Devil’s Night came of age in Detroit

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DETROIT — Devil’s Night wasn’t born in Detroit, but it came of age here.

Beautiful and broken are the only ways I can think to describe Detroit, a city I thought I understood because I’d done some reading and I’d seen some pictures. I had no idea.

Fresh off my adventures in Los Angeles, I planned this tour carefully and arrived via Tunnel Bus from Windsor early on a Sunday morning. I had written directions in careful block letters the day before. My plans were stark blue on a white sheet of paper, except this: that I’d be awed, and afraid, and heartbroken.

Cass is a wide boulevard that hesitates every block or so over half-hearted construction and road repair that looks like revitalization but smell likes despair, my first indication of a city that means well but can’t quite keep up.

Detroit’s decline has been slow and painful. It has been punctuated by riots in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s. Street gangs took over in the ’70s, when heroin was king. Crack came later. Detoit became the arson and murder capital of the nation. Throughout the ’80s, setting fires was a favourite Devil’s Night activity, with hundreds of abandoned homes being set alight. In 1984, according to Wikipedia, 800 fires were set that Halloween-eve. Finally the community fought back with Angel’s Night, but the damage had been done. And besides, Devil’s Night was never more than a symptom. Crime, fires, and economic devastation had taken its toll. The auto industry was in freefall.

Detroit had been scarred.

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I wasn’t alone on the streets. Almost, but not quite. Two security workers climbed into a golf cart with their company’s name emblazoned on the side.

“You got a coffee!” one of them hollered good-naturedly. “Ain’t none of us got coffee yet. You watch out for that!”

“You betcha,” I laughed back. “It’s dark gold right here.”

The other men I met—it was mostly men out on this clear Sunday—were of the same sort. Black, in their 40s and with a lovely, drawling accent that was almost Southern. I made eye contact and smiled at each of them. Each of them smiled back and said, “Mornin’.”

The people aren’t heartbreaking. They’re wonderful. But everything else: This is a ghost town that still has people living in it. Building after building—houses, high-rises, storefronts and duplexes—are crumbling back into the earth, most with windows blown out, some with plywood half-heartedly nailed up. It goes on for blocks and blocks blocks. It’s not that there are abandoned homes: it’s the scope of this thing. The enormity. There’s no way to prepare for this.

But the people. In a coffee shop two miles up Cass, in a city with a history of brutal, deadly race riots, two veterans, strangers, one black, one white, struck up a conversation. “It’s a blessing we both got up, got a little sunshine on us,” one said. The other answered with a “mmm-hmmm.”

I won’t lie: I didn’t feel completely safe in Detroit. Most of my walk was a lonely affair and if I’d been jumped or straight out shot I’m not sure anyone would have come to my rescue. At one point, while I was the only awake human for about there blocks, a man in a giant black SUV drove real slow behind me. I eventually turned and he, maybe realizing I was just a middle-aged lady who doesn’t look like money or much of anything, drove away. At another section of road an unkempt man with tangled red-blond hair watched me hotly and with narrowed eyes from across the street, sizing up the situation. That last one had my heart beating with real concern.

And then, on Woodward heading south, a man with long, heavy dreadlocks, coming toward me in his electric wheelchair, suddenly stopped and took out his earbuds. “Do me a favour,” he said to me, and I stopped walking. I took out my earbuds, too. “Can you do me a favour?” I nodded. “Stay beautiful!”

I don’t know about the devil, but I can tell you this: There are angels in Detroit. Stay beautiful.

How rock’n’roll turned a Detroit theatre into a parking garage

michigan theatre detroit01I was really excited about my find.

“It’s the most beautiful parking lot in the world,” I told a local journalist during my stay in Windsor, “and nobody even knows about it!”

“Everybody knows about it,” he said. He’s lived in the area for a long time.

Undaunted, I took the tunnel bus to Detroit on a sunshiny Sunday to get a peek at the most beautiful parking lot in the world.

I was half-expecting to have to be sneaky. I considered how I’d talk my way into being allowed to wander around a parking garage when my car was parked 800 kilometres away. I needn’t have worried.

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The Michigan Theatre—built on land that had housed Henry Ford’s garage and is therefore the birthplace of the automobile—opened in 1926. Attached to a 13-storey office building, the theatre’s lobby was a sweeping five storeys tall, lit with chandeliers reflected on 12-foot-high mirrors. It was capped with rose and gold frescoed ceilings and had arched walls upon which cherubs lazily witnessed the dawn of film. A Wurlitzer provided the soundtrack to choppy silent films.

The Bride of Frankenstein would have been screened there, and Snow White and Scarface. Bob Hope performed there. So did Duke Ellington and the Marx Brothers, thought not on the same night.

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I arrived a few hours before the start of a Detroit Lions football game. Parking lots across the city had started to fill up with trucks and barbecues and hot plates. Coolers full of drinks were appearing on tailgates. A older man smiled at me as I walked into the parking garage. I was open-mouthed, amazed, looking at the ceiling in delight.

“I used to go to movies here,” he told me. He was leaning on his black Ford pickup watching his hamburgers grill.

“What did you see?”

“Oh, man.” He paused, laughed a little, followed my gaze along the thick straight columns between which half the great mirrors had survived. “I saw Gone With the Wind here. The Best Years of Our Lives. It was different then.”

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They were the best years of the Michigan Theatre’s life, but decline was just around the corner.

Those mirrors reflected the light from the 10-foot chandeliers. While once they had shone on 4,000 theatre-goers, that number dwindled in the 1960s as families bought televisions and started staying home.

It had become “a castle of dreams and an ocean of seats,” the Detroit News Magazine wrote in 1968.

By the early 1970s, the theatre was lucky if it attracted 400 viewers. It unplugged the projector and locked the doors.

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It was dark for years. The shine came off the chandeliers. The carpets went unvacuumed and the banisters unpolished till a promoter had the genius idea to bring performance back to the theatre.

Music came back with a vengeance, but these weren’t Duke Ellington’s crowd. This was a different type of fan, lining up for Aerosmith and KISS and David Bowie.

And they weren’t sipping cocktails.

They were crushing beer cans in the corners, burning the carpets with cigarettes and worse, etching their names on the walls, even ripping the chairs from the floor.

They were a little too rock’n’roll for the theatre. By 1976, it was over.

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What had been designed to be “the great showplace of the middle west” would have been demolished had it not been a threat to the structural integrity of the building attached to it. Eventually the tenants of that building gave their landlord a whole new ultimatum: We need safe, close parking or we’re out of here.

The doors were unlocked. The floors were levelled. Concrete ramps were installed and soon office workers and—on the occasional Sunday—tailgaters moved in with their Fords and Chryslers and GM vehicles. Someone put in a basketball hoop.

“Nothing gobbles up history like parking,” HistoricDetroit’s Dan Austin told the BBC in 2011. He also noted: “The site of the automobile’s birthplace, replaced by a movie theatre, reclaimed by the automobile.”

Now that’s rock’n’roll.

As far as Wisconsin

“The speed limit is 50 miles per hour,” Melani tells me as we take the fork toward Madison, Wis. “They went to the trouble of putting it right on the sign, so they probably mean it.”

That was near the end of the day, and I was pretty much letting the car make the decisions for me. Four states in nine hours: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin. We’ve gone and crossed a time zone and everything, but it feels very much as though we are still in the East; there’s too much civilization and far too much construction.

The kids have been peach-picking and to a county fair (that’s them down below, leaving the fairgrounds), but driving takes a toll, especially on the one of us who isn’t used to hard travelling. Today I hope there will be more relaxation and fewer tears.

Also, less civilization and, if we’re lucky, a little Prairie?

At a county fair in Michigan
At a county fair in Michigan

Smugglers, natch

 “The guard might ask you questions,” we brief the kids as we reach the U.S. border at Sarnia, Ont. “Answer clearly. Tell them just what they ask you for and always, always, always tell the truth.”

 We go through the regular routine: “Where are you from? What is everyone’s citizenship? How do you know each other? … Going all the way to Seattle? That’s quite a drive, isn’t it?” Then: “Do you have any citrus with you?”

I freeze, blanking on English for a moment. I just – just! – gave the little speech about honesty and yet here I sit at an international crossing with contraband in my trunk. Big, juicy breakfast contraband.

“I have some oranges,” I tell him meekly.

 He smiles and shakes his head. “I’m gonna have to take those from you.”

 Melani gets out because she’s the only one who can navigate the overstuffed, put-together-like-a-Chinese-puzzle trunk. She hands them over like a tithe. We watch morosely as they’re tossed into a huge bin and we’re waved on our way.

Also, I know I’m not supposed to be thinking of work while I’m away, but truly, if given six entire columns of 90 point, why not put a little thought into the main head?

UNEXPLAINED EXPLOSIONS MYSTIFY! Really!
UNEXPLAINED EXPLOSIONS MYSTIFY! Really!