Approaching the Michigan Central Train Station on foot, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a security guard beckoned me inside a chain link fence to attend a press conference inside the giant, rotting hulk was a surrealistic dream.
I step through the door. Mayor Mike Duggan is speaking about the Crain’s Detroit Business Homecoming IV. On September 13, the opening night celebration for 200 former Detroiters and 150 seats for sponsors and host committee members will happen in a facility that became the international poster palace of Detroit’s decline. It helped coin a genre of images sold in books, paintings and Getty images called “ruin porn.”
“What’s more symbolic of this city’s decline and rebirth than the images of the Michigan Central depot four years ago and the images today,” asked Mayor Mike Duggan to a press audience as avid as any I’d seen in recent history. Whether young or old, Republican or Democrat, online or traditional media, the assembled guests looked with wonderment at the building and its possibilities.
While the public won’t be able to see inside in September, the media and dignitaries looked around on this hot July day at the Beaux Arts splendor of the waiting room with 54-foot tall ceilings. Crain’s has for four years hosted ex-patriots to Detroit to come for three days of conversations and parties to explore the dynamics of Detroit and consider contributing to its vitality.
One of the wealthy, well-connected visitors to Crain’s Homecoming IV may have ideas and answers for the train station.
Duggan says in a speech at the train station, how perfect high end lofts or a corporate headquarters would be in the old, crumbling station owned by the Moroun family for the last decade.
Over the last four years the Moroun’s have invested over $12 million in windows throughout the building and a freight elevator to the penthouse level and electricity. The next mission is to fix the roof to stall the water damage. To restore the building to active use would take $80 to $300 million or more because so much damage was done by weather and scavengers.
Security guards stationed around the first floor guide visitors around pools of rain water and deteriorating concrete. People snap dozens of selfies, the thrill of being in a place padlocked for 40 years cannot be contained.
The train station could be a trade inspection facility or a transportation hub.
My mind travels back to all the art shows where photographers like Robert Stewart and artisans such as Scott Hawking show incredible pictures of beauty and destruction in this 104-train station that stopped shuttling passengers in the mid-1980s. Numerous art books produced in the early 2000s had full color pictures of the train station as the symbol of post apocalyptic disaster, the day after the car industry stopped subsidizing Detroit.
Numerous films were shot in and around the station, according to Wikipedia, including Detroitopia, the Transformers and episodes of Detroit 1-8-7. Most recently DC Comics’ divisive “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” filmed its arresting scenes at the train station.
The facility operated as a train station until 1988. Before World War over 200 trains left the station each day. As late as 1975 Amtrack put $1.25 million into renovations. But train travel couldn’t support the expensive building. The city of Detroit almost demolished the building but the Michigan Central Preservation Society was able to place the building on the National Historic Preservation Act’s register in 2009 and thwart the wrecking ball.
One of the wealthy, well-connected visitors to Crain’s Homecoming IV may have ideas and answers for the train station. All those who love old buildings and the toot of the train whistles will wish and dream for angel investors.
One hope comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation. which awarded $244 million in grants for high speed rail upgrades between Chicago and Detroit. Investors are putting together deals to expand a rail tunnel under the Detroit River to accommodate double-stacked freight cars. The train station could be a trade inspection facility or a transportation hub.
Southwest Detroit, Mexicantown and Corktown, represent one of the fastest growing sectors of the city and Michigan Central Station could be the anchor of the neighborhoods. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Lead photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard