Fisher Body Plant 21, Part B: "Rekall"


The maze of stacked up shipping racks across the street from Fisher Body #21 seem to match the brutal geometry of the plant, and its surrounding population-less area...the only life forms in this neighborhood were machines: trains and stamping presses. The racks were presumably used for shipping car body panels, judging by the writing on this one, which says "DRIVER FRONT DOOR OUTER RIGHT QUAD":


I first set foot in the Fisher Body Plant #21 in early 2004. I've hung out there so many times since then that all the memories seem to blur together. I can recall how it was where I met my Canadian friends Donnie and Navi for the first time, or how I once snuck in when it was briefly turned into a city impound lot and waved at the surprised security guards from the water tower, or the time I almost found myself in the midst of a baseball bat vs. rusty pipe vs. machete fight here against some rivals that ended in nervous hugs of truce instead of open cranial injuries...(long story).

But enough of that; the next several paragraphs are my thoughts as I recorded them in March 2004 after my very first visit to Plant #21...


A tall fence surrounded a cracked parking lot on the south side of the large whitewashed building, plowed over by someone in a truck, no doubt driven by scrappers. The street was littered with rubble and other detritus, and next to an ankle-deep pothole sat a scorched car battery. Nearby, a fire hydrant leaked water directly into a storm drain whose iron grate had been stolen for scrap. The newest manhole cover was dated 1915 or so. 


Inside, the familiar industrial smell of various petroleum products seeped from the building's pores, and paint flaked from everything. 


I don’t know what it is about Albert Kahn factories...perhaps it's the anodyne, minimalist feel given off by their conical-topped columns and vast expanses of window sash, or their endlessly mass-produced repetition, but the bated silence of their desolation and steady drip-drip-drip of their insides can put one on edge easily. The never-ending forest of concrete pillars stretched out as far into the darkness as we could see.


That is—if nothing else—the one thing that anyone can take away from experiencing Kahn's industrial architecture...not only are these structures the houses of mass-production, but they themselves are an expression of it; a perfect paradigm of form following function. Walking through such a factory hammers home the point with brutal force, not unlike the starkly rhythmic pattern of a techno beat, or a stamping machine.


There were two piers running the height of the building containing the stairwells, freight elevators, and bathrooms on each floor with the giant, round communal sinks usually seen in auto factories. On some ceilings we found overhead conveyors, from which body panels were suspended by hooks as they went through various chemical dips or spray booths. 


When we got to the top floor is when we found the really cool stuff. All the machinery was still sitting there, unlike what we had seen at the Packard Plant.


A track for carrying body panels snaked back and forth across the floor from one end to the other, leading into and out of giant paint booths or drying ovens, then under banks of powerful inspection lamps. The ceiling on the top floor was incredibly lofty, twice that of the normal height I've seen in any other Kahn factory. There were vast instrument panels covered in buttons and gauges, massive ducts wrapped here and there, and amongst it all ran a steel catwalk going on top of and between the colossal apparatus.


I climbed up onto the catwalk and poked around on top of the machines, and found a 20-year-old styrofoam coffee cup crumpled up, with the proud "Napoleonic Coach" emblem of GM's Fisher Body Division emblazoned on it. Nearby sat a faded old porno-mag, looking as though it had seen a lot of rough service, and an empty pint of cheap cognac.


This was an industrial paradise...an eerily intact remnant of Ye Olde Assembly Line, a symbol of the Motor City's former glory and might. But at the same time that the silent archaic machinery around me engendered a certain pride, it was also a painful reminder of the economic collapse that has so profoundly characterized the city for my whole life.

Through the acrid reek of chemicals and charred metal, through the grotesque scenery of twisted iron, battered concrete, and broken glass, we looked out the massive window bay to the northwest and saw the glimmering tower of the Fisher Building and old GM headquarters, still-dazzling images of wealth and opulence, insulated from this industrial wrack and ruin.


A feeling of betrayal crept over me as I viewed those buildings in New Center, now beginning to light up as dusk fell, swallowing the old abandoned factory with it. For blocks and blocks around us lay nothing but a graveyard of factories, once pounding with the lifeblood of industry and labor. How many people lost their livelihoods when the Fickle Three pulled out of Detroit, abandoning it to ruin? I could see the shimmering lights of the affluent white-collar suburbs far to the north in Oakland County begin to come on, while here the streetlights flickered occasionally if at all, leaving the empty streets dark and cold. 


The only sound was that of a plastic shopping bag rolling down Piquette like a tumbleweed in the slight breeze, and the low roar of tires on the Ford and Chrysler Freeways as suburbanites fled home before the sun set. Every single one of them had parents or grandparents with roots in this city, yet they themselves knew almost nothing of it other than as a disinherited, shunned place; something to be feared, and visited briefly if at all. 


...Those were my recollections of exploring this plant for the first time, when I was still a young college kid from the inner suburbs just starting to explore the evil city on my own. Now, when I find myself sitting up there gazing out these windows on cold winter nights, this plant is like a lens through which I can meditate on how much the city and I have both changed since I first started immersing myself in Detroit.


As a youngster I was one of those people riding on that freeway in the backseat of my parents’ car, staring out the window into the creepy, mysterious darkness and ugliness of Detroit…I guess it was destined that I would eventually come to explore it, to find out what was hidden in the darkness. 


This city has undergone a massive change since I first visited this plant 15 years ago. The generational hopelessness that I saw in Detroit in 2004 has seemingly been replaced by a positive mood—albeit one tempered by a healthy skepticism. For the first time in my life there is a slight tingling of warmth in the extremities of the neighborhoods that had been given up as lost to frostbite.

Now people are actually flocking into Detroit to live here—many attracted to the allure of its darkness and toughness. But it is an image that they have been sold; a commodity, like evening wear—very trendy at the moment but easily discarded as soon as tastes change. If Detroit is reborn, it is in spite of any such buzz campaign...in spite of Dan Gilbert, in spite of Mayor Duggan, and in spite of the ex-Brooklyn hipsters coming here to glom onto our “gritty” scene and our low cost of living. 


I don’t have a problem with new people and developers coming here to join in, I just wish that they would give back more, instead of just taking. Consider the fact that Detroit is a working class city, while so far all the new development I see caters to entertaining upper class people, and securing corporate profit. In “saving” Detroit, the upper class is actually forcing out those lowly unwashed masses who gave Detroit the grit image that attracted them here in the first place, and, who incidentally held it together for the past 50 years. Overall, the hallowed "trickle-down" model of American economics has not really worked out all that well for Detroit, so I'm a little skeptical to see this much-touted revival being based on the same model.


Meanwhile, if one would seek to “save” Detroit, break out of the 7.2sq-mile bubble…there are plenty of great volunteer groups, block clubs, and church outreaches doing good work who need our help to fix the broken areas of the real D. Cast off the corporate trappings and silly slogans of the “New” Detroit™ and come see about the Old Detroit. You will like it. 


Speaking of development, German techno scene entrepreneur Dmitri Hegemann made recent news with his idea to turn Fisher Body #21 into a cultural complex like Berlin's iconic Kraftwerk. While it's nothing new for out-of-town freaks to posit hair-brained schemes for reusing Detroit's abandoned buildings (e.g.: the nutty Texas lady who almost bought the Packard Plant instead of Fernando Palazuelo), when I read the article about Mr. Hegemann's plan in the April 2015 Detroit Free Press, I actually felt like I could take it seriously; partly because it now seemed like the "Midtown" phenomenon was ready to continue expanding outward to something like Fisher #21.


Mr. Hegemann and his colleague Mario Husten of Berlin's Holzmarkt came here to take part in "Detroit Opportunity Sites," a trans-Atlantic workshop focused on devising strategies for reusing Detroit's vacant industrial property carried out by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in partnership with Detroit Future City and the Kresge Foundation. 


After World War II Berlin was a bombed-out shell of its former self, and its economy was in total shambles—much like the Detroit of modern times, it was a disinherited place where there was no money to fix up its plethora of ruined buildings. And again, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 there were many large Soviet facilities that were abandoned, which stood as huge eyesores representing a very painful chapter in that city's history. Detroit too, wrestles with the oppressive imagery brought on by our abandoned buildings; they are reminders of failure, collapse, and of racial division. But Berlin was able to turn this around for themselves, and a burden became an asset.


Kraftwerk was originally an abandoned powerplant from East Berlin's Soviet era, and it is now a successful multipurpose event center. The equally famous Tresor club is also located in a former bombed-out abandoned building—one which Hegemann was in charge of converting. Many more of Berlin's most popular attractions are housed in buildings that used to be abandoned: 
Key attractions in Berlin include Berghain, located in a former East Berlin powerhouse like Kraftwerk. It is often considered to be the club capital of techno. There is also Stattbad, a club and event center in a previously bombed-out state swimming pool, and Golden Gate, a small after-hours club burrowed underneath a subway station. But it's not just clubs: The Berlinische Galerie, a modern art museum, can be found in a prior glass factory. Tropical Islands Resort, south of Berlin, is a tropical-themed waterpark repurposed from the world's largest airship hangar.

Today, Berlin is Europe's third most-visited city. According to the article, 74% of tourists visited Berlin for its arts and culture, 93% for its restaurants, and 35% for its nightlife. If only Detroit could attempt this kind of transformation...there is literally nothing to lose at this point, but if we keep tearing down all of our vacant buildings then there won't be anyplace for grassroots development like this to take root. Even in our current state of disarray, actual tourism to Detroit has started to become a thing, as hard as that is for some of us to fathom.


Hegemann argues that "We can use the power of abandoned spaces...I want people in Detroit to understand it's possible." According to the article, after the Berlin Wall fell and the former Soviet structures were left behind, it was the younger generation who were able to get past the ugly imagery and painful memory associated with abandoned buildings, and turned them back into something productive:
The youth of the divided city came together through fusing these spaces with art and entertainment, including techno music imported from Detroit—which represented freedom and an opportunity to start fresh, a chance to rebuild from the rubble.
Apparently this rebirth happened in Berlin much the same way it has here in Detroit—in a do-it-yourself fashion, where in the vacuum created by a collapsed or inept local government, the people themselves pick up the slack. Typically the renovations of Berlin's abandoned buildings were done by volunteers, according to the article, even though everything was done with uncertainty; if one idea failed, an alternative one was ready to take its place. They called it the "one-room" strategy, and this was one method that Hegemann hoped to share with Detroiters.


The proposed renovation of Fisher #21 would follow the same "one-room" strategy...renovating the plant's second floor first, by turning it into a 100-bed hostel, a Euro-American restaurant, and techno club. This would bring in revenue to fund the renovation of another floor, and another. Hegemann formed a partnership with University of Detroit Mercy's architecture program, whose students were designing potential layouts for the project.

Mr. Hegemann was also collaborating with the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance, to work toward building a bridge between the two cities through culture, and would be returning for the second-annual Detroit-Berlin conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to continue exploring "the art of repurposing spaces." Although Mr. Hegemann has yet to purchase Fisher Body #21 or submit a formal proposal for its redevelopment, he was still in talks with Detroit City Council about the idea. 


Here's the quintessential "RenCen-through-the-dirty-busted-windows" shot that everyone always takes here...although I'm not sure it's generally seen taken at night.


Speaking of techno, I named this post after one of my favorite Detroit techno tracks, "Rekall" by Plastikman (one of the pioneers of the Detroit electronic scene, from the legendary Packard Plant raves in the 1990s). Not that I am some huge expert on techno, but there is just something about that album that goes perfectly with sneaking around huge darkened factories at night...it seems to take the many subtle ambient noises heard in abandoned buildings and turns them into musical notes, set to an assembly line rhythm. The title also seems to make a pun on the concept of an automotive recall.


Of course, one uniquely Detroit obstacle to following Berlin's lead would be all the privately-owned vacant properties being held captive by slumlords who are actively trying to ruin certain properties, and absentee real estate speculators who are scarcely even aware that they own land in Detroit, having never visited it. Luckily the Detroit Land Bank and other entities are currently working to combat this problem (even if the Ilitches are still being catered to).


During his time in Detroit Mr. Hegemann also visited with Fernando Palazuelo, the new owner of the Packard Plant, who shared both his interest in the city's history, and that of its future. "Detroit needs a creative lighthouse," he told the Free Press...whether it will get that lighthouse is probably a question of whether it comes organically from the community or not, since I doubt any contrived scheme with a cool corporate brand is going to fill that bill. 


Sure, it's been three years since that article was written about Hegemann's plans for Fisher #21, and it's been even longer since Mr. Palazuelo acquired the Packard Plant. It takes time for these things to get off the ground; you can't expect to reverse 40 years of decline in a weekend, unless you're throwing Dan Gilbert-sized paper around. Then again, Dan Gilbert isn't buying in the ghetto...it's a *little* more challenging to make big projects fly out here than in the 7.2.


As goes Fisher Body #21, so goes the rest of Detroit (to paraphrase Charles E. Wilson). Regardless of whether this plant is resurrected Berlin-style or not, Detroit will continue to be a laboratory for the future modes of the rest of the nation—for better or worse. “What is good for GM is good for America.”



References:
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheets 94 & 96 (1921)
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 92 (1897)
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan, An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER (1976), p. 60
"Fisher Body Corporation," in Smithsonian Institution, by Roger B. White
http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/f/fisher/fisher.htm
http://forgottendetroit.com/fisher/index.html
The Elgar Companion to Law and Economics, edited by J├╝rgen G. Backhaus, p. 150
http://substreet.org/fisher-body/
http://www.motorcities.org/pdf/yrt_tours_cent_cadillac.pdf
"Body and Soul," Detroit Metro Times, August 13, 2008
http://gmauthority.com/blog/2015/08/the-curious-case-of-the-cadillac-allante/
Materials Engineering, Volume 109, Issues 1-11 (1992), p. 9
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The Detroiter, Volume 7 (1985), p. 112
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Help wanted ad, Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1922, p. 20