Monday, September 12, 2022

Into the Belly of the Beast!

 This year I timed my arrival in Michigan for about a week ahead of the actual family reunion so that I would have time for some more relaxed, one-on-one non-reunion visiting with immediate family.

But mostly with Mom since she's clearly the most important person here!

OK, yes, she does sometimes read this blog so it's possible that I just might, maybe, be brown-nosing her just a bit here at the expense of my siblings to make up for all the crap I gave her growing up. On the other hand, maybe that's exactly the way I feel!?

Anyway - we, Mom and I, had dinner together a couple times, brunch together once, took a few walks together, and one day, along with one sister, (the one that retired just a couple months ago and is no longer constrained by work hours!) we went on a little excursion with shovels, clippers, gloves, and the Matriarch's lawn-chair to give Dad's peaceful hillside grave (As well as that of my Aunt and Uncle) a good sprucing up, and another day to visit a nearby military museum. (Several of us, some still here, some not, are ex military.)

But one day, with both sisters along this time so it must have been the weekend, the four of us, two sisters, Mom, and me, deliberately went into the very heart of downtown Detroit. The Belly of the Beast!

As you might imagine, this was not exactly my happy-place!

In fact, for the past 10, post-retirement years I've done a pretty good job of avoiding the mix-master chaos to be found in any large city but, well, shit stuff happens! 

Then again, truth is, it's reputation aside, our family has fairly close connections with this city.

One set of Grandparents immigrated here because the job prospects looked good. The other Grandfather was quite a prominent auto dealership owner in the area prior to the depression. My Uncle retired from Detroit Diesel. My other Uncle started as a press-inker and retired as Editor-in-Chief of a prominent auto news publication. My Aunt retired from the auto-adjacent Monroe Shocks. Myself, along with all my siblings and cousins grew up in areas around the city (back then we were out in the country but now everything from Monroe to Port Huron and Brighton to the river is all one big city-like mashup!) and a large percentage of them, and now their families, are still in the area.

The nearly 50 year old Renaissance Center (Ren Cen for short) in downtown Detroit

Oh, and Mom and Dad?

Mom earned her degree as an RN on a community-sponsored full-ride scholarship in an area college then worked in emergency rooms and later doctors offices in the area,

and in the course of a full career building some of the area's infrastructure and roads, in the mid 70's Dad supervised the crews that installed all the underground system support infrastructure, i.e. conduits for electrical and communications and piping for potable water, waste water, and storm water, for the Renaissance Center in the heart of Detroit's downtown. (about six blocks from where we were headed.)

Yep, that's him standing at the job-site in an article about the project published as the cover story in the May 1975 issue of Michigan Contractors and Builders magazine.

Even so, other than one trip in and one trip out of the Greyhound-station for a quick Christmas visit in the early 70's I've pretty much managed to avoid the down-town area for a whole lot-a decades!

Until today.

And yes, getting there required passing the boarded up and razed neighborhoods and huge abandoned factories with blindly jagged remnants where windows used to be that are the current media-driven image of the city for non-Detroiters.

So why the hell were we rocketing (well - rocketing might be a bit of an exaggeration given the limitations of traffic and construction zones.) into the midst of all this?

Why was I, a card-carrying nature-lover, hermit, and isolationist, (personal, not geo-political) barreling directly towards fumes, sirens, horns, cramped concrete canyons,

hordes of people, (This was all pre-lunch but the pedi-bars were doing a roaring, and I do mean roaring business since the patrons were making an inordinate amount of noise by screaming, shouting, cheering, and cat-calling!)

You have to blow it up to see, but the standard rate at this lot is $50!

and parking that chews up the better part of a $20 bill for a few hours even on a slow day?!


Well, we came because of this.

"This" is the first of it's kind in North America.

The Exchange, better known as the top-down building, is being built right on the border of Greektown and the central business district.

What makes it 'first of it's kind' isn't the 16 floors of high-end residential with some businesses on the ground, or the views across the river into Canada, or the fact that it's within a couple easy blocks of a People Mover station in both directions. All that is pretty common down here in the surprisingly revitalized downtown area.

What makes Exchange unique, at least for now, is the way it's being built.

You see that floor of clean white panels and shiny floor-to-ceiling glass wrapped around the base of the building and half-hidden behind the construction fencing?

Well it's completed now with all the plumbing and electrical already in place

and is about to be lifted up on cables in one piece and tucked up there near the top to become the 13th floor (The video in the news story linked below shows this very floor being lifted up just days after we were there.) then the crew will start all over again building the 12th floor down here on the ground.

Here is a link to a short news video about how this is being built (starts about 27 seconds into the 3:39 video)

Interesting for the engineer in me!

After a little close-up inspection of the building site, or as close as the fencing would allow, we wandered around the area for a little bit.

And yes, if it seems like there is a lot of other construction around here you're right.

Because of climate conditions it's a phenomenon of northern urban areas that there are two seasons, construction or winter.

If the roads aren't choked with construction zones they are choked with snow and ice!

 We could have climbed on the 3 mile People Mover loop running by a few feet overhead, which is fare-free through the end of August this year, and seen a little more of the downtown area, but we kept our feet on the ground instead and just prowled the few blocks around us.

But that was fine by me as The Belt is only a couple blocks away from the Exchange build-site.

This once forgotten little alley squeezed between typical downtown buildings in what once was the garment district has been turned into an open-air art gallery with restaurants and nightclubs jammed in along the sides for a little extra kick.

This little traffic-free zone was a nice place to just sit and chill for a little bit while the city roared on around us.  

(If you're wondering where the people are, this was Saturday morning and the Detroit Lions were holding an open practice at the Comercia Park stadium just a few blocks away. This apparently finished up just as we were leaving the area and that's when people started really swarming the area!)

one of the art pieces in The Belt

For a visit into the heart of a city this didn't turn out to be too bad at all.

A little bit of engineering.

A little bit of art.

A little bit of family time.

And I didn't have to do any of the driving!


  1. I loved cities when I was younger, but I have never been to Detroit (other than the airport). Fun to read about your family's connection to the city.

    I never understood the attraction of those pedi-bars and their proud public display of....something.

    1. Been out of cell service for a while.

      We lived right adjacent to downtown Houston in an older neighborhood and within bike-commute distance from work for 10 or 12 years. We rarely went into downtown, or out of the neighborhood for that matter, so, although urban living it was like living in a small community.

      In this case the proud public display was the underwear of that woman in the very short white skirt when she got excited and forgot to keep it tucked between butt and seat - not that I was looking mind you!

    2. OMG! I missed it! Thx for pointing it out; a *splendid* bottom if ever I saw one!

  2. What is a pedi-bar?

    Am MOST importantly...What about the Detroit Institute of Art?!

    1. Pedi-bars are bars mounted on wheels which are powered by the patrons through bicycle-like pedals mounted below their seats. Presumably the employee doing the actual driving is not also drinking!

      True, the Art Institute with it's impressive collection was only a few dozen blocks away, but the matriarch, while still being quite mobile, does have some endurance issues so we had to pick and choose carefully.

    2. Interesting. Do you know if they have individual hoses to the keg? And is that the driver in back?

    3. Never been on one, nor any closer than the photo shows, so I have no idea how they are actually set up.