"Loitering In A Known Drug Area"

Photos date from 2008 to 2010...many were taken by a friend who has allowed me to use them here, but who prefers to remain anonymous.

We started prodding at the infamous vacant Eastown Theater back in summer 2004 looking for a way in, and it was always one of those ones that seemed unbeatable. When it finally was cracked open around 2008, that was it...the theater's doom was sealed. Relentless scrapping and arson tore it to shreds in a matter of two years, and as of November 2015 the long-awaited demolition of its ruins was announced.


Sitting at 8041 Harper Avenue, the Eastown was the east side's answer to the west side's palatial Riviera Theater on Grand River. According to Bryan Krefft, it opened in 1931 for the Wisper-Wetsman theater chain. It was built as a movie house, though it did occasionally host stage shows in its early years. Capacity was just under 2,500 seats, and it was designed by the firm of V.J. Waier & Co., who designed a few other structures in the city, including apartment buildings, stores, and automotive service garages, according to some trade journals I found via Google Books.

Photo by a friend.
The Eastown closed as a movie house in the mid-'60s, but like the Grande Ballroom and Michigan Theater, it was soon to become one of Detroit’s most infamous rock concert venues. Both motorcitymusicarchives.com and theconcertdatabase.com at least partially catalogue the Eastown's show list from 1969 to 1973, which included local greats like Alice Cooper, the MC5, Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes, Iggy & the Stooges, The Up, Frost, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, and John Lee Hooker.

There were also national acts like Muddy Waters, James Brown, Howlin Wolf, B.B. King, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, Grateful Dead, Chuck Berry, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Van Morrison, The Kinks, Blondie, The Allman Brothers, King Crimson, Edgar Winter, and Canned Heat. The Detroit Almanac says that The Who, Cream, and Steppenwolf also played from its stage.

Photo by a friend.
It also sounds like the Eastown was rough enough and decadent enough to be the forerunner of today's Harpo's Concert Theater, the east side's other monster showplace, a renowned heavy metal dungeon that was dubbed America's roughest music venue at one point (I've gotten my face bloodied there a few times). Dennis Dunaway (bassist for Alice Cooper) said in the book Detroit Rock City by Steve Miller that Eastown shows with The Stooges were always pretty violent; Iggy would jump off the stage and pick fights with people..."If he picked a fight with you, then you were the hero for the next week or two." Both Russ Gibb and Mitch Ryder claimed that Iggy Pop invented stage diving.

Alice Cooper himself has been quoted many times extolling how the Eastown was the innermost sanctum of blue-collar rock and roll culture, and how it was even darker and grittier than the Grande Ballroom. Even Ted Nugent was shocked at its depravity, and the Free Press once did an exposé which concluded that the Eastown's mezzanine was a "veritable drug supermarket." Harpo's crowds continued this time-honored Detroit tradition of open drug use and violence by "getting in the pit to try to love someone" well into the 21st century.

Photo by a friend.
Krefft says the decrepit Eastown was closed by the city in 1973 for health and safety violations. It reopened in 1975 as a jazz venue but re-closed after just one year, then was used for a short time for performing arts and live theatre before closing again. In 1980 the Eastown screened adult films but closed again in 1984. From 1984 until 1990 the aging hall was home to another a performing arts group. Raves were held at the legendary Eastown in the mid-1990s, just as they had been at the Packard Plant and elsewhere when the Detroit electronic music scene was being born. Lowell Boileau commented to that effect, saying that "the impact of the ruins on the culture and psyche of Detroit is immeasurable"...looking back on my own life, I couldn't agree more.

Eastown was last owned by a church with plans to restore it, called New Life Ministry, but I believe they lost the property in 2009. In January of 2015 the auditorium collapsed from scrappers cutting the massive steel roof trusses out, and from the weight of heavy snow, leaving a ruined shell.

Photo by a friend.
I knew right up front that the Eastown Theater was one of the sketchier spots to be messing around at, in terms of having to watch your back while you were there. I rarely spent more than a few minutes inside, and I was in a more heightened state of vigilance every time. Unfortunately the result is that I have very few good photos of the place of my own, since I was always preoccupied with monitoring the situation while other more qualified cameramen shot.

Photo by a friend.
I know of people who have had problems there, and one group of friends from Philly who visited in broad daylight told me that they had been sized up by a group of apparently "opportunistic" neighborhood youths who wandered in behind them. Luckily some well-applied street smarts kept that situation from going anywhere bad. My own negative run-in at the Eastown however was not an encounter with neighborhood thugs inside, it was outside with the local DPD narcotics goon squad—and I wasn't even intending to commit any crimes that day.

I merely pulled off of Harper Avenue one day in November 2008 to quickly get an exterior photo of the apartment building that adjoined to the theater, addressed 6611 Maxwell, which burned to rubble in 2010:


I didn't even put my car in park, I just rolled my window down for a quick shot before continuing to drive down Maxwell Street to go left on Malvern and back out to Van Dyke Avenue. Unfortunately this decision to cut through the neighborhood was deemed probable cause to pull me over for a narcotics bust by the unmarked Detroit Police car that passed me before I could make my turn.

The unit whipped around and lit me up, with four plain-clothes officers piling out of the vehicle immediately to surround us with guns drawn. The only thing that came out of the beefcake's mouth as he muscled his way up to my car and opened my door was "Take off your seatbelt and get the f@#$ out."


Now, I know my rights, and I know that in a perfect world I should have asked if I was being detained and on what charge, but I could tell instantly by his body language that the rulebook was completely out the window with this one. This goon was a millisecond away from fetching me out by the neck and slapping me on the pavement like a rag doll—seatbelt or no seatbelt.

Nevermind that I had done nothing wrong, or that they had absolutely no probable cause (under its proper legal definition) to stop me, let alone physically detain me or open my car door. Nevermind that they had not identified themselves as police officers other than to presume that the badges dangling from their necks served as adequate credentials without our being able to actually even read them.


My passenger and I carefully submitted because I knew that we were about to get a beat-down regardless of what we did, so we might as well try to take it calmly and live to call a lawyer. Such is life in the "land of the free." Luckily we did not get body-slammed to the street as I was bracing for, but we did get cuffed up and pressed against the trunk of my car for some excruciatingly ridiculous questioning.

Clearly these attack dogs were convinced that we were here to purchase heroin, which they explained was currently hot in this neighborhood (imagine that). They also said that they were running a sting operation for it here, which we were privileged enough to stumble into.


But at this point it wasn't going to be an "Oh sorry for the mix-up, you can go about your business" kind of deal, no...they had us detained illegally, so they had to find something to stick us with to justify the stop. So the illegal searches began, with my car getting ripped apart and our pockets getting turned out, and the photos on my digital camera being carefully scrutinized.

My partner and I had recently been at Jane Cooper School, and those photos were still on my camera. When the big bulldog who was interrogating me came across those, he instantly started trying to get me to admit that they were from Cass Tech, which had just been in the news for the illegal scrapping and the big arson that had recently occurred there. I didn't tell him what they were from, but I denied that they were from Cass.


I realized that I should remain silent because the game was to get me scared, and to get me to slip up and admit wrongdoing, but I felt that brief, flat denials were in my best interest at the moment, since if I chose to remain silent he would see that as me "trying to hide something." I did however make a mental note that I would never, ever, EVER again let photos sit on my memory card to incriminate me.

After he had given up badgering me about my photos he pointed to a tiny little ziplock baggie on the ground that suddenly appeared next to my feet, and accused me of dropping it to get rid of drugs. Again I denied knowing anything about it (not to mention it was empty) but I was now almost totally convinced that they were going to try to plant something on me. By some miracle, that didn't happen.


There was literally nothing of interest in my car or on our persons that day for them to find, and our combined pocket cash amounted to $7...not exactly the kind of sum you would bring to a big drug deal. But my partner had a drunk driving felony in his past record, so they tried sooo hard to nail us on something.

These goons had absolutely nothing on us (other than some incidental photo evidence that we were petty trespassers, which was of course illegally obtained by intimidation), and they were beginning to waver in their resolve...I could tell because their game had softened from big badass bully tactics to trying to be our buddies and get us to relax and admit wrongdoing, to get them to "go easy on us" and let us go. The cops retreated back to their car to converse, but I wasn't sure if they were going to try to book us on something or if they were about to cut us loose.


When the big cop came back up behind us bellowing "Today is your lucky f#$%ing day," I thought we had somehow gotten off, but his idea of "cutting us a break" was issuing a pair of misdemeanor tickets for "Loitering in a Known Drug Area." Yeah I'm not sure how you can "loiter" when you're in a moving vehicle on a public street, nor do I understand the legal distinction between a "known" drug area and its presumable opposite—an "unknown" drug area—especially when we are talking about the city of Detroit, which itself is a 139-square-mile "known drug area."

So to recap, we had just been gifted a trip for two to the 36th District Court, which meant we had to take a whole day off work and pay for expensive downtown parking while we sat for hours in a cramped courtroom to defend ourselves against a crime we never committed, and which had no discernible victim.


Though I guess the Eastown Theater was always infamous as the biggest drug den of the entire city when it was a rock venue, so this was ironically fitting. The ratty mattresses laying about where the main floor seating used to be indicated that it was still being used as a "shooting gallery" for heroin junkies. Far be it from me to object to efforts to curb the current heroin epidemic in Detroit, but this was just plain gestapo bullshit.

I couldn't just opt to pay the fine to avoid court—that would be an admission of guilt, and having drug-offenses on your record pretty much precludes you from ever having a good job or going through a border crossing without being searched.


Obviously we planned to dispute the ticket, knowing that undercover narcotics agents would never bother showing up to court to witness against us, and the ticket would get thrown out. All the same, we opted for a court-appointed attorney to advise us. We were shocked when he told us that the cops had shown up for the hearing, and that we should "take the deal" by pleading guilty to a lesser crime to avoid going to trial.

Waaaaaiiiiitttttt a minute....we didn't even do anything illegal! Pfft...some "public defender" this was! I stood my ground and rejected his "advice." Even though I dreaded the idea of having to go into a trial over this there was no possible way I was going to admit guilt to something I didn't do, but I didn't really have the money to hire a real lawyer either. I could feel myself getting sucked into the crooked "criminal justice" system already. 


We sat there in court stewing in disbelief over the fact that the narcs had actually showed up to make their bogus charge stick, but as much as I stared I could not recognize any of the cops sitting in the room. Was the public defender actually bluffing to make us pay a fine? Was he just an idiot?

As it turned out our cops did indeed check into the building that day, but it was for a different case in another courtroom. The laziness of the public defender had led us to believe that we might be in trouble, and almost got us to buy into a criminal record that we didn't deserve. When the judge finally called us up she informed us that the cops had not appeared to defend their ticket, so the case would be thrown out.


Lessons learned from this debacle...
1) You are not safe from legal entanglement, even when just minding your own business on a public street.
2) The police can detain you at any time for any thing, and charge you with whatever they want.
3) The police may try to intimidate you so that you are afraid to exercise your rights during a stop.
4) You are tasked (at your own expense) with proving your own innocence against the word of the police, as opposed to them having to justify accusing you with a crime and hauling you into court.
5) Never admit to anything you did not do. Avoid conversation with police...they have quotas to fill.
6) The "justice" system is not geared to protect you from wrongful incrimination, it is designed to ensnare you in it. From the moment you walk in a courtroom you are made to feel bad for being there, made to feel small and helpless, so that you will submit to a fine. Even those who are supposed to help you cannot be trusted.

All of the above conditions are contrary to your Constitutional rights. Know your rights before something happens. Your mileage may vary depending on how cops are where you live. The Detroit Police have never been well known for respecting peoples' rights; they are renowned however for being as apt to split your head open after snorting a line of coke off their cruiser's dashboard as look at you.


Anyway, it was because of this encounter in 2008 that I steered clear of the Eastown area for two straight years after that, and only went back to it with extreme nervousness and apprehension of running into that f@#$ng bulldog of a cop again. And the only reason I went back was to serve as an escort for comrades of mine who could not be dissuaded from going, but who I didn't want to let go alone.

Photo by a friend.
Thankfully I never had any more problems, and since the front doors of the theater were now blown wide open on Harper Avenue I began parking directly in front of them and walking straight in, limiting my friends' visits to 15 minutes before prompting them to finish up.


I noticed rapid changes in this building on subsequent visits, such as the disappearance of all the seats, holes opening up in the ceiling, and the stage curtain soon gave way to an unobstructed view of Maxwell Street after the Eastown's apartment block burned and collapsed into a rubble heap, taking the back wall of the auditorium with it.

Photo by a friend.
This palace was every bit the rival of downtown's houses of entertainment as far as architectural grandeur goes. It stood head and shoulders above its surrounding residential neighborhood, the tallest building in the area; it was easily visible from the Packard Plant.

On my first visit, the classical decorative draperies still adorned the arched walls:


The outer walls were also starting to slough-off all of their plasterwork, since the curved roof—which sheds water to the sides—began to fail at the edges where it would normally funnel water into now-clogged or missing drains.


A loggia overlooked the soaring foyer through a series of arched portals...


...It was probably my favorite area of this theater. It seemed like the most fashionable part, where Detroiters of yore might have strolled and socialized between shows dressed in their finest clothes, "to see and to be seen," as they say. Ironic that I would find such a place so fascinating, introvert that I am.

Photo by a friend.
One thing I found unusual about this space was that the architects had the archways done with twinned Romanesque arches, but the vaulted ceiling above them was based on Gothic arches.

Photo by a friend.
These shots were from after the fancy wrought-iron railings were ripped out for scrap (you can see them in one of my older photos, earlier in this post):

Photo by a friend.
Some of the original paint-job could still be seen on the ceiling:

Photo by a friend.
Everywhere you looked there was some fantastical face in the plaster...a small terra-cotta bust of Shakespeare even adorned the crest on the front of the building.

Photo by a friend.
Beaux-Arts garland was everywhere...

Photo by a friend.
Now here's a photo that I really wish I took:

Photo by a friend.
For what it's worth, I did all the cropping and post-processing on these borrowed photos however.

Photo by a friend.
Art-Deco seats, Romanesque arches, Gothic vaults, Beaux-Arts garland...and Mr. Krefft had noted that Eastown was also a "mixture of Renaissance Revival styles, including Spanish and Italian with Baroque and Neo-Classic elements as well." Clearly, theater architects have the most fun.

Photo by a friend.
Even Greek Revival themes found their way into the Eastown's design:

Photo by a friend.
Standing on the stage, seeing the Eastown the way Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop saw it:


Edge of the balcony, where naughty kids used to shoot spit-wads at people in main floor seats:


For some reason despite the increasing roof damage, the Eastown's oculus looked to remain in near perfect shape still:

Photo by a friend.
Up in the projection room there were still a few old film tins, some unspooled film, and a canister of Simplex brand projector oil:

Photo by a friend.
On one of my last trips to the Eastown in 2010, for some reason I ended up on the roof, which had a surprisingly good view from it. You never see any photos from up there either, really.


Looking south, toward the Kean Apartments on East Jefferson Avenue near Indian Village:


The campanile of Nativity of Our Lord Church, on McClellan Avenue south of Gratiot:


The big white tall structure in this next shot is actually one of the old Hupmobile plants, whose windows were covered up in sheetmetal long ago. The watertower and smokestack of the Gemmer Mfg. Co. plant is also visible at left:


The gargantuan Packard Plant takes up the rest of the western horizon, with downtown poking up from behind it quite dramatically...too bad I was shooting into the sunset or this shot would have been a lot easier to take:


Inside a mechanical penthouse, the theater's tallest part, There was a view across VanDyke to the former Indigo Ballroom, its now-covered blade sign still evident:


Giant ventilation fan unit:


The north-looking view of the south-facing houses on the east-west streets of this neighborhood was striking...


Again, the Packard Plant dominated the skyline from this vantage point:


Damn glare...!


Some souvenirs, unripped tickets from a show on September 28, 1973:

Photo by a friend.
This was probably the last show ever played at the Eastown; the headlining act was Canadian pop/rock band Lighthouse—as if to add insult to injury, heh.


References:
Detroit's Polonia, by Cecile Wendt Jensen, p. 96
Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock 'n' Roll in America's Loudest City, by Steve Miller, p. 45
http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/2075
http://www.motorcitymusicarchives.com/eastowncal.html
http://theconcertdatabase.com/venues/eastown-theater
http://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2013/03/25/eastown-theatre/
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Volume 45 (1930), p. 12, 20
Iron Age, Volume 122 (1928), p. 69
The Michigan Architect and Engineer, Volume 11 (1929), p. 53
The Detroit Almanac, 300 Years of Life in the Motor City, Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, p. 399

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