Misplaced Memorials

I recently came across an unusually-placed grave marker on a vacant lot in Detroit and went down a research rabbit-hole trying to figure out how it got there.

Catharine Rinn’s grave marker/memorial is sitting in the middle of what was once a dense residential block in Detroit. It faces the street and is in good condition; there are no signs of damage or vandalism, and someone recently planted two small evergreen trees on either side of it. The most recent Google StreetView image of the site–taken in September 2013–shows an empty lot, indicating that the marker was placed there within the last 4 years. StreetView also shows us that there was a vacant house on the lot in 2007, and that this house had been torn down by 2009.

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StreetView image from 2007 showing the lot on which the marker currently sits (where the front porch steps of this home were).
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A 2013 StreetView image of the lot where the marker is currently located. Notice the house at the back left, which can also be seen in my photo of Catharine’s marker.

According to Loveland’s data, the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) currently owns the open lot on which the marker sits. The lots to either side are also open, owned by the DLBA or subject to foreclosure, and there are vacant houses on both ends of this set of parcels (all of these lots are maintained). There is an occupied home directly across the street; these neighbors certainly know about the marker and are likely its caretakers, but no one was home when I visited.

Who was Catharine Rinn?

In the process of trying to understand how her marker ended up where it is, I learned a little about Catharine Rinn and her family. She was born Catharine Mayer in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, in 1868, and was one of 7 children. Her parents, Alexander and Susannah Mayer, had both immigrated to Canada from Bavaria, Germany. In 1887, Catharine married Frederick Heimrich, who was a carpenter. Their daughter Freda was born two years later, in 1889, and Frederick died that same year of tuberculosis at just twenty-four.

Susanna Heimler Mayer
Catharine’s mother, Susannah Mayer (neé Heimler). Photo via Ancestry.com

I couldn’t find out much about Catherine’s life in the decade after her first husband’s death. But in 1902, she married Herman Rinn and they moved to Detroit, possibly following Catharine’s older brother John and his family, who had relocated to the city several years earlier. Herman Rinn had immigrated to the US from Germany in 1892 and was a teamster. The Rinns had a daughter, Maculetta (also called “Immaculate” or “Immaculata,” b. 1905), and a son, Alexander (b. 1911).

Catharine passed away on November 19, 1916, at age 48. She suffered from a heart condition–mitral regurgitation–as well as chronic interstitial nephritis, which can result in kidney failure; these conditions were listed as the causes of death on her death certificate, and both can result from infections (like rheumatic fever) and autoimmune diseases (like lupus).

I expected to find some kind of connection between the Rinns and the location of the grave marker in the records. According to the Detroit City Directory, the Rinns lived at 786 Illinois from 1914 to 1916; due to the citywide street renumbering that took place in 1921, this address would be 3300-3450 Illinois today. But Catharine’s grave marker is currently over a mile away, on a different street.*

I didn’t expect Catharine to be buried at her place of residence, a practice that would not have been common in urban areas at this time. This area of Detroit was densely populated in 1916, and burying someone in the backyard or side lot probably wasn’t possible from a legal or social standpoint (especially if you were renting or boarding, as many working-class residents like the Rinns were). Furthermore, her death certificate indicates that she was buried at Mt. Olivet, Detroit’s Catholic cemetery, and lists an undertaker (W.H. Cavanaugh) and a date of burial (November 22, 1916).

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A Google Streetview image showing two houses on the 3300 block of Illinois Street, where the Rinns were living when Catharine died. These homes were built c. 1910.

Mt. Olivet, however, has no record of Catharine’s interment there. Most of the cemetery’s records are digitized and available online, so the fact that nothing turned up for Catharine was unusual. I visited Mt. Olivet to inquire in-person about records for Catharine and cemetery staff confirmed that there are no records for her there. I also checked the records of Mt. Elliot cemetery (which was closest to the Rinn residence at the time of Catharine’s death), but found nothing.

Catharine Rinn’s death record

Interestingly, Catharine’s nephew, Dr. William Mayer, was listed as the attending physician to his aunt when she died. He had graduated from the Detroit College of Medicine–which would later become part of Wayne State University–in 1914, and had attended Catherine for over two months before she passed away. At that time, Dr. Mayer was living with his parents (Catharine’s brother John and his wife) and siblings on Jay Street in Eastern Market, a few miles away from where Catharine’s marker is located today. Dr. Mayer lived and practiced medicine in Detroit and the suburb of Grosse Pointe Woods until his death in 1964, and he and his wife are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery with other family members.

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William Mayer’s photo in the 1914 Erythrocyte, the yearbook of the Detroit College of Medicine. Photo via the Walter Reuther Library.
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Another photo from the Erythrocyte (1914) showing the Detroit College of Medicine’s baseball team. William Mayer is pictured far right, wearing a sweater. He played third base. Photo via the Walter Reuther Library.

After Catharine’s death, Herman, Maculetta, and Alexander Rinn moved to Washington Township, Michigan, in Sanilac County, and the 1920 census lists them as living on a farm there. Herman is listed again in the 1930 and 1940 censuses, still living in Sanilac County. He died in 1944 at age 76 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Port Huron, Michigan. His grave marker there includes Catharine’s birth and death dates and appears to have been chosen by one of their children.

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The Rinns’ grave marker in Port Huron, MI. Photo via Findagrave.com

I was unable to find additional information about Catharine’s daughters, Freda and Maculetta, but I learned that Alexander Rinn married in 1937 and the couple had four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Alexander died and was buried in Carsonville, Michigan, in 1985.

The Mystery Endures

I can’t find any records that tie the Rinns to the address where Catharine’s grave marker is currently located. The fact that there appears to be no damage and it’s clearly being cared could suggest that it wasn’t removed from Mt. Olivet randomly (as an act of vandalism, for instance). During her approximately 14 years in Detroit, Catharine lived relatively close to where the marker is now located, and her brother lived nearby at the time of his death in 1940, which also suggests that the placement of the marker isn’t a coincidence. Then again, it’s not uncommon for family members to replace a loved one’s grave marker and for the original marker to be moved around (update: see the comments on this post for some examples). Perhaps someone simply found this marker in the process of maintaining the open lots in the neighborhood and decided to care for it. But that still wouldn’t answer the question of how the marker became “stranded” in the first place.

In 2008, Charlie LeDuff wrote an interesting article about how Detroit cemeteries like Mt. Olivet were losing hundreds of burials each year as suburbanites transferred their loved ones’ remains out of the city and into the suburbs, following the pattern of postwar “white flight” outmigration. Mt. Olivet was losing 100-200 burials a year at the time the article was published, and LeDuff says that this estimate was likely low. Suburbanites moved their loved ones’ remains for different reasons, including a (racialized) fear of Detroit (i.e. of having to travel through–now predominantly black–neighborhoods that they would otherwise not go through in order to visit a loved one’s gravesite), because some Detroit cemeteries were underfunded and poorly maintained, and because having loved ones interred nearby made it easier for family members to visit. By the time the article was written, a generation of Metro Detroit residents with roots in the city had grown up and lived their adult lives in the suburbs, and many of them wanted to be buried there, with their relatives.

Perhaps Catherine’s family was part of this movement out of Detroit? We know that her husband and two youngest children had left the city by 1920, and it’s possible that they moved her remains to Port Huron when Herman died (1944) or thereafter. This would explain why Mt. Olivet doesn’t have any burial records for Catharine and why her original marker ended up elsewhere. Or perhaps her brother John and his wife kept Catharine’s original marker when she got a new one in Port Huron, and when they passed away and their house was torn down (as it was), the stone was relocated to a nearby open lot.

I’m officially stumped. The next step is to go back and reach out to the closest neighbors. In the meantime, please feel free to share any information/theories you might have about the marker and/or Catharine Rinn.

Catharine Rinn’s Timeline:

  • January 11, 1868: Born in Waterloo, Ontario, to Susannah and Alexander Mayer
  • 1887: Marries Frederick Heimrich, a carpenter, in Waterloo, Ontario
  • 1889: Daughter Freda is born
    • Frederick Heimrich dies of tuberculosis at age 24
  • 1902: Marries Herman Rinn, moves to Detroit
  • 1905: Daughter Maculetta is born
  • 1910: Herman and “Katie” Rinn are listed as living at 96 Preston St. (3500 block today) in Detroit in the 1910 census, along with daughters Freda and Maculetta. The census record indicates that their street was largely occupied by other first- and second-generation German immigrants.
  • 1911: Son Alexander is born
  • 1914-16: The Rinns are living at 786 Illinois Street in Detroit in the City Directory
  • November 1916: Catherine passes away from complications of mitral regurgitation and interstitial nephritis. Her nephew, Dr. William Mayer, was her attending physician, and she had been ill for at least 2.5 months preceding her death. Her death certificate indicates that she was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit on November 22nd.
Dr. William Mayer
Dr. William Mayer with his sons. Photo via Ancestry.com
  •  1920: Herman, Alexander, and Maculetta Rinn are living in Washington Township in Sanilac County, Michigan in the census
  • 1930: Herman and Alexander Rinn are living in Sanilac County in the census
  • 1937: Alexander Rin marries Esmerildia “Essie” Smith in Croswell, Michigan
  • 1940: Herman Rinn is living in Washington Township, Michigan in the census
    • Brother John Mayer dies in Detroit and is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. At the time of his death, he and his wife were living on Sylvester Street in Detroit.

      John Mayer and his wife, Catherine Lienhardt. Photo via Ancestry.com
  • 1944: Herman Rinn dies and is buried in Port Huron, Michigan
  • 1985: Son Alexander Rinn dies at age 74 and is buried in Carsonville, Michigan



The Rhetoric of Foreclosure and Eviction in Detroit

Analyzing the rhetoric around blight, foreclosure, and eviction in Detroit reveals a lot about local attitudes towards/concepts of ownership, poverty, race, and social justice. Over the last two years, I have followed and documented local media coverage of Detroit’s blight and foreclosure crises–including the comment threads on these stories, which mostly feature comments from Metro Detroiters–and have noted several pervasive beliefs and misconceptions that underly and structure public discourse about these issues.

Below are some comments on a Detroit News piece by Christine MacDonald about Jeffrey Cusimano, a negligent property owner who does not pay property taxes or maintain his properties to code, yet faces no consequences (legal or otherwise) for his actions.

1). “When someone plays the system like a fiddle, I tend to blame the system.”

If a (white) landlord like Cusimano doesn’t pay property taxes or maintain his properties and faces no legal consequences for those actions, “the system” that lets him get away with it is to blame. Other commenters on this piece mention the “housing disaster created by the banks,” again deflecting attention and blame from individuals back to “the system.”

But if a low-income person of color in Detroit defaults on property taxes or rent for any reason and fights to stay in his or her home, a common response among commenters will be that they’re clearly trying to “take advantage of the system” (which reverts to being “fair” again, just a set of rules, enforced equally, that we all have to play by).

Different social rules apply to low-income tenants and their comparatively wealthy landlords, with the former being held to a much higher (moral) standard than the latter.

2). “Don’t you think that 19 evictions is more a reflection of the quality of tenants and their attitudes towards paying honest debts than it is of the system?”

Commenters on blight/foreclosure/eviction stories often focus their criticism on low-income residents and how they alone must be to blame for what’s happening to them. This commenter’s inclusion of the word “honest” references low-income renters’ perceived immorality—being poor and defaulting on payments and debts is viewed as a personal moral failing, not a symptom of systemic, institutionalized racism and inequality. This commenter disregards the fact that Cusimano avoided paying the “honest debt” of property taxes on one of his properties for 9 years and that all of the 29 properties Cusimano has purchased since 1989 have cycled through mortgage and tax foreclosure. Defaulting on tax/rent payments is only perceived to be a social and moral problem when low-income tenants do it.

3). “And yet they have a dish on the roof.”

Scrutinizing imagery of a home for evidence of perceived financial (and other types of) mismanagement on the part of tenants/occupants is a common theme in comment threads on stories about foreclosure and eviction in Detroit. In a recent Detroit Free Press report about a resident whose home was demolished by the Detroit Land Bank Authority while he was still living in it, many commenters took the time to research the property using Google StreetView, and they repeatedly cited the condition of the home’s roof and yard as reasons why the Land Bank was right to demolish his home (illegally, without due process, and after the resident had been assured by Land Bank officials that his house would not be demolished). The external appearance of this resident’s home and his personal information–specifically information concerning his childhood, finances, and race–were scrutinized and used by commenters to judge whether or not he “deserved” and had a right to his home, independent of the laws that are supposed to give everyone certain rights and protections re: occupancy and eviction.

And yet, when Cusimano and other predatory, negligent property owners in Detroit let their properties sit vacant and fail to improve or even maintain those properties, it’s generally considered to be their legal right as property owners and “investors” to do so. This attitude is reflected in the city’s sporadic and unequal enforcement of blight regulations and rental laws. An individual resident’s unpaid property taxes will most often result in foreclosure and eviction, but negligent developers and investors like Cusimano can purchase a home at auction, avoid paying any taxes on it, allow it to cycle into foreclosure and go back into the tax auction, and then use shell companies to buy the property back and start the whole process over again, without any consequences.

4). “Why would anyone move in there in the first place? Did they expect it to magically transform? Hardly. It’s just an excuse to not pay” and “Renters don’t take care of anything! Move in, destroy, move out.”

Again, the blame falls on low-income tenants/occupants for trying to secure safe, adequate housing in a largely unregulated rental market rather than on the negligent landlord who “plays the system like a fiddle” to profit from their struggle. Thirty-nine percent of Detroit residents live at or below the federal poverty line, making Detroit the poorest big city in the US. For decades, however, Detroit had one of the highest rates of homeownership (and of Black homeownership in particular) in the country. Only in the last several years have the majority of Detroit residents have become renters. Finding housing that is affordable, well-maintained, and accessible–both financially, and socially–to low-income residents is extremely difficult.

While Detroit does have laws and regulations regarding rental properties, the city often does not enforce them, and homes are rarely inspected to make sure that they are up to code and safe for habitation. The city’s inaction reinforces the belief, echoed by these commenters, that tenants are and should be responsible for both finding and maintaining affordable, safe, up-to-code housing.

5). “The city should be giving this guy an award for even trying in Detroit. If he didn’t own these houses they would just be more shells to dump bodies in…” and “Who cares? Detroit is a Sewer!” and “Detroilet” 

Another common theme in discussions about property ownership and development in Detroit is the idea/belief that “investors” should be rewarded just for being willing to buy property here, because, as the second and third comments highlight, Detroit is still perceived by many to be a dangerous place to live and to invest in.  These “rewards” include various types of financial incentives and tax incentives and the willingness of the city and many metro Detroit residents to ignore or excuse the unethical, predatory, and often illegal actions of investors. The fact that investors are motivated by profit and are not purchasing/renovating properties in Detroit purely out of the goodness of their hearts doesn’t seem to be an issue for many Metro Detroit residents. Again, when an investor/landlord games the system to make a profit, it’s considered acceptable (laudable, even), but low-income, Black residents will be heavily criticised for supposedly “gaming the system” when they fight to stay in their homes despite facing (often illegal) foreclosures and/or evictions.

As I mentioned above, the city does not enforce rental regulations, and it is generally believed that doing so could discourage “investment.” For example, in another report in Christine MacDonald’s series about eviction in Detroit, landlords and property managers express their concern that if Detroit starts enforcing its rental regulations–which would include requiring landlords to register their rental properties, pay for annual inspections, and resolve safety issues (eg. lead abatement)–the increased oversight and costs of doing business will result in investors leaving the city. Quoting one landlord, “When the city gets involved, it just causes problems…It is just going to get worse.” A landlord attorney who was also quoted in the article said that enforcing regulations will “kill” the rental property market, and that being a landlord in Detroit is already “a losing game” (but if that’s the case, why do so many investors do it?).

While these issues are by no means unique to Detroit, foreclosures/evictions have reached crisis levels here in recent years. This is largely attributable to the fact that between 2009 and 2015, the City of Detroit illegally overassessed 55% to 85% of its residential properties, resulting in over 100,000 Detroit families losing their homes to foreclosure. African American residents were disproportionately affected by the illegal overassessments, and many of the residents who lost their homes to foreclosure were then forced to become renters.

For more information on Detroit’s foreclosure crisis and how the auction system is rigged to penalize and displace low-income residents while rewarding investors and developers, see this recent article by Michele Oberholtzer and this article by Steve Neavling.

If you are a Detroit resident facing eviction, organizations such as the Detroit Eviction Defense and the United Community Housing Coalition can provide support and housing assistance.

Marktown: Industrial Heritage at Risk

I finally got to visit the planned worker community of Marktown in East Chicago this weekend. In 1917, industrialist Clayton Mark hired famed architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to design a complete community for workers at his steel mill in Indiana Harbor. The town was built to resemble an English village, with residents parking on the sidewalk and walking in the streets. The original plans included different types of housing, shops, schools, a post office, a recreation center (with tennis courts), and a movie theater. Construction stopped after WWI with only 10% of the town completed, including 200 Tudor Revival-style homes. In contrast to the nearby company town of Pullman, where workers could not own their homes, residents in Marktown had the option to rent or own their homes.


Marktown_1917_plans elevations.pdf
Original house plans for Marktown, via the Marktown Preservation Society


Marktown is now completely surrounded by heavy industry. BP, which owns an adjacent refinery, has been buying property there since they acquired the facility from Standard Oil in 1998, and has demolished entire swaths of homes in the last 4 years. Marktown Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, but because the homes are privately owned and BP isn’t using federal funds for demolition, historic district regulations that might otherwise protect the town’s structures don’t apply. There is still a small-but-passionate group of resident preservationists, some of whom have lived in Marktown for generations, who continue to advocate for the community. One of them shared his experiences of growing up in the neighborhood and allowed us to tour his restored duplex.


marktown_tourmapSome speculate that BP views Marktown residents as a liability: if there’s an explosion at the refinery, Marktown is within the blast radius and couldn’t be evacuated. There is some historical merit to this concern, as an explosion at the same plant in 1955 killed two people and damaged 140 homes in the Stiglitz Park neighborhood across the street (Standard Oil eventually bought up and demolished all of those damaged homes).

BP wanted to create a parking lot with the property they’d recently acquired on the perimeter of the neighborhood (indeed, it seems they are planning for all of Marktown to someday become a parking lot), but were pressured by residents and activists into creating a community green space instead. Still, BP is playing the long game, and without significant intervention, Marktown will eventually be entirely bought out and demolished.

Marktown has a lot in common with Doel, the small town in northern Belgium where residents are being slowly forced out as the Port of Antwerp expands. The two towns, though very different in history and character, will likely share the same fate of being wiped out by industrial expansion.

Works Referenced

Bierschenk, Ed. 2017. “Marktown Slowly Disappearing as BP Demolishes Homes.” The Times of Northwest Indiana. Accessed April 25. http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/east-chicago/marktown-slowly-disappearing-as-bp-demolishes-homes/article_9a6f9341-a6ed-5264-8046-dc104aaaafeb.html.

“History of Marktown.” Marktown Preservation Society.  http://marktown.org/pdf/marktown_history.pdf

“Marktown Historic District – East Chicago, Indiana.” 2017. Accessed April 25. http://www.marktown.org/.

“Marktown May Be Nearing Its End — Chicago Tribune.” 2013, April 16. http://galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com/chi-130416-marktown-pictures/.

Pete, Joseph. 2016. “Historic Marktown Almost 100, but Future Uncertain.” The Times of Northwest Indiana, November 13. http://www.nwitimes.com/business/local/historic-marktown-almost-but-future-uncertain/article_11b906f8-7332-574a-bea7-a91e0995ce60.html.