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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, February 23, 2005
A stray dog was found with a body part in its mouth on Detroit's east side Tuesday afternoon. The remains may belong to 19-year-old Jalona Stafford, whose body was found burned and dismembered inside an abandoned pickle factory on Riopelle Street last week, Local 4 reported.
Neighbors said the dog was carrying a leg with the thigh attached to it, the station reported.
"A dog was carrying the leg. He had to be chased," said Thelma Davis, who witnessed the animal coming from the building.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Fish enthusiasts pleaded Monday for a reprieve for the 101-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium, arguing that cost of operating it is a small price to pay for preserving the educational and cultural institution.
Councilmember JoAnn Watson said she'll introduce a resolution Wednesday that would grant community and philanthropic groups one year to find alternative funding, including an endowment, to sustain it. The City Council could vote as early as Wednesday.
Keep the fingers crossed. On a side note, the reporter's characterization of supporters as "fish enthusiasts" is an example of either woeful mosconception or a bit of snide sarcasm. It's not a matter of liking fish per se, it's a matter of appreciating Detroit history and trying to maintain what little of it remains, you dope.
On a related note, the Freep has an article about the difficulties of funding the city's cultural treasures at a time when the city has a growing budget deficit yet chooses to do things like pay for staffers of dead council members and keep its workforce bloated in countless other ways.
Cultural jewels like Belle Isle face harsh realities in coming months as Detroit struggles to find money for them and still pay for essential services like street lighting, trash pickup and bus service amid a $231-million budget deficit.
City officials said attractions at the island park, one of Detroit's natural treasures, aren't in danger of immediate collapse, but prospects for financial relief anytime soon are alarming. There's little money to address major issues such as renovating rundown buildings, shoring up battered landscape and providing the programs that once made the island a regional destination.
As Detroit grapples with its worst budget crisis in years, the coming debate could well pit the city's need for crucial services, such as police and fire protection and water service, against its desire to support institutions like Belle Isle and other cultural icons.
Again, if the city didn't have economically psychotic people deciding city budgets and the size of the city's workforce, we wouldn't be in this position.
Friday, February 18, 2005
The David Whitney building, standing as part of the Grand Circus Park gateway to downtown, next to the David Broderick Tower with Woodward running between them, is one of the most recently abandoned downtown skyscrapers, having been partially in use only a few years ago. Because of this, it's probably the least damaged or decayed empty skyscrapers in the city.
David Whitney Jr., for whom the building is named, came to Michigan in 1857 at the age of 27 to run the operations of two East Coast firms involved in the lumber industry. By the 1870s he started his own lumber business with his brother Charles. They bought pine forests in Michigan and Wisconsin and made up to 100 times the purchase price in profits, growing very rich very fast. Whitney also owned an extensive fleet of steam barges and consorts, which shipped lumber, as well as iron ore from Lake Superior ports, to manufacturing and distributing centers along the lower lakes. When he died in 1900 Whitney was the wealthiest man in Detroit, with an estimated fortune of $15 million.
By the turn-of-the-century, Whitney had become one of Michigan's wealthiest citizens, owning large amounts of land and holding interest in many banking institutions and industrial corporations. He built two lavish mansions downtown, one at Woodward and Sproat, and another at Woodward and Canfield that he commissioned Detroit architect Gordon W. Lloyd to design as a home for him in the early 1890s. It was considered one of the finest mansions in the city. The Whitney family lived there until the 1920s, when the house became the headquarters for the Wayne County Medical Society. It later housed the Visiting Nurse Association, and since the 80s has been used as the Whitney Restaurant.
In 1885, Whitney purchased the southwest corner of Woodward Avenue and Park Street from H. H. LeRoy, a former city assessor whose home sat on the corner. Whitney, who became known as Mr. Woodward Avenue because of the number of properties he bought on the strip, built the five-story Grand Circus Building on the site in 1887. It contained five stores. But only 27 years later, it was demolished to make room for a new structure.
Whitney’s son, David Charles Whitney, commissioned a new skyscraper for the site, financed it with the family fortune, and named it for his late father. The David Whitney Building was designed by Chicago-based architectural firm Graham, Burnham and Co., the successors to D.H. Burnham and Co.
The construction of the Whitney Building and the Statler Hotel commenced at roughly the same time in 1914, and developed into a contest between the contractors of both buildings. Both teams rushed to win various bets. The Whitney’s contractors, the Lanquist and Illsley Co. of Chicago, narrowly beat the Statler firm by two tiers of structural steel, and proclaimed victory by flying an American flag from the topmost projecting beam.
The David Whitney Building was constructed of fireproof steel upon a caisson foundation that extended down to bedrock. The exterior was originally stone and terra cotta for the first story, and a light-colored brick, with matching terra cotta, for the upper stories, though a renovation in the 1950s wiped away the characteristic details of the lower floors and the upper three floors.
There were three entrances to the lobby, on Woodward, Washington and Park.
The building included six passenger elevators and one freight elevator. It featured a light court of more than 3,000 square feet in area, which began at the fifth floor and extended to the roof.
The first four floors, consisting of white tile, terra cotta and marble put together in Italian Renaissance style, were designed exclusively for high-end retail shops, while the remaining stories above were rented as offices. Each floor featured double-filtered, refrigerated, sterilized drinking water.
The walls and corridor floors throughout the building were made of Italian marble. All the corridor doors and frames were mahogany. The doors, as well as the frames around the doors and windows within individual offices, were mahogany or oak. All the floors were maple.
The Whitney Building became famous not only for its design and construction, but for its tenants as well, most of whom were doctors or dentists. The location was so prestigious there was a waiting list of doctors eager to get offices there. There was also a downside to having a skyscraper full of doctors’ offices; on several occasions, despondent patients who received a bad prognosis threw themselves out a window and into the central light court. After a few of these instances, the building managers had to nail all the corridor windows shut.
As Detroiters began moving to the suburbs in the 1950s, many of the doctors and dentists renting space in the Whitney Building followed them and moved to suburban offices, and vacancies became more common. In 1965 the Whitney family sold the skyscraper to a New York investment trust. It was sold in 1974 to the Cliffton Management Corp. of Montreal, which performed a restoration of the white marble lobby.
In 1985, a New York couple, Joe and Debbie Grella, purchased the building and began an extensive rehabilitation and cleaning, particularly of the lobby and atrium. They shifted focus from medical tenants to attracting the arts community, ringing the four-story atrium with galleries and hiring a pianist to play a grand piano in the lobby at lunchtime. They managed to lift occupancy from 40 to 67 percent, but it wasn’t enough to break even.
At the same time, their focus on the public areas such as the lobby and atrium came at the expense of the offices. The building was plagued by maintenance problems and complaints from tenants. Elevators, when working, would stop between floors or fail to line up at floor level upon opening, forcing the largely elderly patients of the building's remaining doctors to take the stairway, a common complaint. Public restrooms were often without custodial service and lacked toilet paper and towels. Paint was peeling from office walls. Less than five years later, citing health and financial problems, the Grellas sold their share of the building and it was auctioned off in a foreclosure sale to Mid-America Realty Investors.
In the late 1990s, plans were underway to convert the Whitney into a 294-room Doubletree Guest Suites hotel. A group of investors led by Bill Brooks, former General Motors vice president of corporate affairs, planned to spend up to $39 million on the Whitney's conversion to a hotel, but the group was unable to come up with the financing for the project. In 1999 MGM Grand leased it briefly to use as a hiring and training center for its new casino. In late 2000 it was sold to Becker Ventures of Troy, its current owners. Since then it's been essentially vacant.
We’ve targeted this building forever, but it was very well-sealed, and to top it off it had a live-in caretaker who was unwillingly the subject of a Free Press article last year. Soon after, a friend and I were poking around the building, and who should spot us and come charging out but the rather large caretaker himself, none too happy to see me hiding in a back alley behind a fence I’d hopped. He unlocked the gate, let me out and told me sternly “I’m authorized to bust a cap in you if I catch you inside.” He was with someone he hinted was a fellow caretaker, a rather short, strange, man with a sort of Appalachian look and accent about him and a really dirty jacket. He too, I was told, was authorized to bust said cap. We pretty much gave up trying to get in after that encounter, though every time I passed it I'd check it out to see if by luck it had inadvertantly invited me in.
Recently, months after that episode, other Detroit explorers tipped me off that the building was open, and on a hazy, sunny afternoon, following their directions, I went in and met up with a group of explorers already inside. We all started crawling through, floor by floor.
It was fairly dark inside, apart from reflected sunlight gleaming off the walls into the lobby. The PA system for the People Mover station on the second floor has its volume cranked all the way up, and when an automated voice comes on it sounds like an entire police division screaming through a megaphone. It scared the living hell out of me when it suddenly squawked as I stood on the second floor, hearing it ring throughout the rotunda. At the same time, I kept expecting the caretaker to come charging in, bustin’ the caps he’s authorized to shoot. It made for an unusually jittery exploration.
A similar thing happened on the top floor – an old CB radio was left on, volume up all the way, and between loud static pops you’d occasionally hear a voice come screeching out of it. The first pop was loud as a gunshot, again making for wet pants time. Near that was a running generator. The lights in the building actually work. The David Whitney Building was the most alive abandoned building I’d ever been in. At every turn I expected someone back to the building and come charging around a corner or up the stairs.
The offices on the floors were mostly empty, apart from some leftover MGM Grand Casino paraphernalia, some “Welcome to the Whitney” pamphlets from its last days, and miscellaneous paperwork and appliances, such as very old adding machines. Sunset colors refracted through windows, casting dimming yellow bands across walls and floors. A couple of offices in the building countinually have lights on, lights I'd seen from other buildings or while driving past, and I and others always wondered what they were. I finally made it into a lit room, only to find absolutely nothing, apart from dusty countertops and pieces of rolled up paper here and there. Why someone left those lights on is a mystery, but they remain on to this day.
We made it to the roof, and saw the famous “David Whitney Building” lettering that I’d seen all my life from the ground, sort of the urban exploration version of the “Hollywood” lettering sign in California, I guess.
If ever there was an indication that urban exploration is getting way too popular in this city, it came as we glanced over and spotted a few explorers on the balcony of the David Broderick Tower next door, taking pictures and waving back to us. Only twice in hundreds of explorations over the past couple years had I ever encountered fellow explorers.
Now, between all the exploration-based websites and the Free Press’ coverage of our little pastime, explorers are coming out of the woodwork, literally in some cases. In fact, just the other day we watched a car pull up to the Fort Shelby Hotel, a girl and guy in the car, the girl gets out, goes up to the hotel’s front door and tries to open it. Of course it’s sealed. But she’s dressed like she’s going to the bar, carrying a purse no less, and tugging at the door as if all these buildings are wide open and all you have to do is walk in and give yourself a trouble-free tour. It's a little more complicated than that. These are the people who will get killed one day and cause all hell to break loose for the rest of us because they read an article one day and thought it would be neat to walk into an abandoned building unprepeared.
But none of that mattered as we stood on the roof, watching the sun slowly go down over the city, as we were finally atop the last major building that all of us, separately, had been waiting to get into, unsure if we ever would, now savoring the moment together, unlikey to return. Days later, it was closed tight again.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The activity on the stage alternated between old stag films and a thonged crew doing touchy things like playing Twister as the host stood directing their movements while wearing a diaper. And no cameras are allowed, though nobody said anything about cellphone cameras, probably because they produce fuzzy, useless images like the one shown here, where you can tell there's a bunch of people on stage semi-naked but they appear as a shiny glob.
Monday, February 14, 2005
The preliminary guess, as relayed on the TV news, was that some homeless person(s) started a fire to keep warm and torched the entire building. It's one thing to be mentally ill, as many homeless people are, it's another thing to be deeply stupid, as one has to be to set a fire in a building whose interior is all wood.
I've always marveled at the special idiocy that causes someone to start a fire in the middle of a wood floor. I've found dozens of these in abandoned buildings like the Farwell, the Detroit Building and the train station, fires that mercifully snuffed themselves out after doing little more than creating a wide, blackened crater in a circumference around the center of the fire. In each instance it was someone merely piling wood on the wood floor and then throwning flame on it. It's astonishing that more buildings don't go up for the same reason. In some rooms we've found fires that spread to walls but miraculously went out before spreading. No such luck in this case.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
The Grande Ballroom, designed by architect Charles Agree in Moorish Deco style, was built in 1928 on Grand River near Joy on the city’s West Side. It was for years a favorite Detroit dance spot, featuring one of the largest hardwood dance floors in the country, notable not only for its size but also for the unusual fact that it was spring-suspended for easier movement.
Before radio became popular, ballrooms like the Grande and the Graystone on Woodward and the Vanity on Jefferson drew large crowds who came to dance to jazz and later, swing. By the late 40s and early 50s, changing musical tastes, the widespread popularity of radio, and the advent of television all contributed to a loss of interest in ballroom dancing, and over time the dance halls faded in popularity.
In the mid-1950s the Grande was revived as a non-alcohol dance club by John Hayes and his wife, who latched onto a revival of interest in ballroom dancing, when dances such as the fox trot, tango, waltz and bolero and other Latin dances regained popularity. The couple, who ran the ballroom without bouncers, closely supervised the crowd to keep drinkers out and keep dances pickup-free. Fridays were “get-acquainted” nights at the Grande for teenagers 17 years old and up, and on Saturdays the ballroom held nights for older and married couples, nights on which men were required to wear coats, shirts and ties.
By the 60s the Ballroom was empty, used as storage for old mattresses. Local schoolteacher and radio DJ Russ Gibb rented the hall for $700 per month, cleaned it up, painted the stage, commissioned one of the largest strobe lights ever built at the time, and began booking bands to play there, patterning the venue after West Coast concert halls like the Fillmore and the Avalon that he'd seen during a stay in California.
The Grande reopened Oct. 7, 1966, mainly booking local acts such as Bob Seger, the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the MC5, a band that was managed by local artist John Sinclair, who also helped Gibb with promotions, bookings, advertising posters, and lighting at the Grande. The former ballroom had a difficult time breaking even financially until the next year, when Gibb began booking national acts like the Byrds, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead, and international groups like the Who, Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, and Cream.
It was then that the ballroom took on national importance, gaining a stunning amount of notoriety for a Midwestern music venue. For three years, it became the premier Midwestern venue for seeing the hottest music. But by the early 70s, financial problems led to the closing of the Grande. The property reopened occasionally in the following years, last sputtering along as a second-hand shop before closing its doors for good.
The Grande seems to be one of the most frequented ruins in Detroit, partly because it's not at all guarded, partly because it often seems to be wide open. The day we paid a visit it was simply a matter of crawling inside.
The first floor, which was last the site of the second-hand shop, was a disaster. Since the windows are covered with boards, the bottom level is pitch black, with a musty, rotting smell hanging in the air. Everything that comprised the ceiling pretty much found its way onto the floor in a heap of metal, plaster and wood, all turning to mush in puddles formed by dripping water.
The ballroom on the second floor, though, was relatively obstruction-free, though it's suffered considerable damage, something we were reminded of by the constant drip of water leaking through the roof into the building, spalshing into innumerable small puddles, the only sound to be heard inside, apart from the quiet noise of passing cars making its way in through a couple of boardless second-floor windows.
Decorative plaster columns suffer from rot, with large chunks breaking off, falling to the floor and crumbling. Whole chunks lay scattered throughout the ballroom. But the small stage, site of so many infamous shows, remains intact and sturdy enough to stand on. The wood dance floor, apart from the usual buckling that's found in buildings whose interiors are exposed to the weather, is solid. Elaborate baroque plaster designs on the ceilings remain intact, a stark and beautiful contrast to the rot that exists all around them.
The roof, spotted with large holes here and there, is questionable at best, but despite this I made my way up the stairs and climbed out, gingerly making my way around to get a glimpse of the multicolored Spanish tiles arrayed on the roof's perimeter, and stayed for a while as cars rolled by on Grand River, winding their way past all the abandoned storefronts and empty houses.
The Detroit Historic District Commission said "no" Wednesday to plans to demolish the Madison-Lenox Hotel in Detroit.
The commission, on a 4-2 vote, ordered Olympia Development LLC to stabilize the buildings from further decay and to sell the property if it doesn't plan to redevelop it.
Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who spoke in favor of demolition, said Olympia will make its case in court and will succeed. Olympia is one of the companies operated by Michael and Marian Ilitch, owners of the Tigers, Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza.
Olympia insists the Madison-Lenox is too dilapidated to be redeveloped at a reasonable cost. They have strong support from the city, which wants the structures near Harmonie Park torn down in time for Super Bowl XL in February 2006.
The interesting part of this news brief is Archer speaking in favor of demolition. He should know all about tearing things down — he singlehandedly destroyed a thriving Riverfront entertainment district through his failed shell game with casino developers. By announcing that casinos would be located in the warehouse district, threatening to condemn the property of the bar and restaurant owners who didn't want to sell, then changing his mind about the casino locations, he destroyed the area for no reason whatsoever. Now it's a bleak wasteland. And because of that he has no credibility whatsoever.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
A woman working for Detroit City Councilman Alonzo Bates has been earning thousands of dollars during similar hours that she has filed for her job at a hospital, according to a televised report.
WJBK-Fox 2 reported Tuesday that Verenda Arnold made $25 an hour working 20 hours a week in Bates' office, mostly Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Fox 2 reported that those are roughly the same hours she works at St. John Detroit Riverview Hospital in Detroit. The report said records showed Arnold has been on Bates' payroll since 2002, shortly after he was elected.
Glad to see people are paying close attention and not letting waste and fraud prosper at a particularly bad time for Detroit. But at least her bosses are still alive. Unlike this case:
More than a dozen staff members of late city councilwoman Kay Everett are still employed nearly two months after her death, which could cost taxpayers money, the Rescue 4 Waste Watchers reported. The exact cost to taxpayers is not known, but is a six-figure amount, according to the reports.
Fourteen of Everett's employees -- six full-time and eight part-time -- had their contracts approved by Detroit City Council before her Nov. 25 death. The contract to the hourly employees -- who have no benefits -- expires on June 30, at the end of the city's fiscal year, according to Local 4. Sources told the Rescue 4 Waste Watchers that at least two of Everett's employees -- LaWanda Hails Ruffin and SaDorvia Carter -- had their contracts approved by city council in December, which was a month after Everett's death. The contract also states that they are "at-will" employees and can be dismissed anytime, Rescue 4 reported.
"The work continues even though she is not here," said Council President Maryann Mahaffey. Mahaffey said it would be unethical to let the employees go. "It's not their fault that she died," said Mahaffey.
This is typical of the extreme entitlement mentality that exists among some in the city. Bad things happen, and though it's unfortunate, people's jobs vanish for various reasons, but most of us cannot continue collecting paychecks for doing nothing for a nonexistent company or, in this case, someone who's dead. It's not necessarily an employee's fault when a business goes bankrupt either, but that doesn't mean they can continue to collect a check. Once again, the City Council seems utterly separated from the reality the rest of us live in. Then people wonder why the word "receivership" keeps coming up.
But never fear, fiscally insane Detroit officials, one lawmaker proposes not to clean up the city's financial mess, but simply to block people in the real world from possibly taking over:
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has said Detroit will not end up in receivership, but just in case, state Sen. Hansen Clarke said Monday he will introduce legislation making it impossible for a state takeover of the cash-strapped city.
Clarke, a Detroit Democrat, said he wants to exempt the city from the Local Government Responsibility Act, which he said allows the state to put a financial manager in charge of municipalities in dire financial condition.
If there's no threat of receivership, then what's to stop city officials from continuing to let the city plummet into free-fall? Meanwhile, exacerbating the financial crisis is the fact that the city's population keeps dropping:,
According to estimates released Monday by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the number of Detroit residents dropped below 900,000 for the first time since 1920. The agency's estimate, as of Feb. 1, is 899,387. That's a drop of 5.5 percent -- or 51,883 people -- since the 2000 U.S. census, which showed the city had dropped below the magic 1 million mark.
OK, not all news today is bad - A developer is expressing interest in rehabilitating the century-old Madison-Lenox Hotel:
A local developer is proposing to turn the vacant and crumbling Madison-Lenox Hotel into a condominium/hotel.
Kathy Sinclair, a partner with Downtown Development Co. in Birmingham, said her group plans to submit an offer today to purchase the hotel property from Ilitch Holdings Inc.
Ilitch Holdings planned to demolish the historic hotel last year but the Detroit Historic District Commission wouldn't issue a permit, citing a lack of information about the building's condition.
Ilitch Holdings is scheduled to address the commission today about its plans for the hotel, located at Madison and Randolph in Detroit's Harmonie Park district.
Downtown Development is proposing a $24 million renovation of the three-building Madison-Lenox, which would include a 40-room boutique hotel and several dozen condominiums. The decorative facades of all three buildings would likely be attached to new buildings, she added.
Who knows, maybe this will work, maybe it won't. The funny part about this article is that the caption writer — be it the reporter, editor, copy editor or page designer — took a look at the image accompanying the article and described it thusly: "an artist rendering shows the facade of the proposed Madison-Lenox Hotel in downtown Detroit." For one thing, the hotel isn't proposed, it's sitting right there, a matter of blocks from the newsroom in which this silly error originated. For another, the "rendering" is an 80-year-old postcard image that simply has modern glass windows painted onto some of the buildings. Couldn't the firm come up with an original drawing? I hope this isn't a reflection on how prepared their proposal is going to be.
By the way, first thing tomorrow will be another exploration post. It won't be the skyscraper I hinted at earlier (I'm delaying that one in case I go back), but it will be new stuff. Yay criminal trespass!
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Meanwhile, at one of about six or seven (?) bars Friday night, found this down-and-out fellow who symbolizes the kind of bar nights we've all had close scrapes with. There are nights like these when things get so bad you just have to drink yourself into weepy sleep in public in a dank bar in the middle of the Cass Corridor.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
This little postcard was found – where else? – in the David Broderick Tower, which was a goldmine of artifacts until relatively recently. It was up in a small office full of political memorabilia, scattered in big piles on the floor, mixed in with various George Crockett bumper stickers and Jimmy Carter paraphernalia. It’s from the 1981 campaign to win Coleman a third term as mayor (a year in which he whomped on hapless challenger Perry Koslowski 63 percent to 37 percent) and seeks to mobilize and grow his army of loyalists who kept him in office for five terms.
Back then, there would’ve been nothing like the current Navigator controversy; indeed, when asked why he needed to be driven around the city in an expensive, bright blue Cadillac limousine, Coleman didn’t dither, obfuscate, make excuses or lie. Instead, he said, "You want a Cadillac mayor, you buy him a Cadillac." Can't argue with that!