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.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

The site is having bandwidth issues lately, so if there aren't any pictures, come back later.

Monday, April 26, 2004


We finally broke our streak of bad luck. The past few weekends of exploring had brought nerve-wracking encounters with weirdos with cameras, threatening building caretakers, and an unpleasant encounter with authorities. We were like a sports team on a four-game losing streak. We needed a win to restore our confidence, which had been utterly shattered.

Most people are familiar with the Motown Museum on the Boulevard, but a lot of people don't realize there are actually two Motown sites in Detroit. In 1968, Berry Gordy moved the business operations to the Donovan Building on Woodward, then abruptly abandoned it a few years later when he moved the label to California. There's been talk of renovating it (or demolishing it) and turning into a newer, bigger Motown museum, but so far nothing's really happened.

We had targeted the Motown Building before, but law enforcement officials interrupted our explorations. We were determined to have another go at it.

But we almost didn't even get the exploration off the ground. Just as we were scouting, getting ready to go in, a junkie and his friend made themselves at home at the back of the building, where they proceeded to take turns using a newspaper as a toilet. Then they kind of nodded out on the spot. We drove around. Came back – they were still there. Finally they left, and as we tried to get in we had to maneuver around the stinkiest pile of shit I have ever smelled. It caused me to gag and hold my breath just as I needed to breathe the most, i.e. during strenuous activity. Meanwhile, there were hypodermic needles and used condoms all over in the dirt. Wonderful.

I managed to slice my arm up going in, on a rusty piece of metal. Well hello tetanus, I thought. I’m used to cold-weather exploring, with layers of clothing, and hadn't thought this through for an 80-degree day. Note to self: no more short sleeves.

The first floor had been occupied by a security firm called JOWA, and had boxes that had contained guns in them, targets for target practice, and other pseudo-law enforcement gear. Hobo stuff, like empty boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken from when it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, were mixed in big piles of trash.

The second floor is very surreal. The windows have been covered on the outside with some sort of thick, blue plastic, so the rooms are tinged in a very deep blue. Various large printing machines are scattered about, some knocked over, left on their sides. A sort of inadvertant light court exists between the Motown building and the Sanders building next door, and someone punched a huge hole that allows access to the empty neighboring structure.

A bunch of Jackson 5 LP order sheets lay scattered in boxes, along with envelopes and stationery with the Motown address on them. Four Tops LP covers lay scattered around. A Diana Ross poster was wrinkled and dusty on the floor. A bunch of Rare Earth pins, announcing "Rare Earth Day," were left scattered and rusting. I had expected the place to be stropped clean, yet there were indications everywhere you looked that Motown had indeed once operated out of there.

Normal light again enters the building on the third floor and up. The offices are the same as in most of the abandoned skyscrapers in the city – paper scattered everywhere, desks overturned, pigeons appearing out of holes in the ceiling, flapping their wings maniacally and banging into windows as they try to get out. There’s a hell of a view, though, of all of downtown to the south, and the still out-of-place Comerica Park, and the miserable Crosswinds condos that look garish and strangely fake, plopped in the middle of century-old structures. If they looked bad from the ground, they look more ridiculous from above.

Just being in the Motown building was cool enough because I’m very big on soul music, and my all-time favorite soul singer is Marvin Gaye. But I found the jackpot of strange memorabilia on an upper floor. First, it’s surprising anything is left in there, because people have been roaming through the building for years, destroying things, taking souvenirs and dirtying up anything of value. So I went into utter shock when I went looking through the pieces of paper left in a desk drawer and realized that all the stuff I had in my hands once belonged to Marvin Gaye.

One envelope was addressed to him and had his Blue Cross insurance pamphlets issued by Motown. Other forms had his name on them. There were other snippets of envelopes with his address on them, as well as a proxy card for what appeared to be a General Electric stockholder vote. I was floored. Yeah, it wasn't much, because the building had been picked over pretty well over the years, but finding anything was a treat.

A lot of the stuff belonged to his wife, Anna, who also happened to be Berry Gordy's sister. A checkbook listed her purchases around town in 1966. It reads like a register of the businesses that were thriving downtown at the time. Other stuff had Marvin's name, address and phone number on them. A bunch of receipts from Hudson's storage had his wife’s name on it. Mrs. Gaye seems to have had a fondness for furs, because she apparently spent a lot of money either purchasing furs or insuring them. I found receipts for seven different furs.

Talk about multi-layered remnants of Detroit history - Marvin Gaye's address on a J.L. Hudson receipt from the 1960s found in the Motown Building on Woodward.

Up a couple of floors was a room where we found we found the letters that fans sent in, including applications for the Motown Fan Club, as well as query letters for budding musical groups. Here's the text of one that was pretty similar to the rest:

To whom this may concern:

My name is Pamela Watts, and I am 13 years old. Two friends of mine, and I organized a singing group. We tried to get someone to listen to us but our letters weren't answered. So we're trying you. We hope you're kind enough to listen to us sing. People who have heard us say we're good, but we need perfessionals (sic) to hear us and tell us their opinions. We know we're not as great as the super-bad Jackson 5, but we're pretty good. So please give us a try. Thank you.

Respectfully yours,
Pamela Watts

We kept climbing, but the best was behind us. The upper floors were totally empty, except for one room whose decor shouted 70s funk, with flourescent planets and Earth painted on the walls, as well as some glow-in-the-dark psychedelic totem of some kind. Got up to the roof on what turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day, and rested there for a while, being careful to squat near the edges because we were very clearly visible from the streets.

Returned to our base in Woodbridge, cooling down in the shade of the trees with the pheasants, watching loose dogs run around and the sun slowly set.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Deep Throat

Rarely do we do mid-week explorations, because ever since General Motors and Compuware moved downtown the city is swarming with people, at least before 5 p.m. But I had a day off and little else constructive to do at the time, so we paid a return visit to the National Theater on Monroe.

The National was one of several vaudeville theaters that once lined Monroe, Detroit's theater district before movies became popular and spawned the creation of larger movie theaters, like the United Artists.

As the smaller theaters on Monroe became outmoded by the newer theaters a few blocks over, the National survived on increasingly lower-grade films, hanging on over the years, until finally it became a rather fancy venue for viewing burlesque and porn. Finally it closed and was added to the list of abandoned Detroit historic structures.

The National, designed by Albert Kahn and finished in 1912, has a visually rich exterior, loaded with detail that gets deeper and more intricate the more you stare at it. Twin terra cotta latticework towers topped with gold caps frame the small main body of the theater, whose most noticeable feature is a huge arched window. There's recessed round-arch art glass windows, and Pewabic tiles decorating both the facade and the lobby.

The inside is somewhat bare, owing to a Preservation Wayne cleanup and removal of the seats a few years ago, but there's still plenty of unusual finds inside. An old door with delicate detailing is set on the stage on its side. A side curtain features strange nude dancing maidens on it, still visible through the grime and dust.

The main stage curtain has the word "asbestos" prominently on it, actually meant as a reassurance to audience members fearful that a stage fire could spread to the audience. In the event of an unexpected stage inferno, the curtain would drop and theoretically keep it from scorching the vaudeville-viewing audience.

Evidence of the theater's inglorious late-life porn existence was still there, as half a banner with the giant words "Deep Throat" emblazened across it was found on the stage. Man, if only the banner was intact it would have been a hell of a find, but like most things found in these buildings, it was ragged and incomplete.

The last time we visited the National there was so much dust in the air that my digital camera got ruined. This time I had a much better camera, but I'll be damned if the same thing didn't happen - as soon as I got out of the building the open/close mechanism was all gummed up, and the lens and viewfinder were coated in powder that still remains in hard-to-clean parts. I still can't understand why that theater is so much worse than other buildings around town, but when youre inside and turn on your flashlight you can see the thick dust swirling in the light.

We realized again why weekday explorations are difficult, especially when you do them in a building adjacent to a giant corporation. We popped out directly in front of an old dapper man with a cane, who, after initial surprise, affected perfect indifference to the sight of two bedraggled people leaping out of an abandoned building. But he was a Detroiter. The Compuware suburbanites, however, were transfixed, shocked to see someone coming out of a nasty abandoned Detroit building that they have to look at everyday from their clean offices. They stared and stared, and kept doing so even when we stared back. A police car sat at the corner, a city employee truck idled a few yards down, yet neither gave us trouble. We walked brusquely to the car and left.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

I’ve always liked hearing visitors’ impressions of Detroit, and somehow I stumbled upon this site, which features a number of unflattering opinions about our city.

Best quote:

“Don't stray too far from downtown on foot---unless you want to meet God sooner than you'd planned.”

Our driving habits seem to garner a lot of attention. I’ve always been aware that Detroiters’ driving is considered bad for various reasons, but I never really noticed because it generally describes how I drive anyway.

“Drive like a maniac here and you'll fit right in! I'm only slightly exaggerating too. I will tell you one thing do NOT stop at yellow lights or you're bound to get hit from behind. Keep on moving unless it turns red and yet you'll still see some Detroit drivers passing right through. Being an Ohio driver originally I still have trouble adjusting to my 'Detroit Driving' and I'm quite sure I'm going to end up with a ticket in Ohio soon enough because I didn't switch to my 'Cleveland Driving' quick enough!”

I know exactly what he means. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wound up behind a car with an Ohio license plate, driving down a local freeway in the fast lane at 56 mph. It’s maddening.

Other reactions, though, are predictable and typical:

Don't miss out on the slums of Detroit (Well 90% of the city is the ghetto so they aren't hard to miss). Anyway, there are some burned out treasures and a lot of abandoned cars in vacant lots that could have some salvage value. They were probably stolen like my rental car that was stolen right in front of me in downtown Detroit when I was on my last business trip there. If you're going to salvage anything though, be sure that you pay off the local gangs and drug dealers so they don't shoot you down for wearing the wrong neighborhood colors or not having your hat turned backward in a certain direction. If you love Harlem , visit Detroit, where you not only get the ghettos, but you can hear the pops and bangs of Independence Day year-round compliments of Detroit's local thugs and gangsters.

Other people are just throwning punches in the dark. One guy, who actually claims to live in the city, says this:

“People are slobs here. Detroiters like to pretend they are a 'world class city'---as if saying it over and over, mantra like, will make it so. The blues bars are, of course, very blue-collar---t-shirt and jeans will do. .”

I’m not sure which blues bars he’s referring to, since there are about zero in town right now. The Attic is in Hamtramck, and the Soup Kitchen is in ashes. Another equally confused reviewer refers to the “abandoned asbestous (sic) house district.”

One reviewer summed up his experience succinctly: “The Motor City takes a while to grow on you.”

It's great to hear the reactions of non-residents to Detroit. I was in New Orleans in the late 80s, and cops stopped to warn me and my girlfriend, the tourists, about the dangers of the part of the city that we were walking through at the time. One of the cops asked where I was from. “Detroit,” I replied. He stared for a minute and said “never mind,” and drove off.

Monday, April 12, 2004

No good exploration tales this week. Easter, plus a week of vacation preceding it, kept me outside of buildings. Not for long. More to come soon...

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A hole in the wall

The Farwell Building sits in Capital Park, an area of the city best known nowadays as a giant open air bus stop. The Farwell is an eight-story “Chicago School” style rectangular building, last used mainly for offices, though in the 70s it reportedly became a popular living space for artists.

We were all set to use various complicated rock climbing techniques to get into the building, and just as we were about to start, I noticed that some nut had hammered a 1-foot by 3-foot hole in the cinderblock wall at the back, leaving a pile of rubble on the ground, both inside and out. We squeezed in nearly effortlessly, relieved we didn’t have to risk life and limb on this one.

The Farwell seems to have gone through a phase of being a total hobo hotel. Some floors had seven or eight different rooms that had been occupied by different people in each room, with all the hallmarks of hobo occupancy – hundreds of batteries, Sterno for cooking, lighters everywhere, liquor bottles, piles of dirty clothes and food wrappers. Not to mention the always-present prescription drug bottles scattered all over the place.

Some rooms had been occupied by a girl, judging by the clothing and toiletries left behind. Some other rooms clearly showed the presence at one time of children, with toys and games scattered about, and little kids’ clothing on the floor.

Elaborate cooking areas had been put together in some of the rooms, using barbecue grills, or sterno, or in some cases simple wood fires underneath elevated pans. One person had a grill set up near the light court that runs through the center of the building, taking advantage of the natural exhaust system.

The lobby was still pretty, despite damage from neglect. Marble covered the walls and pillars, which led up to a ceiling covered in multicolored Tiffany mosaic tiles. Meanwhile, as we stood in the cold darkness trying to get my camera to take decent photos, the sounds of busses and of people shouting at each other in Capital Park echoed through the empty lobby.

Other areas had been lived in by artists who crafted and painted things out of the materials at hand. Various rooms had been converted into works of art. Someone had developed a spider web theme using yarn and string to construct various versions of webs on the wall. In another room, someone had kept a very large pet snake, and took its shedded skin and adhered strips of the skin to the windows. Other pieces of shedded skin had been painted and glued to a wall. One upper-floor room had bits of colored shag carpet tacked onto the ceiling beams. Other rooms had designs painted on the walls, some with a black-and-white theme, some in bright colors. It was hard to tell how much was left over from the days when the building was populated by artists, and how much was from squatters with time on their hands.

The most beautiful feature is the light court that ascends through five floors. Unfortunately, it’s been used as the launching point for trash dumpoffs from the floors surrounding it, because a pile of debris several feet high sits at the bottom of it.

Got to the roof, but again it was a late-winter cloudy day, which doesn’t provide the most ideal lighting for photography.

As we were leaving, I got stuck in the small entry hole in the cinderblocks. Just then, three people, a woman and two men, emerged from behind a van at the end of the alley and started snapping photos of me, helpless, wedged in a hole in the wall. Holy shit. I wriggled free, but to get back to the car I had to actually head towards the photographer, who kept snapping away merrily. I have no idea why they were there. We left very, very fast.

We actually visited the Farwell over a month ago, but I didn’t post about it right away because I wanted to go back, perhaps at night, and get some rooftop shots of the area skyline. But a few days after the visit I checked the alley and someone had come along and further hammered out the cinderblocks, leaving a huge, conspicuous hole that was far more likely to be discovered (and thus resealed) by authorities. Stupid move. That kind of idiocy ruins it for everyone else, because the city or the owner is then going to seal it twice as well later on.

Sure enough, last week I went back and there was a brand new wall in place, preventing anyone else from enjoying the experience.

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