The Urban Coliseum
I can see it from the highway. Grand Central Station, the old train depot, is one of the tallest buildings on the edge of the modern center of Detroit. Just outside of the heart of the city, I take an exit onto a main road toward the station.
In the first part of the 20th century, the seemingly unstoppable automobile industry allowed Detroit to become one of the most prosperous cities in America. Most of the buildings from this time were constructed under the impression that Detroit was an industrial metropolis worthy of Rome, and they are appropriately arresting. Grand Central Station, with its giant central chamber and interior pillars, is no exception.
In the age when trains were the most common mode of transportation, the Station was the point through which everyone entered and left Detroit. It was constantly overflowing with businessmen and families returning home to the vast suburbs that the city’s wealth had created.
But eventually, social and economic realities began to destroy the city. Racial tension and competition from foreign manufacturers steadily lowered the profits of the automotive industry. The rest of the economy suffered, being structurally dependent on Ford, GM, and Chrysler to exist. There was a minor crash in the 1980s, and Ford had to liquidate one of its major plants. The private company that owned Grand Central Station was forced to abandon the building overnight.
A friend of mine told me about the Station. He told me that he would often break into the building with some friends and that they would explore it for hours. I was fascinated, and resolved that I would go.
After parking my car, I walk across the lawn. The station stands before me, gigantic and encircled by barbed wire. Thirteen stories tall and almost as wide, made of stone blackened by weather and time, it sits among a few forgotten houses and an abandoned school. There are rows of giant doors on the front side of the building and each story above them has a set of eight large windows.
I stand at the fence, taking it in: those entry doors are now laced with chains, and every window appears to be broken. The fence is about six feet tall, and its barbed wire tips are flecked by bits of captured trash. The lawn in between the fence and the building is overgrown with weeds. I can make out “Grand Central Train Depot” in massive faded letters above the entrance.
I walk around the perimeter of the fence, looking for a way in. On the back side of the station, there is a raised platform about two-and-a-half stories high running parallel to the building. The fence still separates the platform and the building, and in between the two there’s about a three foot horizontal gap. If I can climb the fence, I can step over and down to the second story ledge and from there make my way to a window.
I find a portion of the barbed wire that has become detached from the fence. It hangs limply from the chain, and I’m able to push it out of the way with my coat. I look around nervously; I appear to be hidden from the road, at least. After carefully scaling the fence, I step onto the ledge. I edge my way along the corner of the building, growing nauseous from the height, until I finally find my way to a broken window. I drop down through it, into the second floor of the station, and my shoes slam upon the half-rotted floor with a nauseating sound.
Recovering, I take note of my surroundings. I’ve stumbled onto a balcony overlooking the giant chamber in the center of the building. There are two rows of four massive stone pillars on either side of the chamber. The ceiling must be 100 feet tall.
I imagine that this is what it might be like to stand alone in the Coliseum; the air itself evincing some worn majesty, silent and still as any cathedral (or grave). Light spills liquid through broken windows and drips, red and gold, down the walls. The pillars covered with graffitoed names and drawings of dicks and the floor matted with the detritus of those who left in such a hurry and so carelessly that they abandoned shoes, telephones, and typewriters, plus the trash and shit of all those wretched occupants since. In the mud grow dandelions now gone sick, white as ghostly orbs, no wind to scatter their seed. Hanging on the north wall is an enormous and decrepit clock, monolithic, its hands mute and frozen and the numbers falling sloppily off its face.
I imagine the floor below me as it might have appeared years ago; people hurrying about, assuming the spastic patterns of crowds, men with briefcases holding their hats to their heads as they hurry to catch their trains, others caught in that moment of jubilant recognition upon seeing loved ones who finally found their way home.
Yet here I was, alone, left in the theater after the audience had shuffled out the back doors. The building had once housed the future of some stubborn Yesterday, a promise, a narrative of capitalist progress expanding in a self-feeding and self-justifying process until, finally, implosion and death. Like the sudden shutting off of a valve. Its collapse stank of parable, but this felt a little too easy. What, exactly, was the trajectory of its ruin? Was it so easily reducible to the story I had assigned it? What lessons still lurked in its corridors?
I can see my breath in the air. The sun is starting its evening decline and it’s getting colder. I walk out of the balcony, through a corridor. In one of the rooms to my right much of the ceiling has fallen in. There is still a telephone switchboard with dozens of cards scattered on the floor, all caked in dust or ash. I take stairs down to the ground floor, testing each step for rot by gradually easing my weight onto it. It takes a full ten minutes. I walk into the main chamber, my footsteps echoing against the stone walls, sit down, and marvel at it all.