You have found the detroitblog. This is about my wanderings and debaucheries in Detroit, as well as observations, news, commentary and ramblings about the city itself. I love Detroit, even the old Detroit of blight, waste and emptiness. Hockeytown. Motown. I grew up here, had my best times here. It's my town.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

On the Edge

The Freedom Festival fireworks last night went off without a hitch, a hitch being the shooting of people. And nobody shot = event success in Detroit. The crowds were a bit thinner, largely due to lingering gunfire fears from last year, but that didn’t stop the maddening traffic gridlock from forming once the fireworks were over as everyone fled the city at the exact same time.

It seemed all my efforts to view the fireworks from an elevated perch were being thwarted by various security personnel this year. A couple days prior to the show I was scouting a certain tall building, scouting it a little too close apparently, because a security guard caught me and immediately whipped out her cell phone and called the police. I hightailed it out of there. Another ideal building I targeted was reportedly both sealed and guarded. The building we viewed fireworks from last year, the Fort Shelby Hotel, was accessible, but I didn’t want to simply repeat last year’s experience, no matter how good it was.

My luck continued to tank. My cell phone died right before the fireworks, so I couldn't communicate with the various groups of people who I knew would be down there. I went with a few others to an upper floor of an occupied building, but even that didn’t go as planned, as we got chased off our roost by even more security.

But me being me, I circumvented that by various means, and I managed to get some great photos, even if I had to put myself close to death to get them. But where would the adventure be without a racing heartbeat and vertigo? Nothing like standing on a ledge in darkness, several dozen floors off the ground, hiding behind a pillar from the eyes of authorities, just to get a photograph for a silly blog.

A couple ambulances raced away from the river at one point, and for a second I thought it was a repeat of last year's mayhem, but it must've been something benign like heart attacks or stabbings, because no shootings were reported in today's newspapers. Yay, no shootings! Hooray for us!

Couldn't escape the traffic gridlock on the way out as skittish suburbanites, buzzed locals and Tigers fans who stayed 13 innings just to see them lose the game all headed out on the same main roads, creating a long beadlike thread of red tail lights stringing outward from the city.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Man, it's hot. The kind of hot that makes being alive unpleasant. Being outside is out of the question. Yet couch-sitting isn't happening either, since my redbrick apartment, built in the 1920s in the unadorned, workingman's style apparently meant to keep workers suffering in the summer, not only absorbs heat, it almost seems to generate it, making it hotter inside than out, no matter what.

The only thing worth doing in the heat this week is watching the fireworks on the river, and the main task now is finding a good vantage point free of large crowds. Luckily for me, a combination of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s grandstanding idiocy over the budget and the pubilc's fear of being shot should ensure much easier downtown access than last year. And thanks to the police department's crack investigative team, the person who shot nine people at last year's fireworks is free to attend again this year, unlike his victims, who might stand in Hart Plaza to watch them if they weren't now paralyzed.

But it turns out the city may need him, and anyone else who is willing to go. The haphazard, on-again, off-again fireworks annoucements so thoroughly confused the public that a lot of people aren't bothering to attend this year:

It's not clear if organizers of the Rockin' the Rooftop Fireworks Party will fully recover. Sales of $175 tickets for a fireworks viewing party have improved after organizers say they sold only a few hundred of the usual 2,300. About 210 tickets remained Monday.

This for an event that sold out well in advance every year before Kwame's bumbling intereference. Even personally recruiting Eminem to perform there in an attempt to minimze another Kilpatrick-caused disaster has helped only marginally.

Speaking of indecisiveness, confusion and shifting policy, the mayor announced yet another set of public safety layoffs numbers:

The Detroit City Council and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick reached a deal Monday that will keep 255 police and firefighters on the street who had been slated to lose their jobs.
But the ultimate impact of that decision is in doubt. The financially ailing city must still shed 750 public safety workers, and Kilpatrick's plan to delay those layoffs for 45 days while the Police Department is reorganized will cost the city $8.6 million, said Budget Director Roger Short.
If Detroit is unable to find other cost savings or revenue, the postponement could mean between 86 and 200 additional layoffs later this year, he said.

So there will be more cops for the fireworks because of the layoffs delay, but ultimately even fewer cops than expected for the year following. Smart compromise!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Well, that certainly sucked last night. For us, what began as a lot of drinking adding up to a happy buzz became a lot of drinking adding up to an unhappy hangover today. The Pistons were up by nine points in the third quarter, yet they still lost. Where was Tayshaun? Where was Chauncey? And now, because there’s no victory, we miss out on the mayor and others telling us to pat ourselves on the back for not burning down the city, as they did last year. Self-admiration for upholding basic standards of civilization will surely be missed. We also miss a parade, for which I already had an abandoned building with a great vantage point staked out, along with a ready-made phone-in excuse to work.

Because of last night’s disappointment I also changed the header photo of the Spirit of Detroit clothed in the Pistons' jersey, because irony tends to resemble mockery at moments like this, so I replaced it with another shot of the ruins of the Studebaker Plant (and the Piquette Market – let’s not forget that someone’s 50-year-old business is gone), rather fitting for a day after the Pistons’ championship hopes crumbled.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Up in Smoke

This is going from being detroitblog to being Lost Detroit History blog. From Scovel Memorial Church to the Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church to the Statler and Madison-Lenox hotels to the recently torched Studebaker plant, it’s becoming hard to keep up with what is being destroyed around town so far this year. I can only imagine what the second half of the year will bring, as Superbowl pressures reach a crescendo.

As reported extensively elsewhere, an entire city block containing the old Studebaker plant burned to the ground Monday night, taking several businesses with it. So, once again, a brief history of something lost:

The plant which eventually housed Studebaker was built in 1906. The building was originally home to the Wayne Automobile Company, which was founded in 1901 by Charles Palms, who named the company after General Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero whose name also graced the county.

In 1908, Byron Everitt, the company’s president, formed a partnership with Walter Flanders, a former Ford production manager and the Wayne auto company’s manager, and Bill Metzger, the founder of the first Detroit Auto Show, and organized the E-M-F automobile company, which took over the Wayne plant, and renamed it the E-M-F 30 Plant.

The Studebaker Automobile Co. entered into a partnership with E-M-F in July 1908, with Studebaker distributing the E-M-F vehicles through their dealers.

But the E-M-F cars had significant problems, and the acronym E-M-F came to be called, among other derisive titles, as “Every Morning Fix-it.” Studebaker took control of the E-M-F plant in 1910, and began putting the Studebaker name on the autos produced at that plant. By 1911, the company became the Studebaker Corporation.

The plant produced Studebaker autos until 1928. After that it went through a number of uses, including as the U.S. Army’s 182nd field artillery armory and as a parts plant for Chrysler until the 1960s as its John R plant. For a time, the Detroit Public Library’s Automotive Collection was housed there The western part of the complex was left to rot after that, while the eastern half was used by meat producers, furniture stores, storage facilities and other assorted businesses.

I had put off exploring the Studebaker plant because it seemed it would be there forever, and there really wasn’t much of historical value left to see. Luckily I went with some other explorers a mere two months ago, just in time, it turns out.

The Studebaker plant consisted of two halves – one occupied by functioning businesses, the other abandoned. This resulted in the striking effect of having a single structure with a dividing line down the middle, separating decay from preservation.

The roof of the abandoned portion of the building had collapsed long ago and sent the contents of the upper floors plunging downward through the wood-beam floors to the first floor in some spots. While exploring I climbed no higher than the third floor in one spot, but since the building looked like a strong gust of wind could send more debris through the floors, I went no further.

The building served mostly as a canvas for graffiti and as a hiding place for junkies nodding out in the middle of the day. Out in the courtyard a hobo or two wandered around, urinating, scratching themselves, wandering dazed in the spring sunshine, the usual hobo activities.

I had to wait until after work to head over there. It was an utterly surreal scene. A rain shower had just finished, and though it temporarily dampened the smoldering ruins, smoke began billowing upwards and outwards as soon as the skies cleared, filling the neighborhood with a pungent, burning odor. The streets surrounding the old plant were tainted russet because of the pulverized brick powder settling to the ground in a drizzle from the firehose water. The steel beams of the building were bent and twisted in U-shapes, and mixed in with thousands of loose, red bricks.

I started talking to some firefighters, and one of them, seeing my camera, said it was OK to go “to the other side,” meaning the other side of the fire truck on the street, but I took that to mean "go ahead, you can have full access to the entire structure.” Why, yessir! I don't argue with my imagined interpretations of the words of first responders! So despite being ridiculously underdressed, I headed past the piles of bricks, past the firemen, into the courtyard.

Before the fire, the abandoned portion of the old auto plant was so crumbled and decayed that there isn't much contrast between the pre-fire photos and the post-destruction shots, except for the blackness of the charred wood. The first three photos in this post are before the fire, the rest are after. Hard to differentiate in some cases.

The courtyard atmosphere had a quality that can best be described as apocalyptic. Standing in the center I was surrounded by smoking ruins and pretty much total silence except for the sound of water from the fire hoses. A passing rain shower and the impending sunset made the sky various gloomy shades of red and purple, with the rising smoke adding a grey veil.

Charred embers smoked on the open concrete of the courtyard, and various large pieces of metal, ejected from the building by the intense fire, were lodged in trees, still steaming. I had never been inside a freshly burned building, let alone in the center of a destroyed city block, and it was bizarre.

Eerily enough, the many small trees that managed to grow over the years in the cracks in the concrete still stood, slightly singed but still mostly green despite being surrounded by an inferno just hours before. Small plants remained upright.

I stepped inside the only building in the complex that still had a roof attached, and took a couple of quick photos, but the whole building creaked loudly like it was on ithe verge of collapse, so I gingerly crept out of it and away from the scene, and made my way off that block, back to more breathable air.

While other cities take great pains to preserve their history, especially something as significant as a piece of the birthplace of a worldwide industry, in Detroit history is left to rot, or be taken out quickly and cheaply by arson.

For the most part, buildings are saved not by the city, but only when private citizens do it themselves, as with the Ford Piquette Plant next to the Studebaker, another remnant that almost caught fire Monday night, but which was likely saved by the efforts of a handful of people, its caretakers, who don't even live in the city. How sad.

Monday, June 20, 2005

While everyone is going bonkers over the threatened removal of those goddamn whales from the Broderick Tower in favor of proposed advertising, a mural featuring a local icon that actually does have something to do with the city was removed in favor of crass automobile advertising by General Motors.

While Wyland, who loves his homestate so much that he moved to California, got his wish to keep the non-Michigan-native whales on the Broderick, the image of the longest-serving captain in the NHL got removed in favor of advertising for cars that nobody wants, produced by an automaker that is quickly skidding towards bankruptcy because it produces garbage that doesn’t sell, even with deep discounts. Not sure how visual pollution downtown is going to help its cause.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Just when I began wondering what happened to mayoral candidate Sharon McPhail, she pops back into the eye of the media by announcing a new McPhailesque idea – naming a “population czar” to stem the flow of people out of the city.

The last we heard about her, she had arrived a half-hour late to a Detroit mayoral candidates' debate on Mackinac Island in true scatterbrained fashion — is there anything she doesn’t goof up? — claiming she’d been told the wrong start time. Nice to know she and her staff keep up on small details like this. Also very reassuring to know that this is the level of ditziness and absentmindedness she'd bring to city government.

So now the latest idea is for a population "czar." Besides the unseemly and strange yearning for a municipal post based on pre-Revolution Russian government, there’s her utopian list of means this czar will use to stem the flow of panicked Detroiters heading for the hills, including, according to her campaign's press release, “reducing crime by 50%, improving education, guaranteeing paid college tuition for all Detroit high school graduates, reducing taxes and a back-to-basics approach in transportation, development and city services.” They might as well have said free smiles, sunny days and a chicken in every pot. A vaguer set of empty platitudes would be hard to find.

Well, one person who perhaps would appreciate the halving of crime in the city is the driver of this city-owned vehicle, the subject of the Photo of the Week. This municipal employee seems to have a deep enough fear of crime that they’ve put The Club anti-theft device on their City-owned car. The perception on the streets of crime in the city clearly isn't getting any better if even City employees think their not-exactly-high-end vehicles are targets. The only sight more disconcerting for the citizenry would’ve been a city bus or a police car with a Club on the wheel. Sharon McPhail’s groundbreaking, crime-reduction proposal couldn’t have come sooner. Bring on the czar!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Delray post was perhaps a bit, um, long-winded, so it’s probably even better that I kept out this stuff, which would have extended the post to attention-span-stretching proportions. After spending way too much of my spare time in Delray this spring, I’ve got a number of these kinds of leftovers, sort of like the extra tracks recorded for an album but left off at the last minute and later released on some odds-and-ends collection that doesn't quite add up to being a quality album.

So as a kind of B-side, here’s a brief look at St. John Cantius parish in Delray. Yes, it’s another Detroit church. No, I haven't suddenly gone off the religious deep end. Yes, they do serve as pleasing aesthetic counterbalances to the pictures of dilapidation. No, this isn't a trend. Yes, I am engaged in a disturbing question-and-answer dialogue with myself.

St. John Cantius church lies in the heart of what used to be the Polish section of Delray. Of course, like the rest of the neighborhood, most of the Poles left long ago, leaving the church surrounded by grassy lots that once contained the houses that residents abandoned after the expansion of I-75 in the 1960s, and the expansion of the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant in 1974, both of which resulted in widespread bulldozing of block after block of neighborhood homes.

Originally, plans for the plant expansion included the demolition of the church, but vigorous protests and allies on the Detroit City Coundil helped spare the church from the wrecking ball. The compromise, though, left the church now essentially surrounded by the sprawling, odor-spewing complex, making the old parish rather difficult to reach.

The original St. John Cantius church was a wood-frame structure built in 1902 by 39 Polish families in what was then the Village of Delray. It stood where the current parking lot of the church is, and lasted a couple decades until it was replaced in 1923 with a far more elaborate, two-steepled, Romanesque building containing a beautifully decorated interior. A school built next door, built in 1910, once taught 1,000 students during its peak. The school closed in 1969 as population flight from the neighborhood left fewer and fewer students attending.

The school is now boarded up, and the area surrounding church is desolate and quiet, apart from when the church holds its occasional Masses, which draw a handful of aging former Delray residents each week, making the long trek from the suburbs back to their old neighborhood, now largely unrecognizable except for the church they once had built as their own.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Death Row

The city of Detroit as we know it today was formed in large part by annexing to its core a number of surrounding suburbs into a sort of supercity near the turn of the century. Yet a number of these former villages and townships retained their character and identity as distinct neighborhoods long after being swallowed by Detroit. One of the more notorious of these, on the southwest border of the city, is Delray.

Delray is the closest thing to a ghost town in Metro Detroit. It also holds the distinction of being the most polluted residential area in the city. And it’s probably the only city neighborhood that has been deliberately condemned to death by city government.

The area is roughly contained between Fort Street and the Detroit River, and from Livernois to the Rouge Bridge. It edges against Historic Fort Wayne, built in the 1840s as a defense against attack by Canada but which now consists mostly of aging buildings surrounded by thick, unmowed grasses.

It’s hard to believe, passing through the area, that it was once a fully functioning village, with its own stores, banks, auto dealerships, movie theaters, churches, a hospital, and a library, all lining both West Jefferson and Dearborn with activity. Not anymore. Housing in Delray has crumbled and been replaced by empty lots; businesses have closed and their buildings have burned and disappeared; and factories have taken advantage of the Enterprise Zone tax credits and further industrialized the area.

The neighborhood also borders the Detroit Wastewater Treatment plant, where everyone’s toilet contents go to be incinerated, creating a God-awful stink that hangs heavy in the air with all the other industrial odors from the riverfront industries.

As if that wasn’t enough, filthy Zug Island sits just across the Rouge River, belching more pollutants into the air. The entire area is basically close to being unfit for human habitation. The city says as much, having declared long ago that the future of Delray is industrial. No major new housing is planned, and the housing that remains will continue to crumble until the land is cleared of homes and industry can fully take over.

Over the years, representatives of various industries looking to locate in the area have offered homeowners several times their properties' assessed value to leave, but such offers are essentially meaningless in an area where homes are often assessed at $3,000. In addition, clauses in the purchase offers over the years often held homeowners liable for any cleanup of environmental contamination on their property, no small issue in what is the most environmentally contaminated part of Detroit. Thus, a lot of homeowners are stuck in the area.

Despite being part of Detroit for a century, Delray still maintains its own separate identity. To this day, many inhabitants of Delray refer to themselves as being from Delray first and Detroit second. Even on some business cards, addresses are listed as “Delray, Michigan,” claiming as their home a town that hasn’t existed independently for nearly 100 years.

The land that became Delray was originally inhabited by the Huron and Algonquin tribes, who found that the spot at the juncture of the Rouge and Detroit rivers provided plenty of food, easy canoe routes, and a natural defensive barrier on two sides. When the French arrived they set up small ribbon farms rolling away from the two rivers. Other immigrants soon followed.

The area, originally called Belgrade, got the name Delray from Augustus. D Burdeno, an early settler who lived on land at what is now West Jefferson and Dearborn. He served in the U.S.-Mexican War in the 1840s and found that the growing village he returned to on the Detroit River reminded him of a Mexican town called Del Rey that he'd seen during the war. The other settlers took a vote and in 1851 adopted the name, which eventually became Americanized as Delray.

Delray was incorporated as a village in March 1898, run by a city council with a president. The village became Detroit's fastest-growing suburb, spurred by a steady inflow of mostly Hungarian immigrants. At one time it had eight Hungarian churches in a one-mile radius.

River Road, which became River Street and later changed its name to Jefferson when it became part of Detroit, was in those days lined with giant maple trees. Its riverfront featured quaint little houseboats and outdoor beer gardens laid out in an Old World style. Water lilies flourished along the west side of Zug Island. The Rouge was a clear stream filled with fish.

Delray became so well-known as a Hungarian enclave that it was called Little Hungary or Hunkytown. Every spring the community held a kriandulas, a big community picnic in the woods. In the fall the locals made wine at the szureti mulatsag, the grape festival. The immigrants would gather at Factory Park to watch the Delray baseball team take on the leading English-speaking teams from Detroit and other nearby towns. Hungarian social clubs sprang up throughout the neighborhood.

In the 1880s the land in Delray between River Street and the river was the site of the Michigan State Fair, and in 1891 the Detroit International Exposition drew thousands of visitors to view the exhibits, take canoe rides in the Detroit River and watch performances. The Exposition lasted until 1894, when the Solvay Process Company bought the land, attracted to the site by the natural salt deposits found there, which were necessary to its product.

It was the beginning of the industrialization of the area. By the turn of the century, Delray's proximity to river transportation and natural resources attracted companies in industries that manufactured furniture, railroad cars, salt products chemicals, bricks and wagons.

Delray modernized quickly. Solvay provided the village with paved streets, sewers, and a horse-drawn, four-wheeled fire truck manned by Solvay employees, who also manned the hospital Solvay established. In 1901 Detroit Iron Works built two blast furnaces for iron-making on nearby Zug Island.

In 1905, Delray, along with fellow suburbs Springwells and Woodmere, were annexed by the City of Detroit after a special vote in all three suburbs. Though Delray at the time included Zug Island, which had once been an Indian burial ground, when Detroit absorbed the little village it opted not to take the island, instead giving it to the tiny community of River Rouge, south across the river from Delray.

By the 1920s, the village's identity had transformed from being a quiet suburb to an increasingly polluted industrial area. Before the turn of the century, the only industries in Delray had been places like the Fisher glue plant and Parker Rendering Works, which used long-dead horses, and didn’t make much of an environmental impact.

But a number of large industries had begun moving in, beginning in the 1880s and through the beginning of the 20th century, attracted by the geographic desirability of the area. After Solvay, the Peerless Portland Cement Company moved there in 1925, joined by dozens of other industries like steel plants, Fleetwood Body on Fort, Detroit Edison, and Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island.

Low-cost housing sprang up around the factories so workers could walk to their jobs. New factories created new jobs, drawing even more immigration to the area, primarily from Hungarians, Poles and Armenians. Delray continued to prosper.

As the industries kept coming, the natural beauty of the region faded. The maples that lined Jefferson died off as 40-wheeled trucks pounded the street. Wildlife on nearby Zug Island and on the riverbanks was exterminated. Residents began complaining of ailments related to the increasing air pollution, and residents began moving in droves to the suburbs. The population dropped from over 23,000 in 1930 to about 20,000 in 1940, and down to just over 17,000 in 1950.

There was another small influx of Hungarians who were fleeing communism in the 1950s, but the main migrants to the area after World War II were blacks, most of whom settled the area between West End and Livernois. Yet despite the newcomers, the overall population if Delray continued to decline.

By the 1950s the children of the immigrants had begun moving to the downriver suburbs like Taylor and Wyandotte. Factories closed, and jobs disappeared. The expansion of I-75 destroyed hundreds of Delray homes, as did the growth of the wastewater treatment plant. A City of Detroit Master Plan study in 1955 and a 1963 federal study of the riverfront both recommended that Delray should eventually become solidly industrial.

As the 60s wore on, the area continued to deteriorate. The city's Housing Commission placed a number of welfare families in the area, many who had lost their homes in the 1967 riot, housing man of them in buildings in Historic Fort Wayne from 1967 to as late as 1971.

Delray General Hospital, open since 1904, merged with three other city hospitals in 1975 into the Southwest General Hospital, which itself closed in 1991. Most of the area's businesses closed as customers moved out of the neighborhoods and the shopkeepers moved with them. The old village became blighted.

West Jefferson had been known as downtown Delray, and once was filled with shops, restaurants and small businesses packed tightly together. Besides industry, nowadays little more remains of old downtown Delray other than a few bars, a firestation, a handful of abandoned one- and two-story buildings, some old churches, a few businesses, and lots of empty lots filled with foot-high grass and weeds, scrap metal, and junked cars. Fewer than a few thousand residents remain, more than half of whom are well below the poverty line, according to Census data. Colorful plywood angels, part of the “Delray Angels” art project, are affixed to the abandoned buildings along Jefferson.

A lot of the homes, built at the beginning of the 20th century and of average construction to begin with, are dilapidated or worn by age, pollution and neglect, apart from some sporadic, well-kept examples here and there, including some stretches along streets that have rows of unique, well-maintained houses of with strange architectural touches not found in other Detroit neighborhoods. But the housing market, in any real sense, is essentially nonexistent here. Homes in the area, the majority of which have been owned for years by residents or have been inherited from parents or other relatives, are assessed as low as $3,000.

The city’s planning department still continues with plans to fully industrialize the area, and in fact intends to move three cement silos to Delray from their current place on the riverfront, just east of downtown. The designation of the area as a federal Empowerment Zone and a state Renaissance Zone has drawn a number of industries to the area, eager for the tax breaks such a designation offers, as well as the proximity to the Ambassador Bridge, and shipping by rail, water, and freeways.

But though its future has been decreed to be industrial, there are still thousands of residents living in Delray who suffer the effects of pollution from the surrounding industries in the area. Residents have managed to successfully fight the introduction of some industries, such as several proposals for new incinerators over the years, but are fighting a losing battle overall.

Two area companies in particular have been the targets of widespread criticism over the years. Sybill Inc., a waste oil plant, was the target of not only class-action lawsuits by residents, but also the subject of hundreds of formal violations for odor emissions issued by the Wayne County Air Quality Management Division. Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives also was the target of complaints about red metal dust that occasionally drizzled on the homes, streets and cars in the area, coating them with a thin layer of red powder.

Few people are trying to get into Delray, and a lot of people are moving out. Kovacs bar, a mainstay on Jefferson, isn’t owned by the Kovacs anymore; they sold it to Delores and Bob Evans, who also intend to sell. The Delray Café, another of the few bars on Jefferson, is also up for sale. Much of what remains of old Delray is for sale, because it’s clear that the direction of the nighborhood is towards eventual extinction.

The area still retains enough Hungarian vestiges that a Hungarian Cardinal visited the area a couple years back and held Mass at Holy Cross, which still draws from the suburbs Hungarian Catholics, many of them descendents of the original Delray residents and some who lived in Delray not long ago. Ethnic whites who are the descendants of the original Hungarian and Polish immigrants sill live in the small, workingmen's homes on the side streets.

Despite dying off, Delray still contains some amazing things, including beautiful Roman Catholic churches such as St. John Cantius, founded in 1902, and Holy Cross Hungarian parish, founded in 1905. It also has remnants of unique architecture on small storefronts, strange little homes with remaining Old World touches, businesses determined to stay open in the face of worsening odds, and a lot of residents who speak of old Delray with an intense sentimentality and who struggle, against the odds, to keep their neighborhood alive.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Freep inadvertantly stole my thunder by writing an article about the Delray neighborhood yesterday, the topic of my next post, which I've been working on for a while and should be done later today. Suddenly my work will be about as spontaneous and fresh as a debate question for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. So much for surprises.

On another note: dETROITfUNK has an article, a cover story no less, in Real Detroit this week. The bloggers are being co-opted! detroitblog is next – look for my Summer Fashion Tips in The Way We Live section of the Freep. Hint: no underwear.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Behind the Green Door

Of all the abandoned buildings in Downtown Detroit, one is utterly unique: the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic Building at Cass and Grand River.

A medieval-looking building constructed of rough-hewn stone, featuring turrets with battlements and fronted by a grand, two-story arched entrance, the GAR was built over 100 years ago as a memorial and meeting place for Civil War veterans from Michigan.

The Grand Army of the Republic organization was founded in 1866 by veterans returning from the Civil War. Local chapters of the group wanted a building of their own but couldn’t raise enough money to build one. They convinced the City to build it for them in 1898, providing $38,000 from the sale of city bonds to add to the $6,000 the veterans raised, and leased it to them for 30 years.

The GAR was designed by Swiss architect Julius Hess in Richardsonian Romanesque style, popular in the late 19th century and characterized by a heavy, roughly textured appearance. Hess also designed several Detroit churches, including part of St. Mary’s in Greektown. Work was completed in 1900.

The site where the building now stands was once part of the estate of Lewis Cass, second governor of the Territory of Michigan and Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. It had been willed to the city upon his death. The street on which the building stands, and Cass Tech High School just a few blocks away, were named for him.

There had been a haymarket on the site and when the land was deeded to the city by Cass it was on condition that it be used forever as a marketplace. The City complied with this odd provision by setting up a ground floor to contain businesses that would pay rent to the veterans, providing them with money to maintain the building.

The ground floor originally included 13 stores and a bank. At the time more than 1,000 local Civil War veterans, then called “the boys in blue,” made use of the new building, filling it with memorabilia like battle flags and sabers, blue tunics and campaign hats. Fourteen affiliated veterans organizations moved in. A fourth-floor auditorium had been used for ceremonial events.

Exterior alcoves were carved out above the entrance, providing space for large statues.

By the 1930s, only two businesses — a barber shop and tire shop — remained, the other businesses having been driven out of existence by the Great Depression. The rent, which at its peak provided $16,000 per year to the veterans, by that time barely covered utility bills. The original lease on the building had been extended by five years, then it went to a year-to-year basis.

By 1934, there were only 24 GAR veterans left alive. The youngest was 87 years old. Meanwhile, the building was deteriorating. The veterans voted to give the building back to the city, being too old to maintain it themselves. Their only request was that the GAR name die with the last of the veterans, saying that the only monument they wanted at that point was the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Cadillac Square.

But a women’s group called the GAR Memorial Association, joined by a number of women’s patriotic organizations like the Women’s Relief Corps, Ladies of the GAR and Daughters of Union Veterans, among others, demanded that the building be saved as a veterans’ memorial unde the GAR name, and that they be allowed to use it for meetings. And contrary to the veterans' wishes, the GAR name stands to this day.

The city took over, using the building for a few years as a welfare office of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. It was used as a temporary police lockup at one point, then the City renamed it the GAR Recreation Center in 1941. The veterans were allowed to keep a room upstairs to use for meetings.

The building held activities sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation. A youth band, a Detroit Federation of Musicians band and a Civic Theater group used the space for rehearsals. Singles parties for adults 40 and older took place several nights each week, and senior drop-in activities such as card games, chess and checkers took place daily. The city allowed descendants of the veterans to use the building for meetings until 1973.

By the 1980s, the building had become abandoned and the city boarded it up in 1982. It was bought in 1985 by local architect Roger Margerum, who planned to renovate it and turn it into an office building. That plan faded, and ownership reverted back to the city. There is some confusion about the title to the place, though at last check it was owned by the city but the development rights were given to the Ilitches, who at one point wanted to turn it into a nightclub. Currently, it sits empty, like most of the buildings the Ilitches own or with which they are involved.

Not much remains inside from the building’s original use as a veterans’ hall, apart from the GAR insignia in small, colorful tiles inside the front lobby. Most of the rooms were stripped of their GAR origins years ago.

The GAR is one of only a few abandoned buildings downtown that I hadn't yet been inside of, so when I got a tipoff call last week from another explorer that the building was suddenly open, I dropped everything and headed down late on a weekday evening.

Sure enough, some rather obnoxious, aggressive explorers tore the wood off the building, punched a hole in a door window and pried the inside lock off the door, leaving the building wide open.

Not much is left inside. The ground floor that housed the businesses had an old couch, some chairs, a broken vase on a wood table, and some empty cabinets. Colorful walls serve as a backdrop. An old, wood, green door leads to the stairway upstairs.

The remaining floors above the first were cleaned out pretty thoroughly, and were utterly dark due to the boards on the outsides of the windows, apart from one or two small holes that pigeons used as their entrances. The building is home to dozens of pigeons, and certainly hundreds of pigeons used it over the years, leaving behind an inch-thick layer of droppings in some upper floors.

The small auditorium on the fourth floor, scene of amateur performances and ceremonies, is still there, emptied out except for large letters spelling "GAR" written on the wall.

The wood floors and stairs of the building are considerably rotted, none more so than in the attic that provides access to the turrets. One of the turrets is impossible to get into, its floorboards having completely rotted, leaving a clear view of the floor below. The other one was barely walkable, the wood being mushy and soft beneath my feet. Some of the boards bowed noticeably underfoot. The old wood stairways leading to the roof were equally suspect.

Even the roof of the turret wasn’t exactly enjoyable because there were large holes forming in various spots, throwing into question the stability of the whole roof. I got to the top just as the sun was going down.

I wanted to go back to the GAR in better light, since my first round of pictures with my piece-of-crap camera came out dark and nearly useless, so the next night after work I headed over there myself, intending to pop in and out quickly.

The GAR is an eerie enough place, being damp, dank and smelly, and absolutely dark in most areas, with creaking wood floors and the starling sound of pigeons suddenly flapping their wings when you approach them unknowingly. It’s even more nerve-wracking when you’re all alone. But nobody was around and I couldn't wait, not knowing how long the building, normally sealed very tight, would remain open.

I had finished taking photos on the upper levels and was coming down the stairs as quietly as I could, pausing at each floor in silence to listen carefully and make sure I was indeed alone in the building (a habit of mine), and when I finally got down to the second floor I again paused on the stairs in the darkness, but this time heard voices on the first floor. It was a man and a woman semi-whispering. Explorers? Who else would enter an abandoned building? I stood perfectly still, with camera and tripod in one hand and a flashlight in the other.

They kept talking. Then I heard kissing noises. What? I listened closer, and heard smooching sounds. What the hell? Who does this in an abandoned building, I wondered. These are strange explorers.

After a few seconds I realized that they were not explorers, and those were not kissing noises that were coming from the foot of the stairs, just a matter of feet from me.

The woman was giving the man a blowjob.

So here I was, alone in an abandoned building in Detroit as it’s getting dark outside, and I’m frozen in place as a sex act is taking place near me, just around the corner. It suddenly struck me quite forcefully that my life is very, very strange.

I didn’t know what to do, mostly because I didn’t know who they were. Were they a prostitute and a john? It certainly sounded like it, based on the intermittent dialogue I could hear between them. Could one of them be armed? Who knows? Maybe. If I charge down will they be embarrassed, scared or angered? I would basically have to step over them to get out of the stairwell and onto the first floor, so there was no delicate way to escape, nor a way to avoid direct confrontation. Should I charge down and run out of the building? Not my style to freak out and run scared. And while all these thoughts were swirling in my head, their performance continued as I stood in the darkness, listening to my unexpected live porno show taking place, ironically, behind the green door, the name of a classic, old-time porno flick.

Finally I figured to hell with this madness, I’m going to get out now. I began trying to quietly unscrew my camera from the tripod, in case I had to swing the aluminum tripod and bash someone in the head. And sure enough, just like in a movie, as I was trying to pocket the camera it slipped out of my hand, and hit one of the stairs, going clank! clank! clank! as it bounced down several old wooden stairs, echoing loudly in the corridor.

This most certainly caught their attention, and I heard them talking, with the man sounding angry, and it sounded like he was coming towards the stairs. I reverted to an old explorers' tactic and began stomping around loudly like I was charging into battle, heading down towards the lobby. They closed the green door. I tried desperately to remember if the door had a working latch, because if it did and I was locked in that dark stairwell, I was screwed.

I gathered my stuff together and headed down to the foot of the stairs, listening carefully but hearing nothing. I kicked the door. Thankfully it was unlocked and it swung open. And the lovers had gone. Apparently I had scared them more than they had scared me.

I got out and drove around in concentric circles for a few minutes, very interested in seeing who these freaky people were, but I couldn't find anyone near the vicinity, apart from innocent Tigers fans walking through the area, living quiet lives far more normal than mine.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Got some killer posts — laden with photos and chock full of fascinating explorations — coming up this week, once I finish them. Now that I’ve got that self-pat on the back out of the way, a bit of news:

Taking Off the Gloves, part two: As further proof that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is little more than a thug, he is now threatening to cancel the International Freedom Festival fireworks display if the City Council overrides his veto of their budget, something they are fully planning to do. He made this announcement, not at all coincidentally, the very same day that poll numbers came out showing him losing to every single person in the city in an election.

Cancelling the fireworks would be political suicide, which is why this demonstrates that his bullying instincts are stronger than his political instincts, again proving that he is merely a thug in a very large suit. A cancelled fireworks is the kind of thing that will be remembered by the average (read: illiterate) voter, for whom talk about budget shortfalls is generally too obscure, especially if you’re not one of the small handful of people who actually read the daily newspapers on a regular basis. The fireworks display is a huge annual tradition that will not vanish unnoticed.

It’s almost as if, having seen the poll numbers showing that most Detroiters really do not like Kwame, the mayor has decided to spite those very voters. “You don’t like me? Then I’ll take away things you like,” such as architectural gems and cultural events. And he’s still got a full two months to wreak this kind of havoc before the primary. Man, it’s gonna be a really long summer.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Time to break up the interesting, photo-heavy posts with some less interesting, dry, dull text:

A new EPIC/MRA poll suggests just about anyone who can stand up on two legs can run against Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and beat him in a head-to-head matchup.

Even state Sen. Hansen Clarke, the classic, unknown, dark horse candidate, would beat him, according to the survey results. On the downside, EPIC/MRA polls have a margin of error of +/- 100 percent, so the results are not to be blindly believed. Their last major Detroit election polling had Gil “Hollywood” Hill winning the mayor’s race four years ago, so either their methodology is flawed, or else it’s highly accurate and reflects the dementia and frivolity that characterizes a sizeable portion of Detroit voters.

But Kwame can still win. If he pulls a Jimmy Swaggart/Bill Clinton and says “I’m sorry Detroit, for being a corrupt, incompetent, low-life, self-absorbed sleazeball who's done nothing whatsoever to better the city,” it just might work. There’s a segment of voters who will forgive anything if you seem sorry enough, no matter how egregious your sins.

The poll notes that 32 percent of those surveyed had a favorable impression of Kwame. Thirty-two percent. What is it that they favor? Over half the poll respondents couldn’t name a single accomplishment of Mayor Hip-Hop’s term. Yet some of those very people approve of him and will vote for him. And people wonder why I worry that these dementos will reelect him.


Having a posse, it seems, is a way of life in Detroit, not just on the streets but also if you hold public office. Even the head of Detroit Public Schools has his own posse:

Detroit taxpayers have spent at least $1.8 million since the 2000-01 school year for round-the-clock protection for city schools Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley, according to school district officials.

A check of several other big city school districts showed no others paid as much to protect their school bosses.

The security detail consists of three armed, sworn officers who rotate driving and protecting Burnley while he is on school business. A second team of officers stays at his home in shifts for 24 hours a day. The team has earned $274,926 in overtime since it started.

People routinely call Kwame a thug, and he and other city officials fully embrace the thug lifestyle. The only difference between them and street gangs is the mantle of officialdom they carry, and thus the scale of their power. Whether it's Kwame, or Burnley, or whoever is next exposed as having a large security detail, you've basically got a gang leader surrounded by protective thugs who will shove you or punch you if you get too close, or call you a “fat ass” if they don’t like you (a la Steve Wilson), will throw wild parties with strippers and gunfire (OK, I mean "allegedly," cough cough), go clubbing late into the night, cruise around in Escalades, get rid of subordinates who question your actions, and talk publicly about hitting his enemies. All that's left is for Kwame's gang to do a drive-by on auditor general/Kwame-hounder Joe Harris one of these days.


Finally, a brief note: detroitblog recently hit a milestone of sorts, getting its 100,000th hit earlier this week. That’s maybe not much in the world of websites, but it’s quite a remarkable feat considering it’s for a low-tech site that consists of some jerk from Detroit basically rambling, and considering that over 80,000 of those hits came in the last 10 months, and even more so considering the site grew solely due to word-of-mouth; I’ve never asked anyone to link to it or publicize it, so its growth has been entirely unplanned and natural.

In a way the milestone is meaningless because I'm not a hit monger, but on the other hand it’s cool because it means the site must be at least somewhat interesting, which is certainly a goal. Not much point if nobody enjoys it.

So here's to detroitblog! I predict the blog will buy me several beers tonight to celebrate, after which we'll go home for some quiet time together.

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