Respectful Insolence

After having been bummed out at the invasion of faith healing and quackery in my hometown newspaper I came to something that bummed me out even more. Most readers here have probably never heard of the Michigan Central Station train depot. Suffice it to say that it is a huge train station that was, in its heyday at least, every bit as impressive as Grand Central Station in New York or Union Station in Chicago. Indeed, it’s not for nothing that the Michigan Central Station was likened to “Michigan’s Ellis Island,” as it was frequently the first thing in Detroit that new arrivals saw, as this article that appeared in the same issue of the Free Press as the faith healing and detox stories describes:

Generations of Detroiters arrived at the Michigan Central Station in southwest Detroit: African Americans from the Deep South; Poles, Romanians and Hungarians from Eastern Europe; Lebanese and Syrians from the Middle East.

The depot’s once-grand lobby, built in 1913, was their first glimpse of Detroit, a sure sign that their lives had changed forever. The empty, elegant ruin once hummed with people who walked on marble floors under gold-plated chandeliers. This is sullied but sacred ground.

“It’s our Ellis Island,” said Shaun Nethercott, who lives a mile from the depot and is the founder and executive director of Matrix Theatre Co. on Bagley.

Now, in its desolation, the depot has become a tourist magnet, attracting thousands of photographers. Is it poverty porn that draws them, or a real thirst to understand?

I’d say it’s probably both. In the more than twenty years since the Michigan Central Station closed, the building has deteriorated to, in essence, urban ruins. Thanks to politics and neglect, the once beautiful building is now a disintegrating shell stripped to the bone by looters and vandals, its wall defaced by decades of graffiti. Both options, renovation and restoration or demolition, have thus far been too expensive and/or too politically difficult, and now it’s a blight that threatens the renaissance of the surrounding neighborhood, as this companion story shows, along with this brief video:


Compare these photos, along with an interactive exterior and interior photoshow, taken recently, to the grandeur revealed in these photos from 1982 and these old postcards. Once, Michigan Central was a bustling train station. Now it’s nothing more than the most impressive and at the same time sad example of what has been termed The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit or Forgotten Detroit. It also serves as a reminder of how fast nature, neglect, and the malign intent of looters can destroy a once awesome structure.

Still, I like to have some hope. After all, look at these pictures of the historic Book-Cadillac Hotel, which show it to have been in almost as bad a shape as Michigan Central Station. The Book Cadillac was underwent a $200 million renovation and reopened last year. It is now a thing of beauty. I only hope it can make enough of a profit not to return to ruin.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymous
    April 27, 2009

    Matty Moroun will let the station be torn down before he will allow anyone to dictate its use to him – I worked at his company for 10 years and his ego drives him to take satisfaction at destruction before giving up any of his (extremely wealthly Republican) rights.

  2. #2 Ray
    April 27, 2009

    I was in the station on the last day it was open, to see the last train leave. Then they booted us out and chained the doors and that was it. It was tragic to see its dramatic decline over the next several years afterward.

    How cool would it be as a police headquarters! And as such it would certainly spur development on that side of town, too.

  3. #3 kelebek
    April 27, 2009

    Which version of the 10 Commandments do they want posted?

    I know that the typical protestant versions that I see are not the same as those I learned in Catholic Grade School (that are in the Catholic Catechism).

    Rumor is that there is a Jewish version, too, but I am not familiar with it or how commonplace it is.

    I just want to know, whose version of the 10 Commandments do they think should be posted, and, after chosing that version, how can they say with a straight face that they are not preferring one religion over another?

    And how can the Catholic Church sit back and allow it to go on? In fact, I have seen cases where the Catholic Church is supporting 10 Commandment displays, despite the fact that the 10 commandments to be posted do not agree with the church teaching!!!!

    Remember: the first amendment protects religions from each other as it does from non-believers (probably more, even)

  4. #4 Jamie
    April 27, 2009

    Hey at least they used it as a backdrop for the big building in Transformers (the one Sam has to run to to save the cube).

  5. #5 Janne
    April 27, 2009

    I don’t think it’s either “poverty porn” or a desire to understand. Photography is a hobby of mine too, and I believe the fascination has a different origin.

    A finished, working building is difficult to create a good, creative photograph. The building is set up exactly according to the architect’s vision and the users’ needs, and all you really can do is to document it. It’s like taking a picture of a painting – nice, but the contents, the creativity, are due to the painter, not the photographer.

    A ruin – or a building under construction – is different. The intent and the original vision is subverted. You have the human elements of the building, but remixed and altered by the decay into something original and rather more interesting. And of course there’s more than a bit of the thrill of really seeing time passing, and evoke that feeling of “in the end, all is dust”. It’s a best-of of the human world and the natural one. People are fascinated by abandoned cars, scrap heaps and landfills, ship salvage yards and the like for the same reason.

  6. #6 DLC
    April 27, 2009

    Hm. buildings like that should be preserved.
    Detroit no longer has passenger train service ?
    Phoenix AZ hasn’t either. You have to take a bus to another town and pick up the train there. it’s so massively inconvenient that only dedicated, hard-core aerophobics or train buffs will bother with it.
    It’s too bad. as the price of fuel goes up and the cost of air travel goes with it, high speed rail could be useful.

  7. #7 Dawn
    April 28, 2009

    @DLC: Detroit has very weird train service. I can’t get home to Detroit from the East coast unless I a)get off in Toledo, OH and take a bus or get family to pick me up OR b) stay on the train to CHICAGO and then go back east to Detroit. Istn’t easy either way (and adding the Chicago-back-to-Detroit adds a lot of travel time) so I either drive or fly. Trust me, if I could take the train, I would. I really hate to fly…

  8. #8 Jamie
    April 28, 2009

    @Dawn: There is a train station in Dearborn, not far from downtown.

  9. #10 Mindy
    April 28, 2009

    Someone you know shows up briefly in this report on the subject:

    http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/dpp/news/local/Some_Want_Old_Train_Depot_Saved

  10. #11 Dawn
    April 28, 2009

    @Jamie…I know, but you can’t get there without going to Chicago, at least from the East Coast, via Amtrak.

  11. #12 Lee Fleming
    April 28, 2009

    What a pity to see this go. I remember going with my dad there on Sundays in the 60s to buy the out-of-town newspapers such as the New York Times — it was exotic to this Downriver girl and made me dream of the adventures I would have when I could travel by train. I did finally travel back home via train from Grand Central Station in the mid-80s, but by that time my arrival was in Dearborn (after changing trains in Toledo) and not at this station.

    My brother worked on renovating the Book Cadillac until he became too ill to continue. There were a lot of other demo workers who also became ill while working on the B-C. Don’t know if their illnesses were the result of the crap they encountered while ripping down walls and ceilings or not — OSHA investigated but findings were inconclusive. My brother is still sick, but recovering.

  12. #13 Orac's Mom
    April 28, 2009

    Orac, Anonymous’ comment (above) is absolutely correct. Matty Maroun has actually had possession of the train station since 1988 if not legal ownership. The former owner couldn’t pay his bill and I believe Matty got the station (if memory serves) for around $88,000. As one of the founding members of the New Friends of the Michigan Central Depot, I can confirm what Anonymous tells us about Mr. Maroun. He’s a billionaire and very powerful. All he’s had to do is to sit on the property and do nothing. We tried for nine years to get him to work with us to no avail. We were never able to meet with him directly – we could only reach him through his representatives.

    One thing that is not widely known is that there are tracks leading from the station under the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada used for freight trains. They could just as easily be used for passenger trains. The station is a designated historical site. It would cost in the neighborhood of $6 million to demolish it. There are multiple basements as well as the 18-story office tower.

    The building would be a wonderful terminal for the proposed high-speed rail coming to the Midwest. I hope there is someone out there with a vision who is capable of circumventing Matty’s money and power and can accomplish what we never could.

  13. #14 Flex
    April 28, 2009

    FWIW,

    I’ve heard that the Woodward light rail project has gotten the green light from the state, as well as some funding. I’m no longer living in Oakland county though, so I may be wrong about it.

    I’m in the Ann Arbor area, so I know a little more about the plans in this region. There is a plan to run a commuter train into Detroit from Ann Arbor, stopping at Ypsilanti, Willow Run and a couple other communities in Wayne Co. Regrettably it will not run by Metro Airport, and for awhile at least there will be only bus service from the nearest train station.

    In addition, there is a light rail planned along a north-south route through Ann Arbor. These are private investors who have already purchased most of the right of way to Brighton and Howell. The long term plan for this track is to run from Toledo to Petoskey. So there will be a way to go from Detroit to points east without having to go through Chicago.

    Eventually.

  14. #15 Dawn
    April 28, 2009

    @Flex…well, I will live in hope that it happens! I’d love to have some additional options on ways to get home to the Detroit area!