Sunday, April 21, 2013

Discovering Detroit

Getting to Detroit was hell. My flight with United was cancelled Thursday evening and the passengers were irate and loud as we lined up at the customer service desk to try and get on another flight. Some in line were trying by phone and I decided to do the same since I was hearing folks up front were having to wait until the next day or pay a fortune with another airline. Very luckily, and also because, I think, I was very polite with the representative, I managed to get to Detroit at around midnight with a detour to Charlotte, NC, and was greeted by the crew who immediately presented me with a large bottle of beer which was very gratefully received and emptied.
Because of my delay we had a later start the next morning but still managed to see quite a bit of the city. It was drizzling with rain so we wandered around downtown to get a feel of the place and see if anything was open for us to explore. It was strange to see a city center on a work day have so few people and cars around, and it really emphasized how bad a shape Detroit was in economically. We saw a couple of homeless guys who became regulars as once they had stopped and chatted to us, they would then later pop up again on another street for another few words, even trotting across the road to us, so we soon felt like locals.
 We walked around checking any abandoned buildings, there were a few, but they were all sealed up tight.
 We tried to get into what used to be the Michigan Theater, and is now the world's most beautiful carpark. But the doorman turned us away so we had to suffice with poking our cameras through the fence and taking what shots we could manage.
We met up with an urbexing friend who's moved from DC to Detroit. Mark is a mine of information on the city and it was like having our own personal tour guide. We went on the People Mover, a monorail that circles downtown with numerous stops on the route. The weather was still bad so we welcomed having an opportunity to be in a warm environment.
We got off at the General Motors Renaissance Center, GM's world headquarters, the only modern looking structure on the skyline that towered above everything else on the river side. Constructed in 1977 it is the world's largest commercial center, and is entered from the People Mover by a long plastic covered walkway. Richard promptly started making hamster squeaks as we walked along.
Inside the center feels like being in another city, it's such a contrast from the decaying drabness of Detroit, with it's modern glass and concrete structure filled with modern artistic displays and every new GM car on the market on show.
There's no public access to the top tower unless you join a tour so Mark spotted a tour guide in the middle of his route and about to take his group up the elevator and managed to sweet talk him into letting us join them. The glass elevator rises up to the 72nd floor with amazing views across to Canada, video link here.
Our hotel is behind the furthest white tent structure on the river bank. Belle Isle is in the middle of the Detroit River.The bare area in the city shown here highlights the plight of Detroit, housing has been knocked down and prime land left desolate and bare. A few houses remain and we walked around those later in the afternoon.
Despite the crumbling ruins found throughout the city, there are some structures of great beauty still standing, also many statues and memorials that called for a closer look. Mark insisted we view one of these buildings and as soon as I heard it was Art Deco my interest was aroused. We went to see The Guardian Building.
This building literally takes your breath away upon entering and your neck becomes sore from so much twisting and craning since you're trying to look everywhere at once. I eventually managed to contain myself and start looking more intently and then noticed all the incredibly intricate details that helped to create such an impact. The history of the building can be found here, and this video is also worth looking at. Words and photos really can't fully convey the magnificence of this building. We spoke with the head of maintenance and was impressed at how proud he was to look after and know every inch of its walls. He gave us a mini tour of the lobby explaining how he'd climbed inside the pillars to install wiring for lights, he'd climbed up in the ceiling and restoration workers had repainted the ceiling using scaffolding just as Michelangelo had in the Sistine Chapel. All the gold on the walls and ceiling is gold leaf reapplied during the restoration but the mural at the end of the building needed no work done, it was so well preserved.
We finally managed to drag ourselves away and looked for refreshments, ending up in a bar nearby called Grand Trunk.
After some local beers, we decided to drive to the area, previously pointed out from the GM Center,the Brush Park area.
The area was bleak. We wandered around the streets, taking in the ruined houses and empty lots covered with rough grass and trash. A couple of houses looked liked people had moved in and were restoring slowly, with the ground floors looking presentable but the upper floors still decayed with smashed windows open or boarded up. It was a depressing area to view and I admired the hardiness of those residents who had opted to remain.
And then we drove to the Brewster Douglass skeletons that loomed above the skyline with dark hollow pits where windows had once been. They were built in the late 30's to house poorer black families during a period when racial segregation was still practiced.
They were well kept modern homes initially but as the economy crashed and people moved out, there was less money to maintain the development and conditions spiraled downwards. It was finally emptied during 2008 and now awaits a threatened demolition. The full history can be found here.
Mark, Emily and Richard photographing the community center next door to the apartment blocks.
A mural dedicated to, Mark thinks, Albert Kahn, who's also known as 'The Architect of Detroit'.
We saw this mural on the front of a local magazine while in the Grand Trunk bar. I loved it and wanted to see it first hand. We found out its location from the bartender and managed to find it just before dusk. I think it's a beautiful way to break up the dark gloom that pervades the city's broken structures and it can be seen from miles away. The mural's story is here, and a few days later we came across a store front also painted by Katie, which will be in a later blog entry.

No comments: