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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Odds and Ends

On the corner of Brush and Bethune, along the less-visible route we traverse when we need to head north and are in a condition we don't particularly want the police to see us in, sits an old building that looks moments away from total collapse.

The 101-year-old brick building was originally the home of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old civic organization that's had a longtime presence in the city.

The first Odd Fellows lodge was instituted in Detroit in December 1843, and several followed over the course of the next few decades. The American Eagle Lodge, Number 441, of the I.O.O.F. was instituted in Detroit in 1891, and the group built their own hall on Bethune in 1903. The building also housed the Brotherhood of Railroad Firemen, the Lucky Star Lodge, Old Glory Encampment No. 171, and various other Odd Fellows lodges. In addition, the building also housed a barber shop operated successively by two rather distinctly named barbers: Clem Childress and Minton Gray.

The building also has a small part in labor history - in the early spring of 1935, the first organizing meeting of the American Federation of Labor federal union, which eventually became Local 140, was held in the Odd Fellows Hall. About 125 people attended, representing Chrysler’s Dodge Truck, Detroit Forge and Amplex plants.

By the 1950s the Oddfellows had cleared out, and the building was taken over by the Gospel Temple Baptist Church, later replaced by Emanuel Baptist Church in the 1970s, which renovated the interior with cheap fake wood paneling over almost all the original walls, and split some rooms into two. The building's last incarnation was as the Unity Apostolic Cathedral.

I had been there before, in the dead of dreary, gray winter, but somehow I recently lost the photos I had taken that day, so I had to go back and take the same photos all over again, goddamnit. Not much had changed since last winter, though a large, pink, plastic dog that I had propped up in a second-floor window had mysteriously vanished. But the place was still one of the most structurally suspect buildings I've ever explored.

On one first-floor wall, remaining legible under decades of paint and wallpaper now gone, was an old-timey sign directing lodge members to the basement smoking room, which now featured later-added and zealously pasted "No Smoking" signs on several walls to contradict the libertine tendencies of the past.

The roof has caved in, shoving tons of debris down through the third floor and onto the second floor in some parts. Some floors on the second level and (what remains of) the third level tilt and sag, awaiting their own eventual collapse onto the floor beneath, and making walking on them a delicate task. The column-supported, enclosed, elevated, wood porch at the front of the building is in a state of war with gravity, and is clearly losing the battle.

The basement featured concrete walls with graffiti obviously encouraged in a fit of 1970s church-group-sanctioned expressionism. Lyrics from Beatles songs ("Love is all you need") and pithy slogans like "Soul" and "Black Power" were neatly lettered in various colors. A river of wood boards came streaming in through a ground-level basement window at one point in time, winding its way downward and onto the floor.

An entire family living across the street came onto their porch to sit and basically stare in our direction once we were inside. We wandered slowly through the rooms and patiently waited for them to grow bored with us and go back inside before we left.

Monday, September 27, 2004

A Walk in the Park

I was strolling down Woodward Saturday afternoon, with heavy arms tired from unsuccessfully scaling a wall, and I heard someone yell "John!" and turned and saw a friend driving down the street. The city has 900,000 people and somehow two explorers spot each other at the exact same moment in the heart of downtown. Neither of us had any real plans, so we spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly, checking out buildings, taking photos, engaged in pointlessness.

While driving past tree-filled Cass Park we noticed an unusually large crowd assembled in the center of the park, which is best known for being a 24-hour gathering spot for local homeless. And nobody likes a good hobofest more than I do, so in we went.

Cass Park is generally all hobos, but it's a cross-section of hobo society - the alcoholics, the junkies, the sober but mentally ill, the aged prostitutes who look shriveled, haggard and particularly Appalachian in their early old age, the nonclassifiable, the multiclassifiable, the down and out, the out of luck, the working poor who came for a meal, and two out-of-place guys with cameras in the midst of it all.

A couple of busses from Greater Grace Temple had pulled right into the park, and the church members were holding an impromptu worship service in conjunction with the dispensing of food and clothing to the homeless. The worship service was basically the price to pay for the freebies, and about half the people dutifully and politely sat and listened, as a demolition crew finally tore down what remained of the oft-torched Westchester Apartments across the street.

At one point the worship service became very theatrical, with amateur exorcisms taking place in the midst of it all. One woman grabbed a clearly disturbed and filthy homeless woman by the head and, squeezing it like a beach ball, began shouting loudly for the devil to go away. Three or four church cohorts joined in. I always thought that nothing freaks out crazy people more than squeezing their heads and screaming at them, but the woman remained docile and accepting. At the same time, a lone woman stood at the center of the event, loudly singing spiritual songs, while an older woman stood with her, crying softly.

Dozens of people stood in line waiting for the food and clothing at the other end of the park. An energetic homeless man was playing the role of MC, walking up and down the line and exhorting everyone to stand and wait for the goods - "They got enough food for everybody! Just wait in line," he kept shouting in a cheerful cadence, though everyone had already been waiting in line for a long time. He was a few minutes behind the curve. "Look at all those clothes!" he yelled, admiring the giant pile of giveaway clothes that had been sitting there all along. Nobody paid attention to him, instead waiting quietly, staring forlornly at the ground, keeping to themselves.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Wow, publicity. Well, for those new to the site, here's a roundup of best-of buildings to check out: the United Artists Building, the Statler Hotel, the Book Cadillac Hotel before they scraped it out recently, the Kresge Store on Woodward, and perhaps the best and my favorite, the Motown Building, complete with Marvin Gaye's personal effects.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Graphic Detail

The message, spray-painted on a double door at the back of the building, was hardly subtle. "Come on in fucker, I'll make sure you get severely hurt." Normally a taunt like that only encourages me to do exactly what they don't want me to do. After a minute, though, I began wondering if some nut booby-trapped the place, and entry by me might cause me to get stabbed or banged in the head by some planted falling debris. But after a little bit of cautious testing and poking around, I went right in.

The Graphic Arts Building, located on Burroughs between Woodward and Cass, was built in 1925, and officially opened June 15, 1926. Its facade was highly detailed, cream-colored terra-cotta done in Italian Romanesque style. Located in what was at the time the heart of Detroit's advertising district, the four-story building was designed by the architecture firm Murphy and Burns.

Its original tenants included the Northern Electrotype Company, Thomas P. Henry Typesetters Company - advertising typographers, the Wayne Color Plate Company - photo engineers and commercial photography, and the Brown Art Studios, among others. The building's tenants remained steady through the decades - the Wayne Color Plate Company, for example, retained offices there through the 1970s, until gradually the advertising industry relocated to the suburbs, and the building lost too many tenants to remain viable. Of course, once it closed, the elements, scavengers and vandals did their best to hasten its demise.

A Wayne State cop sitting in a nearby parking lot doing absolutely nothing with himself delayed my entry considerably. I had to walk around and wait until he decided to do some work. Getting inside the building was easier in theory than in practice, and I received a small gash in my back from a rusty spike of metal as a reward for my hubris and hastiness as I climbed in. The building is currently undergoing renovation, which means anything of interest has been scraped out and shoveled out into dumpsters that sit in the alley adjacent to the building. In fact, the only thing noteworthy was the unique sentiment finger-written in dust on the dumpsters outside. "Fuck this world. I love heaven. Jesus is God," it said. I don't think I've ever seen the word "fuck" in a religious statement before. Come to think of it, you don't usually see much Jesus-themed graffiti in general.

The upper floors are totally decayed, and the roof is little more than random patches of concrete with large holes in between. Graffiti is all over the place, both inside and on the roof. Small sculpted lions heads are arrayed along the roof at the front of the building, though one or two seem to have been chiseled out, perhaps following their stolen Lee Plaza bretheren to some townhouse project in Chicago.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Once again, the leaders of our world-class city are tackling the large issues that face a modern metropolis, using their foresight, wisdom and good judgement:

A majority of the Detroit City Council wants to implement an economic development plan it commissioned for $112,000 that preaches racial isolation and rails against immigration in its bid to gain economic success for poor blacks.
The crux of the plan is the creation of a business district -- dubbed African Town -- that would be funded in part with city money and made up of black-owned businesses catering to a black clientele.
The report also complains that immigrants from Mexico, Asia and the Middle East are stealing resources, jobs and other opportunities from blacks and calls on city leaders to stop the economic shift.
(snip)The report also says integration has failed blacks and that regionalism is a bid by whites to control the city's resources. Anderson warns city leaders to beware of non-blacks moving into the city because they will have their own agendas.
Anderson says his theories are not racist, but they are honest.

Sigh. Normally I would say that the voters of Detroit should be embarrassed by the City Council, but the voters of Detroit continually elect these people not despite antics like this, but because of antics like this. Council members behave like this because certain segments of voters love this stuff. When the voters can't take themselves or the city seriously, why should anybody else? This is not how serious adults with responsibility behave. Serious adults don't put morons and lunatics in positions of power.

The reason the state took away the city's ability to elect a school board was not to disenfranchise blacks, but because the rest of the state thinks Detroit voters put children's futures at risk for the opportunity to continually elect criminals, idiots, demagogues and jokers to elected bodies such as the school board. If their children's futures don't motivate these voters to think seriously, will anything? The question isn't why the state took away that right, the question is why so much of Detroit's citizenry chooses to put in power people who are visibly and blatantly unqualified for office, and have actual track records of sheer incompetence.

Also, I'm not sure how wise it is to single out the Mexican community, which is what keeps southwest Detroit from going into economic free fall, and which came into being without any help from the city government, as did Greektown. Not to mention that if the city governments in Royal Oak or Mount Clemens declared parts of their city "Little Europe" and promised to give them economic favoritism the shrill hysteria from race-mongers like Horace Sheffield or groups like the NAACP would be deafening.

Detroit is the first city to begin to implement his Powernomics philosophy, Anderson said. He wants to create a business district for blacks, like Mexicantown or Greektown, that would include a fish factory with its own hatchery, black hair-care supplier, popcorn factory and fruit juice producers.

Black hair care supplier? If that is the source of economic prosperity, this city would be the richest in the world, judging by the hundreds of hair salons, barber shops, wig stores and hair care suppliers scattered throughout the city. Detroit doesn't need more of those, nor does it need "popcorn factories;" what it needs are viable businesses to create products and provide services that aren't frivolous wastes of consumers' money like hair and nail salons, which thrive on poor people's bad spending choices. Detroit isn't just the first city to implement this plan, it's the only city to implement this plan. Detroit is where bad ideas that have been discredited and rejected in other major cities (city-funded business districts, race-based economic policies, anti-suburban paranoia) go to live and thrive.

But most importantly, why exactly do I keep telling wary suburbanites that Detroit really isn't a joke and a disaster, and that it's moving forward? It seems I'm contradicted at every turn, not by anecdotal hearsay but by official Detroit city government action.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Rotten Eggs

While walking through Harmonie Park after a brief weeknight get-together with friends, I passed by the Madison Lenox Hotel. It was still somewhat light outside, and on a whim I decided to go in and take a couple of photos. Every time I pass a building that's slated to be demolished, I feel I have to take more photos of it, because I can see myself five years down the road wishing I had gotten this or that shot, and regretting it.

I had my dirty exploring clothes in the trunk, grabbed them and started changing my pants in the car in a parking lot, but with little wiggle room I got sort of stuck with my pants off just as someone walked by, looking at me like I was some kind of freak. To hell with this, I said, and got out and put pants on outside the car. Standing there naked from the waist down didn't look half as bad as gyrating in a carseat, alone and naked, struggling with my pants. Grabbed the camera and tripod, threw it all in my backpack, and let myself into the hotel.

It went well - I was by myself, did whatever I wanted at my own pace, and got practice in exploring alone, something other explorers I know seem to do with ease. I knew the layout, so there was no mystery. Went to the top, avoided falling into the gaping hole in the Lenox's roof, took some sunset photos, then got some self-timer photos of me dangling off the top of the Madison Lenox sign to use to alarm friends later on, but the photos didn't quite turn out looking as dangerous as I had imagined they would. Went back in, going from room to room and taking windowview shots, including the silly whales painting on the David Broderick Tower. Got in and out in less than an hour. And unlike certain idiots in town, I left without doing any damage, like spray painting some dumb tags (Eggs, Money) on the historic hotel's 100-year-old brick. That stuff is just another straw that will help bring the hotel down, negating people's sincere efforts to preserve it.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The dailies are chock full of material worthy of analysis today! Let's examine...

Mike Wendland has an article on local blogs in the Freep today, yet detroitblog is inexplicably absent from his recommendations. How can he leave out of a family newspaper mention of an anonymous, comments-free weblog that champions the things about the city that others ignore, trumpets illegal activity, disparages the city's incompetent government, mentions drug use and bad behavior, contains occasional sexual innuendo and rips on his newspaper now and then? Boggles the mind. I feel slighted!

Now for the real stuff:

Right off, there's Drew Sharp's front-page exercise in contradictory nonsense in the Free Press, in which he uses the Ryder Cup as an excuse to pontificate. First he admonishes us thusly: "For Detroit's sake, behave! {The w}orld expects us to live down to an unseemly reputation." But he then says "It doesn't matter that you're no more or less at risk here than in any other major metropolitan area in the country. Never let the truth stand in the way of fueling a convenient misconception."

If it's a misconception, why tell us we need to behave? If it's a misconception, we're all already behaving, right? To call the city's reputation a misconception implies that crime and violence here is an illusion, that it's a vicious rumor foisted upon us by outsiders. Yes, crime is bad in many other "major metropolitan area(s)" as well. But we don't live in those cities, we live here. What happens in other cities is irrelevant to what happens here, except for blind-eye relativists who like to make excuses for everything bad that happens in Detroit. For visitors to the Motor City, it matters not one bit that Washington D.C. might have more murders in a given year. They are in Detroit now, they are concerned with what's going on in Detroit. "The whole world is waiting for us to blow it," he writes. But they wouldn't be waiting for it if some people in the city didn't keep providing exactly the fodder they're looking for.

There have been several of these apparent "misconceptions" lately.

First there's the two carjacking kids (13 and 17 years old) who shot and killed a 74-year-old man, a church deacon no less, despite the fact that he was an old man who put up no struggle, willingly gave the kids his car and begged them not to shoot him. For no reason whatsoever they shot him anyway, after they already had possession of his car. What is it about the culture they're raised in that deems life so worthless, including their own lives, which are now essential ended over an hours-long joyride?

Some people simply cannot exist with other people because they are predators and parasites who know nothing but how to take from others or hurt others. I encountered many people like this in my life - they're barely above the level of animals; they can barely speak coherently, they're extremely stupid, they have no knowledge of life outside their limited radius, no aspirations or goals apart from ephemeral, instant, short-term wants. And violence is their currency, the medium through which they interact with the world. How is it that thousands of kids like this get past their parent(s), sibling(s), neighbors, and teachers in the course of a childhood without one person willing or able to steer them onto a more human course of existence? And why aren't those people shamed for their negligence by their friends and neighbors? In other words, why is it socially acceptable and normal to churn out criminals and not be held socially accountable?

Like this guy, who happened to be caught by police because he crossed over into the suburbs to prey on others by robbing them, a relatively mild crime compared to his record:

He is accused of fatally shooting three people in April after having an argument at a party on the city's west side. Police said Dorris followed a car carrying five people to the 14000 block of Chapel and opened fire on the vehicle with an AK47 assault rifle. Three people were killed: Dendra Dillard, 23; Chamise Washington, 21, and Vernon Baggette, 22. A fourth person was injured, and the fifth passenger was not harmed.

Dorris was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, assault and felony firearm, but had remained on the lam until Tuesday. Police said he also fatally shot Glenn Scott, 20, outside a home in the 1300 block of Compass on July 4 because Scott had talked to Dorris' ex-girlfriend. Dorris walked up to Scott and emptied a handgun, police said. He then grabbed another handgun and continued firing.

On top of this incredible resume, he also committed murder when he was a mere 14 years old:

In 1993, Dorris, then 14, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after committing a robbery and shooting that made national headlines.
Elizabeth Alvarez, 33, of Detroit had stopped at an ATM to withdraw $80 for her daughter's birthday party. The pregnant woman was shot in the head with a .22-caliber handgun after being surrounded by four boys.
Dorris confessed to having the gun and killing Alvarez. He divided the $80 among the group, giving $3 to the 8-year-old, named Little Bit, $20 to a 10-year-old named Jacob and $5 to an 11-year-old named Chris.
Dorris was released from a state training school in 1999.

How do you rationalize this person's existence away, or the reality of a culture that spawns this type of person? Some people insist it's because he and others like him grew up in poverty. So do the people in Appalachia, and in the Mississippi Delta, and on the Indian reservations in South Dakota. In fact, poverty in those areas is far, far worse. Those areas are also saturated with substance abuse problems. Why aren't those areas competing to be the murder capital of the country? Poverty doesn't automatically equal predatory, violent behavior. But a miserable culture in which life is cheap does, regardless of income, race or geography.

How about this:

It began after the pickup pulled off the Lodge, one of Detroit’s primary commuter routes handling more than 130,000 vehicles daily, onto the service drive at Euclid, Insp. Rice said. A 1992 Honda Accord, driven by {Paul} Anderson, pulled up behind the pickup. Anderson, who had two women passengers in the Honda with him, began honking the horn and yelling at the driver of the truck to stop, police said.

The driver, Thomas Walteraeck, 39, of Detroit, pulled over.

“Anderson jumped out of his car with a golf club and started beating on the pickup truck,” Rice said. The two women also grabbed a steel steering column locking device from the car and started beating on the pickup truck while Walteraeck remained inside.

“Anderson busted out the (pickup’s) passenger side window and the tail light with the golf club,” Rice said. Anderson then hit Walteraeck on the arm with the golf club and attempted to pull him out of the pickup, Rice said. Walteraeck pulled out his state issued handgun and fired one shot, striking Anderson in the head, killing him.

The thing that is troubling here is not the guy shooting in self-defense, it that three people, two of whom are women, get out of their cars with clubs and start smashing someone's car and trying to drag him out of his vehicle. Everyone freaks out in traffic once in a while, but why is it that most people have built-in self-restraint that keeps them from ever doing anything like this, yet people like these in the story don't?

These things can happen anywhere, in any city. People like this exist everywhere, in every city. That is not our concern, nor should it be. The people like this who live in Detroit are our concern. Our reputation as an ultraviolent city goes back at least 30 years. Is every one of those incidents during those years a misconception? The kids who shot the deacon weren't even alive when Detroit was truly the murder capital, yet they contribute to its ongoing reputation as such. They unknowingly become a link in that history, and extend it further.

There is a self-sustaining culture that is passed down and keeps churning out predators like this. Complaining about the city's reputation does absolutely nothing to stop that cycle. The culture of pointless, kneejerk violence itself needs to be addressed, not ignored, rationalized, tolerated or justified on any grounds. Yes, similar dead-end culture exists in other cities, but let the residents of those cities worry about those towns. This is the city we live in right now. And as long as people like Drew Sharp keep making excuses, more kids will be produced by this city's culture of mindlessness and violence to replace those that are put away.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Dally in the Alley was Saturday. I didn’t go this year, because something far more important was scheduled that date too – the start of hockey season! Yes, unlike the National Hockey League, we non-pros began our season Saturday, with a convincing 3-0 drubbing of our stick-swinging opponents. And though I wanted to go to the Dally and see the one or two decent bands booked this year, along with the always-present, incense-selling, unwashed revolutionaries, the game was too early for me to make any meaningful appearance.

But at least I have a hockey season, unlike the NHL, where the players and owners, both assholes, have conspired to deprive me and my friends of our midweek nighttime hockey-watching fun, forcing us to actually go out and do something with ourselves. My bitterness knows no bounds! I miss the Red Wings!

In other news, more incentive for urban explorers to wear masks or respirators while exploring abandoned buildings, which are notorious for being covered in birdshit, sometimes in two- and three-inch layers on the floors. One step, and suddenly you're enveloped in a nasty powder cloud. Ninety percent of the time I wear some protection; I think now it'll be even more.

Officials in Huron Township have posted a warning about a potential health risk after an employee contracted a potentially fatal disease, according to Local 4 reports.
A police detective who works at Huron Township Hall was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a disease that primarily affects the lungs.
The cause of the his illness was reportedly traced back to bird and bat feces found in the building.
Histoplasmosis is a disease caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which grows in soil and material contaminated with bat or bird droppings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Doctors had to remove a portion of the detective's lung to treat the illness.


And finally, genius. Pure genius:

A driver was electrocuted Monday after crashing his sport utility vehicle into a utility pole on Detroit's west side.

The man got out of his vehicle after the crash at Fort and Livernois to try and remove live wires, Local 4 reported. The shock from the wires killed him instantly.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Hmm. I'm not sure how much I can say about the weekend without violating all sorts of Codes of Manhood but ... Friday was spent at a bachelor party we threw for a close friend who is getting married in a couple weeks. He opted to spend his symbolic last night of freedom with us in Greektown, going from bar to casino to the Bouzouki, um, gentleman's club.

I'm not a gambler and have never gotten a thrill out of gambling, yet the few times I've entered a casino I've won something after spending virtually nothing. So with time to kill I started putting quarters into a slot machine. Not 10 minutes into the casino and barely 10 quarters later the slot machine started going "ding!ding!ding!" for like two minutes and I won $188. Bam! The luckless fellow sitting at the slot machine next to mine, who looked as if he had been seated there all day, was clearly unamused by my unrestrained glee. Now I was headed to a strip club with a big wad of cash that I got for free. All that was left would be to give me the keys to a liquor store and the police evidence room. I really don't need to add much, other than I unburdened myself of a lot of that cash without hesitation or responsibility and with manic happiness that remained even through the vicious two-day hangover that was my souvenir of the evening.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


One of the largest ruins in Detroit is the abandoned Packard Plant on Grand Boulevard, on Detroit’s East Side. The massive, multi-storied buildings sit astride the Boulevard, stretching far into the distance in both directions along Concord Street. Like many of Detroit’s abandoned historical buildings, this too suffers from vandalism, neglect and decay.

The Packard Motor Car Company was founded as the Ohio Automobile Company in Warren, Ohio by James Ward Packard and William Dowd Packard, brothers who wanted to create their own niche by marketing luxury cars. The name was changed to Packard in 1903 when the company moved to Detroit after a majority of company stock was purchased by a Detroit-based group of investors led by Henry Bourne Joy and his brother-in-law, Truman Handy Newberry.

Joy hired Albert Kahn to design and build Packard’s factories. After designing nine other Packard Plants, Kahn decided to incorporate European factory design methods, including reinforced concrete, in the 10th factory. Spread over 35 acres, the massive, 4 million-square-foot factory on the Boulevard was considered at the time to be the most modern automobile manufacturing plant in the world. Eventually employing 41,000 employees, among whom 80 separate trades were practiced, the plant expanded several times over the years.

Packard Motor Car Company was responsible for introducing a number of innovations in its auto designs, including the modern steering wheel, sun visors, bumpers, air conditioning and the first production 12-cylinder engine. While Henry Ford’s cars cost in the range of $440, Packard focused on producing upscale cars that started at $2,600. The company also concentrated on Americans’ growing demand for trucks.

By World War I, Packard was also producing engines for aircraft and boats, as well as vehicles used by U.S. troops in Europe.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression pretty much ended the market for expensive luxury cars, and Packard started mass-producing low-cost cars. In 1935, Packard introduced its first car for under $1,000. Car production tripled that year and doubled again in 1936. The company's slogan was "Ask the man who owns one." Packard was the only luxury automobile manufacturer to survive the Depression.

During World War Two, Packard again built airplane engines, licensing the Merlin engine from Rolls Royce and simplifying and improving it. It also produced vehicles for U.S. troops, as it had done in World War I. Its contributions to the war effort prodded President Franklin Roosevelt to declare that "Packard has provided the Allies with the edge to defeat the Axis powers."

By the end of World War II, Packard was in good financial shape but suffered from a shortage of raw materials needed to once again mass-produce automobiles. The post-war seller's market ended in 1951, and the industry as a whole slumped in 1952. Nash Motors approached Packard about a merger in the early 1950s, believing that the days for independent car manufacturers were numbered. Packard hesitated. The year 1953 brought about a spike in sales, but 1954 was again a down year.

In 1954, Nash Motors merged with Hudson Motor Car Company, forming American Motors and temporarily ending Packard's opportunity for merger with the former company.

On October 1, 1954, Packard merged with Studebaker, hoping Studebaker’s larger network of dealers would help increase sales. The newly combined company had plans to merge into American Motors after AMC and Studebaker-Packard had achieved financial stability. But the merger never happened. Packard's unsteady sales continued, with a profitable year in 1955 followed by a weak 1956, which saw production drop to its lowest levels since World War I. Packard had been selling engines and transmissions to American Motors, but a parts dispute ended this arrangement in April 1956. The company severely in debt, its creditors ordered the old Packard plants to close on August 15, 1956. In 1957 and 1958, a Studebaker-designed car bearing the Packard nameplate appeared on the market, built in Indiana, but sales were slow. The brand left the marketplace in 1958.

After Packard ceased production, the plant on the Boulevard was subdivided by 87 different companies.

The City of Detroit seized control of the facility in November 1998 for non-payment of taxes. Demolition began in January 1999 but was halted in June after a lawsuit was filed by a tenant. In 2000, Dominic and Robin Cristini of Packard Motor Properties paid back taxes on the property and regained it from the City. They planned to turn the buildings into a tourist destination, a plan that had the same success as lofts in the David Whitney Building and the new Post Bar on Broadway. In other words, nothing happened.

We paid a visit on a hot, late-summer afternoon. There’s a security guard that perpetually sits in a car at one of the entrances, so we had to avoid him. We found an easy opening a good distance from him. The first thing we saw inside was a stray dog lounging and, luckily, looking at us with disinterest.

The Packard Plant has, over the years, been a dumping ground for all sorts of crap. A number of boats rest lopsided on the ground floor, along with rusted out cars, thousands of tires in other parts of the plant, five-foot high piles of wood, and all sorts of miscellaneous garbage.

We went inside the famous overpass with “Motor City Industrial Complex” written out in large plastic letters, apart from the letter that some bonehead knocked out. It turns out to be basically a two-lane bridge that allows you to peer down onto the Boulevard, where, in this part of the town there's not much to see except a depressing, blighted neighborhood.

The Packard complex is so vast that all you can do on a single visit is catalogue impressions.

The upper floors were used as “Splat Ball City,” complete with parking demarcations and directions for drivers to park their cars on the roof. Large wood spools were set up, and barrels were tied to poles to provide hiding places. Sawdust was spread on the floor, with a path swept through it. The cinderblock walls featured thousands of paint splats, as did the concrete ceilings.

One room on an upper floor featured lots of car memorabilia, like trade magazines, pamphlets and postcards, which to a car enthusiast might have been a goldmine, but since I’m car-illiterate, I couldn’t tell the garbage from the gems.

On a pile of trash we came across the petrified white corpse of … something. Its appearance suggested a large dog, but it could’ve been anything. It was white and mummified, and had a distinctly identifiable rib cage clothed in leathery flesh. Nearby, a whole bunch of animal cages were piled in a corner, the kind used for rabbits or hamsters. A small room contained dozens of LPs from the 80s, including hokey rap albums and Michael Jackson LPs.

On one floor, sign on a wall made from cutout paper letters read “The greatest danger you face is the narrowing of your horizons,” an odd slogan in a former auto plant where you could face all sorts of real, immediate dangers such as lost or crushed limbs, severed fingers and death.

Giant proto-computers, themselves the size of a car, remained embedded in a wall on the second floor. Another part of the factory had hundreds of steel cables strung downward to the floor, looking very eerie.

Like a lot of cavernous buildings in the city that are exposed to the elements, the floors sustained some buckling, in some cases sending wood waves several inches high through the floor.

And of course, there’s graffiti everywhere, the kind that takes hours to do and is found in vast abandoned places like the Packard, Globe Trading Company and Detroit Screw Works building. Some of it was breathtaking in its complexity.

At one point I peered out a window down to the street below and saw two men put a ladder against the Family Independence Agency roof next door, take a huge metal object off it, climb down, throw it in their van and take off. The police showed up a few minutes later, after the thieves had been long gone. But the brazenness was impressive. Broad daylight, no panic, just a methodical theft.

Of course, once it was time to leave, we couldn’t find our way out. Not only out, but we couldn’t even get off the second floor, which was even sillier. We wandered around in circles for a dehydrating long time, seeing the same landmarks over and over, occasionally taking pictures of tender, white mushrooms sprouting from the soft, rotting wood of the floors. Finally we found stairs that led down.

We saw the stray dog again on the ground floor, this time with a companion, both large dogs, perhaps pit bulls. They started to trot off slowly once they saw us, but the larger one stopped and turned around and stared back at us. He seemed to be deciding whether to leave or to challenge us. We patiently awaited his decision. Luckily he left. So did we.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Just when the weekend seems irredeemable, when nothing noteworthy happens, along comes Aretha to make it all worthwhile.

Blogging gets very difficult when nothing happens, because the stuff I put in here is stuff that actually happens, no matter how boring or uninteresting, minus many crucial personal or incriminating details. And try as I might, sometimes there's no choice of words that can liven up a boring experience. The way the three-day weekend was shaping up, it looked to be a mere two-sentence mention of a full 72 hours of weekend.

There was nothing but festivals in the metro area this weekend, and I managed to go to almost all of them, and still couldn't find anything worth noting. They weren't terrible, but they were what they were - festivals with people walking around. Went Friday to Arts Beats & Eats in Pontiac for the first time ever. I'm in Pontiac so rarely I might as well have been in Denver for all the familiarity I had with the streets. The closest parking we could find on the unfamiliar streets was about 300 blocks away.

Went briefly to the Hamtramck Labor Day festival, but it's the same thing every freakin' year, except this year they capped it off by booking absolutely no worthwhile music, unlike previous years, which featured an array of good local bands. Compared with Pontiac, which was swarmed by well-dressed Oakland County residents, the Hamtramck festival was positively blue collar, and sometimes crossed that line into simply low-rent. And there's nothing more low-rent than firing your gun into crowds! Around here, you don't have to actually be in Detroit to cap off a festival with gunfire!

As the weekend was winding down, as dreaded going-back-to-work loomed over the horizon, we went Monday night to the Ford Jazz fest, which to me will always be Montreaux — must everything in the city have the freakin' Ford name on it? And unbeknownst to me, topping off the weekend was Aretha Franklin, this time not lip-syncing, and in fact giving one helluva performance, bumping herself into my top 10 concerts of all time. She had the crowd and led them further, bringing them along until people were jumping up and down and waving to her.

A drunk waddled up and asked "Is that really Aretha?" in a sincere, earnest tone. Yes, everyone told him. Then he flipped. "I love you Aretha!" he began screaming. "Sing it, girl!" The crowd grew impatient with his antics, which included trying to thrust his way closer to the stage. He started wedging himself between me and my date; at one point I could feel skin on my hand, which was around my date's shoulder, and it turned out to be his face resting tenderly on the back of my hand as he moved to the music. That was too much - go away, I said. He still wouldn't go. The crowd started shoving him back, he'd retreat for a moment, then try again. This went on all night.

And for one of the first times ever, I didn't have my camera and wished I did. I finally got close enough to get a good shot of Aretha for the blog, and no camera. Shit!

Aretha jumped from jazz to soul to gospel-style sounds, and sounded great. Towards the end she sang "Georgia on my Mind" as a tribute to Ray Charles, and suddenly I realized I'd seen Ray Charles in the exact same spot nearly 15 years ago, another great free Montreaux concert. There are few things so appropriately detroitblog as standing in the heart of Downtown Detroit, in Hart Plaza on a late summer's night, watching Aretha Franklin give a free, open air concert. It was magnificent.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Off Broadway

The Summer Drinking Series had yet another unexpected installment with the sudden influx of warm weather last week, so this time it was up to the Lafer Building's roof.

The Summer Drinking Series, despite the silly name, is really nothing more than a roundabout way of seeing already-visited buildings, but in the dim shades of sunset and nightfall. And the drinking consists of no more than a beer or two, so it’s not like we’re getting sloshed up there. And frankly, for regular boozers like me and my friends, one or two beers hardly makes a dent. It’s more a way to do something while taking nighttime skyline photos. Also, judging by the number of empty beer and liquor bottles we find on these roofs, we're teetotalers compared with some of the other explorer-drinkers out there.

Getting up the building was far more difficult than the first time, and the effort was the closest so far to resembling rock climbing. In more than one instance it involved scaling portions of brick wall with our fingertips. I was sort of trying to be into rock climbing about a decade ago, so for me it’s hardly new, and I'm somewhat trained in its rudiments. Not great at it, but better than most people. To friends I bring along it’s a different story. They're not quite as eager for acrobatic feats of strength five stories up.

All this was happening in broad daylight. Midway up I noticed someone walking in the parking lot nearby catch a glimpse of us and stop dead in his tracks, staring. Nothing left to do at that point but wave hello. He then moved on.

Scenarios like this climb are the ones that cause the most trepidation, because there’s absolutely no margin of error. If you slip, you’re done, no question. There’s nothing between you and the distant ground below. And there were a few of those moments on the way up. Yet these are the most fun and rewarding climbs, at least to me. Sounds dumb, but consider that I'm a hockey player who used to mountain climb and who breaks into structurally questionable abandoned buildings. Clearly I enjoy risk-taking.

We got inside the building, but there’s really not a damn thing to see in there, except the old grocery chute that spirals its way down through the floors. The rest of the building has been scraped into nondescriptness. I'd seen all that nondescriptness before. Besides, you'll be creeping quietly up a staircase and suddenly a barrage of pigeon wings is in your face from out of unseen crevices, triggering fight-or-flight levels of adrenalin and heartbeats. The less time spent being startled in there, the better.

The air was thick and hazy that night, refracting sunset pastels farther across the sky than on a clear night. The Tigers were playing just up the road; I could hear the roar of the crowd everytime something happened. The streets below, especially torn-up Broadway, were quiet, Sunday-quiet.

The location of the Lafer offers great views of the architectural detail of the upper levels of the surrounding buildings, especially the Harvard Square Center building (seen at right) and the Breitmeyer-Tobin building on the corner of Gratiot and Broadway (seen at bottom), and a great view of the Merchants Row lofts that would've been blocked by Hudson's before they tore it down to make a cement lot. Watched the sun slowly dip down behind the still-standing Statler Hotel.

One thing I hadn’t calculated, photo-wise, was the monolithic presence of the Compuware Building and garage right across the street, very close, blocking out whole chunks of the view of downtown. Compuware is such an obtrusive visual presence in that area, it looks like a giant spaceship in the middle of a cornfield. It’s all lights amid the surrounding darkened buildings.

Then the bats appeared. They had been gathering for a while before their high-pitched chirps became loud enough to attract our focus. We looked up and saw about four dozen of them circling our building. We began wondering whether they nested somewhere in our building. Their chirps grew more hysterical. But they then shifted to circling the new Hilton Garden Inn, then the Well, then the Madison Lenox, then back to us, so it wasn’t clear what they were trying to do. Acting batty, as they say.

Got the photos, ran out of drink, headed down.

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