As I wrote last week, in late June I had the opportunity to cycle in Detroit with Rudolf v. Waldenfels, a veteran journalist and author from Germany. He was in town working on a feature story about Detroit. This entry chronicles the second day of our two-day cycling tour.
On day two we met near Campus Martius in Downtown Detroit and Rudolf mentioned that someone told him about the Michigan Theater, a 1926 French Renaissance gem that has been converted to a parking structure.
“Is it true you have this beautiful theater that is now a place for cars?” he asked as we pedaled to the theater.
“Yes,” I said, “unfortunately it’s true.”
Riding to the theater, I gave him a little insight on the building and, since I’ve never gained access, warned him we may not be able to get in. As we approached, we could see some of the ceiling’s architectural details through the window casings and as expected, found all access points sealed by steel doors. Glancing in the office part of the building, I spotted a security guard and suggested we approach him to see if we could get in. Rudolf said, “Yes, watch the bikes while I go in to ask.”
After a brief conversation, out he came saying we had 5-minutes to explore. Upon entering the once magnificent theater, we were both speechless. Here was a theater with much of its ornate ceiling, proscenium (arch) and upper level seating areas with marble columns still intact. Below in an area that we assumed to be the main seating area, were cars parked on an asphalt surface.
“How can this happen?” asked Rudolf. “This is such a beautiful theater.”
“Unfortunately, this is so Detroit and Detroit doesn’t have much respect for history or preserving historic structures,” I said.
“This is surreal. Look, the stage curtains are still hanging,” said Rudolf as he was taking numerous photos.
Leaving the theater, we headed to Lafayette Bait and Tackle, a shop that has been in business near the Ambassador Bridge for 60+ years. Our route took us through Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, to Bagley Street where we stopped at Bagley Vision near 14th Street, another longtime Detroit business.
We spent time there talking with George Ondick, a colorful character who has owned and operated the business in a loft-like setting for close to 50 years. Some of the vintage frames seemed as if they’ve been there since day one. He gave us a detailed history of the building – including a tour of his living space. Quite opinionated, the 73-year-old Ondick didn’t hold back when offering his view on crime, running a business in Detroit and the root cause for the city’s decline. The more questions Rudolf asked of him, the more animated, louder and entertaining Ondick became. I could tell he had an audience with this foreign journalist.
After finishing a can of Vernor’s (a first for Rudolf) Ondick had given us, we headed to Lafayette Bait and Tackle. We crossed I-75 via the new Mexicantown Bagley pedestrian bridge, made our way through Mexicantown and pedaled down a tidy side street to the intersection of West Grand Boulevard and I-75. There Rudolf spotted a directional sign pointing to the bait shop.
We weaved our way across the busy intersection and entered a partially paved 1/2-mile lane lined with cement barriers, topped with a chain link fence. Like the interior of the Michigan Theater, it was a surreal experience. Here we were, riding in this one lane passage surrounded by a sea of cement, tollbooths, a U.S. Customs station and overhead highways feeding onto and off of the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada.
Lafayette Bait and Tackle is at the end of the lane in a building reminiscent of an out-of-the-way country store. Dean Aytes as been running the small shop for the past 20 years, and it’s been in his wife’s family for over 60. For the past 10 years his landlord has fought developer Matty Moroun to keep the property. Moroun needs the land to complete a second bridge across the Detroit River to Canada should permission be granted to build it.
“Germany huh,” a surprised Aytes said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes,” said Rudolf pulling out his iPhone to show him the story via the web.
Aytes then filled us in on the history of the place, what the neighborhood was like before the bridge construction, the ongoing court battle and how he’s basically isolated on an island of concrete that has caused business to fall by over 50 percent.
“Pay me a fair price and I’ll leave,” said Aytes.
“What is it like living here?” asked Rudolf.
“As you see, we’re the only ones left. It’s noisy, traffic runs all the time, night and day, but we’re used to it.” Aytes said. “Where else can I go? This is my livelihood,” he added.
We exited through the lane to West Grand Boulevard and crossed over I-75. The noise level, construction barrels, flashing arrows and the sheer amount of trucks and cars vying for position on the narrow streets leading to the Bridge ramps overwhelmed us.
“There is so much noise and many trucks here,” said Rudolf. “American trucks are so big and aggressive,” he added
“I agree it’s sensory overload isn’t it?” I yelled out while dealing with traffic.
“Yes, yes, very much so,” he responded. “Sensory overload is the perfect term.”
Once past West Vernor Highway, the Blvd. traffic lightened, and we enjoyed a leisurely ride to the Woodbridge Pub. Along the way we discussed our time together cycling in Detroit and his impressions of the city. He said he was struck by the divide between the rich and poor, the surrealism of the abandonment, our high tolerance of crime, the pretentious lifestyle of the wealthy and our need for material things.
And so ends two days of riding in Detroit with journalist Rudolf v. Waldenfels.