The "Lost" Neighborhood of Detroit (Part 1)

January, 2008.

There is a mysterious little corner of the city, up on the mean East Side between the old Hudson Motors body plant and Detroit City Airport. I noticed it one day while exploring the ramshackle old shell of the old Gary Transfer Terminal of the Detroit United Railway that I had spotted off Gratiot.


Who Gary is, I have no idea, but loyal reader and fellow researcher Peter Dudley tells me that this streetcar station was built by the Detroit United Railway (DUR) after the City of Detroit bought them out and formed the Detroit Street Railway (DSR) to operate on the DUR's lines.


The DUR continued on as an interurban system while the DSR used and owned the same lines inside the city limits, but because the DSR levied steep fees on the DUR to use what had been their own rails, the DUR built these transfer facilities just outside of what had been city limits at that time, in order to get around the fees by making passengers get off the trolleys and onto busses to continue their journey downtown. This is the only such DUR transfer terminal that still stands today.


Meandering further into the woods behind it, I realized I was in what appeared to be a lost, forgotten neighborhood that had been either burned down or bulldozed, and overgrown completely. As soon as I got home I looked for it online and on my AAA map of the city. Even though my AAA roadmap dated back to 1989, it did not show the neighborhood; just an empty space. Google Earth however, was much more forthcoming:


I could make out something of a faded street grid underneath the dense green canopy that had taken over since the Fall of Detroit. The roughly triangular neighborhood's woods ran right up to the very walls of the massive Hudson Plant (which itself was in an advanced state of decay), and were bordered on the other two sides by a park along Conner Avenue, and a couple new strip developments off Gratiot.

So basically, the overgrown neighborhood was isolated from public view, unless one were strolling through the park on Conner, in which case all one would see would be the dense wall of trees enclosing what lay within. From the aerial view, I could also see the remnants of a house or two, and the charred, roofless streetcar terminal that I had explored before.


For a long time I planned to investigate more closely, but never got around to it. The leafless, bitter cold of "Auto Show weather" assured that I would at least be able to see where I was going and what I was looking at, if I were to venture inside the mysterious lost 'hood. Because I knew if I tried it in the leafy summertime, not only would it be harder to find anything, but I could be taking a decided safety risk not knowing what might be lurking in there, for that matter (that is, other than the clouds of angry mosquitoes bred in the mountains of discarded tires).

NOTE: This "lost" neighborhood was actually temporary worker's housing built for employees of the Hudson plant during WWII, and was basically a trailer park. The building with the Edison pole cracked over it was a communal bathroom. The Sanborn map for 1929 shows the land to be blank but owned by the Detroit United Railway. Peter Dudley told me that the workers' housing became the "Airport Trailer Park" after the war, and remained as such until at least the 1960s (stay tuned for part 2).


I parked in front of the mighty Hudson Plant and walked right into the woods just before twilight. I had a vague idea that maybe this would be a place where either stray dogs or stray people might seek shelter, so I was being moderately alert. It was immediately evident that there was plenty of household wreckage back here, either dumped, or remaining from before the cataclysm that erased whatever community had been here. I could see the brush-covered outlines of sidewalks and alleyways, and a couple street corners, phone poles, etc., but despite my hopes, no fences. No doubt these were taken for scrap long ago, along with the utility lines.

Here you can see a curb (lower right) that would have once demarcated a street corner. I thought even the old street signs that would've indicated what street this was had been scrapped as well:


Another curb:


This is all fairly commonplace to any ghost town, but to remember that here we are standing in the middle of what is still one of America's largest, most populous cities is what makes this so bizarre and unsettling. We are not in the middle of a remote wilderness; we are in a traffic peninsula between the intersection of a six-lane road and a four-lane road–Gratiot & Conner, one of the busiest intersections in the city. I'd say total land area of the neighborhood is almost 20 acres.

Notice the faded white NO PARKING sign at left:


I eventually found the sole remaining structure of this forlorn ghost-neighborhood, an Edison pole still cracked over the top of it like a baseball bat, evidencing the violent and bloody end this place surely must have met. Had Godzilla ransacked the place on one of his heartless rampages? Or was it Mecha-Godzilla?


As I was meandering about in thought, I considered that this might’ve been the product of Devil's Night. Whenever I come across mind-blowingly desolate scenes like this in the city I envision what it must've been like in the final hours of the battle for the forces of good before they were finally routed from the area forever, so to speak.

I remember seeing these images playing out on the news all through the 1980s and 1990s as the brave, selfless men of the Detroit Fire Department fought the hellfires and the (literally) collapsing city around them under an infernal night sky, lit red and swarmed with showers of sparks and embers shooting upward as the roof of yet another engulfed building gave in. I remember sitting there year after year watching my relatives shake their heads at it and, scowling in a strange mixture of anger and sorrow, utter diatribes of scorn and resignation that I wouldn't understand until much later.


On one hand, I couldn't understand why people were seemingly burning their own city down, and on the other, I couldn't understand what or who my suburban parents were talking about. There was something huge and crazy going on, I knew that much, but back then I was afraid to think too much about it.

The other thing that weirded me out was the fact that I was not allowed outside on Devil's Night, and that my paranoid parents parked the cars in the garage, locked the doors, opened all the drapes, and turned on all the lights in the house. They were talking about people "being crazy" that night, and it creeped me out to think that something going on in the city might be dangerous enough to have to lock our doors and such. I was young when it began, so you can imagine how impressionable I was to my parents' reactions back then. That, coupled with my frequent trips to ghostly, decaying downtown with them for one thing or another are what forged my childhood image of Detroit, and I just became accustomed to it.


It was a long time until I realized that this was in fact not the norm, and that the metropolis I grew up in was the only one in the free world that was like this. It is a shame and it is a tragedy, but I think people are finally starting to put aside the hatred and distrust of those days. It's as if we're slowly waking up from a cataclysmic hangover.


Anyway, back on track. This is the edge of the Hudson plant, looming through the trees:


As I neared it, I started to notice dogs barking in the distance. Like, really barking, almost like they were on the trail of something, but I didn't think much of it. They got slightly louder, and slightly louder still. In a minute I could tell they were headed in my direction. Probably somebody walking their dogs through the park nearby and they had caught my scent and were just barking, because that's how dogs are. I paid it no further attention until I finished exploring and started back to my car. I took the trail alongside the plant. The barking became louder and more frenzied. That was when I noticed that the trail I was walking on was covered with canine paw prints in the snow. I wondered if there were some guard dogs associated with the Hudson plant, since it still seemed to be in use to an extent.

Up to this point I had never been too afraid of encountering strays while exploring either, since if you don't corner them, they will generally stay away from you. Strays are not territorial like house dogs, seeing that they live in a situation where survival is more important than territory. To them, any encounter bears the chance of getting hurt, and they can't afford to mess around with stuff like that when they have to worry about more important things, like finding food.....right?

So when I saw a dog appear down the trail ahead of me, I didn't worry too much, thinking he would scamper off like usual. Well, he didn't; he held his ground and started barking angrily. "Okay," I thought, "I'll just let him have his space." Making a show of it, I stopped, paused, and slowly withdrew so that he could see me do so. I decided to take a wide, circuitous path around him and the sneakier second dog, which I saw moving just then, a bit further down. "Alright, no problem, I'll just walk around these two dogs," I thought, right about the time I saw them begin to come toward me. I didn't panic though, I figured the brush here was awful thick, and it wasn't far until I got to the edge of the field. And they weren't actually running after me or anything....

It wasn't long before I could see that these dogs were not buying any of my faux-sneaky bullshit. It began to dawn on me that despite my complacency of earlier, they had been following my trail since I got in here, and now that they had caught sight of me, the hunt was on. Also, I now caught sight of a third dog, hustling through the scrub woods in the distance to join up with the other two. That was about when I decided I might have an issue. Not quite a problem, just an "issue." I was now trying to make haste for the edge of the woods, thinking they would stop after having successfully chased me out of their apparent territory.


I looked back to see the first one had already caught up to me and was still following, with the other two not far behind. I tried stopping and flinching at them to show that I was unafraid, and to tell them to keep their distance. They paused momentarily, but that didn't seem to faze them at all; they kept coming. I had been walking backwards for some time now, keeping them firmly in my sights, and had reached the edge of the woods. I hopped over the crushed fence into the open park land in view of Conner Avenue, and quickly realized to my dread that the dogs were not deterred one bit. The two leaders followed right after me, barking challenges like crazy. The third dog, which I had only seen briefly before, now appeared again, popping out of the woods on my flank.

At this point I knew my "issue" had become a "problem." I was surrounded by feral dogs who were obviously not losing interest in me, and who furthermore had entrapped me in a pincer move. The bastards had closed to within 10 yards of me and were not backing down. That was when I saw the fourth dog, approaching from the trail. This was playing out like some kind of god damned Steven King movie! It was as if they were set on running me into the brambles like a deer where they could close in and wear me down for the kill—it was like they had already done this before. WTF!

In the middle of this field I finally reached for my blade, flashing it open with a pronounced flick of my wrist, and holding my ground suddenly I shouted at them even louder than before to stay back. My mind was showing me potential outcomes of this situation, all of which I'm sure you can imagine were quite ugly. I started to wish that my friend Crawly would've come out with me today as planned so that I would have backup, but it looked now like I was about to play a bit-part on the next episode of Animal Cops Detroit...laying down at the Wayne County Morgue.

This whole time I was trying to face them as much as possible, so that I would not appear to be "running away," or showing fear, but at the same time I did still have to retreat somehow, seeing as I couldn't sit here all night in a stand-off with these mutts. The alpha of the group—an American bulldog with a nasty fighting scar across his face—had marched right up to me within inches of crotch-biting distance at this point, and clearly had zero fucks left to give. I locked eyes with him as much as possible. I knew at this point that combat / bloodletting was imminent, and to show the slightest bit of fear at the wrong second would possibly be a mistake to earn me some plastic surgery, or maybe a nice closed-casket memorial service.

They had me totally pinned down. Two on my rear, and the third blocking my path to the car, which was only 20 yards away (and the fourth waiting in the wings). This was difficult. But again, I couldn't show fear...the adrenaline was absolutely popping in my veins and my brain synapses were firing like spark plugs at this point. I kept backing up slowly while trying to keep all of them in my sights so that none could get a chance to pounce from behind, alternating stares between the alpha and the bastard who had snuck up and flanked me. He was smaller and I could tell that my death stare was working on him; eventually he began to weaken his stance when he saw how pissed I was. He was definitely dependent on the strength of the group and I could tell by his body language that he wanted to move back so that he could stand with his buddies and feel safer.

That was the opening I needed. I kept gradually moving so that they were now all in my sight as I backed up toward my car and got my keys out, never once taking my eyes off the main aggressors. Once on the other side of my car they stopped, and I got in and drove off, realizing that if I had brought my pistol with me today, I would have just been wielding a gun in public, with my finger on the trigger, ready to use it. Not a happy thought. Then again, I might've been less apt to become a runny new flavor of puppy chow. Either way this was not a good scene, and I still can't believe I made it out alive.

CLICK for part two.

Update:
A reader named Gary Choate wrote to inform me that my photo of the Hudson Plant in this post was eerily similar to one taken of his father here, who had once lived in this trailer park in the 1950s...



He sent me a photo of his father standing in the yard of their home, with the same view of the Hudson Plant in the background:


Photo courtesy of Gary Choate.
His name was Richard Choate, who migrated north from Tennessee to work in the plant after apparently hearing the clarion-call of plentiful Detroit factory jobs.

Here is an aerial photo of the area c.1949, from wayne.edu, with the Hudson Plant at the bottom of the frame:




References:
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 18, Sheet 92, (1929)
http://claslinux.clas.wayne.edu/photos/part2/wayne/1949/ha-3-135.pdf

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