Friday, July 30, 2010

Under-appreciated Belle Isle still a Detroit classic

It'd been about 30 years since I last visited Belle Isle. A New Year's Day fun run, I believe it was. Thirty years! Because of that, my drive around the island last week was like visiting foreign land.

The James Scott Memorial Fountain, the golf course, the Detroit Yacht Club, even the beach were all new to me. The view of the Detroit skyline from Belle Isle is probably one of the city's most famous angles, but I'd never seen it for myself.

Finally I did, as well as the fishing piers, picnic areas, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and nature center. But I also saw broken playground equipment, a weed-infested baseball field, and in general, a priceless chunk of land that too many people have chosen to ignore.

Belle Isle really should be one of the coolest things Detroit has going. Unfortunately, touring the island - like touring much of Detroit itself - makes you wonder why it isn't more. And if you're old enough, maybe it also makes you remember what it used to be.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'Harold and Kumar' brings Christmas in July to Detroit

'Harold and Kumar' is filming in Detroit.
A block of downtown Detroit will become a street in Manhattan this week as filmmakers create the third 'Harold and Kumar' movie.

Congress Street between Griswold and Shelby is being decorated for the Christmas season, complete with holly strands stretching across the road, icicle lights hanging from building awnings, and enormous wreaths dressing up the side of the Penobscot Building.

According to a guy working security,

A quick (very quick) look at the Manoogian Mansion

After reading daily references to the place for nearly a decade, it seemed overdue that I finally get a first-hand look at Detroit's most famous home: the Manoogian Mansion.

For anybody who hasn't had the pleasure of driving along Dwight Street on Detroit's near-east side, let me help you. Have you ever driven along Parke Lane on the north end of Grosse Ile, where those multi-million dollar homes stand between the road and the river? It's strikingly similar to that. 

The Manoogian is a

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Visiting the old Bob-Lo Island docks in Detroit

Word has it the S.S. Ste. Claire is docked at U.S. Steel in Ecorse undergoing restoration. The S.S. Columbia is being restored as well, and will one day service the Hudson River in New York.

Both used to reside here, at the foot of Clark Street in what wasn't always a mostly abandoned section of southwest Detroit. Driving out of downtown, the old docks are now sort of a Gateway into Delray (Spanish for "place of very tall weeds"). It feels strange somehow that the Bob-Lo Island sign is still painted on the wall.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A look inside Tallet's Gym on the 'Real Steel' set

A boxing ring fills a room in the old firehouse for filming of 'Real Steel'.
The sign announcing Tallet's Gym that hung outside over Larned Street has been removed.

But filming of the movie 'Real Steel' continued inside the old firehouse across from Cobo Hall late last week, and we managed to peak in for a quick look.

Not sure how this will get used in the movie, but it seems in complete contrast to what the movie is supposed to be about. By all reports, 'Real Steel', starring Hugh Jackman, is a sci-fi movie in which robots take the place of humans as boxers. I think Jackman is a trainer. Anyway, the gym they've built at the firehouse looks anything but futuristic. More like an old-school gym that would've been used to film 'Rocky'.

Click here to see what the sign outside the building looked like.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Let D Tours show you a different side of Detroit

D Tours is located in the Compuware Building.
Not a fan of trying to navigate the roads in downtown Detroit? Want to get to know the city beyond the two or three blocks surrounding the ballparks? Maybe you should check out D Tours.

This little start-up company - founded by a guy they call Mr. Detroit, Mark Denson - takes people on tours of the downtown area, from walking tours that stop in at a handful of bars, to bus tours that serve up info on some of Detroit's historical landmarks. There's even a Segway tour, which we assume refrains stopping at any beer halls.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Something's brewing at the old United Artists Building

That long, yellow chute leading from the 18th floor of the United Artists Building to a Dumpster on the ground was my first clue. Something's happening at the United Artists Building.

Unfortunately, not even our friends at the neighboring Bagley Bar could offer up any details. When the construction guys stop in for lunch, they keep tight-lipped about the project.

JennFriend #9: Hard Hat Guy

It's been a while since we've inducted anybody into the JennFriends, but I couldn't pass this one up.

As work on a renovated Capitol Park continues, we noticed this guy sporting the winged Michigan helmet, construction style. (And based on his animated way of speaking, he appears steadfast in his belief that Rich Rod is the wrong guy for the job.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Spice up lunch with a bowl of chili and an arrest scene

It's Thursday. I'm at the Grand Trunk Pub eating chili. Nice, by the way.

Two guys walk past the sidewalk patio where I'm sitting and are approached by a female cop. She says, "Excuse me, sir," and one of the guys blows her off and keeps walking. She tries again, but he ignores her. She doesn't pursue him; instead she stays with the guy's friend, who stopped without incident.

That's him in the picture, being cuffed by the cop's partner, who arrived a few minutes later. By the time they lower the guy into the back of a squad car, he's crying pretty good.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Detroit Riverside Hotel (you'll always be the Pontchartrain to us)

It's sad, really. The Detroit Riverside Hotel (be honest, have you ever heard that name before?) sort of gets lost in the shuffle whenever people do a head-count of "Detroit buildings that aren't used." Maybe its status as a vacant building isn't old enough to qualify, kind of like Brennan Bosch and his batting average.

Anyway, the Riverside Hotel is more commonly remembered as the Pontchartrain Hotel, a 1960s-era hotel designed to offer a river view to anybody staying in any of the hotel's 367 rooms. That explains the jagged design; pretty crafty.

The Pontchartrain was a popular place through the 1970s, even hosted George H.W. Bush during the Republican Convention in 1980, but it's been all downhill from there. Investor Charles Keating got involved during the 1980s, and we know how most of his work turned out.

Most recently a group tried to breathe new life into the Pontchartrain by renovating it in 2007 and renaming it the Detroit Riverside Hotel. They apparently weren't discouraged that the hotel isn't really that close to the river. Unfortunately, the renovation failed, the hotel went into foreclosure in August of 2009 and it's been standing there quietly ever since, just waiting for the day when people will shut up about the old Michigan Train Depot and pay a little more attention to newer, shinier vacant buildings.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Going round and round on streetcars and automobiles

Sometime later this summer, the first shovels are supposed to crack dirt to mark the start of a new light-rail line that will run along Woodward Avenue from Jefferson to the New Center. The hope is that it will spawn new businesses along Woodward as people find it easier to get from, say, Campus Martius out past the stadiums and to the DIA.

Ironically, part of that same stretch of road is currently marked by the Woodward Avenue Cultural Heritage Tour, a simple series of sidewalk markers that recall notable events of the past, including one that pays homage to Detroit's once-proud network of electric streetcars. (Perhaps you remember reading about the sign commemorating the original Vernor's store location. Or perhaps not, in which case you can click on that link that you just passed.)

In any case, streetcars in Detroit enjoy a somewhat strange history. They were born in the late-1800s as a result of the auto industry (people had to get to work) but also died in the mid-1950s in large part because of the auto industry (people started driving cars rather than riding public transit). The final car made its run down Woodward on April 8, 1956. Reports say the new light-rail system will be running by 2013.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Battling 'sin and iniquity' in 19th Century Detroit

I told you, these Michigan Historical markers are everywhere!

Planted in the median of Randolph Street, not far from the RenCen (as you can see), stands a marker signaling where the Salvation Army once set up its Detroit post in the 1880s. When organizing the post, Captain Fink wrote to her British superiors: "This is the Metropolis of Michigan...a beautiful city, but oh, the sin and iniquity that abounds here."

"Iniquity," my dictionary tells me, means "wickedness." Not sure exactly what types of wicked acts were prominent back in the day, but apparently it was rampant. The sign goes on to tell of the Salvation Army concentrating its efforts near Cadillac Square, "a haven for persons of ill repute." Not far from that Cadillac Square location was Detroit's City Hall, which makes you wonder how Captain Fink and her superiors would've viewed some of our more recent political figures in the D.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Honoring the beer-making skills (and the other good deeds) of Peter Stroh

Planted mere feet from the Detroit River just east of the RenCen, a statue of the late Peter Stroh stands to remind us that, in addition to making what was once a pretty famous beer, Stroh also dabbled in a few other noteworthy projects, not the least of which was the redevelopment of the riverfront on which the statue now lives.

Stroh was a committed environmentalist, and a strong believer that the Detroit River should be accessible to and enjoyed by all, a fairly bold vision considering the entire stretch was once viewed only by people wearing coveralls and carrying shovels. He championed the U.S.-Canadian cooperation that led to the Detroit River being designated the only river system with both Canada and American Heritage River status, and helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Plus he made beer.

His statue on the riverfront, pictured here during the grayer days of early spring, lives in a recently opened stretch of the RiverWalk east of Rivard Street. That's Caesar's Windsor across the river in the background, in case that helps put it in perspective for you. Better yet, it's very near the site of the former Stroh Brewery. Where they made beer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The original home of the Maize 'n Blue

You wander around downtown, you always stumble across one of these Michigan Historical markers that you hadn't seen before. They're everywhere.

Still, I was surprised to spot this one earlier today marking the original home of the University of Michigan. The marker is hanging on the side of building on Congress, just a block east of Woodward, in an area that shows no evidence that there was once a university located there. The sign, which includes an old picture of what the building looked like before the campus moved to Ann Arbor in 1837, explains why. It reads:

The Catholepistemiad, or university, of Michigania resided in a building near this site from 1818 to 1837. Conceived of by the Reverend John Montieth, Father Gabriel Richard and Judge Augustus Woodward, the university was established by territorial law on August 26, 1817. Modeled on the University of France, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807, the institution was the center of a statewide system of primary, secondary and college education. Reverend Montieth, the first president, and Father Richard held the first professorships. In 1837 the university was relocated to Ann Arbor. The original building was razed in 1858.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

'Real Steel' transforms Detroit firehouse into Tallet's Gym

No sign of Hugh Jackman, but it was pretty cool watching work crews for the new Jackman film 'Real Steel' turn the old firehouse building across from Cobo Hall into a boxing gym earlier today. From what I've heard, the movie is sort of a sci-fi sports flick in which robots replace humans as boxers.

Trailers loaded with studio gear are parked all over the place within a block of the old building, which is just across Larned from the old Ponchartrain Hotel. The sidewalk on Washington Boulevard (facing Cobo) has pretty much been turned into an off-camera work area, and trucks are lined up and down Larned, Congress and Shelby streets.

Co-stars of the film include Anthony Mackie, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo and a few other actors I've never heard of, but Steven Speilberg is working as co-executive producer and rumor has it Sugar Ray Leonard is offering some helpful insights to help make the fight scenes true to sport. The movie is due to be released in November 2011.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Guardian's grand tribute to Michigan

In the Guardian Building, everything looks like a work of art. Even the drinking fountains look cool. But the most memorable piece in the building is the enormous, six-story mural depicting Michigan and its many areas of commerce. It's a must-see if you ever have a little time to spare downtown.

It was painted by a Traverse City-born guy named Ezra Augustus Winter, whose other notable works include the Fountain of Youth mural at Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center in New York, and Canterbury Tales mural at the Library of Congress Building in Washington, D.C. The guy had skills.

Unfortunately, Winter was injured while working on one of his enormo-projects when he stepped back to examine his work but forgot he was painting from an apparently lofty scaffold. He fell, busted up his tailbone pretty good, and was never able to paint again. So rattled was Winter that he committed suicide in 1949, but he left behind some awesome work, and one his most famous creations is right here in our backyard.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Capitol Park makeover leads to unearthing Michigan's first governor

In case you missed this story in the Detroit Free Press last week, here's a recap. The picture above – which I cleverly captured through a gash in the mesh fencing that surrounds the work site that will eventually be the new Capitol Park – was taken about a month ago, without my knowing that the guy with the shovel was actually looking for a casket in them there grounds. Allow me to explain. Here are the pertinent facts.

Michigan's first governor was a young 19-year-old named Steven Mason. The capitol of Michigan was at one time Detroit. The capitol building stood on what is now Capitol Park. When the boy wonder died of pneumonia at the tender age of 31, his remains were first buried in New York but in 1905 were moved at the request of his sister to Capitol Park. In the 1950s his remains were moved again, this time to the other side of the park. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to jot down exactly where.

The other day they found them.

Since we all like a happy ending, here's what will happen next. Mason will be re-interred in an above-ground crypt that will serve as the centerpiece of the park, which is scheduled to reopen in August. He will be, according to the freep, surrounded by a model of the state's first Capitol building, new benches and lighting, and interpretive signs.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Coaches Corner doubles as French cafe in 'The Double'

The movie cameras continue to roll throughout downtown Detroit, most recently for the spy flick "The Double," starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace. The movie is set in Paris, and Detroit is providing all of the backdrops because of the wide range of architecture available here.

One scene was shot Tuesday at Coaches Corner, a bar in Harmonie Park that takes on the brief roll of a French bistro in the movie. By Thursday, there was little evidence remaining that a movie crew had come in on Monday and tore everything off the walls, taped the scenes on Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and put everything back together on Wednesday. This chalkboard - which announces the name of the place in the movie as Le Petit Escargot - was left hanging by the front door. The manager also showed me a few splatters of fake blood outside on the sidewalk that were left behind. (The scene included a stabbing of some sort.)

Scenes for "The Double" are going to be filmed throughout Detroit, including in a nine-story garage across the street from work where many Free Press and News employees park. We at work cleverly refer to the building as The Nine-Story Garage; in the movie, it's going to serve as the exterior for a hospital in Paris.