Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Escape to Detroit 7/11-7/14/2008

Roderick and I arrived at the Howard Street bus station in Detroit around 8:30p.m. on Friday the 11th of July for a long weekend with our friends, Nick and Jayke.

Their car being a bit wonky, we were planning on walking a lot over the course of the visit and started that walk down Michigan hopping this and that block as Nick pointed out buildings he particularly like until we passed St. Patrick’s and the being-restored worker’s rowhouse in Cork Town. (Even the trash under the house had been catalogued to give an idea of the lives lived in the structure.)

So we walked. And walked. And walked. We walked past houses that were lived in and massive apartment buildings where missing roofs and trees growing out of the upper floor windows let us know that there was plenty of space available on a fixer-upper basis. Here and there Jewish temples that had been turned into theatres stood in the shadows of skyscrapers built in the 1920’s and empty since the 1970’s.

There are enough churches in Detroit to hold flickering votives for all the lost of the world, but – you know what? - a lot of them are sitting dark. Where has the faith that supported them into being from nothing gone?

(There was one in particular – the Episcopal Cathedral – that was lit and had only a massive stump where it should have had a massive tower. In the beginning of the Great Depression the church was still under construction and it was decided that the money for the tower was better used to help the destitute community. The empty space where the tower should have been became suddenly more comely than any tangible structure could ever be when I heard that story.)

We dumped bags at the apartment on Antoinette near Wayne State’s campus before heading out to the Motor City Brewing Works for a late dinner (470 W. Canfield, 313-832-7000,

The atmosphere was warm as the night and the place was pleasantly busy as we placed out order and headed up to their roof-top terrace to relax and wait for our food. We were hungry, so we decided to try a variety of things: Their Nut Brown Ale, their wonderfully tangy-smoky artichoke dip, cheese sampler (changes regularly, so you get to choose your cheeses from a chalkboard) and three of their brick-oven baked pizzas, all wonderful: The Bronx Bomber (tomato herb sauce, fresh mozzarella, bacon, mushrooms, green pepper, Italian Sausage that did not look like dog food because it was cooked and sliced in house, Pepperoni & onions, $9), The Godfather Part II (pesto sauce, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic & Italian Sausage, $8) and the Maui Wowie (tomato herb sauce, fresh mozzarella, crushed pineapple, Canadian bacon & fresh basil, $7).

On our way back to the apartment after dinner, Nick walked us through the West Canfield Historic District off of Cass (possibly 2nd?). The street is cobbled with granite in a webbed, or fish-scaled pattern from one stone-curbed side of the road to the other. There are trees – both mature and some planted in the last twenty years – lining the street and sheltering the houses in a way that make the short street feel like a green tunnel or a very secluded garden. Most of the homes on this block were built between 1869 and the 1880’s. Some of the homes are private, single family residences, and some of them are still subdivided into several apartments. Regardless of current use, all of the houses in this small historic district are stable and – at the very least – moderately kept or in the process of being restored. From the district markers, street paving, paint colors, gardens, newly planted trees and ongoing work, it is evident that as much planning is going into the preservation of this street for future generations as went into its laying out in 1818.

We caught a Woodward bus to Ferndale (Check out House of Chants for some great clothing options) to see its shopping district on Nine Mile. . . When asked several times (after finding we were not from the area) how we got there and told “by bus,” the response was, “Oh. That’s so. . . big city.” It’s kinda interesting that four white boys bussing or cabbing through Detroit and the ‘burbs is called “So Big City,” because when anyone else travels by public transport, it gets called “Kinda Ghetto.” Just interesting. . .

We walked through the area near the Masonic Temple on our way to meet one of Jayke;s co-workers from The Whitney passing on our way crumbling façades of once-swanky hotels and apartment houses, mostly now empty. I ended not meeting the co-worker because the girlfriend, Julie Zager turned out be very interesting (add a “.com” to see some of her older work).

We wandered through a random junk shop on our way home and then had dinner at the Cass Café (more amazing food with a great atmosphere, 4620 Cass, 313-831-1400, One of us had a sandwich with seared, smoked wild salmon, bacon, mescaline and tomato with a jalapeño/caper aoli. Our waiter combined the unfortunate qualities of slow and stinky so as to add a creeping funk to our table now and then. There are other waiters in the establishment, so I still highly recommend a visit.

Over the rest of our visit we had Brunch at The Whitney, pondered items at MOCAD, (Their exterior neon reads: “Everything Is Going To Be Alright.”), trotted through the major galleries of the DIA, ate at Slow’s BBQ in/near Cork Town (Good sandwiches and *amazing* mac ‘n cheese), crawled through the Mines-of-Moria-like depths of the abandoned Detroit Train Station (most of the “NO Trespassing” signs had been stolen by scrappers) and spent the final day packing, sipping coffee and preparing for a return to home in Saginaw.

As we rode the bus north, I had to wonder: Why is it that Detroit has so much of its architectural heritage intact awaiting more optimistic times and individuals to make an investment? (It is interesting to note that some of the buildings that have been host to only taggers for thirty or more years are seeing rehabilitations into housing, retail space and academic usage.) Why has Saginaw been precedentially so eager to demolish any building not of immediate use? Stating that empty buildings are dangerous just doesn’t make good sense when said buildings are not sitting hard by a schoolyard or collapsing onto a sidewalk.

Do some digging through newspaper clippings and local recollection: Many buildings demolished fit neither criteria (i.e., the former Feige building that was once part of the Tower Block on Genesee near what is now Health Delivery), but were downed, regardless, at significant cost to the city, property owner or both.

The districts of Detroit that are currently seeing a slow revival have one interesting item in common: They all contain buildings that can be converted into affordable housing and interesting retail space. Without said buildings, initial development is far less likely.

I look at the building-speckled fields that represent Saginaw’s downtown district, and have to wonder, as well: Where are businesses supposed to operate out of? Where are the young people a community needs for continuity supposed to live? Tents? I don’t think a 21st-Century Hooverville is such a good idea, but what other option remains? Sadly, it would seem that the only viable option is building inferior facilities in areas other than the city center.

Detroit may have shopping carts full of political and economic messes aplenty, but it *does* have one or two vital things going for it: The city has a vibrant network of subcultures in every economic bracket and contains enough amazing, or even just average and utilitarian, architecture still standing that its districts will be able, in time, to achieve economic recovery while Saginaw is still talking about Urban Blight and attempting to address the issue of recycling building materials long after the buildings themselves have been quickly demolished and the lots grown over and forgotten.

Detroit: Watercolor, pencil, charcoal on paper. Collection of Tina Holtz.


Rebekah said...

Gawd, I wish I lived in the city. I married a wannabe country boy, so we live in the country. I may escape to Chicago after my daughter moves out, who knows. Thanks for sharing your experience in Detroit. I have been curious about what Detroit is like. I am soooo bored living where I do. It's a nice 1/2 acre with trees, hill views and is far away from city lights so there is a decent view of the stars, but I love looking at architecture. As you probably remember, Texas is not known for it's architecture.
Rebekah, fish out of water.

Shadow of the Cathedral said...

Home doesn't sound so bad, girl. . . As for Houston, the city is noted for a constantly fluxing architecture that keeps with the innovative, rather than the lovely. . . Still not boring, though, lol.
Steven, Pestilential Nuisnace with a Fiddle.