I recently took another trip to Detroit.
I went mostly for a show, but I also went partly to again satisfy the compulsion to visit a city to which I am drawn, and do so right now, at this time of year – in that nook, for me, between a birthday and a Christmas.
I drove there from Chicago.
It’s a fairly short drive – a shorter drive than a ride, time-wise. When you go by car, you can do it in just a bit over four hours and under five, unless you stop, as I did, for provisions along the way.
I get in around dusk, wrapping around the city by way of highway, pulling into a stretch of industrial badlands and making at least half a dozen wrong turns – some mis-marked, some misguided by Google maps, some throughways blocked by way of chain link fence or concrete barricade – to make my way to the renovated warehouse in which I’m staying. It’s just four blocks south of Corktown proper, but forced to gauge by landscape and the route required to reach retail or restaurants, it might as well be miles.
It’s a five-minute walk to the nearest indication of active civilization – a gas station in one direction; an old-school dive bar, equestrian-themed, in the other. Just north, though, is Corktown. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Detroit and still boasts a community who cares, evident in the string of half a dozen restaurants like a few beads, sparse but settled on one end of a bracelet. A wine bar, where I order a local a beer – a Mercury – and a burger bar by the same name.
Later, I have cocktails in a lounge with “sugar” in the name and heads of dead animals on its walls, the antlers of one deer bedazzled in red ornament balls. They’ve got a drink made with Laphroaig, but I want something “clean” as much as I want something strong, so the waiter brings gin, which is fitting.
In the morning, I get up early and I don’t feel well – I’m a little hungover, maybe, from last night. Certainly dehydrated, in the very least. And I came down with a pretty bad cold two days ago, and it still hangs on me little in shreds of cloth in the way colds do. Despite these things, though, I put my coat on – the long, knee-length down one that every girl in Chicago seems to own – and go out into the morning.
Everything is washed in gray and brown.
All around me, nothing but the gray-white of sky, the gray-brown of a huge span of road stretched out in either direction at the ends of my fingertips at the ends of my arms, the grayness of the warehouses, bits and pieces of chain link fence, the occasional car.
I set out on foot. I want a walk.
I turn right and head northeast, headed toward downtown Detroit without ever intending to reach it.
I can be against a thing or be away from it, but I can’t have it both ways, can’t exist easily in the in-between.
Though I have heard that others can live like this, there is no world in which I, myself, can exist pressed up against a thing but not care what happens to it or what it does to me; I cannot lean against a matter or a mass and not care if it steps aside or falls around me.
For me, too many shifts and too many demands to allow the thing to go on shifting, means I must move away – must recreate equilibrium by way of distance.
A ways off, I run my eyes over the shape of Detroit’s downtown as a whole, pressing the bodies of its buildings together and holding it as a creature. Some great hulk of a thing – something breathing, however faintly.
A great, lumbering animal – a cow, perhaps. A bison. A bull. Downed, its hindquarters on one side, its front legs braced forward in front of it.
It strains against its own weight, pressing hooves into the ground in front of it, trying to heave itself up.
After a moment of struggle, it pauses, falls back a little.
Its breath heaves hot, ballooning clouds against the winter air, and I watch as they dissipate quickly around its body.
Its eyes roll around suddenly, seeing me, and for a moment, I see the flicker of white – terror from its predicament or my presence or both, I’m not sure, but terror, undeniably – bright white slivers set off against the gray-white backdrop of the cold.
I am aware of my own breath, then, soft on the air in front of me; quiet, subdued; my resting heart rate, and as I watch the animal, I envelope its panic; its struggle; absorb some of its energy into my own; offer some of mine in return.
I can’t go any closer than this; there’s nothing I could do even if I could.
I can only stand and offer this; only watch as the animal finally rolls on to one great, broad shoulder; I imagine the hairs of its smooth coat now pressed in the wrong direction in places beneath it, and watch as its head gently follows; this tremendous skull dropped to the earth out in front of its mass.
Its breath still billowing cloud against the cold.
I took I-94 to get here, and for the latter part of that route, as you get closer to the city and just before you hit downtown, there are skylines of factories along the highway, their silhouettes marked by great pillars capped in tremendous billows – great bodies of cloud that rise up off of the pillars and into the air; bodies both fragile and delicate; venomous and harsh.
I entered the city and drove by this just after twilight, the city only newly subdued to dark, the horizon jagged and jutting with blocks and lines – smokestack castles built of concrete – everything cast in uplit amber yellow. But there at the crest of each pillar, against the dark, whole herds of white bisons rising, expanding, overtaking the sky. And as I drove, I couldn’t help but glance over, willing the beasts to overtake me, so consumed was I by the intricate lacework, balloons building one on top of another; an expanding ghost; a dance.
Michigan Central Station is one of Detroit’s most iconic buildings – a heaving bulk of a building; a massive behemoth of a structure on what’s otherwise a developmental “plain;” an unapologetic beast of an animal laying claim over the west side of Detroit.
Michigan Central Station was Detroit’s passenger train station from its opening in 1913 until the cessation of service on January 6, 1988. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest rail station in the world. It’s now a shell of its former self – you can see the sky on the other side, through its upper story windows, and yet it remains rooted to the earth, solid, square, miles from the city proper.
I notice, driving up to it, that “they” – someone – put Christmas decorations on its lower floor windows, whose glass is broken out.
This is sort of awesome.
Kind of like putting a bow on a cow carcass.
I have gone to Eastern Market every time I have gone to Detroit, and each time I do, I always mean to make my way over to the other side of the highway – that being Fisher Freeway, I guess, technically, though it drops off just after this crossing, dumping the flow of traffic onto Gratiot, which flows into and out of downtown.
I wander over there this time, headed toward two big, concrete buildings – “Capital Chicken Factory” and “Gratiot Central Market.” It’s the former that snags my attention, but it’s the latter that’s actually open, so that’s where I head.
It’s largely a meat market – a huge, long, wide aisle with display cases of marbled red on either side. The cuts are neither packaged nor distinctly separated; instead, there are only mounds of meat; portions piled one on top of the other – one continuous body along the building. In one section, pounds of raw chicken wings – the pile of these alone wider than my arm span. Signage indicates that they are separated by size, but to me their lines run together, and they all look the same. In other cases, stacks upon stacks of beef, running together but transitioning in shapes and marble; were it not for the occasional plastic sign marking type and price, I’m not sure I’d know one cut from the next. Between cuts, in the low places where meat has been bought, there are little pools of pink liquid collecting.
The place doesn’t smell like much of anything, except that it smells slightly of cleaning agents – astringent barbs in the air – which suppress any appetite I might have otherwise had.
As it is, I don’t eat the things that are sold here. So instead, I see them almost as raw materials – a display of texture and color. The way in which one might eye a stack of fabric bolts or a mound of ore.
But all of this is apparently discernible to the buyers who crowd the aisle; in particular, those people pressed in pockets around different displays, their attention directed at the men who rush back and forth on the other side.
The men seem to have a feel for the crowd, scanning over it with a look of certainty, never a look of disorientation or searching, let alone resentment or reluctance, as you sometimes see with bad bartenders. They move from customer to customer calling – shouting, almost, though it’s not marked in aggression – above the crowd to ask “who’s next?,” but even as they do so, they seem to already know – seem to target one individual wholly – landing eye contact squarely on someone as though they already knew; asking instead for validation – or perhaps a protest. But their feel for the bodies before them must be close enough because, despite the chaos and the crowd, nobody within it ever objects to the order in which they are helped.
It reminds me a bit of Pike’s Place. Except mounds of meat instead of fish… and far fewer tourists. Less photography. More genuine; more grit.
The men move from customer to customer, taking their order, and rushing to the display to run their hands over the meat, grabbing several sausages at a time or scooping out ground meat by the pound with a paddle and, as a quick continuation of a single motion, twirl; twist; and tie the bulk up in plastic. There is a confidence in all of this; a composure and control amidst the chaos; a quiet strength; a choreography; a solid, certain energy at the hub of the buzz.
Sweat gathers at the edges of their temples.
And it’s all incredibly sexy.
The show I saw was at the Masonic Temple – an incomprehensibly huge building (there are 1,037 rooms, and it originally housed two separate theatres, a barber shop, shoe shine parlor, 15 bowling lanes, a bakery, a billiards room, a gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool. The roof alone is 80,000 square feet – or roughly two acres.)
The sheer size of the space was enough to lure me away from the show’s headliner, and I spent a portion of the show roaming the building, slipping from one room to the next, moving through a seemingly endless network of sprawling ballrooms and French doors, until the eeriness of the floorplan and lighting combined finally, sufficiently creeped me out, and I made my way back, inadvertently taking a different way, at times finding myself now trapped behind glass, much to the surprise and dismay of other show-goers.
The Michigan Building was a theatre too, once.
Built in 1926, the theater’s construction cost $5 million (equivalent to $62 million in 2008), and with a seating capacity of 4050, the concert hall/movie house was one of the largest in Michigan. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the theater changed ownership several times and served a wide variety of purposes, including concert venue and nightclub. The theater ceased operations in 1976 after operating as a nightclub named The Michigan Palace. After the closure, office tenants threatened to leave unless they received adequate parking. To retain the tenants, building owners complied, gutting the theatre and outfitting the space with ramps of concrete.
It’s closed right now, even as a parking lot – presumably for some sort of renovations (huge, story-high panels of its exterior missing), presumably following its recent acquisition by a new owner last fall.
It reminds me a little more of the Packard Plant, its campus, buildings collectively totaling 3.5 million square feet, by far the most behemoth of them all.
Both the Michigan Building and the Packard Plant, like so many other bodies dropped along the Detroit landscape, mere skeletons of their former selves.
Not only gutted but stripped at the casing.
There is something sort of exquisite and captivating about carcasses – I think not only of the carcass of a cow, but the carcass of other animals, too – those we eat, and those that are more commonly eaten by other animals, or perhaps not really eaten at all.
You come upon a dead bird while walking – something large but not a bird of prey; perhaps a vulture – and you see its body wretched, torn, and mangled in the dirt, and something about this scenario strikes you somewhere; snags your attention. The ligaments of its wings exposed, the bones now a weathered off-white, feathers a delicate sculpture of fanned gray. And in the middle, a tangled mass, a shine – parts of a being not meant to be exposed. You can’t help but pause, look it over, and your gaze rakes over the details, gets caught on the rough lines and obscure edges.
And there you’re held captive.
We consume these sort of things.
We consume the patterns of red marble and red brick even without eating it; swallow in the imagery of imperfection in tremendous gulps, insatiable in our desire to devour and rebuild upon decay. One does not argue that the appeal or attraction of the carcass – our attraction to it – is based on conventional aesthetics; based on the way we capture “beauty” in our textbooks. Rather, it digs at something deeper – sinks its teeth and nails and jagged edges into our skin and draws us toward it; holds us close in sheer proximity. We’re caught in it, snared, unable or unwilling to turn away.
This sort of thing is fodder; it is fuel. We respond so strongly to this imagery because the artist in us, I think, sees it for what it is; sees the possibility in aesthetics outside of perfection; pristine.