Tough and lovely

Jan 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

In Delray's south end, where dying neighborhoods border the river's edge, a ramshackle home stands out among the empty fields."The Delray Crib in the Hood," an old house surrounded by fortress-like plywood walls, has for several years been a local curiosity. Passers-by often slow down to stare at or take photos of this unusual fenced-in junkyard with a monikered gateway, decorated year-round with Christmas lights.

It's Bill Peters' place. It belongs to him and others, that is. The 67-year-old lifelong Detroiter lives here with his 18-year-old granddaughter Amanda, her infant son and nearly two dozen mutts, with such names as Tub Tub, Floppy Ears and Black Nose. What's more, Peters has six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, some of whom occasionally stay here. Despite the home's intimidating look, Peters himself isn't frightening; he's actually an amiable, wiry fellow, and his granddaughter is friendly with a shy smile.

The century-old house is Peters' folk art canvas. "I just figured I'm gonna do something, make it look nice around here," he says. "Just something you get in your head and you do it. Just like an artist does — he gets something in his head and he does it. And this is what I did."

Stenciled letters on a plywood board hoisted above the entrance announce the home's name, with the strands of lights curled around it. Two ceramic lions stand guard as sentinels; they were hand-painted by Amanda. The perimeter is bound by a Cyclone fence and 7-foot-high plywood boards. There are flags atop the front door, one of which is Confederate — "It's just heritage," Peters barks. "I don't discriminate." A slot for mail and a box for UPS deliveries are housed in two wood towers flanking the entrance. Inside the gate is a wood door, heralded by a plastic angel and signs warning "Bad Dog." If it's art, it's not intended to be welcoming.

Peters' friend Bud gave the house its name. "He always said, 'Let's go to the crib in the hood to drink,' and they'd always come over here," Peters says. "Then it finally dawned on me what he was doing, so I just came up with the sign. Then I added the lights. I collect lions, so they're at the gate for protection, like the Roman days."

The Crib in the Hood sits in a bleak area. Industry dominates the neighborhood, where houses and stores have all but vanished, and passing trucks from the nearby wastewater treatment plant, Zug Island and other industry drag a stench through the streets. "You get used to it," Peters says of the foul air. "You get the shit trucks coming up through here once in a while. They stink like hell, worse than the plant. They burn it and send it to a landfill. Then you have the levee trucks go by through here, got the awful egg smell to 'em because they got them hot rocks that come from the island."

Delray is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, and Peters is deep within that demographic. The household gets by on Social Security checks, food donations and a small pension from his years at an auto parts factory, as well as selling scrap, which is piled in the yard. "I'm taking care of myself, taking care of my neighbors," he says proudly. "I get food from the church and Focus: HOPE and stuff; what I can't use I take it up to my buddy up the street who's got six grandchildren that he has to take care of."

Peters is in one of the city's rougher areas. He recently extended his plywood fence higher after someone scarred one of his dogs by throwing a chemical on him. Thieves sometimes jump into the yard to steal the scrap, though the dogs usually chase them away. A year ago, his stepson walked down Jefferson Avenue to a local bar for a drink; words were exchanged and he was followed outside and beaten within an inch of his life with a lug wrench. His skull now contains steel plates.

His granddaughter Amanda's boyfriend, the father of her baby, was struck by an intoxicated driver this year as the family stood with him at the front gate. The impact threw him in the air, where he landed dead at Peters' feet in a heap. The family chased the fleeing driver, caught him, beat him wildly and kept him hog-tied until police arrived. Artificial flowers affixed to a telephone pole out front commemorate the spot where the crash happened.

Undeterred by the madness and tragedy, Peters remains a fierce defender of Delray, exemplified by the "I Love Delray" bumper sticker on his battered pickup truck. "Everybody says, 'Why you living down there?' But there ain't nothin' dangerous in Delray," he says. "It's nice here and if people started opening up businesses we'd start getting more people down here. That's what we need, but the way they talk about Delray people are afraid to come down here."

Despite living in a crumbling neighborhood, Peters demonstrates that the impulse for creative expression often appears where it's least expected.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]