"Hey man. What do you do? Why are you taking pictures?" shouts a man from a car parked in the lot of Motor City Grill on Grand River
These days, I am particularly drawn to Detroit in the darkest hours of the night. I travel with my camera through a crumbling cityscape. As I drive slowly along, the car seems to float when the road is smooth. In the dark the headlights of the car reveal things in a new way: gentle light falling on the counter of a soul food restaurant; an eerie corner house with its collapsed roof, its front yard full of weeds; the Starlight Temple of Truth lit by the moon; and eventually, the narrow sliver of pink announcing that dawn is approaching, seen on the horizon beyond abandoned houses.
But most striking are the city's eerie emptiness, its desolation, and feeling of menace. Bags blown across the street by the wind resemble small dark animals. The sound they make as they scratch the pavement makes me think someone is sneaking up on me. As I stand on the roof of my briefly parked car, my giant shadow projected on the ground scares me. On Mack Avenue the enormous head of a steer atop the boxy ruin of a former Dairy Queen reminds me of Goya's Caprichos. The neon-lit Coney Island, a 24-hour fast food franchise, is cheerful from the outside. Inside, though, people fall asleep, the tables before them strewn with styrofoam food containers. On the wall of a building on Hamilton Avenue there is a mural of Trayvon Martin done in the manner of the Obama “Hope” poster by Shepard Fairey. Trayvon's eyes, red at the center, look haunting.
Distant streetlights, trees, and shadowy buildings give depth to the views I see through my camera. The blinking lights of my car make distant stop signs shine and give an orange tonality to nearby structures. The green of the traffic lights projects much farther than the reds, casting an Expressionist hue.
A few buildings keep their lights on. I can see the yellowish empty counter inside Ellynns, a soul food restaurant. The stairway in an apartment building is lit, as well as a bedroom. At 3:30 AM, I watch an elderly woman leave her house and drive away. This otherwise banal event seems strikes me as mysterious, portentous. At 4 AM, I see a woman riding a motorized wheelchair along Mack Avenue. Her name is Kim. "Going to get cigarettes," she tells me, adding "Hoping to find someone to hang out with or something." A streetwalker sits on a ledge of a former classical revival bank waiting for customers. When she sees me photographing the building from the car roof, she picks up her cell phone. I drive away to avoid a confrontation with her pimp.
It was near freezing in the Mexican Town district. I saw a dark shadow that brought to mind a large animal. Instead it was a homeless man, his belly exposed. Next to him a huge green garbage truck was lifting containers from a restaurant and compacting the trash. On West Congress Street, downtown, I met another homeless man sleeping inside the guardhouse of a parking lot, a space heater next to him. Aroused into wakefulness, he ordered me out, saying, "This is private property. Don't you know what private property means?"
The former Michigan Central Railroad Station is the nation's most famous ruin. The billionaire owner Manuel Moroun, in a public relations move, has so far installed three new windows on its 14th floor and an enormous American flag on the flag pole by its monumental entrance, and whitewashed the big letters at the top of the building that once read "Save the Depot," have been painted over. His further plans for the station, if any are not known.
The few people I saw at night walked slowly, dragging their feet as if lacking a destination. But at dawn some people already stood waiting at bus stops. "I don't want you to say anything bad about Detroit," a woman on Fenkell Avenue said to me as she stopped me from photographing the former Wonderland Child Care Center.
Perhaps Detroit's neighborhoods will rise again and the desolate street scape that made such an impression on me will be gone. That would be a cause for celebration. But I will always remember the nights, when gliding along the ruined streets of Motown I felt I was somewhere out of this world.