A Grow House Busted By Police Reflects Story of Detroit Changes

One of two dozen places raided by police on Monday was a marijuana grow operation in a west-side Detroit warehouse with the initials “BKS” on the façade.

The initials stood for Barney Kaplan Surplus.

Barney Kaplan ran an amazing operation inside the old, sprawling, museum-like building on Epworth Avenue, near Livernois and W. Warren. He supplied companies that rebuild parts for automobiles, ships, tanks and other mechanical contraptions, and the building was filled with rotors, solenoids, bushings, coils, generators, shafts, bolts and many other greasy things.

His collections of gizmos had been part of things like Packards, LaSalles, Russian tanks, U.S. minesweepers, cranes, steam shovels and rock crushers.

I met Kaplan is 2006, when he was 88, and I wrote about him -- describing him as a marvelous storyteller with wavy white hair, chaotic eyebrows and the muscular fingers of people who work with their hands. He was a legend in the machine parts business and known for generosity.

Kaplan then was liquidating his inventory because the economy had changed: Cut-rate competition from Asia had transformed the geography of the rebuilding business. Another reason was the quality of modern-day parts – they’re made better and last longer.

Kaplan’s business obviously was long gone by the time marijuana growers moved in.

I drove by Kaplan’s old building Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was crawling with scrappers brazenly stripping the place of anything metal. On Tuesday, in daylight, they had two trucks sitting out in front, and smaller operators were on hand with shopping carts. One scrapper said cops had passed without stopping.

The Hum of Manufacturing

In some ways, you could see Kaplan’s old building as a Detroit in miniature. The city’s backbone once had been companies that manufactured things with engines, which was a huge industry that spawned parts guys like Barney Kaplan and thousands of others who built and rebuilt or sold pulleys and blowers and tubes and batteries and the related viscera of the industrial age.

Their bland buildings were scattered across the city. They employed people and paid taxes and their comings-and-goings made Detroit hum with activity. 

But the economy changed, and much of the manufacturing went away, its place taken by the Information Age, grease replaced by pixels. Detroit’s jobs disappeared over the past 60 years, and industries related to poverty, like scrapping and drugs, became commonplace.

Manufacturing went away in other places, too.

Partly because of deindustrialzation, Chicago’s population has dropped by almost a million people since 1950, but its economy has been diverse enough to keep a large portion of the city prosperous, though some parts look a lot like Detroit. Manhattan used to be filled with hundreds of factories. While most of them have closed, the city remains a global capital of finance, fashion, theater, media, publishing, art, film and other domains.

Detroit-Style Dystopia

Detroit limps along, broken, broke and unable even to keep its emergency communications system up or the water running through its fountains.

Observers of this Detroit-style dystopia have been looking for reasons the city finds itself in the shape it’s in. Their causes often include liberal social policy, greedy unions, Democrats, taxes, crime, the collapse of the family and Coleman Young.

They don’t pay a lot of attention to the economy. But if you scratch the surface, the changing nature of capitalism – and the city’s inability to adapt -- is at the root of much of what ails Detroit.

The origins of Detroit’s misery can be seen on ramshackle Epworth Avenue, where dopers and scrappers and lush grass and wild trees have replaced Barney Kaplan’s machine surplus business and many other once-vibrant industrial concerns. The lost jobs played a large role in crushing hopes and turning lively neighborhoods into ruins and bringing  Kevyn Orr to Detroit as the city's emergency manager.

Why can't we acknowledge that?

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