One of the great parts of winter exploring is not knowing what is under all that snow.
The tallest point in the Packard automotive plant is the water tower, visible for miles around. We were told by “security” that the new owners of the property intend on preserving it, an engineering goal sure to be made more difficult since the all four of the tower’s legs have been severed by scrappers. Indeed, the weight of the whole tower rests on the concrete floor of the second story. Here it stands framed by debris, seen from the roof of a building on the north end of the complex.
Trees sprout from the crumbling Packard edifice; the General Motors headquarters looms victorious over its long-vanquished rival.
There is a cemetery just across the tracks to the west of the Packard plant, something which is often overlooked both literally and figuratively. Having consumed many Reese’s confections as a child and possessing the superior artistic acumen that comes with having a blog, I quickly descried two great things that go great together. Should I be accused of being maudlin, or of laying it on too thick, I will gladly stand those slings and arrows to bring you this, the photograph that goes to eleven. Ladies and gentlemen, kids in lycra capes and cheap eyeliner, I give you: gravestones as seen from inside a ruined factory.
There is something about crawling out of bed 15 minutes before we’re supposed to be leaving, grabbing my gear and heading out into the dark, bitter cold that I simply love. Well, not so much the cold part, screw that. I’m a bit of a not-a-morning-person who perversely loves mornings and tends to wake up early anyway. Tabula Rasa, on the other hand, is a not-a-morning-person who doesn’t wake up early and merely tolerates mornings. This had led to some disagreements as to what hour we leave on our trips. This time we compromised and I’m happy we did or our frostbite would have been worse.
It all paid off for us as we reached the third floor and the sun came over the horizon.
Someone remind me again why I think clambering through abandoned buildings is a good idea.
I have barely started editing my shots from Saturday, but it was fitting to start off with the beginning of our day: sunrise. I;m not sure if any of my shots will turn out to be memorable, but I won’t soon forget how really, really fucking cold it was.
It is in our nature as social creatures to attempt to seek out validation from people who’s opinion we agree with or esteem. The first gives us a feeling of social cohesion and familiarity and is one of the bases of good friendships, the second helps us strive to better ourselves and rise above our current level of personal achievements. However when the validation is offered from someone who is just looking to cage some cash or beer out of you the game changes.
This weekend Tabula Rasa and I packed up the car and headed for a very sort road trip to Detroit. More specifically, to say good-bye to the Packard Plant and get in one last explore, just in the off chance that the developer actually manages to pull the rehabilitation and resurrection of this magnificent edifice. Despite that fact that in some places only a single wall remains standing out of defiance.
Meeting us for the very first time was a friend of the blog, Holly. She had come in from the frosty land of Canada to the only slightly less frosty land of Michigan to join us on what is probably the last time we get to set foot in this place as a derelict. We met up at Detroit’s excellent Eastern Market and headed over to Packard while plotting the course of our day. Since we didn’t want to leave the car sitting out in the open upon our arrival we drove into one of the bays and hid it far out of sight. We then struck off toward the most westerly portion of the complex as we had never explored there before.
I’m not going to kid you, it was cold out. Something like lower teens to single digits and we were impossibly cold. It was to the point where Tabula Rasa was taking a moment here and there to run up and down the hall just to generate more heat. Holly was worried that she wasn’t going to be able to make it and I was right there with her. We decided that after 3 hours of this intense cold perhaps some breakfast and coffee and was in order.
On our way out of the the complex rather than crossing the streets through the plant by taking the walkways we chose to leave at ground level. This actually turned out to be to our good fortune as the security patrol saw us exiting the building. At first blush this seems like it might be a bad thing but the security guy’s first words of, “Tourists taking pictures huh? Where did you park?” reassured us. Sure! I’ve never been so happy to be thought of as a tourist! Once we explained that we hid the car the guard told us he had already called the police on trespassers, but that he would call them off. This is where we got our first word on the locals including the man who lives at the facility and a neighbor who gives “tours” for “tips”. Oh really?
We headed out for an excellent breakfast at Farmer’s Restaurant (again in Eastern Market, if you’re ever in Detroit this is a must-visit location) and this turned out to be just the thing we needed. 4 cups of coffee and a plate of french toast later we were warmed up and revitalized, ready to tackle the re-shoots and the rest of the complex which we still hadn’t seen.
As we arrived back at the complex we were greeted by the same security guard and “John”, the local who gives “tours”. After hitting us up for a “tip” he explained that he had met with Fernando, the buyer of the plant, and couldn’t let us inside the building with out escorting us because that would loose him his job. Because of liability. He had even shaken Fernando’s hand, they were best buds! After much round about discussion involving John invoking himself as the be all end all of allowing people inside he finally decided that we were “Good People” and he’d let us inside so long as we promised to stay off the roof as that is a particularly dangerous area, especially in the snow and ice. Several hours later we ran into him again and he once again reassured us that we were “Good People”; this after jokingly telling us that someone had stolen our car to which Tabua Rasa and I just shrugged and Holly rather cheerfully exclaimed, “It’s gonna be a long walk home!”.
At our final exit from the complex we ran into him one last time and he regaled us with stories about his great uncle (or some such) who used to work for the Purple Gang and had a hand in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It is relevant, see, because we’re from Chicago and it is Valentine’s weekend! He reassured us several more times that we’re “Good People” and that is why he let us in to the building unshepherded, and then pointed out it would be really nice if we were like the other people that had just pulled up and handed him a couple tall cans of beer. *sigh*
For what ever reason John decided that he wasn’t going to harass us the whole time we were there, and for that I am profoundly thankful. I don’t think that I could have survived 5 hours of his stories, tall tales, bad jokes and whatever else he had to throw at us without demonstrating that I am not always a “Good Person”.
On the other hand we had with us the the most enthusiastic cheerleader/fellow photographer we could ask for and I am very happy that she could join us on our adventure through this most massive, magnificent ruin before it (hopefully) is turned into a vital and functioning part of the neighborhood. As much as I love wandering this place with my camera I know that restoration or full demolition is the best option for the people and the city itself. Detroit is beginning to revive and heal itself after so many decades of misery and neglect and I wish them nothing but the very best in their efforts. I hope that they are able to preserve and restore the fabulous heritage of architecture they have so the coming generations can know these places as something whole and beautiful rather than as a symbol of neglect and suffering.
Sometimes I take a photo that I really hope will come out well but am convinced that I am just wasting my time at. Both of these images are exactly that. In the case of the arch and vaulted ceiling I was battling the annoying dust inside of my lens that tends to show up quite well when the light hits it at a certain angle. Of course, the ideal angle here was exactly the one which would show the most lens dust. After I don’t know how long shooting angle after angle of this little alcove I came up with the arch detail which you’ve all already seen but failed to show off the vaulted ceiling.
Then I found this little alcove on the opposite side of the altar (or stage, as I tend to think of it). I had to do a quick clean up of the floor, which is something I rarely ever bother with, but in this case I just couldn’t leave it. I was convinced that this shot was going to fail horribly but liked the idea so much I spent a good 10 minutes fussing about with it even after Tabula Rasa said he was ready to go. I’m glad I did too, because it is on the top my list of personal favorites for the whole trip.
I have a confession here, I had a really hard time admitting that I really like this shot. Normally I’ll avoid mentioning which photos of mine I like the best, because in my experience the ones I like the most are not the most popular shots among my viewers. Indeed I often find the shots I like the least get the most attention and I’m pretty sure that there is a trope for that, Old Shame is the closest thing I found to though given that it is the context of early work versus older it doesn’t quite fit. In the case of this trip the one photo people have consistently given an overwhelming positive response to is the water tower reflection[ on the rooftop puddle, and I actually really dislike that shot. A lot. Don’t ask me why because that is just how it is.
IP may have a bit more to share, but I will close out my contributions to the Detroit series with a look at some of the more “conventionally” pretty parts of the city. Though the gritty and the abandoned were our primary focus during our visit, there is more to the city than that. Not that Detroit’s reputation for blight is undeserved; entire swaths of the town have a post-apocalyptic look. But there are areas where, if you squint a bit, you can see the Motown of the 1950’s in all its glory. Those areas provide hope for the future: redevelopment and gentrification, though dirty words in some cities, may be the key to bringing the affluent back from the suburbs. Lest this come off too much like a neat little bow with which to tie up a photo series, I’ll add that it’ll take a lot more than nostalgia and hipsters to bring back Detroit. There will certainly be painful fiscal decisions, the recent municipal bankruptcy being perhaps the first. It may never come back, or at least not as the industrial juggernaut of the last century. But I love gritty American cities which are so unlike cities elsewhere, with their steel, glass and brick downtowns on display like a peacock’s fan; the ten-lane highways which seem like canyons; the neighborhoods which become home to a new ethnicity each generation; and the now rusted and neglected industries which propelled this nation to superpower status almost a century ago. Unlike some cities which grew up later and became nothing more than faceless sprawl (hello, Phoenix), these older towns have a character you can feel just by driving their streets. And none of these are more American than Detroit.
Goodnight, and good luck.
We really didn’t spend enough time in this location, perhaps in part because it was so close to where our car had been broken into the day before and we were feeling a little jumpy. We even went so far as to park inside of the building but still, paranoia is a powerful thing. Perhaps if it is still there next time we go to Detroit we’ll take a bit more time to wander properly as it really is a weird maze of building and there are a couple of smaller areas we never made it to.
Standing near the complex in Tabula Rasa’s last post was the old power plant that once served the factory. It was not totally barren inside, the ivy had made great headway across the floor.
The single most remarkable aspect of this building was the amazing light contrast between rooms.
A couple shots from the roof of the odd, castlelike factory in which the hallway shot from a couple posts ago was taken. In much the same way as Kafka’s novel The Castle is… well, Kafkaesque, such was the layout of this building. At one point, the Idiot Photographer was a floor above me, and called for me to join her. After much wandering, I was unable to find access to the next floor, became convinced the floor did not actually exist, and that my friend was quite possibly a figment of my imagination. All that was missing was a couple Czech bureaucrats to materialize and serve me with a summons for a vague and undefined crime. *sigh*
The rooftop was quite nice though. Once I found it.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of abandoned schools are the murals left behind on the walls. In the case of Best Academy, the hospital turned school, there were only three. First we have the the mascot, which is the most sheepish looking “fierce” bulldog I’ve ever seen.
Down another hall was a reminder that dreams can become reality. I was also a little ashamed that I can only identify a couple of these people.
But the one that made me smile the most and the saddest was this.
(feel free to enhance your enjoyment of this post with a suitable soundtrack by clicking here.)
On Detroit’s east side, just off Jefferson Avenue, we found a curious old plant. The ground floor was crisscrossed with dead end hallways, and the roof was so covered with sheds and outcroppings as to give the entire structure the appearance of a castle. This is an HDR shot of one of the few hallways that had a way out at the end.
Blown out windows, trash, ruin, but brand new condos visible in the window. Detroit is weird.
I had a really hard time placing how long ago Chandler was shut down. It was very obviously an elementary school and oddly enough I suspect it was closed because it was too small for the neighborhood’s needs. Just up the next block a shiny new elementary school had a teeming play lot full of shouting, shrieking little humans enjoy recess. It made for an odd experience; hearing the sounds of children playing while wandering a trashed and abandoned school.
The room in the building we explored was the gym, with climbing ropes still intact. It actually took a little doing to find it, as it was tucked away behind the main building and connected by a neglected hall. We actually made it down to the basement first where we found more evidence that overcrowding was an issue here as several basement rooms had been converted to classroom use. But the gym was still more interesting, as while I’ve seen some massive floor failures before this one was the most interesting.
Like most of our Detroit finds we found this school simply by driving past it. Where the last school building I posted about was pretty wrecked and had been emptied of most everything this one still had a lot of books and supplies that had been left behind. More importantly, there was very little graffiti here and there murals were almost untouched.
One thing I loved about this building was that they never installed drop ceilings here. Too often these older buildings get infested with drop ceilings because it is slightly more expensive to heat a room this tall, but Chandler School never did.
One of the weirdest features of this elementary school were the leather bound doors to the class rooms. It is one of those things that you don’t expect to see, much to see so many of them in fairly decent condition. They had to be original to the building which just makes it all the more impressive to me.
Same location as Idiot Photographer’s previous post. Judging by the aluminum and cinder block design, I’d guess it was built sometime around the 1960’s. Not an exceptional find, but it did have the feel of a sci-fi movie set in places.
I can only imagine the lurid fascination with which the schoolkids must have regarded the derelict hospital adjacent to their classrooms. Reality seldom compares to teenage fantasy, but should any kids have sneaked into the hospital, they would not have been disappointed in what they saw.
Sometimes we come across a location that seems like it is full of promise and we walk away with next to nothing, this building was one of those. It was very obviously a school of fairly modern construction and it had been beaten to hell in the time that it has been closed, walls were torn down, doors were totally gone, spiders had spun massive webs across the hallways and there was very little of actual interest to be found. On one level this is somewhat hilarious, because a couple of years ago we would have been thrilled to find a location like this. Now that we’re a little more experienced we were disappointed. However I did find one thing that justified our time in this building.
In the auditorium the glass wall and windows were destroyed long ago, nature’s hand has reached in to pull the tiles loose from the floor and in some places turn individual tiles into little islands of moss. Some of the more ambitious islands are sprouting a few weeds too.
I find moss endlessly fascinating, and I cannot fathom why it has so wholeheartedly taken over only a select few tiles while leaving almost all of the rest pristine. Nature
As our fellow blogger Sometimes Interesting has documented extensively in Gary, Indiana, urban decay is a slow process. Rarely do buildings just go dark overnight; more often a succession of tenants come through after the original. Grand edifices get repurposed towards ever more menial ends until finally the lights go off for good. Never was this dynamic more vividly on display than in Highland Park, an independent enclave which lies completely within Detroit. Upon first inspection, we thought it must be an abandoned hospital.
So we were surprised to see all the trappings of a school upon entering. It was a school, but it had been a hospital. Classrooms were walled off; all the hoses, fittings and plugs which typically line hospital rooms were simply drywalled over. Very often, however, the original purpose showed through all too clearly, as in this nurses’ station cum teacher’s resource center.
There was an entire wing of the building, which the school had bricked up access to, that remained hospital. Your intrepid explorers did find a way in, however. Pictures of that will come next.
A collection of violin cases strewn about the floor of Chandler Elementary in Detroit, with the instruments themselves nowhere to be found.