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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, June 30, 2004
Sebastian Spering Kresge opened his first store in 1899 on the east side of Woodward and sold everything for 5 and 10 cents. The company expanded to over 85 stores by 1912. In Detroit, Kresge expaned by opening a store at 1201 Woodward, on the corner of State. That main Kresge building was a 5, 10 and 25 cent store. The green storefront store just down the block, at 1403, was a 25 cent to $1 store.
Even this much space wasn’t enough, and Kresge moved its offices in 1914 from above one of its stores to a brand new, Albert Kahn-designed building at Park and Adams, now known as the Kales Building. From there it eventually moved to another Albert Kahn building on Second Avenue in the late 20s, where they remained until the company, by then renamed as Kmart, moved to Troy in 1969.
The building we got into last weekend was the then-green storefront building at 1403 Woodward, the 25 cent to $1 store known informally as “the dollar store,” built in 1920 on the west side of the street. Gradually, the store down the block at State and Woodward supplanted the dollar store, until in 1959 the dollar store closed, dispersing its 64 employees to other Kresge stores, most going down the street.
The Kresge dollar store on Woodward is still identifiable from a distance by the remains of a hand-painted sign on its uppermost walls. It’s the building we had tried to get into in the winter by entering a ground floor hair salon, formerly Parklane Hosiery, but that visit was interrupted by my friend gashing his head open on a hanging shard of glass, an experience he will be forced to remember always by the giant scar now on his head. We went back several weeks later, and wound up in the former Butler’s Shoes store, but it didn’t offer any entrance into the rest of the building. We’ve been determined ever since to actually get in. Avenge the scar!
This weekend we finally came up with a way to get in there, though it took considerable physical effort. All the climbing and walking left us utterly exhausted and dirty by the end of the day.
There are three levels of emptiness we find in these abandoned skyscrapers. The first is when it’s exactly as it was when the building closed, with artifacts and relics left in place, in varying degrees of disorder caused by vandals. A good example of this is the Broderick Tower or the Lafayette Building.
The second level is when the place is cleaned out, but the walls, wood and shelves remain in place. The Lafer Building and the Harvard Square Centre Building fall into this category.
The third level is when they prep a building for demolition or renovation and they scrape everything off the walls, floors and ceilings, as they are currently doing with the Book Cadillac and as they have done with buildings like the Metropolitan. You’re basically left with a concrete skeleton and nothing even remotely interesting.
The Kresge store, part of the same block as the Merchants Row lofts project, is in the second stage – old wood doors, drawers and shelves everywhere, but barely any artifacts left. Nevertheless, there still were some interesting finds.
In other buildings around town I’ve found graffiti from the 40s and 50s that bears little resemblance to graffiti found today. The drawings and caricatures are strange, of characters and faces distinctly dated, and the writing is even weirder and uncontemporary. And like other old graffiti I’ve stumbled across, I couldn’t find a single obscenity anywhere.
Most scrawls consisted of names followed by a date, like “Bobby Honeycutt 1955”or “Vince Killewald 7-8-42.” Some guy named Sid wrote his name on various dates throughout the building on concrete pillars. One of his friends scrawled in big letters the statement “Sid is a Dirty Rabbit.”
The oldest I found was a list of names, about eight feet off the ground, of people who simply wanted to freeze the moment, which they did by noting at the end of the names list that it was “Tuesday Night, 9:00 p.m., Feb. 19, 1929.” Another wall had the score of an unspecified office game played in 1933 and 1934.
The coolest find was a list of the dates of the “First Snow in Detroit” that some people took the trouble to note each year from 1929-1959 in chalk on a wood wall.
Later layers of graffiti were found on other floors. We found writing on pillars dated from 1964 that occurred just as the Beatles became popular, because lots of stuff like “Rosemary loves the Beatles,” and "Ringo" was written everywhere.
A lone piece of paper from World War II remained on a window, urging conservation of resources like water and electricity to help ensure victory in the war effort.
The House of Nine floor, a women's clothing store for years, looked pretty much like you’d expect it to, based on the pink sign on Grand River. Pink-trimmed dressing booths lined the walls, silver pillars and shiny wallpaper defined hallways, and funky green carpet finished the scene.
On the sixth floor was a cashiers' office, the target of a robbery in 1954 in which a suspect described as a "parolee" busted into the office, took a bunch of cash and darted down the stairs onto Grand River, only to meet up with a cop. The suspect fired at the cop, wounding the officer. The parolee was then filled with bulletholes by the police. Meanwhile, midday shopping crowds scattered like crazy. I found out about this episode from an old newspaper article in the Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library.
Got to the roof as usual, but saw someone watching TV in one of the lofts next to the Christian Science Building, and didn’t want to attract too much attention to ourselves. We sat down and took in the sun, exhausted from the effort.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Friday I went with a friend to the Illuminate event at the Lamar Building in Brush Park. Basically, Illuminate is an event where a rehabbed loft is shown to prospective buyers, and this is combined with artists displaying their work on the walls in various rooms, food served by local restaurants, and free booze. It's basically to showcase what it's like to live in Detroit. I had been to the first one, and the event has grown considerably since then. This was the fifth such event, and it featured a DJ playing techno next door at the skeletal mid-rehab Carlton Plaza Hotel, complete with large floodlights beamed into the empty windows of the building. Basically a sort-of legal rave, without the drugs, the large number of people, and the fun.
The strange thing about that was we were in a building that I had been in before, though I sort of just helped myself to the place the first time. Absolutely zero work has been completed on it since then, which was sometime in the winter. We climbed with our free beers to the roof and took in the fireworks at Comerica Park after the Tigers game, making this the second time I'd seen a fireworks display from a rooftop in 48 hours. A few inquisitive types followed us up. Other stragglers got midway up and didn't get much farther.
It was strange to see such an event in the middle of Brush Park. Well-heeled Illuminate guests mingled on one side of the street, and the usual Brush Park denizens (read: hobos) mingled with each other in the shabby park across the street. I'm guessing that's not quite what the organizers had hoped for.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
To be fair, it's been a while since the fireworks got this kind of bad publicity.The last time there was widely publicized trouble was back in 1991, when a bunch of black chicks beat the hell out of a few middle-age white women from the suburbs in the middle of Jefferson, on camera. That scared the hell out of suburbanites for the longest time, and caused years of headaches for the city's PR people.
The last time I was at the fireworks was in 1990, when I was caught in a two-hour traffic jam at the corner of Woodward and Larned, as I was trying to get to the Shelter. It was a nightmare. My car would move about five feet every 15 minutes. Everyone around me was agitated and cranky. A group of black teenagers was hovering around about 20 feet from my car, arguing with each other, when one of them suddenly pulled out a handgun and shot another teen in the leg.
The victim slumped to the ground, pedestrians simultaneously hit the ground for cover, the shooter and his friends ran away, and suburban women began screaming hysterically. Meanwhile, traffic was absolutely gridlocked. The police had no way of getting to the scene. About five minutes after the teen was shot, a pickup truck blasted past the pedestrians, drove onto the sidewalk, the victim’s friends picked him up and threw him into the back of the truck, and away they went. The police showed up about 20 minutes later, too late for anything.
I remember poring over the newspapers for days afterwards, and didn’t find a single mention of the incident. That was my first-hand introduction, confirmed dozens of times subsequently, to the fact that a lot of what goes on in the city never makes it into the papers.
Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about being in the line of fire last night. In fact, we didn’t have to worry about crowds at all, since we viewed the fireworks display from the roof of the Fort Shelby Hotel. We managed to find a decent parking spot at Lafayette and Sixth and walked the four blocks to the hotel. We got to the parking lot next to the hotel and found a leering attendant waiting for us. We stood around sheepishly, waiting for him to go away; he stood there about seven feet away from us and glared.
Luckily someone pulled into the lot and started doing something that got him all worked up, because he soon forgot us and started chasing the car around. We used the opportunity to make a quick entrance. By now we’ve been to the hotel enough that we knew our way around instantly. Lots of stair climbing, and we were on the roof, with a great perch from which to watch the fireworks, unobstructed by buildings. We had a whole skyscraper to ourselves.
We wound up staying on that roof longer than we had planned. After the fireworks show had ended, everyone left at once. In all directions all you could see totally frozen traffic, and down below the roof tempers flared as cars tried to merge into already packed lanes and jackasses blared their horns at each other in anger, and people shouted at each other, and for the longest time nothing moved at all. It took until 1 a.m. before we even climbed down off the roof, and traffic was clear enough for us to go home. In the meantime though, we enjoyed a pleasant breeze, the rustle of the leaves on the roof trees, and the joy of not being in a packed crowd.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Not as many people in the audience as I expected, though the hipsters were out in full force. Rarely has there been so much posturing and preening en masse. And those were just my friends. Everyone else was even worse. But we took time away from the show (and from our sunburns) to do some exploring.
The five-story Blenheim Apartments on Park Avenue is one of the smaller structures in the behind-the-Fox area of Detroit, but it’s also one of the prettiest.
Most people who pass by it would probably recognize it as the building at which someone keeps leaving piles of cat food next to the front door every day. At various times I’ve seen cats darting in and out of a small hole in the concrete steps out front, a sight that has fuelled rumors of hundreds of cats living inside.
There are definitely animals living in there. Cat shit is in several places in piles, though not in the quantities I’d expect. And the paper plates that someone keeps leaving food on have been dragged into the lobby, which now contains hundreds of plates piled atop one another.
Cats aren’t the only animals inside; there were raccoon tracks in various spots, making this the second abandoned building in the area in which I’ve found signs of a raccoon living there (the first being the dead raccoon in the Charlevoix Building).
You could tell right away that this is an Ilitch-owned building, because a lot of rooms have been used as dumping grounds for leftover Little Caesars promotional crap, like vending machine sized interactive displays, or voice-activated countertop gimmicks. In some upstairs rooms were foot-high stacks of paperwork from the pizzamaker.
This was one of the oldest buildings we’d been in. Nearly everything was made of wood. The sounds the floors made when we walked through were the exact same noises you hear when walking through ancient Greenfield Village homes. The wood trim was the same that was put in when the place was built in 1905. What remained of the wood banisters on the stairs was the same type, carved in a turn-of-the-century style. The doors were heavy wood. The fireplaces that remained were exquisite, each with small mirrors on the mantle, some flanked by pillars.
The rooms were a bit small by today’s standards, but the rooms in most apartments and hotels of the era, like the Book Cadillac, Lee Plaza, Fort Shelby and many others, are very small. And despite having some open windows, the rooms are in relatively decent shape - very little rotting, no visible structural damage, no real vandalism, few signs of idiots tagging the place.
It looks as though some attempt at refurbishing the apartments took place, because a lot of the wood trim had been stripped off the walls and piled together in several rooms. But that was the extent of it, and whatever project had been underway stopped for some reason.
There seems to have been some stonework encircling the roof, but it has been systematically chiseled away, leaving obvious scars. Judging by the detailing surrounding the front door, it must've been nice.
Went on the roof for a moment, but because of the fact that the building sits next to a Detroit Police building and next to a parking lot in which there’s a security guard in a booth, we didn’t linger long.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
The problem is, when the Wings won the Cup in 2002, I sneaked out of work with a coworker and, using our press passes, we wriggled our way basically into the parade, so much so that we were shown on television a lot. It seems our boss' sister was watching the parade, and phoned him at work and said "Guess who I just saw on TV at the parade?" When we got back to the office three hours later, with suntans no less, it was suddenly "can I see you two in my office?" and he flipped out about the whole thing. So no more parades for us. Damn it!
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
People celebrated all over the area, Detroit-style, which means everyone was out on the streets at 1 a.m., high-fiving strangers and blaring their horns. After partying in the suburbs until the cops started flooding the streets at the first signs of rowdiness, I headed south on Woodward and slowly merged with the celebrants in Detroit and Highland Park. Crowds were walking all up and down Woodward, and spontaneously formed in odd spots such as gas stations, one of which had a growing crowd of about 150 people swarming it.
Police swooped in on any gathering crowds of 50 or more, and once the police cars pulled up the participants scattered like roaches in all directions before the cops could even get out of their cars. It was hilarious. This scene was repeated up and down Woodward, though the police apparently allowed a sort of controlled celebration to continue at Jefferson and Woodward, though I never made it down that far.
Something just south of Highland Park caused the cops to come speeding in with sirens blaring to some apartment building, but apart from that, an occasional slight degree of mob mentality, and a few incidents here and there, Detroit seemed no wilder than Royal Oak. In other words, screw you, Jimmy Kimmel.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
I was surprised, because I had never noticed it being empty before. There’s just not much abandoned property in those few blocks south of Lafayette. It was daytime, but nevertheless I played around with the doors and windows, both out front and in the alley, trying to find a way in, despite being approached by street weirdos in the process. I called my fellow explorer friend, and made vague plans to hit that building in the coming weeks.
But wouldn't you know it, few days later I went by and saw it fenced off, with the ground floor seemingly blasted away, debris everywhere, and a gaping hole where once a lobby sat, and construction equipment everywhere. Uh oh, I thought, it appears they are tearing it down, and fast. So before they removed everything of interest, we paid an "emergency" exploration visit to it on a weeknight.
The lobby was essentially gone, as were the first couple floors, so we checked out what remained of the upper floors.
This had to be the most boring interior of any building we’ve explored. It had been remodeled in the early 90s with early 80s décor, so there really wasn’t anything historical remaining, apart from very slightly outdated versions of software, like Adobe Acrobat 3, scattered on the floor. Some old financial guides were piled here and there, and a plant left to die sat in its pot near the window, brown leaves still in place. File cabinets and desks remained where they were on the last day of business here. The elevators and staircases, where some nice border tilework remained, were the only things in the building that seemed to escape the early 90s purge of good architectural taste.
Despite being occupied only a few years back, there was water damage everywhere, as well as a putrid stench emanating from the yellow-green moldy stains all over the carpets. How a building that had been empty for only a short while and effectively sealed gets that much water damage is beyond me. The carpet in some rooms had been so water-soaked that it stuck to our shoes in nasty, sticky clumps as we walked on it, accumulating on our shoes in big, heavy wads.
The top floor was structurally pretty, in that there are giant windows and 30-foot ceilings, but someone schooled in the Tacky Dollar Store Design Movement had redecorated it with bizarre paintings of misshapen birds all over the walls and fake-looking wood and cheap 80s light fixtures.
The visit to the roof made the trip worth it. Capped with elaborate terra cotta designs, it features a geometric pattern with encased faces that look out towards Lafayette.
Before leaving we hopped onto an adjacent roof and into a building that turned out to be the Kennedy Building, owned by Detroit Public Schools and used as a nursing school. This was another strange adventure, in that we were convinced once we got in that we had accidentally penetrated an occupied building. Lights were on everywhere, small desk fans were blowing air, the hum of computers and printers could be heard, phones were working, personal effects and photos remained tacked to walls near desks. The heat was cranked to 80 degrees.
We tiptoed through, nervously expecting to find someone in an office somewhere sitting at their desk, but the place was thankfully people-free. The only giveaway that indicated it was abandoned were the ceiling tiles that had fallen from onto the floor here and there, and the nursing magazines everywhere that had dates no later than 2001. The building was not without its oddities: A few dozen small, plastic fetuses were lined up in a window, and medical waste was piled high in a cabinet. We worked our way downward, floor by floor. By the time we hit the third floor an alarm rang out, and despite not being terribly worried we nevertheless got the hell out of there.
Update: Whoops, while the building was technically an Olde Building at the time of its demise, having been purchased by the Olde Corporation right next door, it was originally known as the Transportation Building, and later, as the Canadian National Grand Trunk Building. Most railroad companies' offices were located here. For example, Grand Trunk Western had their accounting, treasury, legal, purchasing and engineering departments in the building, and similar offices of other railroad companies were also located there. This only slighly messes up my Olde School pun, which isn't that great to begin with, and is actually a bit of a stretch considering I was trying to tie two buildings together (School of Nursing and Olde) into one headline. So shoot me!
Monday, June 07, 2004
Friday, June 04, 2004
We’d been there before, so there wasn’t much exploring to do. After a few photos on the second and third floors, plus a few shots of a debris-and-weed garden in the mezzanine, we went straight up to the roof.
A police helicopter circling overhead delayed our entrance onto the roof for a long time. With the rays of the sunset giving us a bright glow we could’ve been spotted from a mile away. And considering that nobody is supposed to be in or on these buildings, the sight of us standing there would’ve been immediately noticeable as something unusual. So we stayed inside, near the top of the staircase, watching the helicopter circle the area over and over, sometimes passing directly over us. This went on forever. Finally, as the day was fading, he disappeared.
We sipped our new favorite roof beer, a Russian beer called Baltika that has 8 percent alcohol and is inexplicably available only at a certain ghetto party store. Watched the sunset, and took a couple hundred photos. I nearly froze because again I forgot to bring a jacket, and up on these roofs, with no buildings or trees to diminish the winds, it gets very cold and very windy compared with the climate down on the streets. It's like being on a mountaintop.
Then the craziest thing that has ever happened to us happened right then. We were on the opposite side of the roof that we came up on, so we started to leave via a different stairway. My friend started down the stairs a few steps in front of me. As he hit the middle of the first level of the stairway, about six steps down, the remaining steps dissolved into rubble and collapsed.
As he began plunging downward with the falling rubble, he grabbed hold of the railing in an instant and was dangling over a huge hole that had opened up. I leaned over and looked down and saw that not only had the staircase at our floor collapsed, but the four levels below were missing as well. All that remained was a giant hole five stories deep with rubble at the bottom and a huge dust cloud rising. It all happened so fast I had no time to react. I simply stood there, watching, stunned.
It was exactly like a scene from a movie. I mean, he literally almost died, and here he was, swinging by his arms from this railing that remained hanging over the hole. He pulled himself up and swung himself to the bottom of that level of stairs, which was still in place, with about a half-dozen steps above it now gone. We stood there in total shock, not believing what had just happened.
But now we had a problem. I couldn’t get down to where he was because too many steps were missing. I could jump to the base of the stairs that remained, but that might trigger another collapse, taking both of us with it. And there were no stairs to climb back up. So he very gingerly climbed the railing, and brought himself back to the handful of steps remaining at the top. We went back to the other side of the roof and took a tried-and-true stairway.
And of course, once we got back down to the basement we got utterly lost and couldn’t find our way out. All we could see was darkness, and the flashlights illuminated a bunch of sameness everywhere, with the eerie sounds of dripping water all around us. Everything looked exactly the same, and we were lost in this giant, rusty maze. We wandered like that for about 15 minutes before finally recognizing the spot where we had entered the building.
Got out, went straight to Bar Bar to calm the adrenalin from my friend’s near-death experience, ate at Lafayette Coney, then home at 1 a.m., for a lousy six hours of sleep and a long, long workday today.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Detroit is becoming rather un-Detroit-like, in that so many bars are opening up you can actually walk from one to another and then to another within a reasonable distance. In the old days you’d be lucky to find a single open bar per square mile. Driving was mandatory. Now there are well-lit establishments, people walking the streets, families from the suburbs leaving stadia and entering restaurants. I don't know what to think.
Spent several hours at Movement on Saturday with friends, watching kids not able to handle their drugs struggle to stay on their feet, Euro tourists looking lost and haughty, Japanese tourists having a blast, bums worked up over the mayhem, cops overwhelmed, breakdancers dueling, techno kids trancing out on light shows, and beautiful girls all over the place. I really don’t care for techno, and the festival-goers basically make me feel comparatively really, really old, but what the hell.
Those silly malt beverage drinks they were selling for $5 a cup packed a hidden punch, and by 11 p.m. I was as hammered as all the kids around me who were too stoned to move much. I managed to twist my ankle pretty bad hopping around near the river, which my teammates will be thrilled to hear about now that my hockey team is in the finals this upcoming weekend.
On Sunday, after visiting friends who’d been partying all night in their loft in the almost century-old Cary Building, we put together a rather delightful little tour of the Gratiot/Broadway corner and all its charming, turn-of-the-century architecture.
The nice thing about the area is the buildings are close enough that you can get from one to the other without coming back down to the ground, either through roof hopping or slightly riskier transfers along walls.
Needless to say, buildings look considerably different when you view them from another building of equal height than they do when you're staring up from the ground, and the Breitmeyer-Tobin Building at the corner of Broadway and Gratiot is no exception.
Built in 1906, this eight-story Beaux-Arts structure was originally created as offices for John Breitmeyer Sons florists. In the 1920s it became the Penisular Bank Building, but the Depression pretty much killed that off. It was later purchased by Benjamin Tobin, who added his name to the building, hence its cumbersome moniker. Back when blacks and whites generally had separate office space, Tobin filled the building with black-owned businesses, including insurance agencies and attorneys offices.
The building has been nicely refurbished and, unfortunately for us explorers, pretty well occupied, as proven by the stares of people in its windows as we leapfrogged from one neighboring roof to another in full daylight.
The red brick building features, elaborate terra cotta ornamentation, columns on the upper level and a modillion-supported cornice, among dozens of other features that slowly become apparent when you spend time staring at it.
Down the street sits the 12-story Harvard Square Center building, soon to be known as the spot where the Hub resides. Though there are offices on the second floor, most of the building is empty. Like a lot of older buildings the upper floors have sustained a bit of water damage and carry an unusually strong, terrible smell, but only one or two windows are broken. Blankets and jars of urine from a squatter remain on one floor, but the building is otherwise empty. Old offices retain their stenciling on the doors.
Across the street, the nine-story Lafer Building, built in 1916, is best known nowadays to the casual observer as the building with the very 1970s-looking Broadway/Randolph lettering painted on its yellow side in some sort of psychedelic motif.
Despite this amusing visual atrocity, the front of the building is beautiful. Designed by architect Joseph E. Mills, it initially was Lafer Brothers Grocery Wholesale, “roasters and vendors of high grade coffee and dealers in groceries and sundries.” Despite being completely gutted, the building does retain some vestige of its history, including a large, spiral grocery chute that extends for most of the floors, which allowed items to slide from several floors down to one gathering point. The front doorway retains the Lafer Bros. logo in small tiles. The ground floor also features a bar with absolutely ancient-looking wood and several artist's renderings of proposed lofts, neatly displayed along the bar in the darkness.
Afterwards, on the way to dropping my friend off in Woodbridge, we came across more than a dozen police combing a grassy field at Peterboro and Third Street, with Third closed to traffic. The hobos who normally mill around the area were pretty much still there, as were the usual shady people, one of whom came up to us and said "What do you need?" in an offering-drugs-or-sex sort of way, despite police saturating the area. A random passerby said somebody had been shot there.
Monday was rained out early on. I did some scouting downtown during breaks in the downpour. A rather effeminate and gaudily dressed fellow came up to me as I was standing on a low ledge and very obviously trying to pry open a window of a very visible downtown building and, for no reason, told me his idea for a Quizno’s sub ad. “It would incorporate the word play of Quizno’s and the word 'inquisitive,'” he kept telling me. Great idea! I told him. He had a similar one for the Coney Islands on Lafayette, though I was too busy ignoring him to remember what it was. Also, I was engaged in potential illegal activity and he wasn't helping my concentration or my nerves. I generally don't do these things alone, and without my friend helping out I get rather skittish.
On a nearby corner, another guy was shouting slogans at the open air. A few minutes earlier someone on a bike rode up, stopped, mumbled to himself for a minute, then took off again. A lot of people were trippin’ this weekend, often literally, judging by the number of glazed red eyes and wide-as-saucer pupils to be seen and the sudden approaches by rambling strangers all over downtown.