I have had the good fortune of being trapped in my home office for the last few days, surrounded by tall boxes of envelopes, cardboard, and photographs as I try to mail all the photos that lots of kind folks have purchased. It still blows my mind that people actually like my photographs enough to buy them and then display them in their homes or offices or rumpus rooms or outhouses or wherever. That's such an incredible honor. Thank you for that. I've put up quite a few more fully-matted, limited edition photos in the store today, because I don't know if I am going to be able to do this next week after my wife goes back to work.

Today is also the official release date of Heather B. Armstrong's anthology of essays on fatherhood. Not only does the book feature an essay or two by dooce herself, but Alice from Finslippy, Sarah from Que Sera Sera, Eden from Fussy, Doug from Laid-Off Dad, Greg from Daddytypes and Maggie from Mighty Girl. Oh, and me. I don't know who else has essays in it yet because our Border's already sold out, and the only other bookstores in Detroit tend to be of the "adult" variety. Now I'm going to have to spend all afternoon investigating whether any of them carry it. You can buy the book here.

Also, I just want the record clear that for the first time in my life, I am glad that my wife only drank vodka shots and Mike's Hard Lemonade when imbibing during the first few years of our relationship, a fact that embarrassed me quite a bit at the time. Otherwise I might have ended up buying said lemonade for my child at a baseball game like this poor archaeologist, whose kid was put in foster care for a few days while a busted system sorted things out. Oh who am I kidding, like I'd ever spend seven dollars on a lemonade. When we go to baseball games, we sneak in our food and drinks, just like my Dutch forebears taught me.

For the older kid's second birthday, I bought her a betta fish. His cheap plastic fishbowl sits on a shelf above the old bowling alley scoring table I use as a computer desk. Despite his constant lurking in my peripheral vision, for some reason I always let the water level in his bowl get so low he's barely underwater when I finally clean and refill it. Every day I tell myself, "Oh he'll be fine for today, I'll do it tomorrow." The next day I say the same thing. There always seems to be something more pressing worth doing, or some better way to waste time.

My wife goes back to work soon. And by work I mean the luxury of sitting in front of a computer and looking at the internet without a three-year old climbing on her lap and an infant who smells like month-old cottage cheese on one arm. I don't mean to suggest my wife's job is easy: she's far more diligent about actually working than I ever was. But even she had to institute a moratorium on visiting celebrity gossip blogs last year because they were getting in the way of completing her assignments.

But thank goodness almost every office worker in America has virtually untethered access to the internet. Imagine what would happen to our economy if employers started taking away internet privileges and people were forced to actually work. The sound of crickets would reign at fark, digg, and reddit. Projects would get done way earlier than they needed to be. Soon there wouldn't be enough work to go around. Bureaucracies would actually become efficient. Massive layoffs would follow. The entire American economy is balanced precariously on the fact that the average American white collar worker spends only about 20 percent of his or her time actually working.

How did the cubicle kids waste time before the internet? Daydreams? Productivity seminars? Interoffice romances? Midday martinis? Lawyers used to have to actually look things up in books. It was an arcane, tedious process that involved constantly updated digests that led to musty old tomes of case law that took up hundreds of feet of bookshelf in every office. Now those books are just for show: the cases are all online, accessible through extremely expensive google-type searches. It's a well-kept secret that lawyering in the internet age is little more than highly-specialized googling. And with all the time you save avoiding the law library, there's plenty of time to just dick around on the internet. And Lord, I do miss that.

Our baby boy is at a smiling age. He might cry while you brush your teeth, but pop back into his room and he'll give you a toothless smile so wide you collapse in front of him and just spend the next twenty minutes smiling yourself, making faces, and cooing like some joyful idiot. I remember the mornings before I'd go to work in San Francisco, when I'd let my wife sleep in and soak up time with a smiling baby, knowing I would need those minutes to carry me through the tedium of my day. I almost always missed my bus. And now my wife must prepare for those same kind of mornings, those same kind of paycheck-bearing unbearable easy days.

The hardest I've ever worked was at my first job, washing dishes in a busy restaurant. The dishes didn't stop coming until the last customer was well out the door. By eleven at night I'd smell like wet lettuce but I'd be free: I'd step into my 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix with the different-colored fender and turn on the subwoofers I bought with my first paycheck and cruise from red light to red light through Kalamazoo. It took a week to earn what I'd earn in an hour ten years later. I think, in a week or two from now, I will be reminiscing about how easy those dishwashing days actually were. Or dreaming about working on one of those Alaskan salmon boats.

Most of the time, staying home to take care of Juniper was pure fun. But now, with two of them, this is going to be more like work. Taking care of kids must be some of the hardest work you can do, the kind of work we usually save for immigrants or teenagers. And the pay sucks. Having my wife at home with me for the first two months of my son's life has been such a blessing. I will remember these days forever. But now the time has come to show my stay-at-home-dad mettle, to prove that I can be as badass as the thousands of women who've struggled with the tedium and the just-plain-hard work of maintaining a household and caring for more than one kid while their husbands dicked around on the internet in dockers.

Wood has already left me alone with both kids a few times, but each time has been filled with chaos and foreboding. Every day that passes gets me closer to every day looking like that. Wood knows that every day that passes is one day closer to when she has to start leaving them for ten hours a day, locked in her office with a machine extracting milk from her breasts instead of a smiling baby boy. We both feel like we're running out of air. Or, more precisely, I feel like I'm about to drown. And my wife fears that surely she will die of thirst.

Herb Goro, via grotesk @ 12ozprophet

The reaction I have received to my photos of the current state of the Detroit Public Schools book depository/Roosevelt Warehouse has generally been a great outcry of "Why did this happen?" The photos found their way onto hundreds of blogs and websites, into the pages of New York and Harper's Magazine. I have seen the photos on sites written by white supremacists declaring them "a putrid example of what becomes of a city when ni--ers are empowered." I have found my photos held up on libertarian sites as examples of why taxpayers should not have to support public schools, and objectivist sites using them to launch discussions about the failures of public education. The photos, it seems, spoke for themselves: to some they said black people couldn't be trusted to govern themselves, to others that the taxes we pay for education are inevitably wasted, and that our system public education itself is a failure. And here I just thought they were beautiful.

Reeling from the shock of seeing my photos used in this manner, I set out to answer "why did this happen?" My original inclination was, like most, to blame the school district. It seems like every slow news day here in Detroit, the Free Press rolls out another story about corruption among school administrators or schools that were shuttered throughout the city that have been vandalized, and discovered still full of supplies that could have been used by students at other schools. Teachers describe their offers to retrieve much-needed supplies from closing schools on their own time and being rebuffed by the administrators. This district is not innocent. Surely the libertarians, objectivists, and even the racists looking for evidence to support their varying Weltanschauungs can find plenty of fodder in the everyday foibles of the Detroit Public Schools without resorting to my photographs of rotting 20-year-old school supplies. This is a deeply troubled school district, and as I walked on mountains of rotting textbooks, on floors three-feet deep in shifting paper, even I could not help but think of the students, their lives, and the systemic failures of a school district crippled by both the poverty of its students and the corruption of its administrators. But still I felt compelled to find out what actually happened before I laid the blame at their feet.

The building was originally the city's main post office. A tunnel between the warehouse and the Michigan Central Station across the street shuttled mail brought in from all over the country by train. After a few decades of use, the post office moved and the Detroit Public Schools purchased the warehouse for their main depository of school supplies and records. As many as 75 to 100 people worked there at any given time. I have communicated with a woman whose father was a truck driver for the Detroit Public Schools during the 1980s; she sent me photos of a day her father brought her to work with him, delivering supplies from the warehouse to various schools. I have found distribution records that kept track of the daily delivery of food, textbooks, sporting goods, art supplies, chemicals and even elevator oil from the warehouse to schools spread throughout the 138.7 square miles of the city. I found the story of a man who was the head boiler-room engineer at the warehouse who would save any of the outdated textbooks he was instructed to incinerate and bring them home to give to his kids and grandkids, simply because he could not bear to burn a book. Good people worked for the Detroit Public Schools at this warehouse, and many wonderful people still work for the Detroit Public Schools. I know some of them personally.

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 ailanthus altissima 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 2000, the Detroit Public Schools privatized their supply chain. Recognizing that the existing system often created confusion over costs, inventory, and delivery, the district entered into a contract with Office Depot where each school principal would order supplies directly online. All inventory paperwork was handled by Office Depot, and the system has saved the district millions of dollars. At the time it was heralded across the nation as an example of the benefits of privatization for the supply system of one of the biggest school districts in the nation.

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.

At one point, when the train station was in far better condition, the massive Beaux-Arts masterpiece changed hands for less than $80,000. No one knows how much Moroun paid for it, but six months after he bought it, Detroit's embattled mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was making campaign promises to buy the station from Moroun and turn it into Detroit's new police headquarters. Moroun was one of several suburban businessmen who provided a much-needed last-minute influx of cash to Kilpatrick's then-failing 2005 re-election bid, allowing the mayor to fill the airwaves with not-so-subtle advertisements portraying his black opponent as the "white" "suburban" candidate (Moroun and his cronies donated at least $20,000 directly to Kilpatrick during the 2005 campaign, and have donated over $21,000 to his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick since 2002; in the final days of the 2005 election, the Detroit Free Press reported that Moroun and his cronies gave a further $30,000 to the mayor's PAC). It is conventional wisdom in Detroit that because of this despicable last-minute campaigning financed by white suburban businessmen, Kilpatrick was able to retain power in Detroit. Kilpatrick has since backed out of his promise to restore the station. Politics certainly play their own role in the fate of these two buildings.

Because of these 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. Last winter, a homeless man lit a barrel fire inside one of the office floors of the train station, presumably to keep warm, and dozens of fire department trucks and personnel rushed to the save a building that simply cannot burn. I doubt anyone sent Moroun the bill.

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. Recognizing the inherent problems with his current bridge, Moroun (called "the troll under the bridge" by Forbes Magazine) has proposed the strangest solution imaginable: he wants to build a second bridge span alongside the first, privately-owned and operated by him (of course). Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the border spar with each other, with neighborhood residents in the path of proposed bridges, and with Moroun, who continues to enjoy the huge financial windfall this monopoly provides.

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.

In some ways, I must blame myself for taking these photos and holding them up as something beautiful without considering that others would use them to display the ugliness in their own hearts. But I do think that 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.

[Still interested? Really? Read my original post about the book depository/Roosevelt Warehouse here]

One of my photographs is featured on page 19 of the May 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine. This is a tremendous honor, particularly given how much I respect this magazine. The photograph chosen by the Harper's editors is one of many I have shot at the heavily-looted and rummaged-through Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, known more simply as the Roosevelt Warehouse here in Detroit. If you are arriving here from Harper's and might be interested in viewing more photographs, you should check out my Detroit Public Schools Book Depository/Roosevelt Warehouse Flickr Set with over sixty photographs of the location, or this flash-photo slideshow I set up to allow viewing of larger-resolution photos.

I believe the photo came to the attention of the Harper's editors after this photograph and this post (a meditation on modern ruins and the book depository) were featured on hundreds of websites, including the major Web 2.0 social media sites fark, metafilter, digg, reddit, and boingboing back in January. Since that happened, I have had the opportunity to conduct some research and talk to a lot of people about the warehouse. I am going to be writing another post this week that I hope will clear up a bit of the mystery created by the photographs. Almost everyone who sees them has to ask "How did this happen?" I hope my forthcoming post will provide some answers, and probably some more questions.

Food, folks and fun

Posted by jdg | Monday, April 07, 2008

While vacationing, I have always had two rules: (1) stay off freeways; and (2) never eat at a restaurant where you can also eat at home. We broke both these rules on our way home from our exotic vacation in southern Indiana last week. We had been in the car for five hours and somehow we were less than 100 miles from where we'd started that day. We were driving through Kokomo, Indiana looking for a place to eat where we couldn't also eat at home. This proved more difficult than usual, because apparently no commercial activity occurs in downtown Kokomo; the only places that served food had no windows and also served watery cocktails to down-on-their-luck prostitutes. "We didn't get here fast, and now there's nowhere to take it slow," Wood lamented.

"The Beach Boys who didn't go crazy or drown were liars," I replied.

On our way out of Kokomo, we drove past a McDonald's PlayPlace and Juniper saw it out her window. "What is that?" she asked in a voice Coronado might have used to ask his Zuni guide about some golden city on a hill, had he ever found one.

"Oh nothing," my wife and I answered in unison. I had been hoping to make it all the way to Das Dutchman Essenhaus (broasted chicken! children charged $1.00 per year! 29 varieties of pie!). But after an hour of Gram crying and Juniper still pestering us about the place with the tubes in the windows, we said, "Okay, it's a place with food that's not very good for you, but if you can have good manners for a little while, if we see one we'll stop there." With the baby refusing to sleep in the car and somehow managing to cry while still sucking vigorously on my wife's pinky finger, we high-tailed it to the interstate, postponing my dreams of vacationing in the Amish country for another day.

By the time we got to Auburn, Indiana, the kid had been exhibiting exemplary manners so we pulled off the highway at the first sign of a McDonald's. It was dark. The car jerked along the asphalt from stoplight to stoplight, past the same American landscape planted just off every freeway cloverleaf, the same comforting signage, the same hotels beckoning with their familiarity, the same soaps in their bathrooms, the same bedspreads in Maine and New Mexico. It was night already, and dark, but the road was strung with bright lights, and my wife gulped air and grabbed my thigh the way she does when a car in front of us has jerked to a sudden stop or a deer lingers on the edge of the road.

"It has a Playland," she hissed with relief.

Inside there were old men eating sundaes by themselves, groups of high school kids packed snugly into booths. We ate hamburgers next to a woman six years younger than us who had six more children than us, all named Carly. They were sweet and held Juniper's sticky hand as they climbed together into the giant multicolored ventricled spheres of death. Then a birthday party full of 12,000 8-year-old girls ended in the adjacent glass chamber and they all clamored into the structure behind my tiny daughter. My fists clenched but I waited to see her wide-eyed and climbing around inside. A few minutes later one of the Carlys escorted her back down the entrance. "She was scared to go down the slide," this sweet little Carly told me.

"When I'm bigger I'll go down the slide," Juniper said at the table. She dipped apple slices into caramel she called "chocolate mustard" and got it in her hair. A half hour later we will be just a few hours from home and she and her brother will be sleeping soundly in the darkness behind us.

This morning, as we drive to school, I ask her what she's going to tell her friends she did on vacation, thinking fondly of all the hiking and swimming, or perhaps the night I took her out to the hill by the lodge and showed her all the stars she'd never see from Detroit, pointing out Orion and the spoons.

"I went to the place with the tubes," she says.

Stanko Abadžic, Brothers, Baška

We're on vacation in southern Indiana. We've been having a lot of fun. The lodge where we've been staying was supposed to have wifi but apparently, "Nah, it broke" and they "thought [they] ordered the part to fix it last week but it hasn't come yet." I'm pretty sure they think the internet works kind of like the fuel injection system of a 1993 Toyota Tercel.

We were thinking about making another trip to New York instead, but the only thing we really wanted to do there was see friends, and we figured this should be a real "family" vacation, you know, where we get really annoyed with each other and eat lots of bad food. Besides, New York costs $12 every ten minutes. In southern Indiana, that's a whole lot of fried biscuits and apple butter. I really do love Indiana. The people here are amazing and there's actually a lot to see and do. And when you live in Detroit, southern Indiana might as well be San Tropez. "Look at all the people walking!" we shout at each other excitedly. "Why aren't any of these buildings broken?" Juniper asks.

So I'll bid adieu from downtown Bloomington, Indiana, where I'm scamming from a hotspot and typing on the roof of our compact sedan in a parking garage while the kids sleep (miraculously) in their car seats. We're heading home soon, so fret not if you're anxiously awaiting my take on my daughter's newfound obsession with toejam. I'm sure you've been fine without it for a few days.