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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.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
In a sharp memorandum sent to the Detroit City Council and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Auditor General Joseph Harris called the mayor's plan to renovate the abandoned Michigan Central Depot and turn it into the new headquarters for the Police Department a "fiscal pipe dream."
The four-page letter questions the wisdom of retrofitting the 91-year-old building to meet the Police Department's needs, the fiscal impact on the central business district of moving the current headquarters out of the area and whether the city will be able to rehab the building without raising taxes as the mayor has promised.
But more importantly, this:
The demolition of the Statler-Hilton Hotel on Washington Boulevard will cost up to $7 million and could start later this year unless a development firm can be found to restore the 18-story structure, a city official said.
I knew this Superbowl was going to do more harm than good. There are indications that a whole lot of familiar buildings will be gone just to try to impress a bunch of out-of-town media for one single day two years hence.
Even if every single abandoned downtown building were miraculously renovated and occupied by the time the Superbowl comes, the city will still get horrendous news coverage because of the simple fact that downtown is still an island surrounded by miles and miles of rotting ghetto neighborhoods that have seen zero improvement over the years. Most of these journalists are going to venture away from the limited routes that the city prefers visitors stick to, and once they get a look at what's in Detroit outside of downtown, they'll have a whole non-Superbowl angle they can milk for days. Just wait until one of them gets lost somewhere. The "I almost died" articles will be picked up on the AP wire and sent everywhere. And no amount of demolition is going to stop that from happening.
The city's going to wake up the day after, with litter everywhere, tourists fleeing in droves, and many landmarks replaced by gravel lots, with Detroit in the same shape it was in before. And then what? What will be gained, apart from a one-time influx of tourist dollars? The city will be bleaker, and even more abandoned, with even less history remaining.
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
This weekend's explorations were a bust as far as I'm concerned. Whatever streak of luck we had in the first two months of the year has evaporated. The past few weeks have brought problems galore. A couple weeks ago, while exiting a small opening in a building in Capital Park (results of this still to be posted), three people appeared out of nowhere and started snapping my photo with a camera equipped with a telephoto lens. Other than a cop waiting outside the building, nothing else could strike me as quite as alarming. Who the hell were they, and why were they there? I mean, WTF?
Then this weekend some menacing jerk approached us as we sat in the parked car and started snapping pics and threatening us. What the hell?!? I think he saw us scoping out a building he may or may not own, I'm not sure. He was incoherent. We drove off before things escalated. The week before, as mentioned earlier, someone threatened to shoot me. So needless to say, my brazen confidence in urban exploration has all but vanished for now, and every time I turn a corner in D-town it's with great trepidation.
So this weekend we and our frazzled nerves had to settle for the Fisher Body 21 auto plant, one of the most explored and, to me, least visually interesting (but also one of the safest, relatively speaking) places to crawl around in town.
The 85-year-old Fisher Body plant is the kind of setting out-of-town filmmakers go to when they try to create an image of a post-apocalyptic industrial town. It's a typical abandoned factory, with all sorts of giant metal things strewn about, and eerie dripping water sounds, and broken windows and gloominess everywhere, especially on a cloudy, grey, early spring day. There were stalactites on the ceiling, and strange calcium blobs on the floor, trying to be stalagmites but spreading out in a stump instead.
I foolishly forgot to bring my tripod, so the majority of my photos turned out blurry. Almost all of the shots that turned out OK were the ones I didn't really care about anyway. At one point we saw others walking in there, at a distance, and soon after, as we stood on an open ledge on the second floor, we saw them circling the plant in their car, with what appeared to be a video camera pointed at us. We waved at them. For two guys trying like hell to be secretive and anonymous, we're suddenly the most photographed and filmed urban explorers ever.
Went to the roof, tried to climb the rickety ladder of the water tower, but the bottom was detached and would have left a climber swinging in the wind, dangling several stories up. I gave up on that idea. I tried to get some skyline shots, but the combination of dense fog and whitewashing clouds spoiled even that.
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Councilwomen Kay Everett and Sharon McPhail exchanged heated words during the public meeting Wednesday morning at the Coleman Young Municipal Building.
The exchange started when Everett appeared to be irritated with McPhail's request to move forward with the voting. Everett reportedly wanted to wait.
Everett: "Just sit there or move down one seat because I ain't ready for this today, OK."
McPhail: "Whatever. Whatever. Just let's go."
Everett: "… Just be quiet."
McPhail: "No, I will not be quiet. I wasn't put here by the people to be quiet."
Everett: "Sharon, you got to chill it. You got your doggoned vote. Chill. … I'll cut the doggoned cameras off and we can go for it baby, but I'm gonna chair this meeting. This is crazy. I'll cut the doggoned cameras off and we can go for it baby..."
McPhail: "I'm not your baby."
Everett, who was heading the meeting, eventually gaveled TV crews to shut their cameras off so that she and McPhail could settle their differences, according to the station's reports.
A security guard stood between the two women to apparently prevent them from doing any physical harm to one another.
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Next, the building we originally had intended to get into turned out to be guarded by a man who basically threatened to shoot me once he discovered me poking around, so we reluctantly gave up on that idea and headed to Park Avenue by default.
The Charlevoix building, a 12-story, beaux-arts structure completed in 1905, sits just north of the Park Avenue building, yet another abandoned structure in the area. The rear of the structure serves as an illegal dump for tires, bricks and an abandoned car. The only people I’ve ever seen lingering around it are hobos and winos passing through the alley next to it.
It was easy enough getting into the building, but once inside we discovered a huge impediment to our explorations – some clown had systematically removed nearly all of the iron staircases that led from each floor to the one above it. Standing at the ground floor at the foot of the staircase you can see straight up to the top floor. The only way up was to scale the edge of the wall where a small piece of iron remained somewhat attached, or take one of the totally rusty, damaged fire escapes up. The problem with those is most were missing several steps, and the steps they had were either loose or fully detatched on one end, and the handrails were often severed, proving useless in providing any sense of grip. Everything else rattled when touched.
But we were here and so we figured we’d take it one floor at a time, and give up when it became impossible to go any farther up.
This was by far the most foolish exploration we’ve embarked on, and without a doubt the most dangerous. On each floor we had to go back and forth and examine both the side and back fire escapes to determine which one had the most remaining steps, and decide between them. Often we’d spend a few minutes debating whether to continue going up. But each time we did head up, clinging to the wall or to the iron connecting the escape to the building. It was harrowing.
At one point one of the steps on the fire escape we were walking on gave way, nearly sending one of us plunging eight stories below. On other steps we could hear small pieces of metal breaking off the fire escape and crashing through the steps below us. It was totally dumb of us to be there.
The location of the building afforded a unique view of some of its neighbors, such as the Detroit Building, and it gave us close-ups (left) of the strange relief sculpture on the Park Avenue Building.
It’s common knowledge that parts of the city have reverted to a prairie-type situation, accompanied by an invasion of wildlife normally not seen south of M-59. Pheasants are generally the most commonly noted wildlife, but this was the first time I found a racoon, in a downtown skyscraper no less, on the seventh floor. Luckily for my nerves upon discovering him in a closet, he had recently died.
The upper floors had been wholly devoted to unions, and had housed a number of small union locals with names like the Detroit Theater Employees Local B-179 and the Film Exchange Employees Local B-25, as well as a Hughes and Hatcher workers’ union.
The higher we went, the more building materials had fallen from the ceilings and walls, revealing the skeleton of the structure. A 100-year-old building left rotting and open to the elements doesn't age well, and this was structurally suspect throughout. We got to the roof, which sagged under our feet in spots and had holes in others. Gingerly stepped around for a while, but we got there just as it started snowing amidst high winds. We didn't spend too long up there.
The Charlevoix contained indications of the usual layers of occupancy we find in the city’s skyscrapers – a few hints of pre-Depression glory, followed by mid-50s office papers and materials, then evidence of the presence of the building’s last-gasp, low-rent businesses, and finally 70s and 80s junkie needles and porn.
Monday, March 22, 2004
Company takes a beating
It started out as a discussion last week to get the Detroit City Council to mediate a year-long dispute between residents in the city's Midtown section and a city contractor, Posen Construction.
It veered into a harangue by council members over Posen's hiring practices and its headquarters in Utica.
"Utica -- that's in Macomb County," said Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. "Macomb County was in the news this morning. There are a lot of cross burnings out there."
The councilwoman was referring to an interracial Chesterfield Township family that found a burning cross on its lawn last Tuesday.
The discussion got more heated as council members grilled the company on the number of minorities and city residents it hires.
"It seems to me you take advantage of Detroiters," Councilman Alonzo Bates told company representatives. Onlookers cheered as Bates declared the company has not hired enough of the city's unemployed people.
At one point, as the company owner tried to respond, Bates barked: "Why don't you shut up and listen to me?"
The dispute -- over noise and the company's alleged trespassing on a resident's property -- has yet to be resolved.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
The other is even weirder - a 1917 Detroit News newsreel featuring the goings-on of the well-to-do ("The polo season is under way!") mixed with film of a labor farm to which they sent people guilty of driving too fast. Both are worth repeated viewings.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
A building that's always intrigued us is the Wurlitzer Building on Broadway, a building that was most recently the subject of a Detroit Free Press article on derelict buildings in the city. To recap:
Ed Granchi was on his way to work downtown last fall when a piece of facade tumbled off the Wurlitzer Building and crashed onto the sidewalk 20 feet away.
"Right in front of my eyes," said Granchi, who manages the Brewery on Broadway.
City inspectors have documented dangerous conditions at the Wurlitzer for at least four years and have threatened to tear it down. But the 14-story building just keeps rotting, a hulking symbol of blight.
Paul Curtis, a Detroit lawyer who owns the Wurlitzer Building, kept promising to redevelop the property, even as inspectors warned that it was a danger.
Building inspectors began documenting dangerous conditions there in October 2000. Months later, Curtis told the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department that he would restore the Wurlitzer.
Last year, building inspectors returned to the Wurlitzer and ticketed it for violations such as tiles falling off the facade and a defective fire escape. Again, Curtis told agency officials that he would renovate the building.
In a letter to the agency, Curtis described his plans as such:
"These conceptualizations are being included in order to let it be known that this owner has not just sat back and watched the property but has been active in seeking a total rehabilitation of the property."
City records show Curtis paid $211,021 for the Wurlitzer in 1995, and a real estate broker says he wants $2 million. He owes $46,835 in delinquent taxes for 2002. Curtis did not return repeated phone calls to his office. Reached at his home, he accused the Free Press of invading his privacy and hung up.
Today, the building is on the city's list of properties to be torn down. Curtis has been ticketed, and a hearing will be scheduled when 36th District Court begins processing code enforcement tickets.
Meanwhile, the building's neighbors wonder what will shake loose next. Jerome Kladzyk, kitchen manager at Small Plates-Detroit, said delivery people keep an eye on the Wurlitzer's dangling piece of fire escape as they come and go from the alley. He said it would be "devastating if something did fall off and hit somebody. That's just asking for it."
The Wurlitzer, which was once home to the famous music firm of the same name, is a 14-story Renaissance revival structure built in 1926. Once we got inside it was basically another multi-floor office building largely emptied of its contents. We found a floor apparently belonging to Krieg Brothers Catholic Supplies, which seems to have moved from its old location down the street into the Wurlitzer in its later days. We found a bunch of thick, texturey advertising postcards and a handful of beautiful and very old religious prayer cards covered in dust. On other floors were prayer books, artificial Christmas trees that are now window dressing for the passengers on the People Mover, and hymnals.
There were other incongruous elements in the building, including a mannequin bottom propping open a door, a six-foot tall plastic yellow model of a pencil, various ticker-tape machines, a bunch of old beauty salon supplies, and tons of books, including a century-old biography of "Our Martyred President William McKinley" that now lies on my bookshelf, stinking up my apartment.
One floor had been occupied by a talent agency complete with "Audition Room," another had a business called "Saul's Medley Land." A stairway was clumsily yet deliberately blocked with a combination of step ladders and luggage containing what seemed to be men's business clothing.
The fire escape, a portion of which collapsed midway up the building and dangles precariously above the alley, turns out to be held loosely in place by nothing more than a rope tied to a sink in a bathroom and a metal cord tied to a radiator.
The pigeons own the couple of upper floors. One floor had a one-inch layer of pulverized plaster and bird droppings mixed into a dough, covered with dark green mold. It was oily and slippery under our shoes, which were awful to have to scrape clean later. Another had a bookshelf with a few forlorn books remaining, covered in thick wads of pigeon droppings.
Books on a shelf were dripping with layers of droppings, as was just about every surface in the room. As in other places but with a bit more intensity, the birds panicked at the sight of us and flew around the room maniacally until we left, nearly bombing us with in-flight shits.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
An interesting column about the Joe Louis Fist.
Personally I like the fist because it scares the piss out of tourists. But in all seriousness, an inextricable part of Detroit is its toughness in many respects. And though the fist may not intentionally be a reminder of the symbol of black power, it conveniently is just that. Intended or not, it is fitting, because Detroit is essentially a black-run metropolis. Those two guys who painted it white a couple weeks back knew exactly that, all feeble defenses of "political statement" to the contrary.
Here's a decent article on a local art gallery on Grand River.
Someone threw themselves off the casino parking garage.
There's also an article on the little shits who recently destroyed the musical instruments at three local schools, along with committing thousands of dollars in other damage.
"It was something to do," Matos said the boys told him.
I never understood vandalism. Even at the height of our juvenile delinquency we never broke or damaged anything. Shoplifting, yes. Underage drinking, yes. Besmirching and corrupting people's daughters, yes. Destruction, no. I never understood the thrill. And I still don't understand it when I enter these boarded-up skyscrapers and find that some jackass has smashed an Indian sculpture in the United Artists theater, or kicked down a balcony railing in the Book Cadillac ballroom. These things are so beautiful and irreplaceable. And each destroyed item pushes that building one step closer to that line between salvageable and irreparable. I cannot fathom the mindset of these people.
That's partly the reason my fellow urban explorer friend and I have gotten to the point of sealing these buildings up after we've been in them, so as not to afford easy access to some dope who likes breaking things. The scavengers who, for example, steal stone lion heads from the Lee Plaza are scum, but they are acting in self-interest, i.e. money. It's abhorrent, but fathomable. But breaking something for no reason boggles the mind.
I wish I could gather a bunch of disparate Detroit news sources into one convenient spot, but unfortunately there is no real source for city news anymore. The Freep and News have minimal Detroit coverage (apart from shootings), the Metro Times does a little here and there, but that's about it.
The Detroit News used to have an insert section every week called “On Detroit,” but not only did it have a lot of boring nothing news in it, they pulled the plug altogether on it late last year. The Michigan Chronicle hasn't bothered to update its website in two years, so it's kind of hard to link to anything there. The Michigan Citizen is haphazard, and needs to train its reporters on how to write a proper story (Step One - you need more than one source, and both sides, in every story).
Only one of the local network TV stations (WDIV) still operates in the city. Even PBS is thinking of moving to the suburbs. There’s no good, continual source of city news. If I had the resources I'd do it myself. But I don't. Thus, it's difficult for me to link to anything besides the Freep and the News, unfortunately.
Part of gathering news, i.e. true journalism, is sending people out on the streets, so to speak, to cultivate sources, to learn and understand neighborhoods so the reporter can eventually spot news occurring before someone has to point it out to him or her. Right now the dailies' Metro reporters rely pretty much only on contacts within City Hall, the Police Department, and a couple of "civil rights leaders" here and there. When they need a story, the reporter phones these people. Other than that, the rest of the city is a black hole to them. And the coverage reflects this.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
I use the word "conquer" because it's become a bit like that now. We visited all the easy-to-access buildings early on, then the moderately difficult ones. Now the main skyscrapers remaining are all the well-sealed ones, the buildings they've properly mothballed, the ones that you almost never find an open door to (unlike, for example, the Metropolitan Building last week). It's become a total challenge to us to get into them.
The Lafayette Building is one of those buildings. It's normally sealed like a fortress, but we noticed that an opportunity suddenly opened up and earlier last week we put the Lafayette at the top of the to-do list before it closed up again.
From the street it always looked like it would be relatively well preserved inside. Most of the windows remained intact, and there was no visible evidence of taggers going berserk in the place, so it seemed like it remained relatively unmolested over the years since it closed.
But we were in for an initial surprise once we got in. First of all it smelled like a toilet near the front doors, even through the dust masks we habitually wear. Parts of the first floor were a wreck. The hallway of the lobby was clear, but in the stores most of the ceilings had caved in, leaving large mounds of rubble and debris on the ground. At least one squatter had lived there, on the ground floor, a few years back, judging by the dozens of empty Styrofoam cups, newspapers, porno magazines and food wrappers scattered among old dirty clothing on the floor.
The second and third floors weren’t much better, and we began to think we were going to go through a repeat of the Madison Lenox Hotel – all rubble, no intact memorabilia.
But once we started climbing, the floors were better preserved. Structurally, the building seems fine, and has minimal water damage, apart from the lower three floors, which are subject to dripping water from the holes in the small roof between the two halves of the building.
We were standing and talking in the open air of the third floor near a mini-roof when we heard footsteps on the broken glass behind us, and suddenly saw two people approach. I nearly had a heart attack, because I’ve never had someone approach when we've been in a building. I didn’t know if it was a cop, or a building caretaker, or contractor, or a lunatic, or what, but it turned out to be other explorers, camera in hand, basically doing the same thing we were doing — taking photos of buildings — though they were coming down as we were going up. Chatted with them for a while, then we headed up.
Found several floors of courtrooms on the mid-level floors, some with attorneys' presentations still standing, enlarged on giant white posterboard. On one of the upper floors we found a crackhead's den, in which this person gathered a bunch of pieces of stereo equipment and stacked them along a wall underneath a plastic American flag-type banner, gathered dozens of telephones and piled them on a desk, and gathered about 100 batteries and arranged them in a shiny pattern on the floor. In fact, this person evidently spent lots of time engaged in useless gathering and sorting - there would be a row of vacuum tubes on a couch, a series of wires laid out in lines, cigarette lighters in a stack and other small objects similarly grouped.
There were also other squatters' rooms, though none were as ostentatious as the crackhead one. A whole upper floor had been used as living quarters by someone who strung out a bunch of dirty clothes through a whole hallway. Another room had a number of weird magazines, including a couple of Norwegian child porn rags.
The location of the Lafayette Building offered a chance to get good looks at the detail on other nearby buildings, most notably the stonework on the Book Cadillac Hotel and the roof details of the Olde Building (seen at right), as well as the relief sculptures on the Federal Courthouse, and the gorgeous detail of the Stott Tower. The beautiful simplicity of the design of the Free Press Building also stands out from this angle, as does the distinct, two-part construction of the Fort Shelby hotel.
We got to the roof just in time for a high-wind mini-hailstorm. A small stack of old ads for Keros Coney Island that had been weighted down with a hard hat blew away, drifting slowly down towards Michigan Avenue, much to our dismay.
I climbed a fire-escape type ladder to a higher part of the roof, but just as I got to the top the bolts holding it to the brick came loose, and the ladder started moving. Very, very gingerly I climbed back down.
As with most buildings, it's harder getting out than getting in, because you can't really get an advance peek at what's going on outside on the street. There could be a fleet of police cars parked right outside and you'd never know it. This time, we popped out directly in front of some people parked in a Hummer limousine.
Quickly went to Lafayette Coney Island, where they looked us over once or twice because we were so filthy, ate desperately needed food, then went home and crashed, exhausted from six hours exploring every room in that building.
Thursday, March 04, 2004
That was good enough for me. A freebie, I figured. We had been in there once before, but that had been under different circumstances and different weather. I grabbed my camera from the glove compartment and headed in for one more look at the building before the city came and repaired the boards. It was sort of odd - I was dressed up in work clothes, and was going through this building on a weekday in full view of everyone on the street, unlike the usual surreptitious methods with rugged clothes and gear.
It was unusual in that there was daylight streaming into the lobby, revealing what only a flash camera had previously showed in the utter darkness the last time I had been in there, when it was tightly sealed.
I made it to the roof, snapped some more photos of the stunning architecture up there, and stayed as long as I could before heading back to work.
Later that night I began to realize that the city would probably seal it up better than it had been, which would be unfortunate, because before this there was a semi-easy (though not immediately apparent) way to enter, and my exploring friend and I always reserved the space in the back of our minds for a return visit. The roof is a perfect date spot, take a girl up there with a bottle of wine or a picnic basket and enjoy the view of the city from a pre-Depression Gothic roof with exquisite ornamentation. Now all of that was at risk because someone had gone too far and destroyed the boards.
So late that evening my friend and I reluctantly returned to the spot, determined to fix it ourselves in our own way, before the city got a hold of it. He was sick, I was nearly asleep, but we went anyway. The two of us lifted this 8-foot by 20-foot panel, which consisted of two-by-fours in a grid, covered by large plywood sheets, and hoisted it back over the hole. Problem was, it wasn't a snug fit. Nails were sticking out the sides, preventing a tight fit of the edges.
As we were working with a hammer to make it fit properly, a crowd of kids comes ambling up, asking if they can get in and look around. Great. We tried to explain what we were doing, but they started going in anyway. Just then two cars pull up with two people who work nearby at a local eatery. One of them, a bit of a wiener guy, starts threatening to call the police. This scared the kids off, but we walked over and explained that we were actually trying to reseal the place, not bust in. The woman was reasonable and understood, but the guy was a self-righteous goofball. Go ahead, silly person, call the police and interrupt their 12-hour shifts seeking murderers to come chase some skateboard kids out of a lobby. I'm sure they'd respond well. If he did call, they never showed up. We ignored him and went back to finish the job.
Despite all our efforts, the goddamned boards collapsed inward as we were adjusting them, splitting in two, so the whole effort turned out to be pointless. There was nothing we could do, so we went up for a final look at the nighttime roof. Soon after, the group of kids showed up as well.
They turned out to be five harmless, friendly kids interested only in seeing the building and taking a few pictures, contrary to whatever sinister motives the goofball had implied. We talked, compared notes of which buildings we'd all been in, and all of us left soon after.
Two days later the building was still wide open, with people streaming in and out like it was a museum, which it is in a way. And considering that the building was stripped a while back as a prelude to development, it's probably one of the safer abandoned buildings for the average person to tour in the city.