I began in this town like many newcomers do, wide-eyed and dreaming of possibilities. But Detroit is a tough town. You bring any idea for a brighter, shinier tomorrow and into the room someone is always ready to knock you down.
For instance, when I first showed up, I found myself downtown idly musing about the train station.
"Aw, waddaya gotta bring that up for?" asked the fellow at the next barstool.
I ordered another beer and explained how I worked on a film crew once and when we needed a shot of down-and-out urban grit, guess where we filmed? The train station. When tourists want to see signs of what the rust belt’s ugly decline, where do we take them? Locals like to ignore it’s even there, but for the rest of the world, that the Michigan Central Station’s broken down façade stands out front and center as the pre-eminent symbol of our city’s decline.
Meanwhile, plans for the site seem to be eternally stalled. Matty Moroun appeared on the verge of selling it to the city but as far as I know, nothing has happened. There’s no "Save the Station" organization and no visible plan for what to do next.
This is a tragedy of no small order, after all, the building was designed by the same architects who built Grand Central Station. Ideally, something bold and visionary could be done with the station.
Either that, or it should be razed.
That’s when the guy on the barstool came to life again, "Yeah! Tear it down!" he shouted.
"Wait, wait." I said, "If it were renovated, it would cost something like three or four hundred million dollars. But we shouldn’t stop there, we should spend whatever it takes to make it one of the pre-eminent green buildings in the world."
Now the fellow got all ornery, "Woah, what? Detroit is lucky to get ANY kind of development and now you want to jack up the cost by making it all eco-green? What are you, some kind of communist hippie?" That’s when he took a swing at me.
I ducked his punch and pushed him off the barstool before continuing. "Yes," I say, "Because among other issues, Detroit’s problem is that it’s perceived as a throw back to the industrial age. They think we’re dirty, polluted, and frankly kind of backwards. Having an icon like the train station reborn as a geothermal, solar powered building with wind generators on the top, would turn everyone’s idea of Detroit on its ear. Bill McDonough could do it. He did an amazing job on the River Rouge plant."
At this point the guy pushes himself up from the floor and puts up his dukes in a classic Popeye pose. "Come on!" he mumbled, "Come on!"
"Or, I suppose you’re right, we could raze it." I said, trying to appease him in the hopes he’d settle down, "But in that case I would raise money to make a nice city park on the grounds, one that ran to the river. We could save a few pillars from the station and make the park sort of like classical ruins of old, say like Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. It would be a lot less expensive and the town could probably use a nice park like that. Kind of like what they’re doing with the High Line in New York."
"High Line?! High Line?! I’ll show you a High Line!" I’m not sure what he meant, but at this point the fellow was dancing around, winding up and getting ready to deliver one doozy of a punch. I tried to ignore him.
"I’d prefer keeping it and restoring it." I continue, "The ideal solution, as far as I can tell, is if someone made the renovation part of a bigger notion. Tie it, say, to a large endowment for renewable science studies at Michigan. The building could be filled with labs and classrooms. The tracks below would carry the students to Anne Arbor and back all day, connecting the two cities with the sort of affordable high speed transit you already find in many of the world’s truly modern cities.
It sounds crazy, but if the right people are approached and the right plans are put on the table, it’s eminently doable. In ten years, the station could go from being an abject grotesque ruin to being the home of world’s next big idea. Until then, it’s just standing there, silently looming over us, taunting us, waiting for the rest of the Detroit to sink down into its ruin."
By the time the drunk finally swung at me, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I’d honestly forgotten he was even there. His fist hit my head – ironically enough - with the full force of a freight train and I was down on the floor, knocked out cold.
Which is too bad, really, ‘cause I think he would have really liked my plans for Tiger Stadium.