This was the building where Detroit’s deeply-troubled public school system once stored its supplies, and then one day walked away from it all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged by fires and the supplies that haven’t burned have been subjected to 20 years of Michigan weather. This city’s school district is so impoverished that students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework, and many of its administrators are so corrupt that every few months the newspapers report more of their scandals, sweetheart-deals, and expensive trips made at the expense of a population of children who can no longer rely on a public education to help lift them from the cycle of violence and poverty that has made Detroit the most dangerous city in America. To walk through this ruin, more than any other, I think, is to obliquely experience the real tragedy of this city: not some sentimental tragedy of brick and plaster, but one of people.
Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Box Elders and Ailanthus altissima—the “ghetto palm”—grow through holes in the ceiling from a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been looted. All that’s left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned and untapped potential. It is almost impossible not to see all this and make some connection between the needless waste of all these educational supplies and the needless loss of so many lives in this city to poverty and violence. In some breathtakingly-beautiful expression of hope, an anonymous graffiti artist has painted a phoenix-like book rising from the ashes of the third floor.
On March 4, 1987, at 9:20 a.m., a fire broke out at the Roosevelt Warehouse. It spread rapidly through stacks of books on the third floor. More than 100 firefighters spent hours dousing the flames with thousands of gallons of water, but the building was effectively destroyed. At the time, school officials measured the damage at “several million dollars for the contents alone.” According to Reginald Ciokajlo, then superintendent of support services, the district was lucky that most of that year’s textbooks and materials had already been delivered and none of the principals had placed their orders for the next school year’s textbooks. School and student records going back to 1918 were destroyed. Many books and supplies that hadn’t been reduced to ash sustained fire or water damage. None of the 75 employees in the warehouse at the time of the fire were injured, though just weeks before they had complained to the fire department that exit doors had been chained and locked to prevent recurring thefts from the warehouse.
After the fire, the Detroit Public Schools abandoned the Roosevelt warehouse and eventually started storing supplies at a new location. Three years after the fire, reporters from the Free Press investigated the abandoned warehouse and discovered “boxes containing hundreds of shiny, unused textbooks.” According to the Free Press, “Dust and debris covered the boxes on one loading dock at the multistory building, but inside the boxes, the books were clean. Also scattered throughout the building were unopened boxes of carbon paper, large notebook binders, erasers, index card dividers, typewriter ribbons, and other supplies, some of which appeared usable.” The school district vowed to investigate the situation at the warehouse. I was unable to find any follow up to this news story. I have heard rumors that under terms of an insurance settlement, the school district was not allowed to salvage the books and supplies, but I have been unable to substantiate those rumors. My attempts to contact former administrators and superintendents were met with dead ends. What seems clear is that sometimes a system simply breaks down and fails. The distribution of textbooks and supplies is logistically complicated even under ordinary circumstances, especially for cash-strapped districts. New learning standards like those adopted under programs like No Child Left Behind can make perfectly usable textbooks obsolete. The cutting of art, music, and athletic programs can also make existing supplies unnecessary. There was undoubtedly some failure to salvage perfectly-usable materials after the fire. Who, exactly, was responsible for that failure has never been determined and s/he has never been held accountable. All that is clear now is that thousands of books were devoured by a fire; their ashes on the third floor created a polluted soil suitable for trees to grow thirty feet up through a gaping hole left by the skylights that collapsed in the heat of the flames. Books and supplies that did not burn were certainly damaged by the thousands of gallons of water that had been used to extinguish the blaze. Other books and supplies were, in 1990, apparently still usable in the eyes of one Free Press reporter. And at some point during the 1990s, the heavily-damaged building and its contents were sold “as-is” to the reclusive self-made billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun. I haven’t been able to determine from public records when exactly Moroun took title to this property—Moroun uses holding companies to mask his real estate dealings—nor have I been able to determine who owned the property at the time of the sale. In 1997 the building went on the list kept by the City of Detroit’s Buildings & Safety Engineering Department for buildings slated for demolition.
In 2001, the owner of the Roosevelt Warehouse obtained a permit for its demolition. In the seven years since that permit was obtained, Moroun has not taken any deliberate action to demolish the building. The building was designed by Albert Kahn and Associates, the architect responsible for most of Detroit’s landmark (and now abandoned, though still extremely solid) early twentieth-century automobile factories that used the then-revolutionary technique of steel-reinforced concrete. Because of its construction, the brick and concrete Roosevelt Warehouse would be difficult and costly to take down. Moroun’s company, the Detroit International Bridge Co., also owns the Michigan Central Station next door, perhaps the most solidly-built building in the city (due to reinforcements made to handle the once-constant rumbling of trains underneath it). Like the vacant automobile factories that provide a constant reminder of the industry that built and then destroyed this city, there is no real perceivable permanent use for these two buildings. Moroun is, however, more than happy to rent the train station out to Hollywood production companies looking for a preexisting post-apocalyptic set: the majestic interior and roof were most recently used for the climax of the blockbuster Transformers. According to a recent article in the Detroit News, whenever Hollywood location scouts come to Detroit, they always want to see inside the train station. One scout claimed that the building has become legendary in Hollywood.
Because of political contributions, Moroun will probably never receive a blight citation or be forced by the city to demolish either building, but he certainly seems content to allow nature and criminals to do the work for him. The buildings have been completely stripped of anything valuable. The windows in both are now broken or missing, hastening the effects of nature inside during Michigan’s harsh winters and hot summers. No real effort is made to secure either building from trespassers. The doors stand wide open. The interiors and exteriors of both buildings are covered with graffiti. Homeless men live in both buildings. In my visits to the warehouse, I have seen people using crack and (once) a prostitute giving a man a blowjob amid the squalor. I have even heard of guys playing pickup games of ice hockey in the frozen, flooded basement of the warehouse.
Moroun’s real interest in both the train station and the book depository/Roosevelt Warehouse likely has nothing to do with the buildings themselves, but the importance of keeping the land they sit on in his real estate portfolio. Moroun owns the nearby Ambassador Bridge, one of only two privately-owned border crossings along the northern border. The bridge is a huge factor in Moroun’s vast wealth: more than 25 percent of all merchandise traded between the United States and Canada crosses it, and every truck pays a hefty toll. Because of the high volume of traffic, the bridge’s aging condition, and homeland security concerns, both the United States and Canada are investigating new locations for another international border crossing, including a second bridge downriver, and an old freight train tunnel under the Detroit River. The mouth of that tunnel is about 1500 feet from the Michigan Central Station and the Roosevelt Warehouse. Both sit along the road any trucks would take from a potential border crossing to the nearest highway. It must be presumed that he bought these two properties not because he has any plan to actually use them, but simply to control as much land around the proposed tunnel crossing as possible to prevent it from becoming a viable competition to his bridge. Wayne County land records indicate that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Moroun’s companies bought dozens of land parcels surrounding the train station and warehouse from shell companies for $1 each. He likely owns all these properties simply to maintain his monopoly.
So for seven years, Moroun’s company has held a permit for the demolition of the former Detroit Public Schools book depository, but he has done nothing but neglect the building. Were the warehouse to be destroyed, like any other of the hundreds or even thousands that are torn down in Detroit every year, its bricks, its crushed concrete, rebar, and its contents would be hauled away in garbage trucks to be dumped in a landfill somewhere, covered up by more trash, and lost to us, forever. Instead, because this is Detroit, it just sits there. It is left unsecured, open to scrappers, looters, crackheads, graffiti artists, suburban taggers, vandals, prostitutes, and local bloggers. Books that once sat in boxes on shelves are now strewn about the floor in post-apocalyptic confusion. Perhaps the missing shelves were made of some metal worth hauling to the scrapyard for a few dollars that could be traded for crack. Who knows, maybe some kids just got bored one day and wanted to make a big mess. There is no longer any organization in this warehouse. There are no longer any supplies here that appear “usable” in the sense they would have been in 1990. Here, chaos will reign until it all is destroyed.
So in the end, the answer to why this happened is long and complicated. In the briefest possible terms: there was a fire, and no one knows why no one saved what could be saved, and then a man bought the building and let it rot so he could keep making billions of dollars. There is no future for these supplies or books, other than to decay and provide nourishment for the trees and plants that will eventually take over this building. What has surprised me when I’ve visited this site is how little things have decayed over the past twenty years. Textbooks exposed to the elements for years still smell like the textbooks you remember from school. You can still read every page. Books and paper wrapped in plastic have hardly faded. Colored chalk slowly disintegrates in rainwater, forming rivers of color along the floor. Maps of the Soviet Union remind us of how much the world has changed in twenty years, even if the plastic-wrapping around them has kept them pretty much the same. Pages from books charred in the fire flit around in gusts of wind, some of them with color photographs of children providing a glimpse into some lost moment: a smile, an exercise routine, a street somewhere that needs to be crossed.
Despite the ugliness that is inherent in these photos: the ugliness of poverty, the tragedy of loss, and waste, this building still lets us glimpse something beautiful. In Detroit this beauty is uniquely sustained. In other cities, buildings like this would be turned into luxury loft condominiums. They would be knocked down so that something new could be built in their place, their contents dragged off to a landfill and forgotten. Here we get to see what the world will look like when we’re gone. We see that the world will indeed go on, and there is a certain beauty to nature’s indifference. Someday the books will tumble from the shelves at the Bodleian and there will be no one to replace them. Someday even sooner than that, books themselves may become an anachronism, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets. It is the book lover, I think, who is most pained by these images. Even as we sit here at our computers, we pine for the feeling of pressed pulp between our fingers. We have a hard time accepting that all our words and knowledge might one day feed the trees.
Text copyright 2008, James D. Griffioen