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(10/20/16) A Conversation About Detroit’s Graffiti
(10/9/16) Detroit’s Dirty Dozen, Then and Now
(9/25/16) Detroit Documentaries You Should Watch
(5/8/17) A Case For Cooley High
Click a link below to get started or just start scrolling
(10/20/16) A Conversation About Detroit’s Graffiti
(10/9/16) Detroit’s Dirty Dozen, Then and Now
(9/25/16) Detroit Documentaries You Should Watch
(5/8/17) A Case For Cooley High
Detroit has one of the most distinguishable skylines in America. Whereas most cities boast modern glass towers, we tout our historic, gritty, and architecturally significant one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Unlike most cities, Detroit does not currently have an observation deck for visitors to rise above the clouds and see all of these amazing buildings, so we have to find our own ways to do so. All of the locations listed here offer amazing views of the Motor City, and best of all, they're FREE.
Sunset Point is the most obvious location on this list. On any given evening, whether it be raining, sunny, or snowing, you will find people from all walks of life sitting on the grassy nole and perched on the rocks where the land meets the Detroit River. This popular spot on the banks of Belle Isle offers astounding views of Windsor and downtown Detroit silhouetted by the setting sun and the river flowing towards Lake Eerie. This is one of two spots on Belle Isle that made this list, but believe it or not it is my second favorite of the two, so hold tight!
Riverside Park has always been a favorite of mine. In the warmer months, you will find dozens of cars pulled right up to the water, lawn chairs taught from the asses of drunk Detroiters drinking beer and liquor while taking in the immaculate view. Not only does viewing the skyline from the southwest give you a refreshing take, but you also have a breathtaking view of the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit River. There’s a chance that Riverside Park will cease to exist if Matty Maroun builds his new bridge next to the Ambassador, so get there before it’s gone!
The Z Lot is yet another location that will no longer have the spectacular view that it boasts today in the near future. Dan Gilbert announced that he will be building the tallest building in Michigan on the land that Hudson’s used to occupy, blocking the view you see in this photograph. That’s at least a year or two out, so you have plenty of time to get there before it’s gone! The Z Lot is a public parking garage with security, but it is very common to see civilians lurking around the rooftop and the security guards are very accommodating.
Belle Isle's Lake Muskoday is by far one of my favorite views in all of Michigan. After strolling around the lake for a few minutes you would hardly believe that you’re in the biggest city in the state, and the only reminder of that is the skyline rising over the horizon on the far end of the murky lake. In the summer, stunning sunsets backdrop the Renaissance Center, One Detroit Center, and Penobscot Building. In the spring, flowers are planted across the banks of the lake, which is very beautiful. In the winter you can venture out onto the ice to get even closer to the skyline, which feels much further away than the 4 miles it actually is. Always be careful if you choose to go out onto the ice, as I fell through in the winter of 2015 and it wasn’t very fun at all.
It’s no hidden secret that Windsor has one of the best views of our beautiful city. It is by far the best place to go if you are in search of panoramic views of the Motor City, and their new and improved riverfront will greet you with open arms. Be sure to try and avoid peak-travel times when traveling to Windsor, as many Canadians commute to Detroit for work, causing backups in the tunnel and on the bridge.
Alright, so this one isn’t free, but if you can’t save up 75 cents to take a ride on Detroit’s most inefficient 3-mile train-loop, I don’t know what to tell you. The People Mover will take you all around downtown, giving you great views of a number of historic buildings and the Detroit River. Although it may not take you where you need to go, I would say it’s well worth the three gumballs you would have to give up to ride it.
Hart Plaza is a common meeting point in Detroit, especially in the summer. Lots of different festivals call the plaza home during the warmer months, most famously Movement, an electronic dance music festival, and the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Hart Plaza offers great views of downtown, and because it's so close to the heart of the city you really feel dwarfed by the sheer size of buildings like the Renaissance Center and One Detroit Center. Hart Plaza eventually runs into the Detroit Riverfront, which stretches for miles along the Detroit River and can take you all the way from Belle Isle to West Riverfront Park. In the summer, riding bikes down the riverfront is a fun way to get out, exersize, and take in great views of the city.
The Orchestra Place Parking Deck on Parsons Street is another parking garage with stunning views of downtown. This structure is in the Cass Corridor, and it offers cheap parking for the Orchestra Hall around the corner and the University of Michigan Detroit Center right next to it. I have wandered up into the structure a number of times to take in the view and the attendants are always very courteous. Because this structure is in Midtown, it is somewhat removed from downtown so you can see most of the taller buildings of the city, and with far more density than most locations.
If you are at all familiar with the landscape of Detroit, you know that it has 6 spoke streets that will take you to every corner of the city. Fort, Michigan, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, and Jefferson all start in the center of downtown and will eventually take you outside the city limits. Each of these thoroughfares originated as fur-trading routes that Native Americans used hundreds of years ago, and not much has been put in the way to obscure the view from any portion of each of these roads. From Delray to Corktown, the Grand River Creative Corridor to Midtown, Eastern Market to the new developments on Jefferson, you can’t go wrong taking in a view down any of the spoke streets.
Milliken State Park is one of two state parks in Detroit, and it is definitely one of the more unique stops on the Detroit Riverfront. The park was Michigan's first state park in an urban area, and the DNR has controlled the property since 2004. Not only does the park offer fishing and boat slips, if you climb to the top of the big hill in the center of the park you will be rewarded with stunning views of the skyline. In the summer, the hill's grass gets long and lush, making it a perfect place for a picnic. In the winter, snow covers the hill, creating the perfect sledding spot for those who dare brave the cold. No matter what month you visit, you won't be disappointed with Detroit's first state park.
By Eric Hergenreder -
The Ilitch family has a number of different reputations around the metro-Detroit area. The late Mike Ilitch was the owner of both the Red Wings and the Tigers until his death earlier this year. His son Chris now holds that title. Although the family is most known for their founding and ownership of the pizza chain Little Caesars since the late 1950s, they also began to acquire property in Detroit during the mid-1980s. Their most famous work is the Fox Theatre, a 1920s movie palace they renovated after it had closed due to structural issues. Although their jump into the real-estate business in Detroit seemed promising, the Fox Theatre was one of very few buildings that the Ilitch family would actually renovate.
The Ilitch’s own somewhere north of 100 acres of land in the downtown Detroit area. Controversy began in 2004 when requests to demolish the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel were submitted to the historical commission. Ilitch firms claimed that the buildings were already in disrepair when they were purchased in 1997, 5 years after they closed for good. This may have been true, but the damage to the buildings under Ilitch ownership was far worse than under the previous ownership, and the Ilitchs did little to nothing to secure or stabilize the buildings. After a number of refusals from the historical commission, the owners still believed that “the greatest need and greatest use for the property is to satisfy the parking demands.” Although permits had again been denied, wrecking crews showed up in May of 2005 and began to tear down the structures. After a week of litigation and arguments between the two sides, the Madison-Lenox bit the dust…and so began the empire of parking lots.
The list of Ilitch demolition projects didn’t stop there. The Fine Arts Building, Adams Theatre, Chin Tiki Restaurant, YMCA, YWCA, Detroit College of Law, Hotel Wolverine, and others have been demolished and now are either a part of Comerica Park or a parking lot to service it.
Although there are not many abandoned structures left in the Ilitch’s pockets, the United Artists Theatre is by far the largest and most ornate. Built in the 1920s, the UAT was by and large one of the most extravagant movie palaces in Detroit and the Midwest. The 18 story office tower and connected theatre were both empty by the mid-1970s, and in 1975 the owners sold off the theatre’s ornate furnishings at auction. Not much happened inside the UAT until the mid-90s when Don Barden tried to turn it into one of the casinos that would soon pop up in Detroit, but after that failed he sold the property to Mike Ilitch. The original plan was to tear the building down for the new Comerica Park complex, but a move across Woodward Avenue saved the historic theatre and office-tower. The Ilitchs still planned to tear down the building for another parking lot, but this never happened. It was left open to the elements and often subject to trespass and scrapping. The city ordered the building to be demolished a number of times, but the Ilitchs dodged their attacks by claiming it would be refurbished. That was believed to be a lie until recently, when Olympia Entertainment announced that the UAT’s tower would be converted into almost 150 residential units with first floor retail. No plans have been announced for the theatre, but many fear rehabilitation into yet another parking lot.
Although the refurbishing of the office tower is great news, it would be a damn shame if the theatre couldn’t be returned to its former glory. Over the years, Detroit has lost over a dozen ornate buildings that used to show movies, offer live music, and bring theater productions to town. The list below names some of the buildings lost over the past century (year demolished).
Detroit was once a premier city for theatres and ballrooms, but we have lost a great deal to the wrecking ball. Given that fact, the Ilitch’s shifty preservation past, their claimed commitment to Detroit, and the family's past use of Detroiter's tax dollars, it would be fitting that the United Artists Theatre become a space that the community can use for decades. The Fox is beautiful. The Fillmore brings great talent into the city. Little Caesars is large enough to bring headliners to town. St. Andrews caters to the underground music fans. The United Artists should be a place for Detroiters to perform, see local talent, and host events. Although this won’t exactly help the Ilitch family add to their fortune (Forbes estimated $6.1 billion net-worth), it will help their reputation among critics and give Detroiters, new and old, a place to meet and celebrate the amazing talent with which our city overflows. The theatre could hold over 2,000 at its peak, a little under half of the Fox's capacity. It could be a place to show documentaries and films created in the Detroit area. It could cater to theatre productions, both amateur and professional. It could host artistic events, weddings, and other local music and speaking events. It would also be a perfect place for high school students of Detroit to showcase their theatre programs, music concerts, and talent shows.
The theatre, if done correctly, could do all of this and more. But, as of now, it sits, just as it has for a little under a century. Closing in on 50 years of abandonment, citizens who care about historical preservation need to ensure they do not let the Ilitch’s turn this grand palace into another parking lot. Not again!
It was a busy weekend for Detroit police and first responders. Late Friday night into Saturday morning a fire broke out in the auditorium of Cooley High School, a property that is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been vacant for almost a decade. Photos taken by Detroit Fire Fighters show the entirety of the seated areas in flames, smoke billowing through the high gold painted ceilings of the massive auditorium. It is suspected that the cause of the fire was arson, as there hasn’t been power in the building for a number of years. Although the photos do look grim, it is possible that most of the damage is just cosmetic, with the seats being destroyed and smoke damaging the walls and ceiling.
Over the past couple of years Nicole Pitts and Lamar Williams were raising money to purchase the building and turn it into a community center, but last month they were informed that the building is no longer for sale and the city had other plans for the property. The couple was ready to immediately secure the property after the sale, which may have saved this historic auditorium. The property as of late had become a haven for scrappers, vandals, and urban explorers.
Due to what happened at this historic site Friday night, police must have already been on edge when they received a call to investigate people in the Fisher Body plant Saturday evening. Around 40 people met inside the abandoned General Motors factory to take photos and light-paint. Light-painting is the process by which photographers take photos while spinning lights, fireworks, and steel wool to create splashes of light. Although the end result may be stunning, the process is quite dangerous, especially in old and abandoned structures with lots of tinder scattered around. In 2016 an iconic shipwreck in Point Reyes was burned to the ground due to spinning steel wool, and a few months later a historic 1920s building in a US National Preserve met the same fate. Given all the known danger of this kind of photography and the fact that a historic Detroit high school burned down due to arson the previous night, it was no surprise Detroit Police weren’t happy to be called into the long-vacant factory in the Piquette Avenue Historic District. Police came in with large flashlights and their guns drawn, unknowing what exactly they were walking into. After seeing the photographers on one of the upper floors, the search began. After over an hour of questioning, searches, and writing citations, the photographers were finally free to leave and the police left the property.
According to our reports, a number of the photographers were from out of town. Coming all the way from New York, New Jersey, Canada, Indianapolis, and northern-Michigan, these photographers were not exactly met with open arms. Perhaps this strong stance by the Detroit Police beckons in a new era. Detroit is no longer a place for photographers to visit and wallow in ruin porn. Whatever the case, thanks to DPD another building was saved from potential arson.
By Eric Hergenreder -
The Grande Ballroom on Grand River and Beverly may enter the National Register of Historic Places by the end of the year. The Friends of the Grande are making a push to have the historic concert venue added to the NRHP to ensure the building’s safety and to help enable renovation. The current owners, Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, have given permission to the group to pursue the nomination to be added to the list. The Grande’s sister, the Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson and Newport was added to the NRHP in 1982.
The Friends of the Grande recently met for the first time in over ten years to discuss the nomination to the NRHP which will be reviewed by committee in September. The group also talked potential business ideas and pre-development projects to stop the deterioration of the structure. Leo Early has spent over 12 years researching and collecting stories from the Grande, culminating with the publishing of his book, The Grand Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ’N’ Roll Palace. In the book, Early tries to shed light on the building's almost 90 year history and empower hope for the future of the building he loves so dearly. This past week I was able to catch up with Leo to talk about the building and the recent meeting of the Friends of the Grande. He was most excited about the fact that after an 8+ year battle, the building owners are allowing a submission to the NRHP. He was also excited to have a number of members of the church that owns the Grande at the meeting, including the Reverend Dr. R Lamont Smith II. They also spoke about a number of different stabilization ideas and fundraising projects that would help stave off demolition, but these are all dependent on the structural integrity report. A bad report would make addition to the NRHP and saving the building quite difficult. Early is very enthusiastic about the Grande Ballroom and without patrons like him it’s likely we would have lost a number of other historic Detroit buildings. There is another meeting planned for Thursday, July 7th at the Tech Shop in Allen Park. Find more information here, and you can purchase Early’s book here.
The Grande Ballroom, as Historic Detroit describes it, was ‘a rock ’n’ roll mecca.’ The building opened its doors in 1928 as a place for young Detroiters to listen to music and dance. The Grande began to struggle in the 60s due to a lack of a liquor license and a deteriorating neighborhood. In 1966, Russ Gibb began renting the property and promoting rock shows. Detroiters and suburban youth alike began frequenting the Grande to see acts like the MC5 and The Stooges. It wasn’t unusual to find tabs of acid, kids smoking weed, and Iggy Pop bleeding on the Grande's stage. Not only did local legends rock the Grande, big name acts like Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Cream, Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, and the Velvet Underground climbed onto the stage of the historic venue. Eventually, the music stopped echoing out of the Moorish Deco walls of the ballroom, hosting its last show in 1972. The building has been seldom used since, and it has been owned by Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church since 2006.
The basis for joining the NRHP is somewhat simple. The National Park Service wants to protect and inform the public about important places that have changed our history in some shape or form. There are 261 sites in Detroit that already boast this certification and 10 National Historic Landmarks, which is a higher distinction. While the fate of the Grande Ballroom is unknown, it’s pretty hard to deny that the building is something special that deserves to be remembered.
By Eric Hergenreder -
A photographer ended up in the hospital Thursday night after falling through a skylight in an abandoned building downtown. It is currently unclear what exact injuries the man suffered, but it appeared he had broken his leg, ankle, and a couple ribs. The man fell through the abandoned Harvard Square building on Broadway Avenue in downtown Detroit. This is the second occurrence that we know of within the past year, including an explorer who fell through a stairwell at the United Artist Theater last August, shattering his heel among other injuries.
Although the number of abandoned properties downtown has been decreasing over the past few years, there are still a good number of neglected properties within walking distance of the attractions bringing people to the city. Even with more security and police presence downtown, these photographers, explorers, and vandals continue to find their way into these buildings. Most of the neglected buildings that remain downtown have been sitting for decades, which enables the decay of these structures. After such negligence, entering these buildings is an extreme risk. Even with that being said, and all the work that has been done downtown in recent years, urban explorers are still able to find their way into buildings amidst the new hustle and bustle downtown.
Harvard Square Center was built in the 1925 and originally housed offices and retail space. The building exchanged hands a couple times before becoming abandoned in 1998, although the street-level retail space is still operational.
The United Artists Theater opened in 1928 and was one of the most beautiful movie palaces in the city. The theater and connected office tower closed in 1975, although it was used for various things such as a recording studio for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and storage. Bricks have been falling off of the facade since the 1980’s, and not much has changed since the graffiti was buffed before the 2006 Super Bowl and the marquee was removed after falling apart onto the sidewalk in 2005. It was recently announced that the building was part of a renovation plan by Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment, but many are weary of the behemoth of a project actually being completed. Renovation plans are set to start in 2018.
Both of these properties were featured on our list, Buildings in Detroit That Need to Be Saved in 2017.
Even with less and less abandoned properties downtown, it appears until they are all renovated or demolished we will continue to see accidents like this.
By Eric Hergenreder
An abandoned school on Detroit’s Northwest-side may see new light soon through the work of local grassroots organizers. The Cooley Reuse Project, founded by long-time Detroiters Nicole Pitts and Lamar Williams, is attempting to raise enough money to purchase the closed school and renovate it into a community and business center. The property features a 1,000 seat auditorium, pool, gymnasium, gun range, kitchen, and library. The most notable alumni of the school was the late Mike Ilitch, who had the school added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, but many famous athletes also attended Cooley. Rapper Obie Trice and producer Black Milk both attended as well.
Cooley High School was built in 1927. The school is 322,000 square feet and sits on 17 acres. The school was truly a beautiful construction—the attention to detail both on the exterior and in particular inside the auditorium is stupendous, even while vacant.
As you can see from the map, Cooley’s gym was once split into two sections—something that was somewhat typical for the time period. One side was for boys and the other for girls. Physical education courses were typically separate when the school was built, but that would change a few decades later. The Cooley sports programs dominated most other city schools throughout most of its history, sending numerous players to the MLB, a few to the NFL and NBA, and even two to the Olympics.
You can also notice by the map how large the auditorium is compared to the rest of the school. The auditorium is definitely one of the highlights Cooley has to offer, as one can see from the photos below. The attention to detail in the molding on the ceiling is spectacular, and even in the pitch dark the stage seems to glow. The two story library is also quite breathtaking.
The school has started to be vandalized and scrapped by intruders, but overall the building is in pretty good shape. The organization trying to purchase the building would like to do so as soon as possible, not only to begin refurbishing the building, but to thwart off further attempts to cause damage to the school. So far the group has raised just under $900,000 to purchase the property and renovate it, but they are still a little bit short. They have turned to the community to try and make an effort to raise the appropriate funds, with a goal of $10k by Mothers Day (May 14th). We truly hope that Cooley will continue to, as it has for almost a century, serve the neighborhood it is surrounded by.
Written by Eric Hergenreder
Around the beginning of this year I was feeling a bit uncreative with my photography. It seemed like I was caught in a rut of shooting the same things over and over and I couldn’t seem to break out of that creative-funk. A couple friends of mine were film shooters and they had been trying to convince me to join the dark side for months already. I had gotten lucky and scooped up a Canon AE-1 Program up at a garage sale for $20 the summer before, paired along with a 35-70mm Canon Lens that I have grown to enjoy. I found that shooting with film forced me to slow down, frame my shots more precisely, and think about what I was doing before even taking my lens cap off. Starting with film also allowed me to re-shoot some of my favorite locations with a different feel, which was fun. Whether you just want to get into it for fun or you’re older and want to jump back into the game, I have some advice on how to do it cheaply.
First off, you’re going to need a camera. Garage sales, flea markets, and thrift stores are prime locations for finding gems for good prices. Habitat for Humanity Re-Store locations often have bins full of old cameras. I stopped by Recycle Ann Arbor this week and they had 5-10 point-and-shoot film cameras that seemed in working condition, all for under $10. I also was able to pick up beautiful Quantaray and Sigma FD lenses for my AE-1 there. Salvation Army and Goodwill also are good places to look. I have seen a number of older cameras at Value World on Woodward in Detroit, too. If you are already a digital photographer, particularly Nikon shooters, and already own some older lenses you may be in luck. Nikkor AI and AIS lenses were originally made for film cameras and fit a plethora of Nikon cameras from the 70s onward, and still work on digital cameras today. D-series Nikkor lenses will also mount a number of newer Nikon film cameras as well. You can pick up the same Canon AE-1 Program that I use on Keh.com or Ebay for around $100, or less if you are lucky. I use an old Olympus point-and-shoot and my Canon pretty religiously, and find I never leave them at home even if I plan to shoot just digital.
Secondly, you’re going to need some film. There are a lot of budget films around, my favorite being Fuji. You can get four rolls of Fuji Superia 400 for around $12 on Amazon. That’s 96 total shots, which isn’t too bad. A lot of people don’t like Agfa films, but I think they are super fun to mess around with, especially in a party or concert setting. They’ll set you back around $4 a roll in store, which isn’t too bad. My budget film option of choice is only available in some specific places. Camera Mall in Ann Arbor sells expired film for $2 a pop, generally Fuji Superia 800. It has only been expired by one month, and I have never had any issues shooting with it. It isn’t the best film, but for starting out or just messing around, it’s not a bad deal. Once you have gotten your hands dirty, I would recommend trying Portra or Ektar films, which are both by Kodak and are a little over $10 a roll. They produce amazing colors and are fun to mess around with for portraits. If you really feel confident in yourself, you can try Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 black and white films, both of which are stellar, but will cost you a pretty penny to have developed… which is our next topic.
When I first started shooting film, I had no idea where I would have it developed. I heard that Woodward Camera did good work (which I must say, they really do), but after developing some film there I found the pricing to be a bit out of my budget as a broke & alcoholic college student. My buddy Julian recommended Express Photo & Camera in Livonia, and I haven’t looked back since. Development and scanning for one standard color roll ends up being around $5, and you save if you wait to develop a number of rolls at once. This is far cheaper than Camera Mall in Ann Arbor and Woodward Camera in Birmingham. They also only take about an hour to do the whole process, whereas the others can take up to a week or more. The workers at Express Photo & Camera are the nicest damn people you will ever meet, and are always happy to help with any questions you might have. Developing traditional black-and-white film is more expensive no matter where you go because of the different chemicals used, so to test the waters I would recommend Ilford XP2. This is because it can be developed in the same chemistry as color film, AKA, Express Photo & Camera can do it for cheap. I don’t like the results from XP2 quite as much as HP5 or Tri-X, but saving around $10 a roll is a nice kicker.
I highly recommend anyone who shoots digital to try film out. The only times I had ever shot film prior to this year was on family vacations before we had a digital camera and my mom would buy me disposable cameras. But after spending so much time and money on digital, I find film to be a nice break. I really feel it has helped me become a better photographer because I actually sit back and think about each shot individually before I press the shutter, and I am able to get a feel from my photos that I never could with digital. It’s definitely something fun to mess around with, regardless of whether you go out and buy a $5 point-and-shoot or a Leica M3 for $1000+. I also recommend trying to get into a dark room and seeing the process sometime, because it’s really interesting. I hate chemistry and I was enamored by the process. I hope I was able to help you understand film a little more, understand why I do it, and how you also can do it on a budget. Happy hunting!
Work has started on the tattered remains of the church and parish house at the corner of East Grand Boulevard and Gratiot Avenue. Crews have been spotted inside the building a number of times in early January and new boards have been hammered into the collapsed roof. The building was open to the elements for over a decade and a half but has recently been secured. Plans for the building have not been announced, but a for sale sign is still hanging.
According to Detroit Urbex, the building was completed in 1910 as Aaron C. Fisher Memorial Methodist-Episcopal Church. Sometime around 1920 the church was renamed East Grand Boulevard Methodist, and the parish house which held classrooms, a basketball court, and a stage was completed in 1926. It is very interesting to see the changes made to the building as the roads widened in the 1930s, depicted in the maps below. There used to be buffer between many of the store fronts on Gratiot Avenue and the street, and homes on East Grand Boulevard used to have larger yards. Now only a sidewalk runs between the church and Gratiot Avenue, and the parish house was picked up off the foundation and moved to accommodate the widening of East Grand Boulevard. The church was finally dissolved in 1985 and was replaced by the Second Unity Full Gospel Baptist Church, which finally called it quits at that location in 2000. It has sat vacant since.
Not much could be found in terms of who owns the property or what they plan to do with it, but the building is by far one of the most unique in the city. The church features a balcony with auditorium style seating, an organ, and a unique ceiling. The parish house could be rehabbed into a youth community center, with the ability to house sports, theater and music productions, and classes. The building is also only a couple blocks away from the East Grand Boulevard Historic District, a distinction the neighborhood received in 1999. We are going to keep our eyes and ears open for news on this East-Side gem, so check back for updates!
A couple weeks back I heard that there were plans for the CPA Building on Michigan Avenue to be demolished. I always thought of myself as somewhat of a preservationist by ideology, but lately it seems I have been slacking on those claims. The CPA is truly a gem of Corktown, and the good people of that neighborhood worked their asses off to save it. Here are some other buildings in Detroit I feel should be saved, a couple ideas for what they should be turned into, and how we can go about ensuring this happens.
The United Artists Theater, which is currently owned by the Ilitch family, is in desperate need of a miracle. The Tigers Tycoon has threatened it with demolition a handful of times, but at this point, it still stands. The building has been secured (for the most part, my shattered heel says otherwise) and it sits empty on the corner of Bagley and Clifford. Originally Ilitch wanted to demolish the structure to make way for Comerica Park, but when the ballpark was moved to the other side of Woodward the empty movie palace was saved. It was then stated that it would be demolished to make way for more parking for the stadium/theater district that sits only a few blocks away, but Ilitch’s plans were met with uproar from preservationists. In the 1980s the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Grand Circus Park Historic District, which makes it much harder for anyone to demolish it, but far from impossible. The United Artists Theater needs to be saved because it truly is a beautiful building, and in the right hands it has the potential to be the only venue in the city that can rival The Fox in terms of overall beauty. The venue is also said to have perfect acoustics, a feat that not many theaters in the world can boast. Another key reason to save the United Artists Theater is to preserve the rich history in film that the City of Detroit has. Detroit was by far one of the best cities for the theater, movies, and shows in its heyday. The United Artists Theater was said to be one of the most beautiful of them all, and not many of these palaces are left. Another abandoned theater downtown, The National Theater, is much smaller and located in an area that Dan Gilbert has had his eye on for years. Although it too is on the National Register of Historic Places, the rest of the block was once as well, but it is the only remaining building in the original theater district of Detroit. Assuming Dan Gilbert gets his way, as he often does, I do not think that the National Theater will be saved, or for that matter is as grand, magnificent, or breathtaking as the United Artists Theater. Another great aspect about the United Artists is the office tower that connects to the building. We are currently running out of room for offices in Detroit. Dan Gilbert recently announced he may have to start putting some jobs in the suburbs because there is simply no room left for him in Detroit. The United Artists’ office tower is 18 stories that upon my examination seem to be in alright shape. It wouldn’t be a cheap endeavor, but at the prices that office spaces are currently going for in Detroit, I can imagine it would be a profitable one.
Many people have asked me when meeting on Belle Isle for various activities what the big chunk of fenced off land in the middle of the park that looks like a safari is used for. Well ladies and gentlemen, it used to be a zoo. A full-fledged zoo. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Believe it or not, Belle Isle used to be quite nice. Not that it isn’t now, but as you can tell driving around the park, it used to be truly magnificent. Since the DNR has taken over the park has seen an incredible turn around and I feel that the State Park System is responsible for that. Many do not see any reason to do anything with the abandoned zoo in the middle of the park because, well, it isn’t hurting anything and the park seems to be doing fine. Whereas that may be true, the park is doing well and attracting more visitors than ever, it still isn’t a destination for many folks outside of the city of Detroit. During the Summer months the park is packed with Wayne County Residents from shore to shore and everyone is having a lovely time. That’s nice and all, but I truly feel that if the park service was able to convert the old Belle Isle Zoo in to something new, fun, and unique, Belle Isle would become a destination for all those around Michigan and a must-stop location for people visiting Detroit. A number of times I have been into the zoo to find skateboarders riding on what I can only imagine was once some sort of water habitat for the illustrious Detroit-water-hippopotamus. Imagine boasting one of the greatest skate-parks in southeastern Michigan on Belle Isle. The influx of young people to the island would be incredible. Now I’m not saying that the redevelopment has to be something like a skate park or that the park needs to have a zoo again, I just really believe that if the park service could do something unique and cool with the land that Belle Isle would bring people to the park that had never been there before, or at least in a really long time. The land really should be redeveloped to enable Belle Isle to become even greater than it already is.
Ah, the building of all buildings, the preservationists dream, and a billionaire’s hostage. Michigan Central Station is by far the most recognizable abandoned structure in the world. People once came from far and wide to trespass inside the building and it quickly became a symbol for the decline of Detroit. The colossal structure has since been fenced off and new windows put into place to make it seem like the property is savable. Where I do believe the building is savable, and do believe that it will indeed be saved, it is a preservationist’s job to make sure that this happens sooner rather than later. Since the late 90s it has been owned by Detroit billionaire Matty Maroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. It was under his reign that the building was vandalized, all of its valuables stolen, and that the property became a trespasser’s dream. Maroun, surprisingly, did finally secure the station and put new windows in it about two decades after he purchased the property. Many saw this as a play to make the city happy with him, because at the time he was still trying to gain access to build a second bridge to Canada directly next to his current bridge, a plan which makes literally no goddamn sense because there is already a bridge going in down in Delray. Remember when I said that the building was a billionaire’s hostage? Now you might understand what that statement means. The fact of it is, Michigan Central Station would cost an arm and a leg to renovate. Estimates range from 100 to 300 million USD to repair to its former glory. But, at the end of the day, it was, and still is in my opinion, the most beautiful landmarks in the city. Many can argue that the Fisher or Guardian beat it out, but when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the old depot. There is nothing else like it in the world. It is truly one of a kind, and that is why it needs to be saved. Lofts. A trendy hotel. Another Casino. Sea-World Detroit. I don’t give a damn, just put something in my station that isn’t a police headquarters, prison, or trade processing center.
As a kid coming down to Tigers games with friends or family it seemed like we would always park somewhat near the big building with the tattered ‘American’ sign on it. I never knew what this building was or why it was left to rot, but then again, I was a dumb twat of a child, so I’m not really that surprised looking back. The Hotel Fort Wayne opened in 1926 (the same year as its neighbor, the Masonic Temple) and was renamed the American Hotel in the 1960s after a renovation. As many Detroiters know, the Cass Corridor wasn’t always that pretty. Dan Austin described the area in the 1960’s as being ‘well on its way to becoming a home for those down on their luck,’ which really hurt business for the American Hotel and other businesses in the area. The hotel finally closed in the early 2000s, and just as many other abandonments in Detroit, was heavily hit by scrappers and vandals. The building is dangerously close to the new pizza stadium, which could mean one of two things for its future. It will either be knocked down for parking, or it will see new light under renovation. I think that Detroiters should fight for the renovation of this building because it truly is a beautiful and historic place. The views from the higher floors are breathtaking, the ballroom quite beautiful, and the skylight very unique. Not only would the renovation be great for The Masonic Temple and the new hockey arena, but it would really show a commitment to renewal of the Cass Corridor, an effort that has seemed half-fought at times. With the new arena going up fast, I think we can expect to hear news about this building very soon.
Whereas this may be one of the more boring stops on the list, the former Free Press headquarters is an interesting piece of downtown. The structure is pretty weirdly shaped, making it very recognizable and unique when compared to most others surrounding it. The 250,000+ square foot building was designed by notorious Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1925, but it’s been empty since 1998. Since the Free Press left just before the millennium not much has happened other than a couple sales and a number of renovation plans that never came to fruition. Offices, lofts, and a numerous other ideas have been tossed on the table, but no sort of plans have made it off the printing press yet. Recently it was rumored that the building was sold again, but the details from that transaction have not been confirmed at this point. I really hope this is true, because the last owners don’t have a spectacular track record for renovations, considering they owned the Stott for a number of years before selling it to Dan Gilbert. I really hope that it can be saved, because it too is one of a kind. It has a really unique shape and its tower really should be used for more than just acquiring all the different flavors and assortments of pigeon shit (I swear I saw a bogey flavoured one once). The building is an Albert Kahn masterpiece, which Detroit has been blessed with a number of, but regardless it will hopefully someday make a great complex of offices or a nice little pack of lofts just outside the main drag of downtown. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to be closer to the coneys?
Believe it or not, there are a number of Detroiters that do not know that the majestic building on Randolph Street is a National Historic Landmark, let alone that it has literally nothing in it or that it has been for sale for more than half a decade. The building used to house numerous city offices and services until Wayne County left it in 2009. All the other tenants were gone by 2010, and it has sat vacant since. Luckily, the Old Wayne Co. Building has been able to remain safe from scrappers and vandals, a sort of rarity not many properties downtown have had the pleasure of knowing. The inside of the structure is truly magnificent, even with not much left other than the walls. Nailhed covers the five story building in-depth and was even was able to reach the top of the tower. The structure is truly about as stunning as they come, which might make some believe that it has a simple case for renovation, but the splendor that makes this particular stop on the list so unique also holds investors back. Not only would doing any renovations to the interior be expensive to complete, the final product of the renovation is limited to a short number of proposals. Buildings such as this would be very difficult to convert into anything, the layout doesn’t meet the needs of a modern office, and the size of the building limits Wayne County from moving back in. The remodel and reuse of this building is very specific, but even with that being said, it needs to be saved. The city thought about demolishing it in the 1980’s but it was saved due to the expensive cost to demolish it, a factor that saves a lot of vacant or dilapidated properties. Luckily, it was saved, and it lives to see another day. Hopefully one day I can pay my parking tickets in this beautiful building again.
The only thing that most people know about the Harvard Square Center is that there used to house a club on the main floor called the Paris Club, Detroit’s premier gay night club. I never made it to the establishment, but from the reviews I’ve seen online it had cheap drinks and a cool interior. The club was the last thing left in the building, and the rest has been abandoned since 1998. The tall-and-skinny tower was built in the 1920s and sits on Broadway Street. The view from the roof is absolutely spectacular, and the interior is somewhat clean from the information I have seen online. Although this is another somewhat boring property, the rehabilitation of this building could add much needed office space to an already crowded downtown, and the floor retail space may be a hot commodity when the Metropolitan Building hotel conversion is completed sometime within the next year or so. Beautiful terracotta buildings such as this deserve to be saved, and have a niche in the new Detroit.
Now, you didn’t think I would tell you about all these great buildings in Detroit waiting to be saved and not tell you how, did you?! Well, here’s how you can start, as told by somebody who knows literally nothing about preservation.
Stay informed. Websites like Curbed Detroit, Historic Detroit, and local papers often share information pertaining to old and historic buildings, their renovations, and demolition plans. You can’t do much if you don’t know what is going on. I also highly recommend Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit and Lost Detroit by Dan Austin. These books really help tell the history of preservation in the city of Detroit.
Join a preservation group like Preservation Detroit. Groups like this dedicate their time and money to preserving the City of Detroit, and by joining you will be keyed into new information and also your membership fees go towards raising money to save these buildings.
Write your councilmen and councilwomen before, during, and after demolition permits are filed. Discuss why you think certain buildings should be saved and their historical significance. These are our elected officials, and although they may not know the history of a particular building, and at the end of the day they are in office to serve the people of Detroit. If you and your super cool new preservationist friends all send letters to members of city council, they are bound to hear your cry.
To reiterate on the first point, staying informed to things going on in the city is key. Keeping up with renovations, demolitions, and abandonment are key to understanding how to properly give reasons for why buildings should be saved. We can’t save every old musty old building in the Motor City, but I’d be damned if we don’t give it a shot.
Lately I’ve been thinking about all the buffing that’s going on around the city of Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan is taking a very hard stance on graffiti in the city, leading to the arrest of a number of artists and the buffing of hundreds of buildings. Whereas I do think that this is a good thing, I can’t help but question Duggan’s strategy to tackle the issue. The city has been putting pressure on building owners to clean up the appearance of hundreds of buildings, which means buffing the exterior of the building. Upon first hearing this would be happening, I was happy. It’s hard to take pride in your city when there are buildings in shambles on every block outside of downtown.
After further investigation, I really don’t understand how this is really helping the city. Yes, Duggan’s iron fist is forcing building owners to clean up their buildings and he has ordered the clean-up of numerous city owned properties, but these buildings are still wide open to the elements—and graffiti artists. Fisher Body 21 in Midtown was recently buffed clean, but when you head over there, you can still walk right in. New graffiti has already been sprayed on the decaying walls of the old General Motors facility. Please tell me how that’s a good use of government funds? I understand that city leaders are trying to beautify the city, and many see graffiti to be an eye sore, but how is this any better? By buffing these structures and then leaving them wide open to the elements and vandals, the city is literally just throwing money away. The city needs to either clean these buildings up *and* secure them, or just leave them be until funds are available to do both. I understand the hard-nose attitude the city is trying to take with property owners, but sealing these buildings up is just as important as cleansing them of graffiti.
As someone who often finds himself inside these abandoned buildings, I also have another opinion to offer. Since when is a crumbling shell of a building covered with one (typically ugly) color paint prettier than a structure covered with art by local creatives? I mean, I’m not saying that ELMER and GASM are Michelangelo prodigies, but art is art, right? I understand that Detroit is trying to distance itself from its rugged and grimy past, but I truly believe that this very past is what makes Detroit the creative hub that it currently is. People love the murals in the Eastern Market District and other commissioned works around the city, but what many people don’t realize is that most of these artists started by spraying on abandoned buildings. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I find the tags on abandoned structures like Fisher Body, the Grand Trunk Warehouse, and other buildings around the city to be far prettier than a bare, naked, abandoned structures in shambles.
The city has a history of removing graffiti from abandoned buildings when beatification attempts are being made. Before the Super Bowl came to town a decade ago then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took a hard stance on abandoned structures, namely in downtown districts. One building that comes to mind is the United Artist Theater, which still sits abandoned today. The windows of the building were covered with pieces inspired by Mayan hieroglyphics in gold, reds, and blues. This really made the building look like quite interesting, and not like the abandoned movie palace that has been sitting empty at the hands of the Ilitch’s since 1995. The graffiti was removed before the 2006 Super Bowl to try and make downtown look nicer, but I can’t help but make the argument that the building was far more interesting, and beautiful, before they removed the artwork and left it bare and decaying. It’s far easier to point out the flaws of a building when there isn’t any paint slapped on it to take your eyes off the bricks falling from above. The Lafayette building had similar art on its windows before it saw the wrecking ball in 2009.
A friend of mine is the tagger known as ‘REMY.’ He has been exploring, and painting in, abandoned structures for a number of years in the city. He explained some of the things he has seen change since he started painting in pre-bankruptcy Detroit. “Four or five years ago the city of Detroit was a free for all, graffiti wise…lots of the city was abandoned and the police had bigger problems than artists,” REMY explained. He went on to tell me about how he and his friends used to paint street side walls in broad daylight at little to no risk at all, maybe a ticket if it was a slow day for police. He then explained how as the money began flowing into the city, stricter regulations went into effect. These laws were always technically in place, but for a long time city officials were more concerned with the bigger issues facing Detroit. As the beautification of Detroit came onto the radar of Detroit officials, the police came onto the radar of Detroit’s graffiti artists. REMY also believes that these new Detroiters “aren't able to look past the fact that it's a crime and enjoy the graffiti as an element of beautification, like the native Detroiters once did.” REMY describes this change as the end of an era, and that a lot of artists have changed up their style because of this. Having known him for almost a year now, REMY is also a skateboarder, explorer, and pretty talented photographer. As he told me, “It's kinda like either push the envelope, or get left behind.” REMY still paints and just got a new GoPro to highlight his adventures in Detroit. His tagging Instagram is @remy1r, you can see some of his work there.
One thing that is very clear, the state of the Detroit graffiti scene is changing fast. I may not agree with the methods Mayor Duggan is currently utilizing to beautify Detroit, but I do think that some of what he’s doing is good for the city. It will be easier to take pride in a Detroit that lacks blight, but with the sheer amount of blight the city has, dreams of a blight free Motor City are a long way off. I also wish that the city spent money securing the buildings that are still salvageable rather than cleaning up all of them but leaving them open to the elements. I also don’t see the harm of artists putting their mark on buildings that are already dilapidated, especially if the city has neglected them enough to allow them to reach that point. I guess my question is, what roll will graffiti and street artists have in the Detroit of the future? I, for one, hope it’s one of some significance.
You can read more about the stance Mayor Mike Duggan and the City of Detroit have taken on graffiti at the link below.
As always, finishing with a link. Grimy subject above, grimy song down here. Been really into $UICIDEBOY$ lately for their dingy feel and hard hitting delivery. The duo hail from New Orleans and make some pretty dope music, check it out.
We all have that one friend with the nice camera. That one friend who posts on Instagram way too much, uses way too many hashtags, and asks whether or not we like a photo before they post it. Always asking you to come out shooting with them so they can take photos of you, inviting you to shitty art shows, and acting strange whenever anyone asks whether or not they're trying to be a photographer. Well, as you guys probably know, I’m that friend, and I’m here to tell you why it fucking sucks.
First off, let’s be honest. The odds that myself or any of my photo-friends are going to do photography for a living is very small. When I say that I mean just photography. Anyone can have another job that funds their photography hobby and then sells a couple prints a year to justify that new $1k lens they’ve always wanted, but being a photographer by profession and still being able to afford that lens is not exactly something everyone can do. Becoming a profession photographer takes a lot of skill, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of connections. Take Joe Gall (@camera_jesus) for example. Joe is by far one of the most famous, and talented, Detroit photographers. But just talent didn’t get Joe 45k Instagram followers and the ability to sell an 8x12 print for $50. Joe does fucking crazy shit every goddamn day. Not many photographers are as talented as Joe and I would say hardly any would be willing to do half the crazy shit he does, which is important. This sets Joe apart and allows him to take the photos he does, and meet like-minded people that make remarkable projects happen.
Let’s be real though. Any amateur photographer would drop everything in a heartbeat if they thought they had a realistic chance to pursue photography as a profession. It’s a dream for almost every amateur photographer I know, but even with that being said, I don’t know a single person who has dropped everything to try and become a photographer. It’s just not realistic. We all still have our day jobs, working 9-5 with hopes to save enough this month to get that new body or lens we’ve been eying for a year. It’s not that these photographers don’t have the potential talent or the drive that artists like Joe have, shit is just really fucking hard to get into. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a fistful of models on hand at any given time that I can hit up and do a shoot with. I don’t have connections to helicopters, airplanes, or blimps. But if I did, you know damn well I’d be up there every day.
You might be wondering, why do we still do it? If we know that it’s most likely never going anywhere, why do we still spend thousands of dollars and go out taking photos almost every weekend in 100° summers and -10° winters? Because we fucking love it, that's why. I don’t know a single person who bought a camera because they wanted to be a famous photographer. We buy cameras, upgrade our equipment, and shoot every weekend because we truly love capturing unique images and the adventures that come with such a hobby. I don’t think that photography will ever take me anywhere too far from Detroit, but I guarantee in my lifetime you’ll find me shooting all around the world. You can keep your basement brewery and bird-watching binoculars, and I’ll keep my camera.