Getting inside Detroit’s Michigan Central Depot, the city’s 91-year-old abandoned train station, isn’t easy. The 18-story beaux-arts neoclassical train station is located downtown near the corner of Vernor Highway and Michigan Avenue. The most obvious point of entry is the front — snip an opening in the chain link fence, cross the courtyard without being seen by the cops, and you can walk right in through the front door. You can break into the building next door — formerly a warehouse for the Depot, then a book depository for Wayne County Schools until the building burned — and crawl through a long, narrow tunnel that leads to the pitch-dark parking garage.
The entrance of choice for us — the safest, easiest and most direct — is really just a hole in the ground. Since January 5, 1988, when the last train pulled out of the station, creative explorers have dug out the ground under one of the garage’s locked steel doors, bent the door under and piled the dirt in front of the opening to hide it from the road.
As we drive down Michigan Avenue, I lose my confidence — this happened last time, and I won’t feel right again until we’re in the lobby. I eye the blocks of shops with boarded-up windows, the abandoned restaurants and pay-by-the-hour motels, the cute two-story houses with charred fronts, and try to suppress all the terrible things I’ve heard about Detroit.
I come from a large Southern suburb of nowhere, a small city made up of shopping centers and split-levels spreading out from a cluster of old money mansions stuck next to near-segregated slums. There, stores and businesses don’t have worn signs written in mid-century fonts; the few old buildings that haven’t been torn down are unused, stuck out of sight far down in southwest Raleigh. I look around and just can’t believe that nobody lives in any of these pretty old houses. But I’m also shocked to see people walking casually down the street, kids playing basketball, an old white guy riding a Segway — a Segway — by the Wayne State University campus.
My fellow urban explorers (who, to their credit, are both area natives), don’t help much. “Detroit’s one serious piece of shit,” says Forest. “This is a dead city,” agrees Shaun with a shake of his head. He’s been in the train station dozens of times, he’s climbed the tower on the roof and picked out his favorite room on the eighth floor — the unofficial leader of our expedition.
I try to calm down. Don’t worry, I think. You’ve been there before. It turned out fine. It was amazing.
With an offhand comment about carjacking, Forest parks his little Honda Civic on a side street next to the dead-looking warehouse behind the train station. Bright signs from restaurants in Mexican Village reassure me a little, but that’s not where we’re going. I see a man hunched intently over some debris on the ground nearby and what little resolve I’ve built up vanishes. Last time, stray dogs happened by and I almost couldn’t keep going. But now there are three of us, not just me and Shaun like before, and this time I’m not the newbie. I catch up with them, who already crossed the street over to the wide bank of rusted steel and exposed brick that makes up the back wall of the parking garage.
Someone drives by just as we’re scrambling up to our makeshift entrance — we flatten ourselves against the corrugated steel and wait till they’ve passed.
Shaun disappears into the garage first. I’m next, then the camera, then Forest. It’s a few degrees cooler in here, and besides a tiny slit of afternoon seeping in under each door, all you can see is a dense, clothy black. I latch on to the sleeve of Shaun’s jacket, and Forest — after snapping a few photos of our entryway — tentatively puts his hand on my shoulder.
We walk like this, Shaun pointing out dangling cables and uncovered manholes with the flashlight. Still held by fresh fear, we slowly move a few dozen yards until we hear a voice coming through the ceiling. Someone says “Oh crap,” but we all heard it, and we all freeze at the same moment. There’s definitely someone above us, and I’m really ready to go back.
Shaun decides to lead us to the ramp that goes to the waiting room, where at least there’ll be a little daylight, and scout ahead to the passenger tunnel, which is hidden behind grated windows. He can’t see anyone and the voices have stopped — it must have been someone on the street — so we keep going.
Heading up the first two flights of stairs is always tricky. There are stairs that scavengers have stripped of their marble, leaving only a thin sheet of rusted metal that won’t support your weight; graffiti artists have put their spray paint to practical use and labeled many of these “bad step.”
There’s a sort of societal feel to much of the graffiti on the walls; besides the Sharpie drawings of penises, occasional swastikas and territorial scribblings, visitors have numbered the entrances to each ascending floor. While many occasional explorers leave their names and a date, one name appears on doorjambs, in the stairwells and on office walls most frequently. Catfish, rumor has it, lived in the Depot until just recently. He supposedly charged rent to other homeless people who sought shelter there, collected enough money to get an apartment, and got himself a job. Catfish is real, I know; he recently provided commentary for Gary Glaser’s short film on the train station.
On the third floor, we leave the stairs to peek through glass-spiked window panes into the lobby. Further up, we look out the window of one of the rubble-filled offices onto the close-cropped grass of Roosevelt Park. Once home to a fountain, the park now serves as a no-man’s-land between two of the city’s car-clogged arteries and the still-imposing osteology of what used to be the Gateway to Detroit.
We continue up the stairs, skipping broken steps and hugging the wall (the banisters have been gone for years). Every few floors we’ll stop and check the view. It’s late afternoon, around 5 p.m., and in November that means it’s getting dark. Pink and peach burn past the smog-softened skyline, and for the first time today the city doesn’t look like something to be ashamed of. Between the horizon and the train tracks, hundreds of semi trucks jostle each other in a slow over the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario. It’s hard to believe that this industry and activity — so much of it made possible by the businesses that operate out of Detroit — has passed the city by.
I’ve heard that the decline of the Michigan Central Depot didn’t begin when Amtrak took over the Chicago-Detroit route in 1971, or with the race riots in the ’60s, or even after thousands of American soldiers passed through it on their way to report for duty during World War II: It began after the Depression, when the trolley lines that brought passengers to the Depot from all over town shut down.
The three of us keep climbing, 18 stories in all, until we reach the rooftop. Up there, we see gorgeous murals and graffiti, the whole city before us on one side and the river on the other. We’re standing on the top of Detroit’s forgotten ruins, and at that moment, there’s no place I’d rather be.
The growing prevalence of automobiles — a product of the industry that put Detroit on the map — was eclipsing public transportation even then. Far away from the rest of the city, the station languished as train travel grew less popular and the surrounding area decayed. The Big Three killed my baby, I think. I’ve only been inside twice and the station already feels like a sanctuary to me, a holy place that shouldn’t be revamped and painted up like a casino, or salvaged as the new police headquarters. We need to hold on to some relics of Detroit’s greatness, revitalize the barely-breathing areas of town and make this place somewhere good to be — with respect to the past. Detroit deserves to have a reminder of its struggle remain, something more real than a monument or a statue. Since December 26, 1913, the Michigan Central Depot has been here. It deserves better than history — it deserves to stay.