- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2016

DETROIT (AP) - Two brothers in a dying neighborhood draped an American flag on a fence. And it became an icon.

The flag began as the signpost for the Burnside Car Wash, located along the curb between a vacant house and an empty field on a remote side street in northeast Detroit. It’s not advertised and isn’t listed in any directory, yet the cars usually lined up waiting their turn for a hand wash suggest it’s one of the most popular car washes in the city, the Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/1T1wAKW ) reported.

This homemade business began when the two brothers got laid off from their jobs and wound up back in their old neighborhood. To get by, they started a car wash in front of their house with little more than a hose, some soap and a vacuum cleaner.

“It just grew on from there,” said Erik Pritchett, 38, who started it with his brother Chris. “We were like, ‘Hey, it’s drawing attention and drawing people to want to come here and feel what we we’re going through.’ So we kept it up.”

They hand-painted a sign on an old piece of wood, offering a wash, a wax and detailing. Almost as an afterthought, they draped a long, bright, clean American flag they’d found over the fence across the street as their logo. And though their unique business would soon became famous in the neighborhood, that flag wound up taking on a life of its own.

“It’s kind of like a trademark or something,” said Chris Pritchett, 29. “Even little babies come out here and get pictures taken. It’s even got its own little hashtag. It’s amazing. We really kind of got lucky.”

People coming to get their cars cleaned started getting out of their vehicles and taking pictures of themselves with the Stars and Stripes behind them — posing, laughing, playing around. The brothers posted the photos on Instagram, and somehow those pictures spread, and their Instagram had thousands of new followers, many who came out to get their own pictures taken and posted, further spreading the legend of this flag.

They put it up not to be ironic or sarcastic, but as a nod to an ideal.

“You got gang colors — you got red and blue gangbangers. We said we’re going to go beyond that, to do something different, put the American flag up,” said Chris Smith, 37, a cousin who helped build the business.

“You got gangbangers with those colors, but on the flag that’s the whole United States. We’re Americans. We love our United States. It’s a community thing.”

Their car wash became a success because people admired the brothers for their determination, their hard work, the way they created something out of almost nothing. Their flag became the symbol of all that.

“We were just born into this environment,” Chris Pritchett said. “I didn’t ask to be born here in the ghetto, you know? I would’ve chosen the suburbs or anything else. But basically you’ve got to see what you can use as your natural resources in your environment, just to build your community.”

___

Burnside Street runs a slanted east-west for a handful of blocks just outside the border with Hamtramck. Those living here call the neighborhood East Davison, in reference to the freeway cutting through to the north. On some streets, half the houses are abandoned; some left standing have been scorched by fire, many are just worn down. It’s quiet most of the time because so many people have moved away.

A few years back, Chris and his brother Erik wound up back here after losing their jobs.

Chris Pritchett was laid off from a job with a cable company after the economic downturn, and his brother Erik was laid off from an auto supplier when its main customer, General Motors, went bankrupt. Both were staying again in their parents’ house in the old neighborhood. Both had kids to support. Neither wanted to sit around.

“My dad, he was always a hard worker,” Chris said of his father, a Chrysler autoworker. “I’ve always had the drive to work, and to do, and to meet people.”

One day, he and his brother were rooting around the abandoned property across the street and came across the makings of a business. “We found like a 100-foot water hose, and we said, ‘We could wash cars.’ Then my brother found the flag, so we put the flag on the gate, washed our first car, took a picture and ever since they’ve been coming.”

News first spread by word of mouth, then on social media, of the hard work and the thorough job the brothers were doing. So many cars started coming, they hired four people from the area to help out.

They’re open for business just about every day year-round, if the weather’s good. There’s no set charge for the hand wash; instead they accept donations determined by the customer’s satisfaction with the job. It’s usually $10 or $15, just $4 to have your car vacuumed.

As the business grew, so did its impact on the block. There’s an empty lot across the street that’s roughly the size of two missing houses, and the brothers cleared it, mowed it and made it a park of sorts where they light bonfires inside a circle of concrete chunks. They put out trash cans and a bucket for empty bottles. They set up a grill to serve hot dogs and Polish sausages to customers and visitors. They even put their Internet router near their home’s front window so customers could have free Wi-Fi while they waited for their wash.

In a neighborhood with little else going on, the Burnside Car Wash became a phenomenon not just for what it was, but also what it represents. And people have made a point to support it.

Thyron Card pulled up in his new Chevy Sonic — his second visit of the week.

“I’m trying to help out the old neighborhood,” said the 69-year-old, relaxing in his car with the window down. “It’s good for the neighborhood, keeps people out of trouble. We need more stuff like this, like this kind of unity.”

Card lives across town on the west side, but he still has family in this area and visits several times a week to get his car washed and to soak in the atmosphere before getting his car done.

“He come by and kick it with me, just talk about life, so he isn’t in a rush to get nowhere or nothing like that,” Chris Pritchett explained.

Other former neighbors heard through the grapevine about what was happening on their old street and started coming back to see it. And sometimes there were unplanned neighborhood reunions taking place in the cleared field by the bonfire. Often, there’s a half-dozen cars just idling with their windows down, their drivers joining the party while waiting their turn in line.

“It’s already the popular thing around here,” Smith said. “Most people go to a car wash, you can’t really sit around and enjoy the atmosphere. Here you’ve got something with a big atmosphere, you got something that people can sit around and enjoy themselves.”

Raymond Jackson brought his 2007 Toyota Camry and was standing on the sidewalk, watching his car being scrubbed. He pointed to the little kids playing in the field and watching the older men work, and sometimes helping out in small ways.

“It gets them out of the house other than being in a gang,” said the 32-year-old. “The drugs and the gangs is killing being a kid. This is part of being a kid — just getting out and washing a car with your family and stuff, and enjoying it.”

Jackson used to live in the neighborhood and moved recently to Roseville. But he still comes back here to get his car cleaned and support the business.

Smith noted all the kids as he scrubbed Jackson’s car, and said the sight of this is good for them.

“This is all we got,” Smith said. “Look at what they leave us.” He was talking about the empty lots, the tall weeds, the slumping houses all around.

“The kids hear gunshots, helicopters flying, police chasing someone around the corner. But when we’re washing the cars the kids are motivated to wash the cars, to get them to look past all this that they see every day, so they see us doing something positive. It takes their mind off it.”

___

The sunlight beamed through the spray of water, making prisms that split into rainbows.

It was a warm spring Saturday, and the brothers and their helpers were scrubbing and rinsing another customer’s car, as several other vehicles waited behind them in the backsplash from the hose. Today, there would be no vacuuming. Theirs broke the day before.

As always, there was no loud music playing. Nobody was clowning or swearing. The men worked quietly and diligently on each car in turn as people lounged in the street or stood by the flag, talking.

“It’s all just positive vibes,” Chris Pritchett said. “We’ve never had a fight out here, never had a shoot-out out here, never had anything stolen out here. We have the flag to bring people together, and they’re so happy they want to take a picture and show themselves off on the Internet. We treat them like celebrities.”

Once in a while an unknowing driver would pass down the otherwise deserted street and slow to a crawl at the sight of the men working an organized assembly line of cars; the little kids playing under a tree in the empty lot, the bonfire perfuming the block with wood smoke and the large American flag stretched out on the fence.

“You go drive west side to east side, south to north - you see any kind of flag?” Smith asked. “We got peoples that drive past, they’re like, ‘Is that a flag we just drove past?’ They’re like, ‘This is in the ‘hood?’”

Veterans have shown up to stand by the flag. So have mailmen. A motorcycle gang pulled up to park and get their picture taken here once. Everyone imbues it with their own meaning.

Two girls waiting in line got out of their car and posed before the flag. In a snap, they too were on Instagram. It was their first photo with the famous icon, but not their first visit here.

“I think community support is important,” said Asia Howard, 21. “If every block is messed up, at least keep your neighborhood and your block OK and keep everyone together like they have, so we can look out for each other.”

Chris Pritchett walked over to the bonfire and added a few logs while the children played nearby. His brother Erik does landscaping work, too, and he got the wood on one of his landscaping jobs — again making use of what they find in their environment.

They’d like to get benches for their park so people can sit. And maybe get their own building someday. At the very least get a new vacuum.

And they’ve talked about helping others in the city set up this kind of homegrown business, after seeing the effect a little car wash like theirs has had on the old neighborhood.

“It’s just to thrive, just to get people together, just a motivation to bring money to the community, you feel me?” Chris Pritchett said. “Because I actually think we can change the community ourselves instead of waiting on someone to help us out.”

___

Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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