Posts Tagged ‘residential lofts’

Detroit’s North End neighborhood is an interesting place full of history. It’s an old section of the city where residential and industrial areas seem to intersect. It’s also a good-sized neighborhood that radiates about two miles around the intersection of East Grand Boulevard and Oakland Avenue.

Bicycling through the streets of this old, historic neighborhood, I was struck by the contrast between the industrial area south of East Grand Blvd. and the farm like feel north of the Blvd. Like other areas of Detroit, it’s a tale of two neighborhoods within its borders.

The neighborhood’s south boundary area has a gritty, hard edged, industrial feel to it. There are expansive brick buildings throughout that were constructed in the 1920’s. Heavy-duty steel structures that support train tracks cut through that section of the neighborhood too. Many of the buildings once housed machine shops that fed parts into the burgeoning auto industry. Thankfully, many of those old storied buildings have now taken on a new life.

One of many small shops in the neighborhood

One of many small shops in the neighborhood

Many of the small manufacturing businesses that have survived the ups and downs of Detroit’s automotive industry over the decades can still be found along the old streets, but change seems to be coming. Young artists and others have been converting the vintage brick buildings found along the densely packed, narrow streets into residential lofts, art studios, performance spaces, etc.

This old building has been converted to residential  lofts

This  building has been converted to residential lofts

Tangent Art Gallery is located in the neighborhood

Tangent  Gallery is located in the neighborhood

Restored apartment building

Restored apartment building

The artists that have moved into the old places on the south side of East Grand Boulevard have created colorful exteriors paintings on the buildings. The large wall paintings seem to glow brightly in the early morning sunrise and late evening sunsets. The wall art offers a pleasing, uplifting contrast to the harsh industrial feel in that section of the neighborhood.

A rainbow of colors cover the side of this tall building

A rainbow of colors cover the side of this building

Colorful art can be seen on many North End buildings

There is colorful art on many North End buildings

On the north side of the Boulevard there is virtually no industry. The streets, once lined with homes full of families and viable retail businesses, have changed dramatically over time. With the city’s massive population exodus and other factors, many of the businesses have closed and homes have been abandoned. Now most of the vacant homes and abandoned businesses have been cleared. The lots where they once stood are now fields of tall, wild plants turning many sections of the north side of the Boulevard into soothing, country like fields.

Community and religious organizations have moved into that area and are creating community gardens. Some cover close to a full block of land. City parks have been adopted and revitalized, and when I recently rode past one, it was in use by families and kids of all ages.

A Michigan Urban Farming Initiative garden

A Michigan Urban Farming Initiative garden

Oakland Avenue Community Garden

Oakland Avenue Community Garden

Delores Bennett Playground, a restored city park

Delores Bennett Playground, a restored city park

The North End is an interesting neighborhood. It offers plenty of diversity in architecture, lifestyles, and landscape. It seems every street I rode down and every corner I approached offered a sense of togetherness and vitality. It’s good to see that the city’s North End is coming back to life.

One of many murals in the North End

Mural in the North End

Colorfully painted artist studio north of East Grand Boulevard

Colorfully painted artist studio north of East Grand Boulevard

Beautiful doors on the Jim Handy Building on East Grand Boulevard

Beautiful restored doors on the Jim Handy Building on East Grand Boulevard

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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.

Nothing more than a pile of bricks

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.

A former parking lot is now a field

There are a couple of beautiful, round chimneys on the site

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.

An open stairway leads nowhere

The one-time factory is now an industrial skeleton

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.

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