July 14, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Before Sunday, I’m pretty sure I’d never taken a picture of Michigan Central Station.
But let’s backtrack.
Summer is the season for having friends in town. This weekend we entertained a friend of mine from college and his lovely bride-to-be. Eli’s from Northern Michigan, and he’s seen plenty of Detroit before, including once with me, almost six years ago, when all I knew how to do in Detroit was ride the People Mover, drive past the Station (and back then, Tiger Stadium) and eat at New Hellas in Greektown.
Before I had ever set foot in one of Detroit’s mouldering towers of famous decay, Eli used drive out to abandoned houses in the slum-pastoral outskirts of Beloit, Wisconsin and clamor around. Once I went with him. I fished out a down vest in an early-’80s duck-hunt palette, took it home and washed it a couple of times, and wore it faithfully for the next four years. Here I am sporting it in an abandoned barn Eli took us to near his family’s home in Burdickville:
Pretty sharp, right?
Now we’re all grown up. Eli and I are both getting married soon. (Eli’s getting married on a GOAT FARM. GOAT. FARM. Why didn’t I have that idea?) Eli still rustles around in old empty houses. I mostly sit around at home writing about how I feel kind of funny about old empty old houses (or newspaper offices, or blighted barns).
And the empty old thing that makes me feel funniest of all? It’s definitely Michigan Central.
But after we went to Belle Isle (where we saw, by the way, this incredible Black-Crowned Night Heron, who showed up at the koi pond at feeding time:)
And after we went to Grand Trunk for Michigan craft beers on draft, and Sala Thai in Eastern Market, and after I stepped away to pee, I came back to our table and heard Scott explaining the allure of the Station to our visitors. So off we went to see it.
I think maybe I spent so long obsessing over Detroit as an abstract idea, and so long adoring the Station for, you know, that giant, toothless, Rome-recalling Beaux-Arts metaphor of civilization’s decline that it is, that today I want to forget I was ever that person.
The Train Station was it for me, a suburban teenager in love with the idea of Detroit, a kid who was genuinely curious about the city but never managed to get much deeper or more deviant than taking bad black-and-white photos of the houses around my dad’s factory and sneaking into 5th Avenue at Comerica Park to see some lame blues band when I was underage.
Now that I am all grown up and drink legitimately at decent bars and think I might know a thing or two, the Train Station has become this place for people who don’t get it. It’s a secret place that used to be yours and now everyone goes there. Time started publishing photo essays about it and then people started asking questions like “Why don’t you buy one of those $1 houses I heard about?” or “Hey, wanna hear this great idea that might save Detroit?” and you never wanted to see a photograph of Michigan Central ever again.
This, of course, is nonsense, and unfair. There is nothing and nowhere like the Train Station. I have spent a lot of time this year trying to be less unfair about Detroit. To myself and to others. For God’s sake, it’s just a city people live in.
So this weekend I let myself take some pictures of the Train Station.
At first I was concerned. Earlier in the day, Eli’s fiancee told us that in all fairness, and for all our effort to show how people get Detroit wrong, she genuinely felt like Detroit was really, truly falling apart. We tried to leap to the city’s defense, but unfortunately a bum on the corner started shooting up heroin at that exact moment, and our argument was moot.
But the Train Station gave us its best. A gang of kids on bicycles rode up and asked us what the building was and if it was haunted. Someone on the roof waved down at them and they shouted, “WHO WOULD GO IN THERE? ISN’T IT HAUNTED? IT LOOKS SCARY!” They eventually concluded that the people inside the buildings were probably ghost hunters. With cameras.
We said, “Yes, we’re sure they have cameras.”
And in some ways, they were probably ghost hunters, too.
Just then, we heard a float of brass. A man showed up from inside the Station and played a little trumpet serenade at the central door. (For some reason he was also holding aloft a big sweep broom.)
So this picture doesn’t feel weird to me, although at first glance it still gives me a twinge. (“Oh, hello! We just drove in from out of town to see some devastation! Here, take our picture!”)
It felt like the way photos began. Here. Here we were. We saw this guy playing a trumpet and kids on bikes.
And the next time I see it, it will remind me of Michigan Central as a sunset playground, full of music and ghost hunters, object of awe for careening kids on bicycles, not decrepit symbol of bygone, forgotten city.