Detrospect: Five Years After Johnnie Redding (RIP)

Photos are mostly from 2004, scanned from 35mm prints.

The Roosevelt Warehouse, also known as the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, was a slick little Albert Kahn-designed building that squatted next to Michigan Central Station, quite literally in the shadow of that mighty black hulk. Being stuck there next to possibly the world's most talked-about and most photographed abandoned building, it naturally gets overlooked a lot...for what it's worth, you could probably hide Jimmy Hoffa there in plain sight.

But it was the presence of a much more humble dead person's body in that building that I am going to talk about, and my involvement in a series of events that changed the course of Detroit's history for the better. I'm of course referring to the worldwide news frenzy that followed the publication of a photo of a dead man's legs found frozen into the ice in the basement of the warehouse by the Detroit News in early 2009. I think now that it's been five years, maybe we can take a look back at the contentious tragedy with a more open mind.


My first trip into the building came in December of 2004. We of course saw that the basement was flooded with about three feet of water, which had frozen as smooth as glass. My original fascination with it was due to the fact that there was a tunnel into its basement, running under 15th Street all the way from the baggage area of Michigan Central Station. The tunnel was presumably built for moving freight into or out of the railroad depot via U.S. Mail, though lately it was being used mostly for moving trespassers into or out of said railroad depot in a more discreet manner:


But we also obviously had an interest in the place due to the fact that one does not regularly find such immaculate ice surfaces anywhere, even if it is essentially made out of raw sewage. The conditions there were perfect for making good ice; we had to take advantage of this somehow. We got together some used equipment and decided to try playing hockey in the basement there against some (much more skilled) buddies from Windsor. It wasn't until February of 2007 however that we were able to make it happen.


Our first game drew the attention of the Free Press, after the fact. When Randy of Detroitfunk posted some pictures of the game, a Freep reporter sought him out for comment, and even asked if he could play next year. We were annoyed that the press was now up in our business, so we pretty much blew the reporter off. Randy later took his pictures down, and in fact was the recipient of some pretty hate-filled slander at the hands of the "internet community" due to his involvement later on.


It wasn't about the stunt, or any kind of "irony." We were just trying to have fun by ourselves, but everyone else in the world seemed to think that just because what we were doing was occurring in an abandoned building, it was automatically some kind of profound, artistic act that should be studied (and of course, publicized). The second year, we were even contacted by NPR's "This American Life," who wanted to feature us in a story. Somehow, word was getting out, and we didn't really like it.


You may be asking yourself, "If you claim to shun publicity so much, why did you post a Youtube video of yourselves down there?" The answer to that, without going into too much detail, is the key to understanding why the group no longer exists, and why I no longer wish to be affiliated with it. Unfortunately I don't have the ability to change what actions others have taken (also keep in mind that video was posted in 2007, well before any dead people were involved).

So even though we consistently tried to avoid all outside publicity of when it was going to be, the third year we did it, 2009, that Scott Hocking dude showed up with a friggin Dutch photojournalist in tow. And yes, that was the year that Johnnie Redding's legs were found sticking out of the ice in the elevator shaft. Here is a photo taken by the Dutch photographer Pieter Franken, that I stole from his website before his story was taken down:

Photo by Pieter Franken
I of course have a lot of my own personal opinions on what happened, and on the media frenzy that ensued when the news got out, but that was a long time ago. It was attended by a fine display of idiocy and finger-pointing and the like, and it was also the moment that Charlie LeDuff was able to spring-board his career in Detroit as a muckraking crusader. It happened while the International Auto Show was going on, so naturally the foreign press was in town to ogle our old ruins again (and new cars too); it was the Detroit Auto Show that would attract the most attention in decades.

The fact that this sensational bit of "news" broke precisely in the midst of this and other more-embarassing-than-usual stories about Detroit's failings made for a perfect storm. All of the Detroit Big Three automakers were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Mayor Kilpatrick was in jail at the time while his dirty laundry continued to be aired daily, Detroit Public Schools announced it was deeper in debt than an average third-world country, and the City of Detroit itself also first publicized around that time that it too was dangerously close to bankruptcy. It was Detroit's darkest hour, which meant that more journalists than ever were paying attention to what was going on outside Cobo Hall than what was going on inside. That was the year that the term "parachute journalism" was coined, and if you recall it was also the year that Cobo Hall itself developed a pretty embarrassing roof leak during the Auto Show, further illustrating just how comprehensively decrepit Detroit was despite its many layers of lipstick.


Johnnie Redding was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back; the world's eyes were already fixed on Detroit and its surreal, aforementioned crises, but with the addition of that last piece of insanity--kids playing hockey around a dead man's legs sticking out of the ice--it was the tipping point that just made everyone stop and say, "What...the...fuck is going on over there in that city?" It arrested the national limelight even despite the fact that a mere week prior, America's first black president had just been inaugurated, understandably getting Detroit's population in a stir.


Finally, the entire world was really, really paying attention for once, and asking just what was going on in Detroit, as opposed to the typical momentary distraction at what in most people's minds usually amounted to little more than a brief sideshow before the weather report came on. With LeDuff's outrageous story, his crazed commentary about it on TV, and the Detroit News editor's choice to run a photo of a corpse on their front page, it was enough to snap people out of their usual suspended disbelief and truly realize what a fucked up place this city is, and how seriously, seriously wrong things are here.

People across the world--and more importantly, across America--were now thinking about Detroit in a serious sense, and not just for a few seconds. They were thinking about it for days. Weeks. And as the other scandals continued to unfurl, months and years. Detroit was the buzz-topic du jour, front and center in the world media spotlight--and it still is as I write this today, the five-year anniversary of the tragedy. It was a turning point in Detroit's history.


I am by no means trying to sound like I'm taking credit for this as if it were some sort of accomplishment I somehow had a part in enacting; I was merely a passenger in the events that unfolded. But at some point all of us--when we began going into abandoned buildings and taking these photos, and posting them online--at some point we all knew somewhere in our mind that we were doing it with the supposed goal of somehow "raising awareness" of Detroit's condition. At least that's how I remember it, as do the people with whom I associated at the time. And as of that moment on January 28, 2009, the lid had officially been blown the fuck off the whole fucking thing.


Say what you will about "urban exploring" or "ruin porn" or whatever you choose to call it, but prior to that day almost all photos of Detroit's ruins posted online were at least partially meant to try to show the world what it was like here, and document the way things were in a decaying, rapidly changing landscape and time. We didn't know what else to do, or how it would even help, but we knew that what was wrong with our city was somehow a big secret that either everyone outside of Michigan was oblivious to, or they were too jaded or detached from it to care.

Posting photos of abandoned skyscrapers on the internet seemed like one way to get people's attention on a broader scale, and it worked. Not that we ever realistically imagined it would--it took a combination of events like this to really set it off. Conversely, photos of Detroit's ruins publicized after that day were not always about documentation or awareness; that was the moment when they began to be taken more for selfish reasons--whether profiteering or just plain gawking, and it was when the term "ruin porn" was beginning to be applied.


But for me, the whole game had changed. There was a moment of individual realization for all of us that something we never dreamed would happen had in fact become reality...no longer was there a need to "raise awareness;" it had definitely been raised--and incredibly, we found ourselves as the faceless figures in the middle of it. I began thinking much more critically about what I could do to materially help the city in some way. That was also about the time Detroitblog stopped featuring his abandoned building exploits, and started focusing solely on his human interest stories--a superbly calculated move that resulted in his work soon getting picked up by Metro Times, and later, the Free Press. Charlie LeDuff's career took off as well, and he got a job on TV with Channel 2, skyrocketing to fame / infamy by hounding local politicians and exposing scandals, arguably driving (with a bullwhip) much of the positive reform that has lately swept through the city and the county.


It was that year that I got engaged in the volunteer work that today consumes most of my time. I felt that it was the best way I could give something back, instead of just taking pictures of the car accident scene. No longer did it seem like Detroit could never be fixed; now that the world was paying attention, there was (for the first time in my lifespan) perceptible hope...hope that positive change could perhaps occur, and that outside reinforcements might actually arrive someday. I also do it partly out of memorial for Johnnie Redding; instead of letting his death be wasted on some sensationalist mockery, I figured it would be fitting that at least something good could come out of it.


I wrote and mailed a letter with our condolences to Johnnie Redding's grieving family at the height of the hysteria, signed anonymously from "the hockey players," to apologize for the uproar that had been caused by our accidental discovery of their deceased family member, and the subsequent media circus tent that had been pitched over his corpse by LeDuff, sensationalizing that we "callously" ice-skated around him, in hopes that it would make it easier on them to know that no one had in fact done any such thing. The Detroit News photographer won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Johnnie Redding's legs. (Even though Pieter Franken had taken the same photo three days earlier.)


In response to the furor, and carnival atmosphere that had been manufactured around the incident, Curt Guyette wrote a piece for the Metro Times on February 25, 2009, laying out the "true story" behind what LeDuff wrote, though I am not sure the draft I saw via email was actually published. In it, he exposed the fact that LeDuff not only knew details that he later obscured when he wrote his infamously-headlined January 28 article, "Frozen In Indifference," (and all of the follow-up stories to it afterward), but also changed some details in order to make himself look like the lone hero who resolved the whole problem. Here is a link to LeDuff's article, but there is a good chance it has been "updated" and no longer matches the original print version.


Guyette also explains Scott Hocking's and Pieter Franken's involvement. But as it turns out, the only reason that they knew about our hockey game and showed up to it was because they were in the building photographing the day prior, and by chance ran into our acquaintance Adina, who was walking her dog there and mentioned that it was going on the next day. I only learned this part of the story as of a few nights ago, coincidentally enough when I happened to be talking to Adina. None of them knew that Redding's body was there at the time.


So if three people--Scott Hocking, the Dutchman, and one of "the hockey players"--knew about Mr. Redding while the game was going on, who reported it? The answer is, everyone but the Dutchman (who feared legal trouble and got on a plane back to Europe). Why did they wait until the game was over to tell anyone about Mr. Redding? The fact is, Mr. Redding's body was only discovered mere minutes before we began leaving for the day anyway.


Neither Hocking nor Franken knew any of us, and never actually socialized with us at any point during the course of the day, nor have they since; they were only there to take pictures of us from a distance apparently, which we neither requested nor appreciated. Had they come much closer to shoot, we might have shooed them away, but the fact is they were only present for a short while, toward the end of the game, before everyone started leaving. I remember there being a point at which they came downstairs, and disappeared for awhile. We went in the darker corners of the basement for bathroom breaks, and that was how Mr. Redding was eventually discovered. I saw the photographers again briefly as they went back upstairs to leave, and we left not long after that.

Photo by a friend
Apparently there was a tacit agreement between the three who knew, that once it became convenient, they would notify authorities; they were still conflicted however, because doing so would inevitably result in the eviction of those people who were sheltering in the building that brutal winter, by police. Because of the ice, it was obvious that Mr. Redding had been sitting there for at least three months, so there was clearly little need for urgency; it's not like we needed to start CPR to save the dude's life. As it turns out, the men who were living on the loading dock of the building had known about Johnnie's death since the summer night it happened, and they claimed to have known him while he was alive.


So how did Charlie LeDuff find out? The member of our group who knew about the body had a distant familial connection to Charlie LeDuff, and felt that if it was reported by a member of the press, there would be a significantly better chance that something would get done about it. This proved to be correct, even though that member of the press subsequently used the incident to his own personal benefit.


*   *   *


Since that time, I have run into Charlie LeDuff twice while out and about in the city. I didn't tell him who I was (or that he had essentially published damaging, untrue things about me and my peers for the advancement of his own career), and I didn't let on that I knew who he was either. We just merely had a friendly conversation about coyotes in the city.


I realize that the mass media is what it is, and that reporters are what they are (which is why I dropped journalism as my major in college), but I just wanted to clear the air a bit. Did it matter that what LeDuff wrote wasn't completely accurate? No. What does matter is that it got the world to pay attention to Detroit on more than a cursory level. And I think that because that happened, a great amount of good came about in the long run...the depth of the problem of homelessness in our city was given more serious attention, as well as the depths of the problems in our city's infrastructure, government, and finances. For the first time in my entire life there is actually positive--and more importantly, believable--change happening in Detroit. That's something, especially to someone who has grown to adulthood literally not knowing what would eventually become of his hometown.

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