Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Summer Vacation in Detroit: Part 2

Part 2 of our 2009 summer trip to Detroit including an excursion to an abandoned zoo.

It was 8:00 A.M. when the audio file "Antelope" began blaring from my blackberry. Seicer was already awake, packing up his gear and getting ready for the day while Venkman and I were having trouble accepting the fact that it was time to leave the motel. Light was peering in past the blinds and the television was still on after we had all fallen asleep watching "In the Line of Fire" at around 3 A.M. earlier that morning (I think I was the only one to stay awake long enough to see the ending). Before we had made it back to our hotel to watch the 1993 Clint Eastwood classic, we had spent the day exploring an 18 story train station, a catholic church, a police station, a neighborhood, and an automobile plant. All abandoned and all within the city of Detroit. These places were covered in the "Day 1" article. We checked out of the hotel and made Bob Evan's the first location we would explore that day before moving on to the "Boblo Island Ferry Terminal."

Our local guide, il Duce, had spent the night camping out on the roof of Michigan Central Station, an 18 story abandoned train station we had explored the day before. We were anxious to see if he had survived through the night. As we pulled up to the Boblo Island Terminal, il Duce was standing outside of his car in a bath robe to greet us. He had done it and had pictures to prove it. I began to wonder if he got a better nights sleep atop the station than I did on the roll out bed of a suburban Super 8. While my back was killing me, I did enjoy having a shower and a Clint Eastwood movie, so I think I'll stick with staying in hotels on these trips.

We readied our cameras and tripods, making our way into the terminal.

- The terminal's interior.

The main floor featured cement platforms bordering railroad lines which came right from the outside and into the building, like some sort of industrial subway station. The side walls were lined with garage doors for automobile shipping and the rear side of the building was positioned right along the Detroit River for freight coming by barge or boat. The center of the building featured offices, desks, industrial sized freezers and freight elevators.

- Razor Wire positioned along the terminal's walls in an effort to keep intruders out.

The history of this place is a little unclear. While the building's dock along the Detroit River had once been the location of a terminal for the Boblo Island Ferry, a boat that would transport it's riders to an amusement park on nearby Boblo Island, it was obvious that this building had at one point been a massive freight warehouse.

- Rear side of the terminal, along the Detroit River.

As with most abandoned buildings in Detroit, the interior of the terminal had been stripped of all precious metals that could later be sold for scrap. Any valuable items had long since disappeared, all that was left was another ghost of Detroit's once great industrial capacity. With not much to see on the first floor, we made our way out back to the ferry dock along the river.

- Looking back towards downtown Detroit and the Ambassador Bridge, abandoned cranes line the crumbling dock that had once been a busy freight terminal.

The subsequent floors were just as empty as we climbed the dark stairwells to the top floor. Looking out the windows back towards downtown Detroit we could see rusty cranes sitting along the dock that had once been used to haul off freight from the barge traffic on the river. It seemed like they hadn't seen any use in some time.

- Looking back towards downtown Detroit through the top floor windows.

- Rusty, abandoned cranes in front of the Ambassador Bridge.

We returned back to our automobiles and began to talk about where we'd head next. Venkman, who had to get back to his internship in New York City, decided to leave us as he was facing a ten hour drive ahead of him. He parted ways as il Duce and myself decided that the "Belle Island Children's Zoo" would be cool to check out next. Seicer was skeptical as we made the drive across the city and onto the island.

Now, I kind of brushed over that quickly, but yeah, you read correctly; an abandoned children's zoo. Seicer's SUV followed il Duce's sedan across the bridge and onto Belle Island. We drove past the recently abandoned Detroit Yacht Club and through the city park. It was a beautiful day and there were many picnics, family reunions and events taking place throughout the park, all right next to a barbed wire enclosed structure that had once been the Belle Island Children's Zoo.

"I've seen it before." said il Duce. "I think I'm gonna actually go over to the shoreline and put my feet in the water for a bit and hope they don't melt off before I drive back to Toledo. You guys have fun." We thanked il Duce for having provided his expertise as our guide, Seicer and I were the only members left of our exploring party. The lack of sleep was evident as we began to test each others patience, arguing over whether or not to enter and explore the zoo. "I'd like to come back and see it on our next trip." said Seicer. "Next trip?" I argued back. "Who knows when that will be. Look, we came all this way, I'm gonna go see it, if you want to go do something else we'll meet up later."

I convinced him to come with me. We walked out of view of all the party and picnic activity and along one of the zoo's old maintenance roads.

As we approached our target, we came across old relics of the zoo that had just closed in 2002. A rusted out trailer, once belonging to the zoo, was found sitting back in the woods of Belle Island, still displaying the zoo's emblem.

As we neared the zoo and it's surrounding tall fences , I was somewhat worried that we might have been walking into Jurassic Park. However, there were no velosure raptors or any of the zoo's former animals still hiding in the brush, just mosquitoes. Lots of them.

- Abandoned children's zoo or Jurassic Park?

The mosquitoes were absolutely awful. Neither of us had insect repellent, nor do we carry it regularly. Things got so bad during the half hour trek through the woods, that as I stopped to take a leak, I soon found out the blood thirsty mosquitoes wouldn't even let me stand still long enough to relieve myself and they didn't care what part of the body they landed on. We picked up our pace of a cautious and stealthy walk to a full blown run. Ducking under one of the zoo's raised paths, we hoped to find a ladder to the above wooden walkways.

- Zoo guests had once walked above on the wooden platforms, while zoo animals were on display for their enjoyment below.

The quest for the ladder was a failure and despite the mosquitoes, we felt we had come too far to quit and pressed on. Or rather, I felt we had already come too far to quit and forced Seicer to come with me. Eventually we reached the zoo's main entrance, which thankfully, was mosquito free.

- Main entrance to the abandoned Belle Island Children's Zoo.

Hidden amongst the overgrown brush was a wooden ramp leading to the zoo's walkways. We proceeded forward.

Luckily we found a map. Upon seeing this it was like experiencing deja vu. The art on the map and fake pseudo African architecture of the zoo's buildings reminded me of the trips my family would make to the Cincinnati Zoo as a kid in the mid 90's.

It was a beautiful summer day. As Seicer and I walked along the wooden paths, we looked out at the overgrown areas that once housed animal displays and the empty concrete basins that had once been fake watering holes.

You might be wondering why the zoo closed. Well, as I mentioned in the Day 1 article, Detroit's city council and local government are a bit of a joke. While the city council and voters had approved a 2002 ballot initiative to continue funding the zoo, which had operated on the island since 1947, disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick ignored the initiative and ordered the zoo closed. Citing that the zoo had become a waste of taxpayer money, Kilpatrick saw that the majority of the animals were sold off with the exception of a herd of Fallow Deer. The deer are now housed in a new nature preserve on the island that was paid for by the city at an approximate cost of $1 Million. The contract to build the nature preserve went to Kilpatrick's longtime best friend, Bobby Ferguson. Kilpatrick has since been removed from power after being convicted of numerous criminal charges ranging from assault to perjury.

At the center of the zoo were two large huts. Unable to see the surrounding park through the overgrown brush and trees, these huts looked like some sort of oasis on the African plain. In reality, they were the zoo's former visitor center.

As we approached the visitor center we noticed that the power was still running. This made us kind of nervous as the zoo was closed and we had not expected to see any other visitors besides ourselves, since you know, technically the zoo was closed. Was someone still using the zoo? Was someone living here? Or maybe they just forgot to turn out the lights when they left. With these questions on our mind, we cautiously entered the visitors center.

Inside, the air conditioning was still running and a television was still on, set to the "Video 1" channel. While we couldn't figure out how to change the channel, a coaxial cable still hooked up to it's back indicated that maybe it was still receiving cable service. The visitors center, while not located in the wilds of Africa, had been an oasis after all, providing welcomed relief from the heat and mosquitoes.

We exited the visitors center and took one look at the rest of the wooden paths. Seicer ducked down low to avoid being seen by any of the picnickers in the nearby park. At this point, I had determined that even if they could see us in the abandoned zoo, I don't think any of them cared. Regardless, we decided to turn back.

Once again finding ourselves back at the main entrance, we prepared for the trek back through the mosquito infested woods, already scratching the bites that had formed earlier. "Oh man, this walk back is gonna suck." Seicer muttered. "Maybe there's an easier way." I said, noticing how close we were to the park's main road. While covered in brush, beneath one of the entrance huts was an exit gate. If the gate still worked, it would let us out right on the main road. The good news was that we'd be right near our car and could avoid half an hour of walking through blood thirsty mosquitoes. The bad news was that we couldn't see the road, so as we emerged from the closed zoo, if we were to be seen by the wrong people, we could have some explaining to do. We debated over it, I decided to go first since using the exit was my idea in the first place.

- The one way exit gate.

I pushed through the gate. "Yes!" It still worked. Seicer followed closely behind as the rusty gate let out an awful shriek. Though we couldn't see them from the inside, the party goers at a nearby family reunion gave us a confused look once they saw us emerge from the zoo's exit.

We survived the Jurassic Park esque zoo with a few mosquito bites and without having run into any Jeff Goldblums or violent dinosaurs. We stopped at the other side of Belle Island to take in the skyline of Detroit.

- Detroit, as seen from Belle Island.

I fell asleep in the car assuming our adventure in Detroit had ended, only to awake finding that we were not on I-75 south headed for Cincinnati, but circling the abandoned Fredrick Douglas public housing complex. I immediately questioned Seicer as to why we were here. Just the day before, il Duce had warned us that this was a very, very rough area and that we shouldn't go. "I just want to stop, get out and take a few photos" said Seicer. "Then we'll go." As we approached the apartment complex it was evident that the streetlights were busted out, stripped of any valuable metal. At intersections where the remains of traffic lights dangled from wires, stop signs were the new law. At one point we had to stop and turn around. In the middle of the street were boxes and tents forming a homeless encampment.

- The Fredrick Douglas High Rise public housing complex, now deserted.

I took a few photographs and leaned against the car, waiting for Seicer. I didn't want to be judgmental or perpetuate the typical stereotype that "city's are dangerous," but we had been warned by someone who knew the area quite well to not go here and the story of the dutch reporters who had been beaten and robbed of their camera equipment was still fresh in my mind. As Seicer strayed further from the car a woman emerged from the tall grass and said "what are you taking pictures of?" We gave her our typical response about exploring and photography to which she replied: "I grew up here. Was born in that building right over there. Lived here my whole life till the city said I had to go. I got nowhere to go, so I sleep in the grass right over there. People keep coming here to take pictures, but no one ever helps us." We thanked her for her time and got in the car to leave as she kept muttering "Yeah, you just come here to take pictures."

Heading for home, I reflected on what she had said. She was right, we did come to take pictures, but we didn't come with the intention of negatively portraying Detroit or exploiting anyone. We came to document what's going on in Detroit. There are plenty of news articles and journalists out there analyzing the Motor City's plight, I'm not here to do that. I'm merely showing you the things I saw. I went to Detroit to see it for myself. While there are many great people working to help improve Detroit, it's worth noting the things that are being left behind to be forgotten by time, monuments to Detroit's once great past.

The last time I had been in Detroit was nine years earlier to see a Tiger's game. I remember driving by the construction for nearby Ford Field and seeing the "bad area" that surrounded it. That image stuck in my mind and now, nearly a decade later, there I was in that "bad area," near Ford Field at an abandoned housing project being told that I "came to take pictures." That's what I do I guess.

Until next time,
- Gordon Bombay

In case you missed it, check out the prequel to this article: "My Summer Vacation in Detroit: Part 1"

Over the years, several of QC/D's urban exploration stories have focused on abandoned amusement parks: View all of the stories

Updates | October 7, 2017:


  1. the "Boblo" place was never a terminal for passengers, it was a ship-to-rail freight warehouse.

    Boblo Island used it as a repair facility for their ferry boats for a while

    you missed the huge dynamo room with the instrument panel that bears the blg's original name on it

  2. The Brewster-Douglass (Fredrick Douglass) Projects we're just recently abandoned as of last fall of 2008, they gave all residents a two month notice and cleared them out because they city felt the building wasn't cost efficient enough, sad story, it wasn't that bad of a neighborhood either compared to most parts of the city. I use to always spend time as a kid there.

  3. 2 local movies named "The Brewster Project" (2000), and "Project 313" (2006) and a FOX Emmy nominated cartoon starring Eddie Murphy "The PJs", were set in these projects as well, alot of history here.

  4. I was in Detroit last year and went to Belle Island and also saw the desolation of what used to be beautiful. Detroit is truly the rust bucket capital of America.
    I won't say that it is the black peoples fault but it does appear that where ever they go they leave a beautiful place destroyed and rotten and dangerous. Chicago where our President is from is also another example of the corruption and destruction of a once great and beautiful city.

  5. Very good article and nice pictures even tho they show the sad decay of something that was once beautiful.

  6. I am actually from Detroit (left over 15 years ago) and it pains me to see the place where I was born look like this.
    I just pray that one day the city makes a turn around and hope is renewed.