When I was seven years old my mother, ignoring my protests, packed me into the station wagon and drove downtown to the Detroit Institute of Art where I proceeded to vomit on the marble floor. I blamed my sick stomach on a sculpture, but it was more likely the stack of pancakes she fed me for breakfast. I tried to work the timing in my favor.
Looking back, I’m not certain why I dreaded the trip, although I’m inclined to think it was the dreary downtown and not the museum that I abhorred. The DIA was a 20-minute drive from our house, but the sprawling city felt a world away. To get there we would drive down Woodward Avenue, which is a more memorable route than the alternative of I-75, but in no way scenic. The first intersection we crossed was Ten Mile Road, where a pristine new highway was being built for the convenience of suburban dwellers like us; then Nine Mile where the houses were still quaint, but smaller; Eight Mile, ruled by strip clubs and gas stations; Seven Mile, lined with carwashes and churches; Six Mile boasting motels with color TVs; and Davison, where a historic marker indicates an empty factory with glassless windows, the birthplace of the first Model T. Woodward extends a few more miles until it reaches the Detroit River, but our stop, the museum, interrupted our passage into the main business district and the subsequent bridge to Windsor, Ontario. We parked the car before colliding with the skyline, and entered the museum, an imposing building preceded by tiny steps and massive columns.
Growing up I knew a few things about my family’s history in Detroit, but these anecdotes felt distant, yarns that had unraveled in an ancient time, on foreign soil. My impression of the city was more sullied, especially in relation to my hometown, a picturesque northern suburb filled with beautiful homes and well-manicured lawns. My siblings and I spent our summers swimming at the public pool across the street, playing in the softball league, and attending Tuesday night concerts in the park where one could rent roller skates from a special truck and suck Flavor Ices from their plastic tubes. Detroit seemed to exist in a world apart. Aside from the few trips to the art museum and the theatres, my family rarely ventured from the suburbs.
And so my fascination with Detroit did not begin until the summer I turned 22 when on a whim I accepted an internship with Metro Times. I had just graduated with a degree in musical theatre and because I could no longer see myself as an actress I figured I could at least put my knowledge of the arts to use by slaving at a weekly paper. Also, my boyfriend of one year, Eric, lived downtown while he attended college and this would create a chance to see him more often.
Twice a week, I drove my mom’s minivan down I-75 which quickly catapulted me into the urban hub. When I emerged from the freeway, gone were the sprinklered lawns of Huntington Woods and in their place stood a city besieged by concrete, rambling pavement, neglected roadwork, drivers who did not obey traffic signals because cops were preoccupied by worse offenses. After having now seen places like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, I was awed by this discarded metropolis, mesmerized by the desertion and decay. The naked storefronts, tiny dive bars, empty Peoplemover trains that wove atop the city looked like remnants of a bygone era.
My first assignment was to write an Abandoned Structure Squad article, a recurring news item fondly known as ASS. The text was to profile any empty urban building of my choosing and to reveal—in 250 words or less—the nature of its distress.
Though the purpose of the feature was never explicitly stated, I sensed a twofold reason: to reprimand the city council for its lackadaisical approach to demolishing dangerous half-buildings and—perhaps more importantly—to challenge the stereotype of Detroit’s worthlessness. Yes, there are empty, battered, and damaged buildings, it affirmed. But each one has a story; each one had thrived at some point. Detroit, ASS reminded suburbanites, was once home to twice its current population. Its basic source of misery is not crime, not a corrupt infrastructure, not a faulty education system, as people have alleged. It is your absence that has caused it to suffer.
The first shelter I chose was an empty corner store in a forlorn section of the Cass Corridor. It often caught my eye, not because of its vacancy—a common trait on this block—but because of its departed charm and slightly nautical exterior. The day I chose to investigate was damp and overcast. Since the structure lacked a door I walked right inside. Various debris thickly coated the ground (cardboard boxes, soggy newspapers, the bottom half of a toilet) and the access to direct sunlight—caused by a mostly missing roof—had nourished an army of plants, some stretching taller than my five-foot frame.
Through public records, I learned that the structure was built in 1925, owned by the city, and had not been inhabited for 20 years. John Thompson, the owner of Honest John’s bar down the street and a lifelong resident of the block told me he remembered the store as Rollo’s Confectionary. “It was a piece of art,” John told me. “A great little corner store” with a long bar, eight or nine seats, and an oak magazine rack. “It was where we all went to get our ice cream.”
When I saw my words in print a thrill went through me. In writing about 3912 Third Street I had called its waning form to life, interlacing myself into the fabric of my ancestral home.
The second structure I profiled was solicited to Metro Times by its owner, Saneetha Satterwhite. Nearing her retirement, Saneetha had been looking forward to refurbishing and moving into her frail Victorian home ever since she bought it three years ago. But the city, she told me, had done everything short of bulldozing the property to force her to abandon the project. Demolition notices (some that cited “neglect”) had made it impossible to proceed with the clean-up. The singling out was ridiculous, she noted, considering the two houses across from it had not been targeted for wrecking even though they were completely unfit for living. Her insistence on living there stunned me, until she began to describe the interior artifacts — marble-tiled mantles and stained-glass windows. From the street, I would never have guessed at these treasures but, as with most of Detroit’s wasting architecture, there was more there than initially met the eye.
My favorite ASS project was a three-story house on Eliot, not too far from the DIA. The structure was perched on several thin columns of cinder blocks and was seemingly vacant, although on my second visit I discovered a contractor around back. He told me that the house had been deposited on the lot twelve years prior and the city was just beginning to pay to restore the groundwork. Hoisting me inside, the builder showed me the chipped tile floors, peeling sheets of pastel paint, and flat wooden cabinetry. By the time we reached the top floor a slanted window frame confirmed my suspicion that the house sloped to the right.
In December, a few months after my internship ended, I moved downtown. My parents, having read my Abandoned Structure stories, were less than thrilled. Even Eric thought it was a bad idea. “You will hate it,” he said. “There’s no shopping, not even a decent grocery store. Every time you need something you have to drive to the suburbs.” I didn’t care. I rented the upstairs flat of a dilapidated home in the historic district of Woodbridge with two girls I barely knew; my share of the rent was $250.
Detroit is not a pedestrian town; every site must be driven to and every destination predetermined. One can see why visitors consider it vacant. But once the city has taken you into its confidence and revealed its haunts, the experience is even more satisfying than if glistening storefronts had advertised their treasures upfront. My favorite places were these: the Magic Stick, a large and dingy hangout with black-and-white tiled floors, pool tables, bowling lanes, and live music; Jacobys, a German pub where a lanky, ponytailed man in his fifties called himself Stirling Silver and often booked Eric’s band; Eastern Market, the 200-year-old open-air farmers’ stalls surrounded by fish and poultry stores and old-time candy shops. These unexpected spots of commerce warmed me with their friendly interiors and increasingly familiar faces; but I also found beauty in the city’s desolation.
During the summer I liked to drive through Rivertown, a collection of narrow pebbled streets harboring rows of low buildings along the water. The area used to be a warehouse district, but now most of the structures are bare inside. The absence of life gives the streets a ghostly feel, but one that is comforting in its quietude. I also enjoyed the sight of the old train station, also known as The Michigan Central Railroad Station, a gaping building designed in the Beaux Art style. The heavily vandalized exterior did not extinguish its grandeur, and though it was not on the way to any other place I went regularly, I sought it out from time to time.
Working in Detroit was yet another novelty. To sustain my (cheap) standard of living I worked as a waitress at Sweet Lorraine’s, a new restaurant in the Marriott Hotel, across from the Renaissance Center and Hart Plaza. I remember the first person I trained there, a pretty woman named Alicia who told me she previously worked as a dancer. “Oh cool,” I responded. “I was a dancer in college too; I majored in theatre. I’ve actually been tapping since I was nine.” When she responded to my naiveté, her laughter was warm and generous.
My working life imparted grimmer episodes as well. On the Fourth of July I joined our patrons on the hotel rooftop to watch the fireworks. When we returned to the dining room the TV reported that during the explosions a gunman had wounded nine people in Hart Plaza, 400 yards away. In the weeks afterward people talked about the attack as a fluke—a tenuous attitude to uphold in a city where gunfire is not too unique.
But not every startling moment was due to tragedy. Later in the summer I waited on a young couple from Ohio who had come to Detroit for “vacation”; when I handed them the check, the man’s request for directions prompted a chuckle.
“There isn’t a movie theatre in Detroit,” I had to admit. “The closest one is at the mall in Dearborn. If you take the freeway it’s about 20 minutes.”
The couple looked stunned. “Well, what’s a good area for strolling?” he asked.
If these people knew I lived downtown voluntarily they would have labeled me crazy. What would I have answered? That I loved the virtual smallness of this big city? I did. I loved knowing the twists and turns of the streets, and where the hidden gems were, like the restaurants of Mexicantown, where my friends and I might be the only white people eating burritos and drinking margaritas. Or the vacant lot across from my house—so dense with foliage that you couldn’t wade in more than a few yards. And the Motown Historical Museum, where Eric and I sang the tunes of The Supremes and The Temptations in the very studio in which those voices were immortalized. I loved Detroit. Loved its grit and dirty fingernails, its secret hiding places, and hidden pockets. Trailing through its confines was like returning to the arms of a lost lover, stumbling over the nooks and crannies of a body at once familiar and foreign.
And then, after eight months, I left. No permanent position had opened up at Metro Times as I had hoped, and I felt pressured—by my parents, my upbringing, and myself—to seek a more financially promising life. Eric and I broke up, at least for the time being, and I applied for another internship, this one at Marie Claire in New York. When they offered me the spot, I was so shocked I hardly had time to think before I packed my things and moved.
Two years later, I live on the Upper East Side. I generally enjoy the hustled pace of my new life, but on occasion I feel weighted with the feeling that accompanies desertion, with the knowledge that my departing footsteps traced a timeworn path.