Corktown Shenanigans

March, 2008.

The Corktown parade is always on the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day. Corktown is Detroit's oldest surviving neighborhood, and is the city's old Irish quarter...most of whose settlers came from County Cork (hence the name) 200 years ago. The heart of Corktown is along Michigan Avenue heading towards downtown, and embraced both Tiger Stadium and the infamous old Michigan Central train depot.

Much of what used to be considered Corktown is now Mexicantown, including Ste. Anne's neighborhood. I use a loose rule of thumb: If you can see the back of the train station, you're in Mexicantown; if you can see the front of the train station, you're in Corktown. You can tell it was never an upscale part of town, and since it was all Irish that made it a good place to plop a dirty, noisy train station in 1910.

It still contains some of Detroit's oldest homes. As I said, the day before St. Patty's feast is the day when the denizens (or, former denizens) of Corktown come out to throng the streets with merrymaking and their green finery, and to partake of the juice of the barley. On any other day of the year, this stretch of Michigan Avenue was pretty much a ghost town, much like the rest of the city.

In fact it is quite the sight...redbrick-paved streets lined with nothing but weathered Victorian storefronts, ancient wooden streetlamps, and barren lots where buildings used to be. It could almost be a scene out of Dublin itself, were it not so spacious and worse for the wear. Ever since the Tigers moved to the new stadium downtown, this neighborhood pretty much dried up, except for the few old codgers who still cling to their barstools at the Gaelic League (that is, until the recent regentrification—as of 2010, I was officially priced out of ever being able to live in Corktown).

But this particular day in 2008 it was a mob scene of people with fire-hair and moon-tans, wearing leprechaun stockings and fake green bowler hats, waving the flag of the Emerald Isle; wizened old Celts with long beards, leaning on their shillelaghs; wayward, marginally Irish suburbanites on one of their yearly pilgrimages back into the city...all of them swilling Guiness by the pint and cheering as the parade went by in the shadow of the mammoth and tattered train station. Despite a heavy police presence, the beer flows freely and openly for this event.

The parade itself consists of various clans and families of the city's Irish, bagpipers in full regalia, obscure leagues and dignitaries no one ever heard of, high school marching bands, Knights of Columbus in full regalia, and that particular year, the Deptartment of Homeland Spook-curity tactical command bus. I don't know what the intended effect of this was supposed to be, but driving their big ugly mobile oppression unit down the middle of the parade brought a strange hush to the crowd. Talk about a f#$%n buzz kill...I think we were supposed to feel pride or something at the sight of the "Big Brother Mobile," and it's one thing to have police or firemen march in a parade (which they did), but nobody cheered for this. I could hear people muttering things like "what a waste of f@#%n money," etc. 

But when the Detroit Fire Department Band struck up a tune in front of Casey's (a pub owned by a firefighter), the crowd showered its approval on them and I heard shouts of "GOD BLESS THE DFD" from several people. If there's any one group in this city that has unswervingly and uncomplainingly shouldered the burden of preserving and defending this city in these dark times, it is the DFD. Under the worst of conditions and making the least hubbub about it, they have done their job tirelessly and effectively, despite a total vacuum of city leadership in those days.

After I had my fill of frothy brew and crispy corned beef pie, I sauntered down Michigan Avenue toward 20th Street and the old Southwest Detroit Hospital, which one of my ruthless Canadian gangbanger cohorts decided to test out last night. I was all hoppe'd up on Guiness, and with the sound of bagpipes still in my ears, I decided to pop into the front door. "The silver hospital" was a place we'd been eyeing for years knowing that it was vacant but guarded, biding our time until it finally showed its weakness.

But I guess somebody got a wee bit impatient and launched a maglite through the glass front doors like some Scottish hurling contest. In fact, the car that always sat out front as a decoy was now freshly graffitied and smashed up (see photo below). 

I knew that a place like this would attract much attention as soon as word spread that it was open. Sure enough, not 10 minutes after I had been in there I looked out a window and saw two of my friends walking down the street slowly, obviously scoping the scene as they went, waiting for traffic to clear so they could dart in. I decided to go downstairs again to meet them. By this point I had already seen the roof and snapped a few pics, and was exploring the 5th floor, which contained the mental health ward.

You must forgive the boring nature of these standardized hospital pics...I only was in there long enough to snap a couple shots, and mostly was concerned with what was going on outside, but overall the place was pretty amazing...everything was intact. 

This was probably the freshest abandoned building I had ever been in. I could still hear the clock ticking in the lobby, and there were newsstands in there that still bore headlines of Kid Rock's marriage to Pam Anderson. The building was spic & span...I mean, it was cleaner than my house. The beds were all made up, and the linen probably still smelled laundry-fresh (I didn't sniff).

Looks like there was a major "code brown" in this hallway, though:

Turns out that the reason this place is such a time capsule is because it closed down, I believe, in the midst of a huge financial scandal where the president of the hospital was caught funneling money directly into his pockets or something along those lines, driving the entire enterprise into bankruptcy.

So anyway, I couldn't find my friends...I had seen them walking toward the entrance. They must've been inside somewhere though since this was kind of a risky spot, they were probably nervous enough to be quiet, and easily spooked if they heard me so I quietly listened at a stairwell for several minutes.

Nothing. So I tried no avail. I even left notes to them in the three stairwells with the time and date, letting them know I was inside. Which I would later regret doing...

Time went by and I heard a screech of tires outside, so I looked out a window to see a limo speeding through the driveway up to the main entrance awning, pausing at the door, then slamming on the gas again and leaving. Odd.... I did more searching for my friends, and looked out another window just in time to see another friend, Chisel, getting out of his car. Again I went downstairs to meet him in the lobby. I sat my tired self down in a cushy lobby chair and we BS'd for no more than a couple minutes when out of nowhere a shiny new Escalade pulled right up to the front door, and we saw a bunch of burly mafia-looking dudes in expensive suits pile out and walk directly to the entrance in slow motion, like some kind of rap video.

I was already up and silently darting back to the stairs, and Chisel went his own way. I was already exhausted from walking around all day with an acute head cold, and from not consuming anything except Guiness all day long. I had been in fact ready to leave for the day so I could rest, but since I didn't want to be in a rap video, I (quietly) hauled-ass back up to the 4th floor where I knew I could hide easily, and–if need be–lock myself in one of the patient bathrooms with the heavy deadbolts.

By the time I got up there again I was so out of breath I could barely stand, and my heart was pounding so hard that my whole body was pulsating noticeably with every was like someone was rhythmically thumping me in the chest with a sledge hammer, or like my heart was testing the tensile strength of my arteries. I didn't know what had become of Chisel down below; it sounded like he only made it as far as the 2nd floor before he went quiet. Either that or he had been captured by these thuggy goons, but I heard no sounds of struggle, only silence.

All I could do was sit and listen at the stairwell. Eventually I looked out the window again, and the Escalade was still there. More time and silence went by. Probably 15 minutes later, I looked out the window again to see Chisel casually walking out the front back to his car, where he then hung around for a bit, seemingly waiting for me. I thought, "Okay, cool, either the Escalade guys didn't care about us, or they had caught Chisel and merely escorted him out." A minute later I saw my first two friends who came in earlier, standing out by Michigan Avenue again, obviously waving to Chisel.  What was going on...?

I realized that by some rare coincidence I had a cellphone with me, and called Chisel, who told me that I had two options: Try to walk out the front doors or wait it out, which might not be a good idea since the Escalade guys were still sitting there, obviously waiting for the police, or...someone to arrive. 

My momentary relief ratcheted back up into survival mode. I had to think of some way out. I could risk slipping past the mafia body-builder thugs and walk out the front...but I could also find another way. I knew that I could hide out but this held little appeal since I was sick, dizzy, and now dying of thirst, and there was a good chance that these cats in the Escalade were waiting for someone to come board the place back up in a few minutes (with me inside). Somehow, the idea of going out a window came to mind. The building was hopelessly sealed except for that front door. The only windows that opened were the giant round portholes in the stairwells.

It occurred to me that this was to my benefit since they faced the sides of the building that were not visible to anyone parked out front. However I didn't know how far the drop to the ground would I silently crept down to the bottom landing, not knowing where in the building the goons were, or if they were searching for me. I noticed immediately that the door onto the first floor was now closed, where before it had been propped open by a chair. Someone had kicked the chair out...was it the mafia goons, trying to lock us in, or was it Chisel trying to cover his own escape? Either way it prevented me from hearing any goings-on on the main floor, but it also covered any sound that I might make in going through that round window on the landing. 

I noticed that the railing in the stairwell would provide a nice foothold for me when climbing up into the porthole window. I did so and jimmied the window and spun it open, then looked down. Holy shit was that a long drop. It was at least three times as far of a drop as I was tall with my arms fully even if I lowered myself down it would still be a killer fall. And worse yet, it was all concrete below. There was a patch of grass not far away, separated by a short wooden divider...if I tried to leap for the grass I would risk breaking myself on that wooden thing, not to mention I would then essentially be attempting a belly-flop. F--- this...there's no way. I couldn't bring myself to do it. (As you can see from my first exterior photo of the building, it is a hell of a drop from even the lowest porthole window.)

I crawled back into the stairwell and thought of perhaps finding a bed sheet to tie around the window latch and use as a rope to climb classic is that? Or maybe find an attractive blonde Resusci-Annie with really long Repunzel-esque braids...? I ran back upstairs, urgency now mounting by the second, to grab a bed sheet. After all, I had seen tons of made-up beds in here. But wouldn't you know I couldn't find a single damn bed, now that I needed one. In a hospital, I couldn't find a bed. I ran up and down looking for one, and thoroughly annoyed I finally gave up and went back to the window. Chisel called me again, but I told I him I had to go because I was about to jump out a window, and hung up. He of course was a little alarmed at this, probably envisioning something off of Faces of Death.

I knew it was do or die, and I crawled to the edge of the porthole to poke my head out and look down again. I winced, but I forced myself to turn around and stick my feet out. The wall outside was brushed stainless and very smooth, and there was a nice lip in the window frame for me to plant my fingers. My throat was absolutely parched. I lowered myself to full arm-extension and paused, cringing at the fact that I was still nowhere near the ground. But I then realized that due to the slipperiness of the stainless steel wall I had no prayer of climbing back in now.

I let go. I was falling long enough for a good wind to build up around me as I accelerated toward the cement, and relaxed my legs and balanced my body so as to land paratrooper style. I landed surprisingly softly, on both feet, and that was that. I'd had harder landings from half that height! Holy crap Redwing boots are awesome. I felt those beautiful shock absorbing soles expand under me to perhaps twice their normal width, and rebound smartly. It was like landing on Flubber.

I immediately resumed composure and began glibly walking away from the scene of the crime, hands innocently in my pockets, circling the long way around the building toward my car, hoping that I could quickly get to Michigan Avenue and act like I was just some random passerby. Otherwise I would be walking directly into the Escalade's line of sight down the building. They would surely drive up and confront me, get my plate number, or even try to block me in. (Again, Detroit Police could probably give a damn on a regular day–not to mention they were now up to their donut-holes in drunken white people in Corktown–but I still did not want to risk the chance). It was a long walk, so I called Chisel again to let him know I had survived the fall.

I needed some f#$%n water, some food, and some NyQuil; I had been on my feet all day and was completely spent. Plus I had to work the next day. As I rounded the opposite corner of the hospital, I could see that there were actually two vehicles parked by the entrance (besides the vandalized dummy car), one of which–a Jaguar–was now starting up and pulling out directly toward me. I ignored him and went about my totally-innocent-passerby business, giving the driver a brief disinterested glance as he drove directly in front of me to merge onto Michigan (and undoubtedly to see who I was). Luckily for me he kept going, and after circling the block I went to my car and sped off downtown. The hitmen in the Escalade were none the wiser.

*   *   *

An important historical footnote:

Segregation in America resulted in the founding of black owned and operated hospitals, because most hospitals naturally discriminated against black patients and black doctors. Many could not afford to go to a hospital anyway. So several black hospitals were organized in Detroit, as you might imagine–almost 20 in fact. As the industry changed and modernized, smaller hospitals merged into larger ones; the Southwest Detroit Hospital resulted from the amalgamation of four such hospitals, two of which were black-owned. 

It opened in 1974 and closed in 1991. According to the Detroit Architecture AIA Guide Revised Edition (1971) by Meyer & McElroy, this building was projected to nearly double in size over time. The building's materials were "selected for lightness due to low bearing capacity of the soil and to resist industrial fumes generated nearby."

Viewed in 2017 from the roof of the Hammond-Standish slaughterhouse across the train tracks, the Southwest Detroit Hospital has been buffed of graffiti, and is being gutted. As of the summer of 2018, I noticed a sign go up proclaiming that a "mixed use development" was coming in 2020, with a rendering showing this building renovated.