Only in Detroit

Date October 2009
Posted March 2011
Experiencing Motor City from the suburbs to the high-rises
The first night in Detroit was a cold one, ice forming on the inside of the thin plate glass windows which were only loosely secured in their frames. As I shivered and tried to draw my blanket ever-closer, Shane slept like a baby, nestled in his makeshift incubator. In all fairness he had suggested I move nearer to the center of the room but had neglected to mention the three electric heaters he'd dragged over there and fired up in preparation.

Northville Psychiatric Hospital, Northville, Michigan State (2010) courtesy of

Morning came and we jumped in Geoff's pick-up, rolling out through the Detroit suburbs to the tune of Tom Waits' Road to Peace. The highrises gave way to smaller buildings and houses, more grassland and then, eventually, countryside as we ventured roughly westward. Finally we turned up in the grounds of a disused hospital, a giant 1950s concrete block standing out amongst scattered trees.

The Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital is no stranger to after hours visitors, be they graffiti writers, taggers, miscellaneous vandals, ghost hunters or Flickr fiends crying into the stainless steel mortuary table over the horror of it all. Shane pulled himself together, wiped off his weather-sealed Nikon and promised not to sob any longer. Of course I could thoroughly understand his distress and the periodic fits of snivelling that remained the only outward signs of his inner turmoil: having crunched my way through the plaster-strewn corridors of many an abandoned British mental institution I'd had plenty of time to HTFU. I checked a mirror to ensure my look of disgust was firmly intact and headed for the stairs.

Northville Psychiatric Hospital, Northville, Michigan State (2010) courtesy of

The previous intruders hadn't been too unkind - much of the hospital was undamaged, save for some smashed windows and scores of graffiti tags. Most of the floors were similar in design and layout with little equipment left behind - presumably all of that had been salvaged and moved to other hospitals. We failed to find an ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) unit rumoured to be tucked away in the woods somewhere but saw most of the rest.

With no more entertainment readily available from the old hospital we rode back into the city, stopping for lunch at Geoff's parents' house. It reminded me of my overnight stop in Buffalo, and how so often its people that you've never met before who provide the warmest reception. The longest I'd know any of the people on this trip to Detroit was one month, and yet it felt like so much longer. Proof again that it's not so much the places you go but more the people you meet and the experiences you have.

In the suburbs, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Before reaching the city center we passed by some of the historic car production areas including the original Ford Piquette plant which was where Ford's Model T was first built. The amount of history here is staggering, but one thing that's striking about Detroit now is the sheer amount of unused space - there's lots of it, interspersed with empty streets. We saw people here and there, the occasional mob of youths or a homeless guy lounging around. But on the whole things were quiet. How this must contrast with the city's industrial heydey.

As we were passing by Geoff took us to meet a friend of his, well-known local photographer and film-maker Ara Howrani. At the door Ara showed us in and took us through to the studio to show us some of his latest work and also photos by his father Ameen (himself one of Detroit's most prolific photographers) which adorn the walls. Yet again my life was being enriched by a 'stranger' - seemingly everyone in this town (save for the border guards, and the crazy guy at the petrol station who'd asked if I had any heroin for sale) was friendly and welcoming.

Howrani Studios, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Before meeting Miss X for dinner the three of us had a couple of hours to kill. We drove into downtown Detroit where the infamous David Broderick Tower stands almost completely empty. The idea of a 'derelict' skyscraper is seemingly bizarre, but then this one was built in the late 1920s and has therefore had plenty of time in which to become redundant.

Since it was mid afternoon we'd have to be as discreet as possible to make our entry. After a last check for cops or overly suspicious pedestrians we tricked the apparently locked door into letting us in and sought out the stairs. No windows in this dimly lit hallway meant that there was no way of telling if we'd been seen going in - instead we resolved to get away from this area as quickly as possible. Behind one of the walls here a bar or restaurant was in operation, the only legitimate activity in this decaying skyscraper reaching no further than the ceiling of the ground floor. Our own plans would take us as far as the roof, over thirty stories above.

David Broderick Tower, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Once in the stairwell our first problem was met with: a gate over the stairs that had been chained shut. Recent visitors had however managed to wrench back one corner of the steel framework leaving a small gap. By pulling hard on the gate this entrance could be widened for another person to slip through, and in this way the three of us worked to move ourselves and our baggage onto the staircase.

Here in Detroit it's hardly surprising to find such a large building predominantly empty. Things have changed a lot since the early 1900s when the city was prospering. Manufacturing industry was on the increase and Thomas Edison had brought electricity to town. As the previous story described, Henry Ford was to make a significant impact on the future of Detroit as he set up the world's first ever assembly line, with the city later becoming known as Motor City. As this industry gave life to the city, so it later threatened to take it away, leaving buildings such as this one to rot.

David Broderick Tower, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

So what's to be found in this giant abandonment? The various floors and rooms of the tower saw a multitude of different uses over the years, from archiving and publishing to insurance brokering and even an exclusive club on the 33rd floor. Remnants of all of this can be picked over en route to the rooftop, these artifacts strewn around beneath decaying plaster, moulding carpets and occasional graffiti and damage. It was though a little sinister at times, and I was surprised to reach the lift machinery beneath the roof having not found a single squatter or drug addict. Despite this there was plenty of evidence for such people making use of the building in the not too distant past.

Somehow we'd managed to miss one of the most well-known rooms in the tower, the dental surgery. We scoured a load of floors, somehow got lost on a secondary staircase and then with the light starting to fade we found it. Unused since the early 1980s it was indeed surprisingly intact.

David Broderick Tower, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Twenty minutes later and Geoff peered round the ground floor door and out onto the street. All was clear so we hustled out and slammed the door shut. Reunited with Miss X we ended up at the infamous Slows Bar BQ where the beer and the meat come in true American style - no visit to this city is complete without a Slows burger! Conscious of my impending return to Toronto and Shane's to NYC, we made the most of our few remaining hours in the city - we drank and talked of anything and everything. Notably Geoff told us about the body found in the ice in Detroit's abandoned book depositary. This city has so many stories that you could spend decades there and never tire of it.

After a slightly warmer night in the warehouse I said goodbye to Shane and Miss X and returned to the coach station in preparation for another border crossing and the return north to Canada, missing my bus by literally seconds. Now with a few hours to kill I returned to the streets, deciding it would be best to find some food, have a look round the GM HQ building and try to stay out of trouble. From the sketchy border crossing to the Motown Cafe in which I now found myself, I'd gone from trying harder than I ever actually needed to to avoid getting shot, to realising that Detroit has far more going for it than a lot of people give it credit for.

The greatest appreciation to Miss X, Shane, Geoff and Ara for making my visit to Detroit a truly profound one.

"Life goes by and you don't get the chance to go back and do all this again. You take it as it comes... You work as hard as you can to do the right things. You take chances and hope it all works out." Ameen Howrani
Make someone happy...
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Further reading...

Northville Hospital Asylum Projects
Ameen Video by gsgeorge
Howrani Legacy Detroit Diary
Howrani Studios Porfolio
David Broderick Tower Wikipedia

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