybe they’re hate poems—but no matter. When I’m done with such humdrum buzz, when I’m trying to avoid napping or cleaning something, I join Donna as we sniff disdainfully at our healthy lunches and waste far too much time hovering near the treats cabinet. Or I’ll grab a stack of student essays and my vat of coffee, settle beside her as she stares through the front windows dreaming of wild spaces and watching the dogs stroll by.
Big ones. Little ones. Too-cool-for-the-sidewalk ones. The trotters and twitchers and spazzes. The slowpokes and sprinters—and the humans in tow. Big guys marching with their Dobermans, stopping every 50 feet to practice a training maneuver. Bluetoothed joggers, alone and paired—newcomers to the neighborhood all—paced by well-clipped doodles and schnoodles. Old folks and their elderly companions, everybody lurching a little because whose hips are what they used to be? These are the long-timers, men and women who sway side to side when they walk, their heads swinging like pendulums as they scan for strangers. Because you can’t be too careful, even with your fierce pooch trotting beside you, even in this never-broken area of the city.
In the earliest mornings, Scarf-Lady strolls by, her pair of dachshunds bobbing beside her like twisty party balloons. After her comes the flood—a beribboned pom with its deranged grin, a poodle tiptoeing on fancy feet, mixed-breeds and hounds aplenty. There’s the dreadlocked puli who ambles past at noon and takes a shit on Neighbor-Dominico’s lawn. A rescue greyhound I’ve come to recognize—Like a giant rat! snuffs Husband-Steven when he’s home one day with a cold. Ugly thing, he says with an eye roll learned from Daughter-Celia.
That’s just wrong, I say, as he shrugs and goes to hack and honk in another room. But never mind. I know if Steven found that dog, any dog, hobbling down our block, he’d call him over, schlep him home for me to deal with.
But here’s the thing. Of the pooches on their daily parade past my house, every one is pampered—downright tickled, even, to be exactly the dogs they are in that moment. Even on iffy days, wet and gray-sky days. Even the mini schnauzer in his spotted boots and rain slicker saunters by with a smirk on his face. Grins all around—except from Donna, who loathes her own species, who watches to keep the dogs from attacking and gnawing us to death, from stealing our treats and other treasures.
Where Steven and I came to earth when we were new-married and clipped-at-the-hip. That slice of Motown awash in wildlife—bunnies and possums and hawks and whatnot. Feral cats stalking the alleys, collarless dogs loping yard to yard. A neighborhood carved down the middle like a fat trout by I-75, and all but disappeared from people’s maps—though that was true of much of Detroit during those years. So what, we said, when friends and family cringed at our address and found reasons not to visit. Their loss, we told each other with well-practiced shrugs. If suburbanites were too frightened to cross Detroit’s borders, the shops and restaurants of Mexicantown filled up nevertheless.
In this stray-crazy community, Steven and I felt a little like orphans ourselves, and that was okay. We bought and slowly reclaimed a shabby once-mansion that’d been hacked into apartments after World War II. We made of it our island and painted it purple and green—a carnival funhouse—because why not? Because we liked the shock of color on our crumbling block. In this place, we hunkered through winters, which left us shivering like moths as wind kicked between cracks in our walls, through the summers when temperatures soared up and up, and the air just hung there like a soaked dishrag. We stayed in spite of the incinerator’s stink, gunshots that broke our skies into shards of glass, sirens wailing outside our windows all night long—like wild dogs singing in the moonlight.
To ease our loneliness, to fill the rooms of our splendid house, we took in dogs that found their way to us through some canine version of the hobo code. Longhairs and shorthairs, unwashed mongrels the lot of them. Lakshmi, for instance. Named for Steven’s at-the-time NPR crush, she was a yellow dog, the sort all feral dogs eventually evolve, or devolve, into. I can’t remember the year, or where Lakshmi fell in the line of strays to move through our place, but she appeared with autumn, on a gray afternoon when all the maples were shivering in our yard. Which is where Steven found her, half-dead, matted with dirt and leaves.
Such a good dog, Lakshmi. After weeks of recovery, after bathing and spaying and deworming, after removal of the buckshot from beneath her skin—our veterinarian kindly providing us the Sob Story Discount—we loaded her into our van, drove to her new digs in the suburbs. Where the family we’d harangued into adopting her sight unseen took one look and changed her name.
G-o-l-d-i, spelled out the little boy while Steven and I shifted foot to foot on the thick, white carpeting.
We’ll put a heart over the i, said the little girl as we sidled toward the door and the long ride home.
But you get those everywhere. I’ve backpacked Ireland to Greece as a lost and dramatic 20-something. I’ve shoehorned all my belongings into the back of a dirt-brown Citation and relocated from one end of the country to the other, then back to the middle, where I crash-landed in Detroit—city from which I started, before my parents ran shrieking to the suburbs. There’ve always been strays, hiding in plain sight, tucked snug in my peripheral vision. Scruffy loners trotting across my path, shaking off the rain in great clouds, nudging at sealed garbage cans, sniffing at wild things on the wind. Then moving on, because who wants to stay where you’re unwelcome?
I blame people lax about neutering, or the desperate folks who faded into the night during the last recession—call it depression here in Detroit. People who left their houses to the looters and squatters, their underwater mortgages to the banks. And in their haste to escape, they abandoned pets on the curb like soiled cushions or sacks of trash. Neighbor-LaTonya tells me this story as we’re talking over our shared fence: how she once watched a van on Michigan Avenue slowing just enough, watched the back door snap open, disembodied hands dropping the dalmatian pup—plop—onto the pavement beside the place where Tiger Stadium used to stand. Then the clonking of the engine, the knocking of the wheels, as the vehicle staggered away on the rutted road.
Mind you, he’s dumb as a box of rocks, says LaTonya, pointing behind her to the now-adult dalmatian chasing his tail, and when he manages to nab it with his pointy teeth, he lets out an almighty yipe before setting off after it again. She sighs. Still, she says, he’s a good dog.
Of course, I say. All dogs are good dogs.
Only last week, a full-grown pit bull moseyed onto our porch and sent Donna into conniptions behind her glass. Dirty white, one black spot patched over one of the pinkish eyes, the thick jaws of his breed open in greeting.
They’ve got bad reputations, these dogs, trained as they are to grip hard, shake ’til it’s dead. I loved him on sight, this guy sporting a tagless red collar too tight, bunched between rolls of flesh where head meets neck as though it’d been placed there months, years ago—then forgotten. When I snipped it off with kitchen scissors, he gave a quiet sigh and flopped in our weedy flower bed for a snooze. When I brought him water and Donna’s overpriced kibble, he enjoyed it with good manners.
Since Donna’s not one to learn new tricks, I spent the afternoon tap-tapping at my computer, making call after call as I searched out shelters that wouldn’t euthanize him on sight—People around here keep pit bulls to fight them, said a volunteer at the Anti-Cruelty Society in her crackly-foil voice. Trust me, honey. Death’s kinder—when I glanced outside and found him gone, shouldered through the gate and back to his solitary travels.
What I’ve never witnessed, not in Detroit’s University District, not once in my 15 years in this never-gone-to-the-dogs neighborhood: the itinerant packs of knotty, spotty mongrels, the ones that featured so prominently in the media’s chitter-chatter during our municipal bankruptcy. Hoards of unloved vagabonds joined together for solace and roving the in-between lands—the neglected communities, vacant fields, prairies surrounding shutdown factories. In the newspapers, there was talk of 50,000, an exorbitant figure, a city within a city’s worth of derelict mutts—armies of limping bedraggled, legions of mangy flea-snaggled.
To be fair, here’s what the magazines and nightly news got right: the real struggle of some of our neighborhoods, the sinking of others into despair and blight, into the earth. And I know that gangs of strays roamed these places—I’ve seen them myself. But 50,000? Not so much. More recent surveys place the total somewhere between 1,000 to 3,000 homeless dogs roving the 139 square miles of my city at any given time. Is that comparable to the number of free-floating mutts haunting other postindustrial cities? Other down-in-the-dumps-but-finally-emerging cities? Heck if I know. I’m just one woman at home with my shaggy dog.
The last, long days of August find me smack-dab in the present tense as only a very pregnant woman can be. Slumped over my belly—all that’s keeping me upright—I’m listing back and forth, back and forth in the rocking chair that Steven dragged onto our balcony overlooking Grand Boulevard. All the better to witness seven skinny mongrels, toaster-sized to lumbering galoot, appear from around the corner and shuffle in identical cadence down the center of the road like a traveling pageant. One by one, they cram under my neighbor’s blocked-up Buick, the behemoth suddenly breathing, barely containing the grumbling, snorting tangle of legs and tails, damp muzzles and half-bitten ears.
Because I’m a teacher, because I’m hugely pregnant in the throes of summer, there’s nothing better to do than watch these wild dogs for long minutes while a strange quiet wraps my street. Gone are the usual kiddies squealing on their rebuilt bicycles; only the rare junker-truck sputters toward the freeway. And as Fetus-Celia kicks and kicks at my insides, an endless thud thud thud echoing beneath my whole skin, I think of Neighbor-José and his beloved grandbabies. Then I think of the dogs roasting in the oven beneath that car, and just this once, I plod inside, walk wide around a grumbling Tampopo—that foul-tempered little chow—and phone animal control—but no one bothers to show up. Maybe the officer gets lost on our crumbling roads, somewhere between Carnival Bar and Evie’s Tamales. Later that day, I watch José—he of the Buick on his front lawn, same guy who sometimes feeds the feral cats in the alley we share—haul a bucket of water for the dogs to lap up with their pink tongues, and I feel ashamed that I didn’t think to do it myself.
After that first sighting, I noticed them often enough—especially around the time Celia was toddling. I don’t mean the individual ragamuffins that we fixed and fed and farmed out, those keen-to-please pups booted from their first homes and hungry for another latched gate, another sunny patch of carpet to curl into. But the clusters of disheveled, stinking drifters, five, six, sometimes more at a time. I’d be unloading groceries or taking a slow trundle around the block, Celia’s little hand clutched in mine, and I’d have to grab her up, jog wide circles around them as they swaggered along the sidewalk like they owned the place, like they had somewhere to be, but weren’t in any hurry to arrive.
And once I strolled Bagley Street—that main drag of Mexicantown—with friends at dusk. Four loopy women peeking in restaurant windows, walking off margaritas and pollo con nopalitos, when a mother hurried around us, tugged her wandering boy closer to her hip. ¡Quedate cerca o los perros te llevará lejos! she whisper-growled. Stay close or the dogs will take you far away!
Bands of dogs haunting Clark Park, cowering from thunder in the summer, huddling in snow dens come the cold season. Surviving on rubbish, on roadkill and squirrels and stray cats when they can get ’em. It’s a tough life—a dog’s life, even—for these feral mutts, but at least they have each other.
I hardly ever get back to Mexicantown these days, though I always claim I’m going to. Let’s check out Day of the Dead tchotchkes at Xochi’s, I’ll say to Celia. Or, Let’s go visit our old house on the Boulevard.
Let’s go for botanas and margaritas at Los Galanes, I suggest to my girlfriends. But we never get around to it. So the old neighborhood hovers behind my eyes just as it was. Just as, I’m assured by Steven, who’s there all the time, it still remains—a place alive with artists and young families, with gang boys and girls flashing their signs and their shiny grins. With immigrants, documented or not, because what business is it of ours?
And yet, the community’s changing, too—as our entire city is these days. You’d barely know the place, Steven informed me not so long ago. Clark Park is being mowed. People are planting gardens everywhere. There’s construction on the abandoned lots.
But where will all the doggies live? I asked, and all the rest of the day I felt nostalgic for our circus-house, for La Gloria bakery and the low-rider cars that appeared with Cinco de Mayo and jig-jagged down Vernor Highway while we waved Mexican flags and cheered. For that perro-loco side of town where once upon a time we fostered dog after discarded dog.
Top and bottom dogs, sly dogs and yellow dogs and junkyard dogs chewed through their ropes—lucky dogs all, and we foisted them on friends and near-strangers alike until everyone cried, Enough! No more dogs, please.
Sure enough, nobody’s talking about Detroit’s dogs anymore, even as foxes and a few coyotes have settled within our borders. Back in 2013 and 2014—the bankruptcy years, the height of the media feeding frenzy—I heard a desperate local expert claim that, in reality, no more than 10 packs of wild dogs were nomading around Detroit. When I told this to friends from other cities, they said, But really? You’re relieved there’s only 10?
When I considered it later, however, I had to wonder if our dog problem had been worse at the time of my own pack sightings, back near the turn of the century. Or if I just saw variations of a single grouping as one mutt ran—splat!—into traffic or dropped dead of exhaustion, and another took its place. After all, the life expectancy’s got to be pretty short when you’re always a stranger, forever on the lam.
I wouldn’t know about that, entrenched as I am in my comfortable neighborhood. So I shuffle to the computer in search of recent news about Detroit’s dogs—and can’t find much of anything. Once in a while, I hear about a pit-bull mauling, or an old guy hoarding 50 pugs in his basement. Sometimes Steven will lug home the odd waif he finds wandering by the old house or somewhere else in the city. But that’s a rarity. So when I ask him if he thinks fewer strays are tramping about the city nowadays, he sighs. They’re still here, he says. They have to be, because where would they go? But I think I’m strayed-out.
And the packs? I ask. What about those?
Steven just shrugs. He doesn’t know, and I’m not sure I want to. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re still lurking around, shut out of one gentrifying neighborhood after the next, fading deeper into the empty lands. Meanwhile, we exhausted citizens do what we’ve always done. Humans and canines all, we drag ourselves awake every morning, shake yesterday’s dust off our skin, and just get the hell on with things.
It’s 2002, and we’re set to leave Mexicantown, to move across the city to our house in the desirable University District—because Lola-on-the-other-side-of-José just got mugged outside her front door, because Boulevard-Bob across the street found the dead girl in his alley. Because of Celia. Because Steven got a new teaching gig with good benefits. Because we can. Anyway, we’re not going so far. And we’re keeping the West Grand house to rent out. A great investment, says Steven, for when the neighborhood comes back.
And we’ll come visit all the time, I say.
Meanwhile, we’re on a deadline—to rescue the feral bulldog we call Felicia. A gnarled old lady torn loose from her pack, she’s been scrounging out a living in the fields behind our place—the half-dozen once-yards whose houses burned or tumbled beneath the weight of rain, buried finally by waist-high grass, by Queen Anne’s lace and cattails, by milkweed and its lovers, the monarchs.
Steven adores her, wants to tame her and take her with us when we leave, but I’m not so sure. Felicia is shadow. Exhaled breath or twigs snapped by wind send her flat to earth. Still, I creep out at first light with supplies in hand. I refill the water bowl, heap kibble at the edge of the torn-up sidewalk, and wait. She shows herself when she chooses—spotty head rising like a periscope from the greenery, eventually the whole of her wobbling a little on a gimpy paw toward breakfast.
Of course, she eludes my reach. Never mind the bad leg, she keeps a running start between us. More patient than I could be, she simply stares past the ephemeral shape of me, settles into her haunches and watches the moon fading drop by drop from the brightening sky. Then—blink and you’ll miss it—she steps back into the grasses and disappears like she’s never been there at all. And when one morning she no longer comes, I don’t shudder, am hardly even surprised. I feel, I think, a warm wash of relief, though I never tell this to Steven. Because, you see, you can’t save everybody. Because not everybody’s meant for windows and fences, for leashes and small spaces to pace, paltry humans to fret after. Because now this wild thing can go on running at the edges of my dreams, where she remains still—one mutt among multitudes in my own city of dogs.
Read more of Laura Bernstein-Machlay on her blog, Detroit: Summer of 2017.
Laura Bernstein-Machlay teaches literature and creative writing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry Northwest, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. She is the author of a forthcoming book of essays called Travelers.