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Finding Beauty Among Ruins


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From left, James Tantalo, 23, of Plymouth, Kate Gumbis, 20, of Wyandotte and Rocky Pastor, 20, of Lincoln Park pose outside of the vacant Fort Shelby in downtown Detroit on Friday night. Urban spelunkers treat vacant buildings as cavess to be explored.

FINDING BEAUTY AMONG RUINS: Explorers brave danger inside abandoned urban buildings

November 3, 2004



A wooden board studded with rusty nails covered a shattered window, but a crowbar made it just an inconvenience. One by one, James Tantalo and four friends gingerly slid in.

On a recent, overcast Sunday afternoon, the five adventurers switched on MagLites and started walking. Kate Gumbis, 20, of Wyandotte offered dust masks to everyone. They declined, but she put one on.

It was pitch black inside the abandoned Fort Shelby Hotel.

Explorer Alan (Rocky) Pastor, 20 of Lincoln Park led the group beneath a fallen ceiling, past empty soda cans and into the spacious lobby at the mouth of a staircase. Their flashlights showed only glimpses of the faded grandeur of the hotel, which opened at the corner of Lafayette and First Street in Detroit in 1918 and closed in the late 1970s.

Suddenly, someone's camera flashed and -- for only a second -- illuminated high ceilings, a reception desk and elevators.

"Cool," they gushed.

Tantalo, 23, of Plymouth and his friends are urban spelunkers, a modification to the term spelunking, which refers to cave exploration. Urban spelunkers are a loose network -- connected mainly through the Internet -- of mostly young historians, photographers and amateur anthropologists who have found a playground among the world's abandoned buildings.

Tantalo has the luxury of Detroit's vast collection of empty pre-Depression buildings and factories. Counterparts in other cities make do with sewer tunnels, underground subway systems, forgotten train stations and empty mental hospitals.

"Detroit is a special place," said Tantalo, a Ford Motor Co. computer support technician. "There's always something to discover. It's like an archeological dig."

The city is considered destination No. 1 for building spelunking, according to explorers.

"For fans of abandoned building exploration, Detroit is the No. 1 city in the U.S., hands down," said the webmaster for the popular Toronto-based urban exploration Web site, Infiltration, who would only identify himself as Ninjalicious via e-mail.

The fascination with Detroit's buildings has turned into an illegal, and sometimes dangerous, hobby.

Yes, urban spelunking is trespassing. Under Wayne County's abandoned building ordinance, it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or $50. Yes, it can be dangerous. Anyone could be lurking in abandoned buildings. The building's infrastructure could wither without warning, and there is asbestos everywhere. And for owners of Detroit's empty buildings, explorers are a nuisance and a liability.

The latest fascination is Tiger Stadium, local explorers said. The building closed in 1999, and millions of dollars are being spent in security to keep people out.

"Yes, trespassing is a problem," said Howard Hughey, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "People can get hurt. There's definitely something wrong with trespassing, even if it's for an appreciation for what's there."

Dan Stamper, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Michigan Central Depot, said the company doesn't track trespassing arrests, but added that the number of visitors has declined since it hired a security company after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The building is not open for people to walk through," Stamper said. The 91-year-old train station has been one of Detroit's most popular spelunking spots for years despite the barbed wire and no-trespassing signs.

"Just because it's a building that's fascinating, doesn't mean people can trespass in it," Stamper said.

Joe Van Esley, whose Plymouth-based real estate company has been trying to sell the Fort Shelby for years, expressed frustration over repeated efforts by explorers to break into the building. The building owners have been scrutinized in the past by city building inspectors for not properly boarding up the building.

"We've boarded up the building a couple times," he said. "We try our best. We're the victims here."

As for safety, urban explorers argue that's a priority -- just like in any other extreme activity like rock climbing or whitewater rafting. Be prepared, do the research and don't be foolish, they say. Each explorer has his or her own injuries, broken bones and cuts that require tetanus shots. Explorers said they almost never come across muggers, drug dealers or homeless people in downtown Detroit buildings. But often there is evidence of someone living there, such as mattresses, clothes and radios. In one building, someone is keeping a small and tidy book collection. Explorers said they are more likely to cross paths with other explorers.

Explore and appreciate

Take only pictures, leave only footprints.That's the urban explorer motto.

The exceptions are small artifacts, like the Fort Shelby's reservation cards or pieces of wallpaper. They would be committed to ruin otherwise.

"By taking these artifacts out and taking photographs, that ensures that it'll be around as long as we're around," Tantalo says.

Inside the Fort Shelby on the recent Sunday, the group found notes with phone messages and hotel keys still in cubby holes, behind the front desk. They ventured into the handful of crumbling and empty ballrooms on the first floor, then headed upstairs to the more than 20 floors of hotel rooms. Forging up a narrow stairwell near the fourth floor, they noticed that entire walls are missing, completely removed by looters seeking bathroom fixtures and piping.

Phone books left behind date to the 1970s, and Gumbis looked to see whether her grandmother is listed.

A rusted 17-gallon container read "Survival Supplies, Furnished by Office of Civil Defense, Department of Defense Drinking Water" sits near a skeleton of a wall. Broken glass was everywhere.

On some floors, light broke through the broken windows into the rooms and into the hallway. The group separated, but stayed within yelling distance. Near the 16th floor, they opted to head straight for the roof, skipping exploration of the remaining floors. Then Gumbis demanded that they stop -- the dust was affecting her breathing. The explorers paused, then forged ahead, upward.

Eventually, sunlight greeted them at the doorway. They have reached the top, where seven or eight small trees and some grass grow -- part of Detroit's stubborn ecology.

From the roof, they saw the Detroit River, Cobo Hall and the Book-Cadillac building. They enjoyed the view for a half hour, snapped photos and discuss dinner. Then they headed back down.

Who does it?

As a result of the secrecy of urban exploration, it's almost impossible to know how many people do it or their demographics.

Ninjalicious said he's had a gradual increase in interest since he started his urban exploring Web site and magazine in 1996 and 1997, respectively. He said his Web site gets about 2,000 hits a day.

"The growing interest in urban exploration -- which is largely a pursuit of beauty and authenticity -- is at least partly a reaction to the increasing ugliness and phoniness of cities and suburbs," Ninjalicious said recently via e-mail.

"Some people think of urban exploration as an extreme sport pursued by macho adrenaline junkies, but it's actually more popular among introverted types."

Tantalo, who makes casual monthly trips into buildings, agreed. His group often includes friend Pastor, who works as a restaurant dishwasher, and Tantalo's girlfriend, Gumbis, who works at a hospital. They were introduced to spelunking by a group in the Toronto area.

Some groups have taken exploring beyond Detroit to an old paper mill in Monroe and a former mental hospital in Traverse City, for example.

One site, the Northville Tunnels beneath the former Wayne County Child Development Center near Sheldon and 5 Mile, drew explorers for decades until it was torn up in 1999 to build a golf course and houses. John Wagner, 35, an electrician from Dearborn, started going to the tunnels almost 20 years ago and now runs the Web site, www.northville-tunnels.com.

Wagner and his colleagues said there are few Detroit spots they haven't ventured into, and he said they have pushed the limits of the hobby to include vacant portions of buildings still in use.

They mean no harm, he said.

"If these building owners cared, they would do something with their buildings," said Wagner, a married father of three. "For us, there's nothing like sitting on the roof and looking out onto the city."

Serious explorers are adamant about being distinguished from vandals, looters and graffiti artists.

And they don't want to be mainstream. Urban spelunking Web sites have been abuzz about an upcoming Discovery Channel reality series about exploration. Parts of the pilot, "Forbidden Zone," were shot in Buffalo last summer.

Spelunkers add that the popularization of the hobby ruins the subversive nature of building exploration, said explorer Paul Mush, a 20-year-old college student from Westland.

"We do it so other people don't have to," he said, smiling.

Contact MARY OWEN at 586-469-1827 or [email protected].

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Forgotten station offers an experience worth remembering

November 3, 2004



Carolyn Nash, 21, is a student and writer who lives in New York City. In August, she was visiting her grandmother in St. Clair Shores when she and a friend, Matt Medlin, 26, decided to explore the 17-story Michigan Central Depot. They gained entry by walking through a gap in the fence. Here is her account.

My flip-flop slaps against metal with too much force -- the rusted surface pops under my weight, the corner of the stair dips, and I rock back, down the steps, reaching for a banister that's been missing for years.

A steady hand catches my back as I land on the platform between staircases, and I touch the concrete wall, looking down. The huge window wall is broken, so it's only my own resistance to a beckoning vertigo that keeps me eight stories above ground.

Ahead of me, the marble of the steps has been broken through in places to reveal the harsh rust of a metal frame. When we hit these broken steps, the surface trembles violently as though the rust will break through, and the whole structure seem to whine in protest.

We've reached the upper echelons of a gutted, forgotten train station, and the sense of safety lent by its huge spaces and its raw frames has slowly eroded.

Even the crass graffiti, the signature of defiance, fades as we climb. I start to look for dates, hoping to see that someone has been here recently.

The floors have been gutted and trashed. There are pebbles and slats and fiberglass strewn casually over open spaces. We reach a flight in which the concrete and marble have eroded entirely. Fifteen stingy red slates like dirty teeth grin down on us. Matt and I take turns on the steps, dispersing our weight. My hand is cold and wet in his. We're spit out of the stairwell onto the final floor and I step into a beaten, gray room that tunnels endlessly away from me.

The walls have rotted, and the building's skeleton presents itself to a dusty darkness. The most recent graffiti I can find boasts "1998." A new, narrow set of metal stairs in the middle of the room ascends into a painfully bright blue.

I push off Matt's hand, launching myself onto the new flight. I feel the edge of a rusty banister enunciate a fine, red line down my leg.


These stairs don't shake, and I'm at the door in moments, perched on the threshold. Outside the roof looks as though there's nothing below it but layers of solid, unshakeable rock. I climb up on the edge and peer down, breath freezing in my chest. The city unravels in dwarfed oblivion, fading into smoggy clouds and shadowed skylines.

On a black, sun-soaked cylinder, the only thing in the world standing over me, I see that someone has written "Pistons 2004."

After we've retraced our steps and climbed down the stairs, we step out of the train station and into ubiquitous summer sun.

I see a Land Rover cruising along the fence. It slows as we approach. The Land Rover circles back and slows to a stop. We slip out of the fence and turn the other way, ignoring the intimidating person who has stepped out of the driver's side.

It's a police officer.

"Excuse me?" he calls. "Did the big fence and the barbed wire give you the sense that you're not supposed to be in there?"

But really he's quite nice. "You don't look like the people we usually see coming out of there," he says. "You look like you're on a date."

When his partner, back in the car, can't get the computer to run Matt's license number, he asks him, "You're not a triple ax murderer, are you?"

Matt assures him that he's not. We're sent home, with a solemn warning not to do this again.

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Top urban spelunker destinations in Detroit

November 3, 2004


Location: 220 Michigan, near Washington Boulevard.

Circa: 1924

Stories: 33

Taxpayer of record: Cadillac Associates LLC of Detroit

History: One of Detroit's former grand hotels, the Book-Cadillac closed in 1984. In 2002, developer Kimberly-Clark announced it planned to save the building, but pulled out in January as the $150-million renovation began. The city is negotiating with a Cleveland-based developer to renovate and open a Westin Hotel there.

What's inside: Contractors cleared out everything and stripped most fixtures during asbestos cleanup. What remained of this building's history is now in Dumpsters.


Location: 10 Witherell, off Woodward near Grand Circus Park

Circa: 1927

Stories: 34

Taxpayer of record: Witherell Corp.

History: Once an office tower, the building now is empty. Wyland, an artist, painted a whale mural on one side of the building in 1997. The city cited the building for defective exterior walls.

What's inside: Contents of a dentist's office including a box of human teeth, high stacks of papers from insurance offices, an ornate 33rd floor penthouse with a trap door leading to the floor directly below. Tenants left much behind, making this one of the best sites for urban exploration.


Location: 525 W. Lafayette, near the Lodge Freeway

Circa: 1918

Stories: 10 and 21

Taxpayer of record: Shelby Hotel of Pontiac

History: Built in two parts, the Fort Shelby has been dormant since the 1970s. In 2002, the Detroit City Council approved a plan to renovate the building for two hotels and apartments. The property manager says an announcement of a deal is imminent. The city has told the owner to secure the rear of the building.

What's inside: Paper and artifacts, including employee records dating to shortly after World War II, ledgers of hotel operations stretching back decades and stock certificates for the original company. An intact and beautiful telephone switchboard still stands.


Location: 246 Madison, near Broadway and Grand Circus Park

Circa: 1901

Stories: 7

Taxpayer of record: Olympia Development of Michigan LLC, an Ilitch family company.

History: The former hotel has been closed for years. Officials cited it as a safety hazard and said it should be torn down. In 2002, the Downtown Development Authority approved a $700,000 low-interest demolition loan to the Ilitch company. But the city's historic commission halted the demolition.


Location: 2001 15th Street, near Michigan Avenue and Vernor Highway.

Circa: 1911

Stories: 17

Taxpayer of record: Control Terminals Inc. of Warren.

History: Abandoned since the late 1980s, the depot has been the subject of dreams for a casino, a fish hatchery, hotel and, most recently, a new Detroit Police facility. None of the plans have materialized, but the train depot will make a cameo in a big-budget Hollywood film called "The Island." Buildings owners have been cited for violations including defective exterior walls.

What's inside: Almost nothing. Two decades of looting have left this once beautiful building with little more than concrete and broken glass. The architecture is stunning, however; the grand lobbies feature 3-story-high marble columns and intricate Gothic facades.


Location: 1539-1565 Washington Blvd., near Woodward and Grand Circus Park

Circa: 1914

Stories: 18

Taxpayer of record: City of Detroit

History: The Statler had a succession of owners and names, and is boarded up today. The city spent $4.4 million to remove environmental contaminants and it is expected to be demolished next year.

What's inside: Most interior fixtures were auctioned to pay tax debt, leaving the building completely empty. The basement still contains aging boilers and other equipment.


Address: 150 Bagley, near Woodward and Grand Circus Park

Circa: 1928

Stories: 18

Taxpayer of record: Olympia Development

History: The once-grand movie theater and office building have been boarded up for more than a decade. Many windows are covered in graffiti. Building inspectors have complained repeatedly about its condition, finding it open to the elements. At one point, they noticed brick was about to fall off the exterior. Violations included graffiti, defective awning and window sashes.

What's inside: Some of the lower floors still have paper and stage props left by the original residents, but the main theater is the real find. Though crumbling and partially looted, its ornate carvings and plaster molds betray the original opulence. Upper floors show signs of recent human habitation.

Editor's Note: Assessor's records and historical documents differ in some cases about when buildings opened.

Sources: Property information included Detroit tax and building inspection records, Wayne County register of deeds, research by Free Press Librarian Patrice Williams and staff writer Jennifer Dixon. Observations of "what's inside" the buildings by urban explorer Jim Tantalo.

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Now some kids are probably gonna get the bright idea that they want to do "urban spelunking" too and someone is gonna get hurt. Maybe after the people who own these abandonned structures have some law suits pointing their way, they'll be more inclined to keep their structures in good condition (I know....it's not going to happen). I guess I'm just pissed about the thought of Bush for another 4 years.

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That's exactly what I'm thinking. I don't have any problem with Urban Explorers; I have a problem with the Urban Explorers/thugs who vandalize the buildings. This has happened very recently in Broderick Tower. I've even heard that someone threw a door that was on fire down onto Woodward!

Also, safety is a major issue. Most urban explorers take proper safety measures, but I can just see some young kids going into these buildings completely unprepared for what they may encounter and then getting hurt. If somebody gets hurt or killed in one of these buildings, there will be a huge push to demolish them, and that is the last thing Detroit needs.

And this is off topic, but I need someone to convince me that the world isn't going to end just because Bush is going to be our president for four more years. The first four years were bad enough! I don't even want to guess what will happen in four more....

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I get the gut feeling that some idiot is going to hurt themself trying to explore one of the buildings. I think I saw the Broderick with glass all over the sidewalk from one of the upper floors a few weeks ago. I hope the city does make it a priority to put pressure on slum lords cuz this has gone on long enough.

I'll get off the subject one last time, then I'll move on

I wish I could reassure you that the next 4 years would be peachy, but I can't. I remember watching the final debate when Bush told anyone who couldn't get a job in this economy to "...get a better education..." and it made me think of the validictorian of my graduating class who's working at a Panera restaurant. There is a market FULL of unemployed engineers right now, and we all got our education. :angry: The only way I was able to get my job (just recently) is through a huge favor from a friend who already worked there.

The problem with this election is the fact that people are trying to impose their will on others. :angry: People forgot about the issues, and focused on Gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. These things are all moral issues, and honestly have no business in politics. These issues however were a diversion from the job that Bush did on the country for the last 4 years.

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The city will never put pressure on slumlords. The city is all talk and no action. And the actions they do take are stupid...like putting in those boots on all the streetlamps. I lifted a few up just to see, and they lifted right up. What a waste!! Speaking of streetlamps, there are plenty of burned out bulbs that need replacing. And I've seen several non-functional traffic lights too. That could be potentially dangerous.


Yep. Bush's strategy paid off. Divide the country on moral issues, like gay marriage, bringing out conservative voters in record numbers, instead of focusing on real issues. Take people minds off the real issues, like the crappy economy, and then attack John Kerry 500,000 times.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that not only will Republicans control the executive and legislative branches, but also the judicial branch. Four justices have waited four years to retire, hoping that the president would be a Democrat. I can't see them waiting four more years. So conservatives will also be appointed to the supreme court. Why does this country keep getting more and more conservative?


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You guys are probably already aware of this but there is a group called the Friends of The Book Cadillac that is working to save and renovate the Book-Cadillac, Statler and Madison Lenox Hotels. Detroit has a wealth of amazing buildings downtown and if someone could find a way to restore them, the city could become quite an interesting place.

As to the election, I feel very uneasy about the results as well. I honestly did not believe that so many people in the U.S. agreed with what Bush is doing. Its almost as if all these people didn't really look at the issues and just fell for the rhetoric and scare tactics that the Bush-Cheney campaign threw out there. It is extremely worrisome that this is the country in which we live.

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I saw on the Detroityes website that the Statler is pretty much going to bite the dust, and another rumor stating that there are developers interested in redevelopment. I'd love to see it get redeveloped, but it's another site that's been neglected and festoring for years. We'll see what happens.

I don't understand how the New York, New Jersy, Washington, Maryland (states involved in the September 11 attacks) and others on the East Coast voted overwelmingly against Bush (90 percent for Kerry in DC), and states were able to vote for him. It seems that the states who lost the most people in the 9/11 attacks don't feel safer with W in the whitehouse at all. Just what aspect of life do people think is better with that moron in office? Are people really concerned with what gay people do, when they can't afford to buy medicine? Or when they will probably have their jobs outsource in the next couple of years (Just heard on the news today that several more companies have agreed to do outsourcing)? :angry:

He has a 4 year resume of reasons why he doesn't need to be in office anymore. The thing REALLY gets me Allan, and antonyj11 is that this guy had 50M people voting against him, and he doesn't seem to find anything wrong with it. He is probably the most hated president in US history. A reigning president has never had voters turn out like that to vote against him, and still win. If we think he stuck it to Michigan in his first term wait til we get a load of him this term.

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There have been rumors about the Staler for a long time, don't believe any of it. It really was supposed to be torn in August, but it was stopped. I hope it stays, even if it is abandoned, but unfortunately it's out of our hands.

I hate talks of politics. First you must remember that even though 55 million people voted against Bush, 59 million voted for him. For every one that wins any election, there are people that vote against them, so I guess I don't see your point. Second, to me it seams like most people voted for Kerry not because they like his stance on the issues, but because he wasn't Bush. How bad of a candidate do you have to be to lose to someone who has so many reasons against him? This was Kerry's race to lose and that he did.

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