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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.


Friday, July 23, 2004

The latest installment of the Summer Drinking Series was snuffed out before it got going last night, because neither of us felt like climbing dozens of sweltering flights of stairs to drink on a roof in the insane heat. It's too bad, because we had a cool target picked out. So no new building photos today (but also no hangover). And I'm taking a much-deserved week off work next week before I crack up, so blogging may be erratic, but who knows? I might get restless and blog every day.

I envision a week of empty buildings, flower-ringed waters on Belle Isle (as seen at left), properly poured Guinness, medium-rare steaks, breezes fragranced by sunny gardens, short road trips, money spent foolishly, alarm clock-free sleeps, leftover fireworks shot off in inappropriate places and, as usual, all sorts of personal debauches that don't necessarily make it into the blog.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Summer in the City

Summer is in cruise-control mode right now. I find that summer is a lot better when it’s not ruined by a confining-to-the-house broken collarbone, as it was last year, so this year I've been doubling up on the fun to make up for lost time, which means lots of going out and partying, which also means everyone I know thinks I'm a boozehound now.

Not last week, though. Friday I skipped work, using a mild cold as an excuse. It’s mid-July and I get a week-long cold. Unbelieveable. Mid-July seems cursed by colds or collarbones or some other such summer interrupter. Wandered Belle Isle aimlessly, talking to strangers, taking photos of pretty things, trying to avoid coworkers and being disinterested in the boat races, though for a few minutes I stood on the beach, leaning against a stoop, watching the boats speed by. People approached and asked if they could go in the water. They thought I was the lifeguard because I had no shirt on and just shorts and was inadvertantly standing against the lifeguard platform. Go ahead, do what you want, I told them. They went in the water. Then the police walked up and chased them out of the water. I left with a bad sunburn.

Saturday was the Fourth Street Fair, consisting of us watching all our friends walking around in a stupor, open marijuana smoking, booths selling trinkets, and lots of bands, including this month’s detroitblog favorite, Lee Marvin Computer Arm. I sat with friends at a booth where a photographer was selling photos of buildings around town, but he kept wandering off to stand in the beer line or talk to strangers, leaving me by default to sell his stuff. I didn’t know what to tell people when they had questions about his photos, and most potential customers wandered off after waiting for him awhile. I felt bad because he kept missing sales, but I wasn’t sure if I was authorized to sell his stuff. He seemed to be having a good time nevertheless, puffing on some of the dozens of joints that kept being handed to our booth by generous potheads, and sipping beer all afternoon.


But who cares about all that when there are buildings to be photographed and described. The Woodward Building, on the corner of Clifford and Woodward, is on the same block as the Merchants Row loft projects but somehow has so far escaped their attention. Eight stories tall and built in 1923, it’s been abandoned since the mid-1970s. That’s thirty years on Detroit’s main street, in the heart of downtown, empty. The only sign of life is an open shoe store operating out of the bottom floor, which is unconnected to the rest of the building.

The nice thing about the Woodward is that it’s relatively undamaged inside. No tagging, no broken windows, few signs of squatters, most things left as they were on the last day of work in 1974. To find an abandoned building in Detroit that hasn't been ransacked by jackasses is truly a remarkable thing, though it's probably that way only because it's so hard to get into.



During the 20s and 30s the building housed a variety of businesses, including some rather unusual ones like Sarah A. Smith Hemstitching on the seventh floor, Adolph J. Krug Violin Maker in 303 and the Michigan Furriers Exchange in 305. For some reason, by early 1941 the building became essentially abandoned, with only Radeff Fur Cleaning and Fur Matching remaining on the seventh floor. All other floors were empty.

The building rebounded in the 1950s, however, and new businesses filled most of the floors, mostly jewelers. But by the 1970s, as happened all around town, businesses began leaving, some floors were used primarly as storage for other businesses down the street, like Lane Bryant and Kresge, and by the mid-70s it was completely empty.

All of the calendars we found remaining on the walls were from 1974. The décor, the fixtures, the paperwork, all are frozen in that year. The only sign of post-business activity in the building were the remaining personal effects of a 34-year-old squatter, who left medical records behind indicating his name was John, and that he was a snowboarder from Denver who blew out his knee and for whatever reason chose to recuperate in an abandoned building in downtown Detroit in 1998.


Remnants of carry-out food lay on window ledges, a snowboarding helmet rested on a shelf and snowboarding magazines were piled up next to it. He also left a shopping list, things that would be handy when squatting such as pest strips, a work lamp, bleach, Spic and Span, a mop, a tool box and masonry nails. Apparently he planned a long-term stay, because he also listed a couch, a rug, a writing desk and paper as future purchases.


The building had been pretty well cleared out when it closed, and little remained in the way of artifacts, apart from calendars on the walls and retail shelves and displays. The seventh floor had cheap fur hats scattered all over the place. They looked like dead animals.

Other floors, like in a lot of buildings in Detroit, had rooms painted in intense colors – orange, pink, sky blue, lime green. One floor had the word "qualifications" emblazoned across a full wall with Op Art-style black lines radiating from it.


The roof was a standard tar roof, offering a great sunlit view of the superb architecture of the buildings on the east side of Woodward, not to mention affording glimpses of the terra cotta detail on the Woodward building's cornice and along its corners. Even on the cornice’s underside, there is exquisite decorative detail for no other reason than beauty itself, something you almost never find on a modern building exterior, but is everywhere in Detroit’s pre-Depression buildings.

It is beauty that was put there by the architects and builders even though the majority of the public would never, ever see it, since you have to climb to an adjacent roof to see the tiny details, or else peer down while lying on the edge of the Woodward's roof. In other words, art for art’s sake, delightful beauty for the sake of loveliness, and for no other reason.




Thursday, July 15, 2004

We’re getting so familiar with the abandoned buildings in town now that they’ve become our default hangouts. Instead of winding down a night with a beer at a friend’s house, we now often head up to a roof somewhere.

Last weekend, as we were walking near Oslo, I noticed that some overexcited person tore off the plywood from the Metropolitan Building. Again. For weeks it had been like a door, with one end open, and you could go in and close it when you left, but as with all things exploration related, someone eventually comes along and ruins it. Now there’s a gaping hole. So we took a neophyte friend of ours up the steps to check out the most beautiful roof in the city, which was illuminated by the lights of Comerica Park.

Somehow we later wound up at the County Western Bar on Vernor, the last place I ever thought I’d be. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected, except for the grating and shrill sound of off-key people drunkenly warbling karaoke songs at 1:30 a.m. The crowd didn’t seem to notice or care too much how utterly different we were than everyone else there, and after some swill we headed to Duly’s for the second weekend in a row for some sugary late-night pie.

But fattening, drunken summer pie breaks aren't everyone's idea of a good time. Something with a bit more of a bang is preferred by some Detroiters.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Show Business

There are some abandoned buildings around town that you pass by everyday and don't really think about, because they're indistinct or relatively unadorned, but turn out to have lots of history.

One of those is the seven-story Film Exchange Building on Cass. Designed by C. Howard Crane and built in the 1920s, it cost $1.5 million to construct. It was built on the site of the remnants of the National Hotel, which was dismantled in 1851. The two-story part of the hotel, considered the prettiest part, was moved to Cass and Montcalm that year and remodeled into a 10-family Terrace apartment, which it remained until getting the wrecking ball to make way for the FEB. It was called the “most historic and romantic part of the National Hotel,” and “one of Detroit’s landmarks,” by newspapers at the time, which lamented the demolition of one of Detroit's most historic structures.


The FEB was built at that site primarily to consolidate the booking, distribution, and storage of movies locally. It was also constructed for safety reasons; the old nitrate film was highly flammable, and there was a constant danger of fire and explosions. The new building provided fireproof vaults for all its tenants and the latest equipment for the handling and inspection of films before its eventual delivery to the theaters.

The FEB was built during the booming era when extravagant theaters were being built all over town, including the United Artists, Michigan, Fox, and Palms-State theaters downtown, and the Fisher, Hollywood and Riviera theaters in the neighborhoods.

A sculpture symbolizing the motion picture industry sat over the main entrance. It’s still there, though it’s been vandalized. The lobby, described at the time as “massively decorated” and “ornate,” was done in Travertine marble. The front entrance door and elevator doors were made of bronze.


The building was completed in 1926 and a lavish opening, attended by both the mayor and the governor, was held with dancing, singing and speeches. It was called the finest film exchange building in the nation at the time.

The building housed all branch exchanges except Paramount and Fox, which had their own buildings in the area. Dozens of movie-related businesses also shared the building and the block, including the Film Exchange Café and Film Exchange Drug Store.

During Prohibition, a bootlegger called Vinegar Bill, who served whisky out of a sack he always carried with him, operated out of the drug store, also known as Belinsky’s. The drug store, which ostensibly offered coffee and rolls to patrons, also featured a pinball machine and was often the site of many dice games between studio and theater reps.

The seventh floor featured Max Blumenthal’s screening room, which showed previews of films to reviewers and the police censor, who would demand that certain scenes be cut but would often allow them to be spliced back in for a “price.”

By the 1960s, as the city lost population and the grand theaters slowly deteriorated, there was a steady exodus of studio exchanges and movie-related businesses from the city, most going to Southfield and Oak Park.


By 1964 the building was largely filled with unions like AFL-CIO, Detroit Cooks Union and Awning Display Directors Union. By 1970s the Polish Daily News occupied part of the second floor, and blue-collar unions and trades, such as the Roofing Industry Apprentice School on the seventh floor, occupied what few floors weren’t vacant.

Finally, in March 1972, the last studio branch, MGM, moved out of its fourth-floor offices and into the David Whitney Building. A few years later, the entire building shut down.

Unlike the Blenheim, which was rumored to have a lot of cats inside but turned out to be relatively cat free, the FEB turned out to be the real stray cat building. Some genius keeps leaving pounds and pounds of cat food by a hole in the building, fostering a breeding ground for stray cats. Apparently someone thinks it’s a good idea to multiply cats in a harsh weather environment amid rampant filth and disease with no medical attention. The very first kitten we saw had such severe cataracts that it was nearly blind. It stumbled around in the trash trying to hide. Most of the other cats we ran into all had something or other wrong with them. Throughout the building we found dead cats or remnants of dead cats. On various floors we’d be startled by a pack of cats scattering as we entered the room. On one floor, a small black kitten ran in circles in a room we had entered, not sure how to escape.



So getting in wasn’t easy under these circumstances. We had to crawl through piles of paper plates and mounds of cat food to get in. Even then we were tentative because we didn’t know if the person feeding the cats lived in there. We shone a flashlight through a hole and saw the reflection of dozens of cat eyes peering back at us.

Most of the building had been stripped clean long ago, except for the second floor, which featured the worst wood paneling I’ve ever seen, and the seventh floor, which had a wall on which a bunch of early1960s B-movie posters remained, some more intact than others.

The roof contained a number of strange ventilation shafts from which the metal has been removed, leaving them looking like bottomless pigeon coops. We also found a strange observation deck with an iron rail encircling it, but that turned out to be where the water tower once stood. Bricks crumbled off walls on the roof, revealing earlier red brick walls below. Down below, the streets were dead, as they always are when the Tigers aren't in town.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Ow, my stomach hurts. I’ve subsisted on beer and sausage for, like, four days, and now I’m back at work, hurting.

Friday night after catching old-time R&B singer Nathaniel Mayer at the Tastefest, we saw some bands at the Detroit Art Space, then drove up Oakland towards the Sugarhill Lounge. But we didn’t make it, because the street had been blocked off by about 20 cop cars. Seems several people went to an after-hours gambling club at Oakland and Clay, and started robbing the place. As they were pistol-whipping gamblers and getting them to disrobe, someone called 911. The cops came, the robbers opened fire, then everyone started shooting. At least five people were shot, including two cops.

We stood outside with the crowds as the wives and girlfriends of the patrons and suspects milled around, growing hysterical. “I know it’s Marshall,” one woman cried. “There’s his car, but he’s not around. I know it’s him (who got shot).” Others lamented the shooting sprees so far this year. “This is happening all the time around here nowadays,” one older man said. About 100 people had gathered. No mention in the papers in subsequent days; a couple brief mentions on the local TV newscasts.

Saturday watched bands at Tastefest, eating shish-kebabs and southern sausage slathered in sauce, then more bands at the Detroit Art Space, then an omelet and a chocolate pie in the middle of the night at Duly’s in southwest Detroit.


Sunday we woke up very tired but nevertheless drove to Ohio for our annual purchase of mortar-sized fireworks (anything worth using is illegal in Michigan, even bottle rockets), which we shot off later than night in Woodbridge while barbecuing even more sausage over a fire in a barrel. Somebody on the other side of Trumball put on a municipal-sized fireworks display that dwarfed ours. Gunshots mixed with firecrackers. A party down the street blared soul music. People walking by invited themselves over. A good time.

In addition to the shooting we stumbled upon Friday night, others got in on the fun, including a shooting over a barbecue chicken wing. Multiple shootings – it’s the new trend for summer! Then again, multiple shootings were a Detroit staple in the past, so I guess it’s actually kind of a retro trend for summer, like throwback jerseys, or New Wave clothes at the club. Just wait until it gets to be 90 degrees for days at a time. What fun! It’s 1986 all over again!

Friday, July 02, 2004

Green

We continued the Summer Drinking Series with a repeat visit to the Detroit Building on Park Avenue last night. And here I am, 12 hours later, blogging about it. What quick turnaround! We're almost live at this point.

The last time we visited was during the winter, and these buildings we explore have very different lives seasonally. As summer progresses, these visits are becoming far more uncomfortable. It’s about 20 degrees warmer inside some of these buildings than it is outside, especially those with a good deal of sun exposure through windows. Putting on a dust mask, which is advisable in a place with this many airborne powders, puts you in a nasty world of stuffy humidity and sweat.

The higher we went, the more the indoor vegetation thrived. On one of the uppermost floors, whole west-facing rooms were filled with foot-high plants leaning towards the sunlight in the windows. In addition, the four-inch thick mound of powder and pigeonshit on the floors is covered with a glowing green layer of moss. Some of the window ledges had naturally evolved into window planters, as the wood turns to mush and small plants have taken hold. On the roof, a 13-foot tree thrives, while smaller grasses and flowers ring the roof's perimeter.


We drank on the roof in the warm summer air, watching the sun slowly go down and observing a lone worker on a scaffold platform working on the top floor exterior of the Kales Building. He seemed to spot us leaping around up on our roof, and stopped what he was doing and stared for a while. We watched the citygoers heading to the Town Pump. I took some more photos of the doomed Statler Hotel, then we packed up and left as the last pink streaks of sunset faded.

Afterwards we stopped at Motor City Brewing Works for a final beer and the outdoor screening of some 1950s public service films about the dangers of drugs and the protection a good paint job affords in the event of a nuclear war. High kitsch value. After that I went home, only to be regretfully awakened six hours later by some manic bird outside my window, chirping incessantly in the morning light.


By the way, I just realized that today is detroitblog’s first birthday! One year old today. What started as a pointless exercise with no form has evolved into … a pointless exercise with a degree of form, 18,000 hits later. I believe the blog and I will celebrate together with what else – some beers tonight downtown somewhere! Yay detroitblog!


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The visit yesterday reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to mention. There’s someone going around town tagging buildings in a way that violates the codes of tagging in all sorts of ways. This person sprays an orange fluorescent horizontal line on a window ledge several floors up in abandoned buildings downtown. Sometimes it's accompanied by the meaningless “L7.” I’ve seen it on the Sanders Building, the Hotel Eddystone, the American Hotel, the Detroit Building and the Charlevoix Building. So if the person who is doing this happens to be reading this, knock it off, OK?

Here’s why: There are certain practices that taggers and urban explorers adhere to, and one of them is not tagging irreplaceable architecture. Look at the Broderick Tower or the Book Cadillac – the stonework is clean; the taggers kept to the windows, which would be replaced anyway in any renovation, or painted on crumbling plaster walls inside. Even rampant taggers like TRTL for the most part stick to painting plywood that’s covering windows, or concrete overpasses. You generally don’t see them tagging stonework, or putting paint on irreplaceable terra cotta, as this person did to the Sanders Building. The whole point of urban exploration is to see these strange and beautiful structures as they are; otherwise we’d all be breaking into empty 20-year-old office buildings in Southfield.

Likewise, anyone can break a window to get into a building, but it takes cleverness and talent to get in and out without leaving a trace or damaging anything, and that’s half the fun. These no-skills-having mother fuckers who leave doors wide open and tag architecture ruin it for the rest of us.

I know a lot of taggers and explorers, and most are pretty aware of history and architecture and know enough to leave those things in place as they are. Even those not fully educated on a building’s history instinctively know that something is beautiful and will refrain from damaging it. There are very few beautiful historical things remaining in the city, and it demonstrates ignorance by putting stupid tags on those things.

Finally, one point of pride among taggers is the cleverness of a tag. I must say that a horizontal fluorescent line is the least imaginative tag ever. It’s simply dumb. It’s not worth repeating around town because it shows no creativity. Move on, OK? That shit is simply stupid.


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