It’s a well-known fact that Detroit once led the world in manufacturing. It’s also not earth shattering news that the city’s manufacturing base has basically dried up, leaving behind hundreds of abandoned factories and small manufacturing facilities. Many, such as the 3-million plus square-foot Albert Kahn designed Packard Automotive Plant on the eastside, have deteriorated beyond repair and are now havens for urban explorers and graffiti artists.
Other former industrial structures have been converted to artist and residential lofts or partitioned into smaller spaces to accommodate new businesses, storage, etc. Many others have been stripped of their bricks and steel supports and left as sad monuments to a once grand, powerful industrial city. One such place sits on Shoemaker Street near St Jean Street on the city’s eastside.
The large, low-slung decayed building is somewhat hard to spot, even from a bicycle. It’s almost hidden behind tall, wild trees and grasses that have grown almost the same height of the chain link fence that surrounds the property. But looking around as I rode that stretch of Shoemaker, I did see a couple of chimneys standing alone, in the distance and numerous piles of bricks close to the street. Spotting them sparked my curiosity. Like many fenced-off, abandoned industrial sites in Detroit, there are always holes in the fences and that was the case here. In fact, the fence gate was completely gone. So, in I went.
My first impression riding across the property was the size and condition of the forlorn building and the land it sat on. The building was basically a side-less steel shell, with 90 percent of its bricks long gone or lying in broken piles. It stretched the length of a football field, perhaps longer. Acres of open land, which I assumed to be parking areas at one time, covered the northeast section of the property. Sitting on the north end are a couple of interesting looking, round, bricked built chimneys still intact.
It was an eerie, creepy place with a cement staircase that leads nowhere. The day I was there it was quite windy, and the breeze whistled throughout the skeleton of a building. The wind seemed to move some of remaining steel beams or supports just enough to make subtle, melodic sounds. The rhythmic noises reminded me of voices, crying out in the night, much like mythical Sirens calling sailors to the rocks.
While poking around the site, I had an unsettling feeling of being watched by unknown piercing eyes. They seemed to be coming from hidden corners of the building and from the far end of the property where abandoned boats had been dumped. Keenly aware of possible escape routes, should wild dogs or something worse appear, I slowly pedaled on, exploring the site, wondering what this place once was.
“Every Man Dies Alone” by Hans Fallada
This is a well-written piece of fiction based on a true story. It tells the story of a small resistance movement conceived and carried out by a single man and his wife against the Nazi regime during WWII. Elise and Otto Hampel were a modest, poorly educated working-class couple living in Berlin without any history of political or insurgence activity. That all changed when their son was killed in the war.
Their son’s death outraged the couple. Using simple postcards, they devised and carried out a grass-roots civil disobedience campaign, denouncing the Nazis. The small crusade baffled and outraged the local Berlin Police. Thinking they were dealing with a large, complicated resistance movement, the case was turned over to the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany. Despite ongoing, intense investigations by them and other secret forces, the couple spent many years spreading their message across Berlin via the postcard.
The hefty novel reads like a fine, well-crafted mystery, but with a literary slant reminiscent of an engaging Russian novel. A highly visual writer, Fallada describes in vivid detail, the couple’s continuous flow of isolation, sorrow, despair, fear and the agony they are suffering. The descriptions of the Nazis atrocities, the inner workings of the Gestapo, and German prison life are riveting. Early in the story, Fallada created an atmosphere of intense paranoia where citizens, friends and even families are afraid of each other, driven by unknown, secret forces and general unrest in Berlin. This underlining theme is woven throughout the book.
Great character development and razor-sharp descriptions are a major part of Fallada’s writing style as this character introduction illustrates:
“Foreman Quangel has emerged onto Jablonski Strasse, and run into Emil Borkhausen on the doorstep. That seems to be Emil Borkhausen’s one and only calling in life, to be always standing around where there’s something to gawp at or overhear. The war hasn’t done anything to change that, for all its call on patriots to do their duty on the home front: Emil Borkhausen has just continued to stand around.”
Reading this passage early in the story, I thought to myself, “How can one not love this character and others, and the author’s visual writing style?” The rich, powerful descriptive writing style and engaging subject matter kept me thinking long after I finished the book. Interestingly, the fact-based story was written over a 24-day period and the author never lived to see it published. What a gift the author left us! The book is highly recommended.