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State Street and Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit in the nineteen-twenties was one of the busiest intersections in the nation ("Exhibits"). Situated at that crossroads, the J.L. Hudson's Department Store, the grand old dame of Detroit retail, reigned over the heart of the city. According to the Detroit Historical Museums and Society website, in 1881, Joseph Lowthian Hudson opened a haberdashery in the Detroit Opera House, and the business grew with the city, eventually occupying the twenty-five story building on Woodward, employing twelve thousand people, serving over one hundred thousand shoppers daily, and frequently doing over $1 million worth of business in a single day ("Exhibits").
This store dominates the memories of generations of Detroiters. In "Alone in America," poet Margo La Gattuta recalls herself at fourteen taking "the Woodward Avenue / bus to shop at Hudson's" (Boyd and Liebler 206). Murray Jackson, in "Shore Leave 1945" remembers when both Detroit and Hudson's were a "big deal": "Rufus Muleshoe, Chicago Gimp, Prentis and me / in our dress blues on John R" are sailors on the town looking for food, drink, and good times in Detroit. They swagger down Woodward Avenue relishing the familiar sights:
…Sanders vanilla Confectionery,
streetcars running on rails,
Ten cents would take you to the river,
a zipped-up view of Canada,
then north to the State Fairgrounds.
Downtown, Hudson’s and Crowley’s
toe to toe on the other side of the Library.” (41)
Also looking back to the 1940's, novelist Harriet S. Arnow thinks of Detroit as "in the hands of a strong-armed, fatherly man," with great responsibilities: making sure "railways and highways were in condition to bring materials needed by war plants," caring for the arriving war workers, providing schools, playgrounds, hospitals, transit, cultural activities, and a clean, safe environment. ("Detroit" 295) What a brave new city was this Detroit, and the 13th floor of Hudson's gave one a view of its activity. Arnow recalls having lunch with her daughter "in Hudson's Department Store. We tried to get there early enough to have a table by a window in the dining room high above Detroit. There we could as we ate watch the life of Detroit below us" ("Detroit" 295).
In Arnow's novel, The Weed Killer's Daughter, the store's size and accessibility suit the main character: "Hudson's was a big store with a lot of entrances and exits, she could nip in one side, out the other, get to her bank close by, and be back with time enough left from the hour to buy something-if she could think of anything to buy" (Weed 297). Susie is a woman who needs Hudson's expanse and many doors to cover her secrets.
Tom Webber, featured in T.R.Peters's novel, Two Weeks in the Forties, has worries too. World War II is on. He's a student at a Catholic boarding school and has just been told that his father has enlisted in the American Field Service. Tom feels completely forsaken. His only consolation is in music. "He had never seen so much music in one case, except maybe at Hudson's in Detroit. On vacation, he liked to go to Hudson's and play records in one of the little booths they had. He recalled the day he had spent two hours in one listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony" (33).
The sixties changed everything. Joyce Carol Oates, who lived in Detroit during the decade, paints a steel gray picture in her short story, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again." Detroit is where "weather weighs heavily on everyone." Downtown, "shoppers shop grimly, their cars are not parked in safe places…. Ah! they all fear leaving Hudson's and being dragged to the very tip of the city and thrown off the parking roof of Cobo Hall…" (192).
Competition from the chain of suburban malls built by the J. L. Hudson Company led to the decision to close the store in 1983. Fifteen years later, the final decision was made not only to abandon the ship but also to sink it. On October 24, 1998, the J.L. Hudson's Department Store in downtown Detroit was imploded. Prior to this, local artists were invited to paint murals on the abandoned building. Maurice Greenia, Jr's "Poem in Memory of Artwork on the Hudson's Building" describes the place where "billions of footsteps once chattered":
the sampling repetition of interlocking lives/ in day ins-day outs
this building echoes and sings with lodged emptiness/ and lost times
and future all used up/ the past like a phantom mist of days lost
the tip of a hat/ a handshake or a kiss or a kick or a salute….
eventually/ the artist was forced to confront all these then and now ghosts
pocketsful of shadows, echoes, goofs, heartbeats….
The artwork at Hudson's comes alive as the building implodes: "a hundred strange dancers frozen in space" do
loop-de-loops/ playing amongst the
rubble and debris past the last blast of falling in
which gives way to the birth, death and rebirth mechanism/ over and over
again and again . . . . ” (Boyd and Liebler 143-4)
In Melba Joyce Boyd's "The Burial of a Building," even the ghosts are gone:
when they bring
a building down,
when they make
when they implode
a cistern of memories
into a basement grave,
where do the ghosts go?
another landmark gone—
another space left behind,
another hole in a story,
to collect bones,
are gone. (Boyd and Liebler 68, 70)
Downtown Hudson's is gone from Woodward Avenue but it lives in photos, in poems, plays, essays and novels and most importantly in memories of times long ago. As the dust rose from the implosion, covering downtown in black ash, I thought of the line describing Romeo and Juliet's funeral: "The sun for sorrow would not show its face."
Kay Hughes grew up in Detroit and attended Immaculata High School and Marygrove College. She is a teacher at Marian High School, Bloomfield Hills, and a longtime Hudson's shopper.
Photo credits: Top photo of Hudson's Building by Andrew Koper. Photo of Hudson's implosion © by Lowell Boileau, http://Detroityes.com.
Arnow, Harriette Simpson. "Detroit During World War II." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 292-295.
---. The Weed Killer's Daughter. New York: Knopf, 1969.
Boyd, Melba Joyce and M.L. Liebler, eds. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001.
Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
"Exhibits: J.L. Hudson's." Detroit Historical Museums and Society. 26 Aug. 2004
Jackson, Murray. Bobweaving Detroit: The Selected Poems Of Murray Jackson. Eds. Ted Pearson
and Kathryne V. Lindberg. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again." Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories.
New York: Ontario Review, 1993.
Peters,T.R., Sr. Two Weeks in the Forties. Detroit: XPressway, 1988.