Finally, back downtown, we parked in front of the Metropolitan Building, a fifteen-story, neo-Gothic office tower opened in 1924. It was a weekday afternoon, but the street was completely deserted. A block away, I could see Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main thoroughfare.
The Metropolitan, once the center of the jewelry trade in Detroit, housed a number of jewelry manufacturers and wholesalers, but it had been empty since 1977. Someone had painted a garish football mural on the ground floor, and a filthy brown teddy bear had been tied to a street sign. "Memorial," Carlisle said. "Someone was shot here." Walking quickly to one of the building's doors, Carlisle turned the knob and was surprised to find it unlocked. Then he noticed a woman behind the counter at a carry-out place across the street, eyeing us. "Here, pretend I'm taking your picture," he said, posing me next to the memorial bear. He snapped a few shots until the woman turned away. Then we slipped inside the building and Carlisle switched on his flashlight.
The room had been completely gutted. Shards of plaster and glass covered the floor, and an icy draft blew through all of the broken windows. Carlisle splashed the walls with beams of light. Other than a single, cryptic graffiti tag, scrawled in Day-Glo orange, even the defaceable surfaces were barren. We began climbing the stairs. It was dark, and the wires dangling from the ceiling looked eerie and weblike. On one of the doors, someone had written, "If You Want 2 Die" I paused and tried to make out the rest of the sentence, but it was illegible. Carlisle stopped on the flight above me and hissed, "What's wrong? You hear someone?"
Eventually we made it to the top floor. A couple of rusty radiators had been dragged to the center of the room and abandoned. "Crackheads always try to take them for scrap, but then realize they're too heavy," Carlisle said. He led me out to the snow-covered roof. We blinked in the bright daylight, staring up at what we'd come to see: the building's beautiful stone facade, a carved knight's helmet topping a coat of arms and ornate fleur-de-lis garlanding each window. Carlisle snapped a few pictures. He had started photographing Detroit's ruins several years earlier. In his explorations, he had come across homeless encampments, drug addicts getting high, a couple having sex. In another building, eight cops showed up with their guns drawn. After realizing Carlisle had only a camera, they let him go. There was nothing for him to steal, anyway, even if he had been a thief.
"This city is like a living museum," Carlisle said. "A museum of neglect."
We moved over to the parapet of the roof, crenelated like the top of some fortress, and gazed out at the city skyline. "That building is empty," Carlisle said, pointing to the nearest skyscraper. He shifted his finger to the left. "So is that one." Then, sounding surprisedand the hitch in his voice reminded me that he was not a professional guide, that he didn't do this every dayhe pointed to the next building over and said, "And that one, too."
In 1995, a Chilean photographer, Camilo José Vergara, had cheekily proposed allowing a cluster of buildings in downtown Detroit to molder and become "an American Acropolis." Dismissed by many locals as a smirking Ivory Tower provocateur, Vergara turns out to have been a prophet. I hadn't brought a camera, but I could have been a tourist in the off-season at a scenic overlook.
And yet, standing in calf-deep snow, my hands thrust deep in my coat pockets, staring out at this wintry scene of ruin, I had to admit I didn't really feel sadness, or anger, or much of anything. Depressingly, perhaps, it all just felt normal. For people of my generation and younger, growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. Our parents could mourn what it used to be and tell us stories about the wonderful downtown department stores and the heyday of Motown and muscle cars. But for us, those stories existed as pure fable. It was like being told about an uncle who died before you were born, what a terrific guy he'd been, if only you'd had the chance to meet him, see how handsome he looks in these old pictures . . .
Excerpted from Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Binelli. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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