Marabel Chanin: A Symbol of a City

Marabel Chanin, speaking to reporters outside her home in Detroit's North End in summer 2008.
Marabel Chanin, speaking to reporters outside her home in Detroit's North End in summer 2008.
One of the sadder stories to hit the television airwaves in recent days concerns Marabel Chanin, an elderly woman living alone in an urban “ghost” neighborhood. When Marabel, a single woman, moved to Detroit’s North End back in 1964, the area, adjacent the Palmer Park Golf Course, was a beautiful, established Detroit neighborhood graced by roomy, circa 1920s single-family homes and lush landscaping.

Moving forward some 45 years later, Marabel was the last person on her block of Robinwood Avenue, living in daily (and nightly) fear of break-ins, gunfire, or worse. Complaints to police went nowhere, so her phone call to the local Detroit Fox News affiliate TV station (WJBK’s Problem Solvers) was a last-ditch attempt to find a solution to her dilemma.

Marabel’s story, profiled by the station last summer, brought the issues of crime & grime, urban decay and danger down to the most personal level and struck a nerve with viewers across the Detroit viewing area. The story ended up on the Internet, where I viewed the news clip on YouTube while researching my blog entry on the city of Detroit’s decline. It was so moving, I felt compelled to contact WJBK-TV, hoping to hear a good end to the story.

Unfortunately, as was chronicled in a follow-up report by the station broadcast last week, there was no good end. In fact, Marabel passed away in her home right around Christmas and was discovered days later. And now, five months on, her body remains at the county morgue, claimed by no one. Because of severe budget shortfalls, there are no funds to bury her or the nearly 100 other unclaimed bodies that are being kept there.

A story like this is gripping enough on a purely personal level … but it is also powerful in a larger context. To what degree does someone like Ms. Chanin — a single person of middle-class means but without close relatives — bear the blame for allowing herself to become the last person living on her city block in a trashed neighborhood? Or are there also larger forces at work that overwhelm the ability of someone of modest means (and elderly as well) to figure out a solution and act on it?

It was the southern agrarian writer Andrew Lytle who wrote in an essay years ago about the potentially dehumanizing effects of urban living. Lytle believed people were meant to live in smaller communities, where folks know each other and look out for neighbors in need. He also warned against large-scale industrialization, arguing that economic downturns lead to massive unemployment and thus dislocation of workers, whereas people who work the land usually can get by in a bad economy.

Of course, Lytle did not anticipate the advent of “industrialized agriculture” and the effect that would have on small farmers. But when you consider the economic landscape in 2009 and its effects not only on Detroit but also communities like Elkhart, IN, Lytle’s essay suddently takes on a very contemporary significance.

And what of Marabel Chanin? WJBK-TV has established a fund to provide a burial ceremony for her — and to do the same with some of the others unclaimed at the morgue. Tax-deductible donations to the “Marabel Chanin & Friends” fund are being accepted c/o National City Bank/PNC (First National Bank Building, 660 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48226). Reportedly, community response has been strong.

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