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:
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.
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|
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, the Packard Plant was pictured on the cover of TIME, 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.
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. Every time one of the other issues was brought up, the image of the dead guy in the ice seemed to be brought back up again too. 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.
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.
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.)
|Photo by a friend|
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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 casual conversation about coyotes in the city.
Now, in the post-bankruptcy / Mike Duggan era of Detroit politics, the question of how—or whether—poverty will be addressed is still very much in doubt, since we still seem to want to address poverty and blight as two separate, unrelated issues...but despite gentrification being pushed as the solution to it by the current regime, I think Detroit is still getting to a better place as a community, to engage the issues itself. Even in the midst of the city's "rebirth," there is still the problem of "two Detroits," but as the Black Lives Matter movement is demonstrating, there is positive, believable change coming at the grassroots level.