At the corner of Michigan Avenue and 18th Street stands a structure that attests to rise and ruin in Detroit. Michigan Central Station, built in 1913, was the vision of architects Whitney Warren and Charles Whetmore. Once a flourishing hub, the station stands abandoned to elements of nature and humanity. Yet, even in decay, the structure still imbues the city with its grandeur. While architectural ruin is prominent in Detroit, Michigan Central Station remains the most visible example. References to the historically important building are found in the works of authors who strive for realism in their depictions of the city.
In Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker, Michigan Central is a pivotal setting of the story in which the protagonist, Gertie (arriving from the hills of Kentucky) is overwhelmed by the hustle of the modern urban environment:
Gertie had no time to think of where she went or why. The press of people so hurried her up the long steel ramp that Cassie, clinging to her coattail, screamed with fright. Though she already had two split baskets on one arm and Amos on the other, she tried to pick up the child, but could not bend among the pushing, tightly packed bodies. (156)
Arnow poignantly depicts the sight and sounds of the train station: "Then overheard, like thunder speaking unknown tongues, voices boomed" (158). Separated from their mother, Gertie's children stand "on a bench, looking at her over the heads of the people" (157). The massive depot is not necessarily a place of comfort: "Gertie's feet were cold on the dirty cement floor, puddled with snow water. Gusts of cold from opening doors hit her legs and went up her dress tail like wandering icicles"(158). While the experience for the family in Arnow's novel is unpleasant, the reference to a once bustling train station is evidence that Detroit once was a destination.
The characters in Joyce Carol Oates' Them also see Detroit as a destination. Set in the 1950s and 1960's, Oates' story of a dysfunctional family reflects the state of the city. Arriving by bus, Loretta Wendell and her two children found that "...getting to Detroit was not easy. They began entering a city and kept entering it..." (71). The family eventually settles in the shadow of Detroit Central Station, but not before they are displaced from their first home which is slated for demolition: "They moved from the house on twentieth street to another like it on a street named Labrosse, still in the same neighborhood but closer now to Tiger Stadium and not far from the New York Central railroad terminal, a great gothic building with hundreds of windows" (116-117). A photograph from Kelli Kavanaugh's book, Images of America: Detroit's Michigan Central Station captures the scene from Oates' book. Taken in 1932, the picture shows the proximity of the train station to the Corktown neighborhood (35).
Presently Michigan Central Station stands waiting; a subject of controversy with no conclusion. Photojournalist Camilo Jose Vergara writes: "If you are down and out or mentally ill, this is a place to buy tickets to nowhere, to draw angels or write graffiti to pace, to stay out of the rain and wind. More than any other derelict space I've seen, this fine neoclassical structure says, 'We were once a great city'" (214). Detroit poet Ella Singer responds to the ruin in her poem, "15th and Dalzelle Streets."
at the corner of fifteenth and Dalzell streets stands the old union train station now abandoned; each shattered window a broken dream corinthian columns stand ancient graceful flanking corridors no longer crowded now dark now dank now dangerous forgotten gates where dreams once met and intersected for a while... tracks that lie alone desolate now rotten now rusty now raggedy broken bits of bottles littering refusing to become one with earth clinging like forgotten refuse look like an unneeded time table... the marble walls have become the canvas of urban artists the receptacle of poet prattle abandoned building standing mute as a still life waiting.... (Boyd and Liebler 338-9)
The work of these authors attests to the historical importance of Michigan Central Station. While ideas to rescue the station often surface, they have so far become realized only as part of its history.
Maggie Burbo graduated with an English major from Marygrove College in 2002 after completing her senior seminar paper on ruin in Detroit poetry. She is now working on an MA in special education at Oakland University and lives with her husband and four sons in Ortonville, MI.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Boyd, Melba Joyce and M.S. Liebler, Eds. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
Kavanaugh, Kelli B. Images of America: Detroit's Michigan Central Station. Chicago: Arcadia, 2001.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Them. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.
Vergara, Camilo Jose. The New American Ghetto. New Brunswick, NJ:Rutgers UP, 1999.