Making MCS Fun Again (Part 1)

Summer, 2005. 
I know you probably can't possibly stomach another single photo of the train station, but hopefully you'll at least get a kick out of reminiscing back on what the place used to look like before it was totally coated in graffiti. Rather than bore you with the history of Detroit's most recognized building, how about a little action story? I did not have a camera with me on the day the events being told took place; these pics are from 2004-2005.

A friend and I decided to make a run at MCS, seeing as we had heard there was yet another movie being filmed in there for the next nine days. Some kind of basketball movie, I suppose. Cruising up Michigan Avenue, we could see that something definitely was going on in there—it was surrounded by all kinds of vehicles, and the mammoth arched windows of the waiting room were covered over with huge black drapes.

We had become tired of Hollywood's nonsense lately, using Detroit as an edgy backdrop for their crappy movies, then leaving a giant mess behind. Michael Bay was especially good for that. So we decided to sneak in and maybe f*ck with them a little.

They had tight security, but I was still confident that we could get in right under their noses. Our usual method of entry was pretty much out of the question, due to its proximity to the trailers, catering tents, and throngs of goombas dressed as cheerleaders, or bikers, or futuristic basketball players (apparently, this was going to be an extraordinarily bad movie). But I knew of a couple back ways in.

There are two tunnels that lead toward the giant train station—a mail tunnel, and a baggage tunnel—and that is how I intended to get us in without being detected.

(For what it's worth there is a third tunnel, going underneath Vernor at the viaduct, which used to be the old coal conveyor, but in 2005 I didn't know about it yet. Its purpose was to collect loose coal falling from locomotives through a sluice, and move it by conveyor to the basement of the station where it would then feed the boiler to heat the building. I don't know how big it is or whether it's even accessible, but there you have it.)

Anyway, the entrances to these two tunnels are fairly well hidden, and remote enough from the building itself so as to make approach a snap. We had noted that the security team had at least one vehicle, and of course, radios. I was not too concerned about them though.

My plan was to sneak in and up to the mezzanine level to be able to secretly observe the goings-on in the massive waiting room where the movie set apparently was located, through the giant lunette windows.

We walked through the somewhat flooded baggage tunnel from Newark Street to the rear of the train station at what now sort-of resembles a courtyard, but once was a freight loading area. We peered out from behind the barred apertures below what used to be the covered platforms...

We could see a security checkpoint outside the east entrance to the main building, where the pedestrian bridge crosses over the driveway. There was a metal detector set up, and a woman was sitting there on duty. The security truck was in sight as well, motor running.

What we did was to skirt as far to the left as possible, so that when we made our break across the "courtyard" and into the open basement windows of the main building, there would only be a couple seconds of exposure to any watchful eyes of security personnel.

Finally we made our dash across the debris-strewn open space and leapt into the large stone windows of the train station's basement:

From there we had to find the correct stairwell that led up to where we wanted to be, yet without bringing us too close to any people inside. We were still totally dumbfounded that there were people in here to begin with; it was the most bizarre thing to have busy swarms of people in this abandoned building that we were so used to seeing totally empty and silent.

In total it took us a good half-hour of searching, since basement navigation is difficult in a building this size. We came to many stairwells, but none of them were what we wanted; none of them led directly to the mezzanine level. For that, it seemed, we would have to actually go onto the main level and switch over to the main stair.

We came to one that did just that—opened onto the main floor in the east hallway right by the security checkpoint we had seen earlier. In fact, when we snuck up to the doorway, we could see the woman outside wanding people with the metal detector wand (because, you know, scary Detroiters might try to bring guns into a movie set).

Directly across the large hall was the doorway to the main would only take a second, and we could dash across there and be in:

But every time we poked our head out to see if the coast was clear, I heard footsteps coming and we had to duck back into the shadows. There was a folding chair and a freshly opened bottled water sitting perhaps 15 feet away that apparently belonged to some kind of usher or official person, and I was afraid they might come back soon, so after some deliberation, we decided it best to try and seek some other way up. Not far away, we could hear the sounds of the movie set—people talking, basketballs bouncing, directions being given over a loudspeaker.

Descending back to the labyrinthine basement, we hunted for another stair. We went in many circles, lurking right below these peoples' feet as they filmed their movie. I will say that this unorthodox visit forced me to explore some parts of the basement that I had never seen before.

At one point we could hear them driving motorcycles or something around up there. We found another promising stair, the wide one on the west side of the building between the former restaurant and café. We could hear people, but they were far enough away to where we could creep up to the top of the stairs and look around for a moment.

There were heavy cables laid on the floor through the hall at the top of the stairs, and they ran out of sight in both directions. In the rooms immediately adjacent to our position were random piles of equipment, such as PAs, black drop cloths, and other lighting accessories. There was also a group of lunch coolers nearby that had recently been eaten out of.

As we tip-toed around we communicated with hand signals, speaking only when necessary in the lowest possible tones that we could push from our voiceboxes. All the while we could hear voices no more than 20 feet away. When they suddenly started coming nearer, we were forced to find hasty hiding spots. There was a part of one wall that stuck out, and we pressed ourselves up flat behind that. The footsteps came right up to the threshold of the door of the room we were in and stopped briefly. We could see the shadows of the two people there before they moved elsewhere.

As soon as it was clear, we bolted downstairs to safety again. We came to the conclusion that this was not going to be a useful place to us anyway since there was no sign of another stairwell up. We retreated again into the darkness of the basement more discouraged than before, though my partner had snapped some hasty pics of the equipment we saw.

Wandering again into the maze of darkness that winds under the old Michigan Central, we tried to find any other way up. I knew a way must exist, but we had just exhausted all possibilities for getting to the two main stairwells from the basement. I knew there were a couple oddly placed service stairwells somewhere in the building that might be of use to us, it was just a matter of locating them from the basement (if they even extended into the basement).

Finally, tucked into a dark, detritus-strewn back corner we found one of the tiny service stairwells—seemingly hidden in a closet. This was the stair that gave access to the old telephone switchboard room—with a feeling of almost assured victory, we charged upward and gained access to the catwalk around the customs area, and allowing us a better view of the main concourse:

Trying to walk quietly over the carpet of glass shards, we made our way toward the mezzanine overlooking the main concourse. The entire space was echoing with the voices of a hundred or more people.

We reached it and below us saw the main concourse area totally partitioned off with a series of massive black curtains from the hall of pillars that led past the ticket booth to the waiting room. On the floor below was some equipment and many chairs set up as if it were a break area or staging area for large groups of extras.

Then, we noticed a string of people begin to file in from outside through the carriage entrance where the catering tents were. We ducked down as they came in, and belly-crawled through the debris to a better vantage point to watch as they went through the black curtain into the movie set area. There must have been 80 of them, females dressed as cheerleaders, males dressed as basketball players.

Once the coast was clear again, we continued searching for a way to the main mezzanine over the waiting room. We quickly realized that this was not as simple as I thought it would be, because again, there was no direct link to it from where we were. We wandered for another couple minutes until we found yet another small service stair going up. Our momentary excitement was cut short when we realized it only went up one or two floors to more isolated service areas.

It did allow us access to the main stair all the way up to the 16th floor, but that’s not what we wanted, and besides, there was some kind of flood light setup sitting there for some reason, which put us on alert. This area was obviously in use for something. I continued creeping up the tiny service stair, and as we came to the top I noticed that in a small room overlooking the west end of the main concourse there was more light, and seated in a chair was a bald dude, looking out the window.


He was apparently here to guard whatever equipment was in that room. I have no idea to what purpose they had equipment in this oddly tucked-away part of the building, but needless to say I motioned behind me for my partner to be silent. The guy was sitting no more than 10 feet away from us. We debated for a moment on what course of action to take. It would be easy enough to slip by this guy into the mechanical room that adjoined his guard post. From there we could look outside through some windows down onto the carriage entrance.

We did so, and were far enough away not to be heard or seen by him if he were to come out, thanks to several rows of shelves in the mechanical room. Out the windows we could see the catering tents and people milling about, some of them moving vans or other trucks around, and beyond that was 16th Street and the viaduct. We slunk back to our small stair, almost sure of our defeat—it seemed that this was our last hope of getting to the waiting room mezzanine and actually seeing the movie set.

Nonetheless we wandered some more on the floor we were on, through the many ruined offices and piles of detritus from where the roof had partially collapsed. Suddenly I came across a dark room that had a tiny hole in the wall, and through that we could see directly down into the waiting room! We had reached our goal with flawless stealth, and hunkered down close to the ragged hole so my associate could shoot some video. The entire waiting room was packed with people, some playing basketball, some seated in chairs watching, and some scantily-clad cheerleaders on the sideline. The floor was covered in a blue mat, with hoops at each end, and above were two massive globes suspended from the domed ceiling, apparently for diffuse light.

The hole in our wall was only about a foot in diameter, and the room we were in was completely dark, but somehow—maybe by the light on his camera—we were spotted. We had been there for maybe two minutes, snickering to ourselves and debating what would be the perfect thing to shout at these goombas before bolting out of there, when all of a sudden my partner saw one of the cheerleaders wave at us.

I didn’t believe him at first, then he said she was smiling, waving, and nudging the girl next to her and pointing directly at us. I still couldn’t tell, and asked if he was sure she was waving at us, but when I saw a security guard come over to the cheerleader and ask her what she was waving at, just before pointing directly at us again, I got up and ran. F*ckin' ratted us out!

So there we were, tearing through the nether-quarters of the train station over piles of debris and leaping down whole flights of stairs at a time to make our exit before the guards could figure out where we were. I was gunning at top speed and my partner was right behind me. It wasn’t long before I was slick with sweat on this humid 85-degree day, and by the time we got to the basement again I was huffing and puffing. The heat that day was really a bitch.

Yet I kept running and he kept following. Finally, after about five minutes of nonstop running, we came to the gaping arched windows that overlooked the courtyard through which we had entered. Still going full-tilt, I took a running leap up into one, but either I jumped too early or I didn’t have the energy to loft myself high enough (likely both), because my shin hit the huge windowsill, sending me toppling forward.

I caught myself before I did a face-plant by putting out my hands; however I was so winded from our rapid flight that I just flopped my arms out in front of me, fists closed—all finesse was gone. As a result, my right hand smashed against the marble windowsill full-force, and onto a shard of broken porcelain tile that was laying there.

I knew right away that I had f*cked myself up real good, and I could hear my partner behind me wincing at my gruesome wipeout. I rolled out of the window and kept moving as best I could while bringing my arm up to inspect the wound. "Just a scratch" I thought, until I saw the gush of red blood swelling forth from the gaping hole in my pinky finger, and quickly cover my entire hand. I could feel it dripping off me and wetting the grass.

I hurriedly wrapped it in my shirt and started jogging again. My heart was pumping like mad, so there was no stopping this bleeding, it just kept coming. I tried holding it above my heart as best I could to slow it down—Boy Scout first aid taught me that much, but it was kinda hard to run hurdles like that. Exhaustion was catching up with me fast and it was getting harder and harder for my lungs to negotiate the copious, muggy summer air.

I started feeling light-headed too, but fought it off for one last sprint to the car. It took me an excruciatingly long minute to figure out how to get back into the baggage tunnel that was our escape route. Finally we got in there and I just started running again. Where we had before gingerly tip-toed across broken planks and junk to avoid stepping in the ankle-deep water, we now simply charged through, splashing skankwater everywhere. I could hear my partner was winded and gasping behind me.

At last I emerged once again into the daylight and was grateful that we had parked closer than our usual spot. We sat down in the car, and gasping for air through my parched throat I tried to choke down some water I had brought. Of course, it was almost boiling hot from being in the car all day, but I drank it all the same as he started the motor. Our clothes were soaked completely through with sweat. I unclasped my hand and painfully pulled the shirt from around my finger. I had almost gotten out the words "Ah, it's stopped!" when there it was again, thick red blood coursing right back out of the ugly gash on the inside of my pinky. I covered it up again and said, "Oh yeah...that's gonna need stitches."

About halfway home, I realized the bleeding had basically stopped, and I looked at the wound again. I thought maybe it won't be so bad after all, but when I moved my finger it stretched the hole wide open, and I could see way down inside to bare muscle. Blech.

Five stitches and a day later, the old train station was as silent as a tomb again.