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You have found the detroitblog. This is about my wanderings and debaucheries in Detroit, as well as observations, news, commentary and ramblings about the city itself. I love Detroit, even the old Detroit of blight, waste and emptiness. Hockeytown. Motown. I grew up here, had my best times here. It's my town.


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Nothing

This weekend's urban explorations didn't go so well. First, my B&E partner was totally hungover from a party the night before and woke up too late, and my legs were exhausted from hockey the night before. Nevertheless we set out on foot downtown, trying all sorts of ways to get into various buildings. At one point we wound up under a parking lot in some very, very spooky, dark tunnel full of trash, liquor bottles, dripping water and scariness all around, not to mention a very strong, unidentifiable stench of rotting something. This lot was adjacent to a building we wanted to get into, and we figured there might be an underground connection of some sort, but no such luck.

Finally, after a couple tiring hours of walking around downtown, we just went into a building on Merchant's Row that's being rehabbed for lofts, a building nearly identical to the one next to it, which we'd thoroughly explored a few months back. But the interior had been scraped clean, so there was nothing worth seeing; it was more of a way to avoid being total failures that day. We went up to the roof, which entailed rather dangerous climbs up various rickety ladders and fire escapes, and took a few thrill-free photos of the water towers on neighboring buildings, as well as other uninspiring views.


On the plus side, I did get to test out my new digital camera, which is light years ahead of my old one, technologically speaking. The old one finally died; it was the visit to the National Theater in mid-November that killed it. All the dust that was in the air, which covered us in a fine layer of presumably hazardous powder, got into the camera, and from that day on it had never been the same. So I had to shell out hundreds of freakin' dollars for a new one after an already-expensive Christmas.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Jingle Bells

Merry Detroit Christmas, a white Christmas as you can see from the photo. No, it's not some small town street up north in the forests of Lapeer County, it's right off Freud on the east side, in the middle of what was (and still sort of is) a residential area but is now more like a prairie/forest combination after the area was systematically cleared of substandard, collapsing housing in anticipation of yet-to-materialize new housing. Have a nice Christmas.







Monday, December 22, 2003

Park Avenue

Yet another good weekend of urban exploration. After a futile hour or so of scouting various locations downtown, we discovered that the Detroit Building on Park Avenue, another building we've been trying unsuccessfully to get into, had a board missing from a window, and in we went. That's the way it's been - We'll go by a target building 30 times with no luck, then one day the front door will be wide open, or a boarded-up window will be missing its board.

The Detroit Building, a neo-classical 10-story, was finished in 1923, and like many of the derelict buildings in the city, it's owned by Mike Ilitch. There was little in the way of artifacts inside apart from some 1970s posters advertising local jazz nights at area bars, and some envelopes with the address of Detroit Building tenants. At one point on the fifth floor we encountered a natty street cat with strange features, sitting placidly on a chair, but it ran as I fumbled with my camera, trying to take its picture.


As we ascended floors each level was worse than the last. Water damage had destroyed the building, and by the time we got to the upper floor the ceilings had completely dissolved and were mounds of powder on the floor. One of the walls on the top floor was a mini waterfall, complete with serene trickling sound and frozen pool on the floor.

For the most part, the interior was like every other builing: empty rooms with walls and ceilings in various states of collapse, paint peeling off the walls, clouds of hazardous powder in the air every time we touched something, and the same peculiar odor we find in all the buildings we enter, a strange combination of supermold, water-damaged wood and plaster, rotten carpet, stale air and dead animals. On the roof we looked down and saw camels, donkeys and sheep in the parking lot behind the Fox Theater, prepping for a show.


The building is apparently slated for demolition, though there seems to be no hurry, as I've heard these plans for years. Unfortunately, the seemingly solid exterior belies the absolutely devastated condition of the upper floors. Although just about any building can be rehabbed, it would take a helluva lot of money to fix the place up, and the way things are in Detroit, it's hard to see anyone stepping up to do so.

Our dedication to getting into these buildings before the history in them is destroyed either through demolition or renovation has paid off immensely. We have yet to have a weekend of total failure, and each week we check off another building on our list of target sites. Despite having done this dozens of times though, the thing about Detroit is there's so many of these structures that the list is essentially endless. We're in no danger of running out of targets anytime soon. And so far neither of us has been injured and we still haven't found a dead body in any of the buildings (though I keep expecting our luck to run out on the latter sometime soon.) It's been an interesting combination of caving, rock climbing, hiking, history lesson, photo shoot, architecture admiration and relatively harmless breaking and entering. It's utterly exhausting, somewhat dangerous and indescribably fun.




As I was driving down the I-75 service drive between Eight Mile and Seven Mile on Friday night, I saw a pack of dogs in the middle of the road. I stopped, another car stopped, but someone in an SUV who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention kept going, and as the dogs scattered at the last moment, one of them was struck and run over by the SUV, a few feet in front of me. I saw the tire roll over the dog. Horribly enough, the dog was not killed, but was writhing and howling in pain, trying to drag itself (and its now-paralyzed back legs) to the curb using its front legs. It was emitting a gut-wrenching howl, the same noise all mortally wounded creatures make. An awful sight to begin the evening.

The next day, in early afternoon I drove by the same spot, hoping to see the dog lying dead – at least it would mean he didn’t drag himself through the streets all night in agony. As I pulled up I saw the dog lying on its side. Good, I thought, he died last night. But as I got closer, I saw it move. And sure enough, once I pulled up, it lifted its head, looked directly at me, and struggled to get on its front legs, with its useless lower half hanging motionless. I was horrified. The dog had spent roughly 18 hours in pain, in the cold, on the grass by the service drive, with no water, waiting to die.

The obvious thing to do was to kill it and put it out of its misery, but I had no means to do so, and I wouldn't have had the heart to beat a dog dead. Also, a passerby might have seen me and assumed I was a sick dog killer just beating a dog for the hell of it. I called the Michigan Humane Society, and they eventually picked him up, most likely to euthanise him. But the sight of the dog struggling to get on its feet, but collapsing back to the ground, and the thought of it suffering in the cold night, alone, haunted my thoughts all weekend.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Winter Wonderland

A long lapse between posts. Couldn't be helped. December is very busy in the newspaper business, what with days off and truncated deadlines and employees taking time off, leaving more work for others. Not to mention that hockey season is in full swing and I'm playing or practicing four times a week. All this, regrettably, left little time for urban exploration. Until Sunday.

The Metropolitan Builing is a beautiful, Gothic-style, triangular structure built in the 1920s in a wedge-shaped space near John R and Woodward. The interior had been gutted several years back for yet another non-happening lofts project, so there was little to find inside besides ice on the floors. With a gentle snow slowly cascading down to the quiet Sunday streets of Detroit, we slowly climbed to the roof and took in a silent city in the mid-afternoon. Quite serene and beautiful. We sat up there for an hour, taking in the scene. But it was rather cold that day, and being outside so long screwed up my core temperature so much that I was shivering for the next couple of days, regardless of the indoor temperature. Still, it was well worth it.









We had also managed to get into a strange structure on Woodward where someone had already kicked the door in, but it turned out to be a one-floor restaurant. Inside we found shattered lamps and an empty whisky bottle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

While aimlessly surfing the Internet in an attempt to kill time here at work, I came across some info on the Grinnell Brothers building that we managed to get into last week.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Up on the Roof

A long weekend. Went to a party Friday night where they were serving absinthe. I've had that only once before in my life, and once again it resulted in me being absolutely trashed, a buzz that was sort of like a combination of liquor and acid. Left the party early and went barhopping with C at the Well, Bronx, Fifth Avenue and I believe another place or two, though the absinthe sort of blew my memory out. I do remember eating a huge meal in Greektown somewhere, then stumbling into the Greektown Casino for only the second time in my life (I'm not really into gambling), put a dollar in a slot machine, and won like $30. So the meal turned out to be free.

The effects of the absinthe must've carried over to the next day, because I was absolutely useless in my hockey game Saturday night. My line got zero points that night, a 5-0 shutout of the other team fighting for first place.


On Sunday we did our usual urban exploring, but found little luck getting into the dozen or so buildings we targeted. We did, however, stumble across an open door on Woodward, on Merchant's Row, and made our way through a nice nine-story building. Turns out it was called the Grinnell Brothers Building, built in 1907. The Grinnell Brothers sold pianos, along with other musical instruments, and later offered radios and TVs.

It was hard to tell when the place was finally abandoned, but the graffiti we found had dates no later than 1973. We had to tiptoe through, because the building was connected to the one next door, and we could hear someone working in that building. At one point we heard them moving around in the Grinnell Brothers building, then leave, locking us in.

We made our way to the roof, and once again took in a great view of the city unseen (except by people like us) for decades.


It was here that I found something I hadn't seen on the roof of any other building - a small lawn consisting of grass and moss. Roof trees are very common on abandoned skyscrapers in Detroit, and there are some spectacular examples of those, most notably on the roof of the Metropolitan Building, the Fort Shelby hotel and the Lafayette Building, where there are 20-foot specimens shooting skyward. But never have we seen grass. In December, no less.


We found a ladder on the roof and used it to climb to a perch which led to a wall separating this building from another next to it. I yanked myself up, hurting my still-healing collarbone in the process, and made it over to the other building, which was notable for having a small, very old water tank on the roof. Unfortunately, the building was occupied, judging by the purring heating system on the roof, so we didn't break into it.


Inside there were a few curiosities, including a giant black-and-white wall photo of the city skyline taken from Windsor, circa 1965. We found an iron staircase with intricate detail. We stumbled into rooms painted in garish colors, as well as what appeared to be a former restaurant or cafeteria. I found an old typewriter still in its place, surrounded by blank stationery. Little in the way of souvenirs except some envelopes with the Grinnell Brothers address on them.


We've exhausted all the easy-to-access buildings; now it's a matter of the sheer luck of stumbling upon buildings that just happen to be momentarily open, as has been the case the past two weeks. But time is working against us; a lot of these century-old buildings are being gutted, stripped of their architecturally stunning interiors and converted to lofts in the hopes of attracting white people back downtown to create some city planner's idea of what a gentrified downtown should be. In the process, though, they're stripping downtown of the very things that make it different that Novi, or Macomb Township, or any other suburb with little history and even less character.

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