detroit urban ruins graffiti couch "light painting" "night photography" "art photography" "long exposure photography"

Alleys & Ruins no. 147, Dequindre Couch (2015, Detroit, MI, 11pm)

Alleys & Ruins no. 147, Dequindre Couch (2015, Detroit, MI, 11pm)

 

Sam the Man and Chuck the Magnificent

I met Sam the Man and his brother Chuck the Magnificent while searching for a location to shoot in Detroit. I had been exploring the 2-mile long Dequindre Cut, a one-time rail route, carved below street level in the 1920’s. The Cut was another epic example of Detroit’s ruins. I had seen it a few times over the years but I was always too afraid to shoot it. It was a valley of abandoned buildings and bridge underpasses that at night was pitch black and desolate to the extreme. Lighting it would be a huge undertaking, drawing attention to me in a remote, obscured location that just seemed too dangerous, even by Detroit’s standards. I had hoped that finally, tonight, I could at last muster the courage to shoot it.
But this time, when I dropped by to take a look, it was being demolished! Construction and demolition trucks were parked all around and the cut was losing its appeal – for my purposes any way. There was one last remaining piece of blight, at the northern tip, and I knew it would not last. But devastation continued to persist in most other areas, above and below – to the left and to the right. I ventured to the northern tip and began exploring.

 

Crossing the Cut on the Alfred St bridge, I find Sam and Chuck sitting by the road. Chuck is actually curled up on a couch and half asleep. But Sam is friendly and wants to talk. He sees me looking closely at everything. “Hey what you lookin for?” I tell him I’m looking for a place to photograph later at night.

“You gonna take pictures?” he says laughing. “Ain’t nothin to take pictures of here.”

I laugh too, and explain briefly what I wanna do. And I ask what the gang situation is like around here. Sam has a unique way of breaking up words in the middle, and adding emphasis to the second half. “Well, I’m the care-Taker… been here 30 years, this is my neighborhood. Seen it all change – used to play ball on the street. I can give you access – you take all the pictures you want! – just buy me a beer!”

I tell him I’m gonna explore a little and if I see something I wanna shoot tonight, I’ll buy him a beer. I walk through the ruins of an old lamb skin factory and I’m not surprised to find a thousand great locations. But one in particular grabs me: a once elegant couch sits quietly among the rubble, framed beautifully by a literal hole in the wall. Behind it, the interior of the building is now a budding forest.

I walk back to Sam and Chuck. “Here’s $5,” I say, giving Sam the bill. Excited, he says, “Hey that’ll get me three beers!! You got full access man! And don’t worry – everyone here knows me. I’m the vi-Per. Ain’t no one gonna mess with you.” He gives me a fist bump and introduces himself: He’s Sam the Man, always has been. His inseparable brother is Chuck the Magnificent.

I tell him Chuck the Magnificent looks comfortable, and he says his brother is sad because his girlfriend died recently. I say I’m sorry and ask how she died.

 

“She died because of ob-Session.”

“Obsession?”

He hunches over and looks at the ground. “She was stabbed 37 times by a guy … who was obsessed with her. He loved her, but she had a boyfriend. So he killed her, right here in front, right on the street. Thirty-seven times…” he emphasizes, looking at me. “He don’t like to talk about it. It was his girlfriend. Killed her right on Mother’s Day too.”

That was only 4 months ago. He nods, “Mmm-hmm”

I ask him how he’s the caretaker.

“I sleep right in there,” he says pointing to a doorway of the building I’ll be shooting in later. Sam tells me matter-of-factly – with zero disappointment or regret. “That’s where I live. This is my spot – me an my brother – right here. Thirty years … This been my hang out.”

“What about winter?” I ask.

“What about winter??” He begins to shiver. “It gets cooold in the winter, man, it gets cooold! Tell me about it!” he laughs again.

“What do you do?”

“Blan-Kets man! Aaa.lot.aaa.blan-Kets!”

“Looks like you got this whole place all to yourself.”

“Me and my brother…and lots a cats.” He leans back and looks up as if remembering something. “Thirty years…”

I tell Sam I’m gonna look around a little more. He gives me another fist bump and I head off back to the ruins of the old Lamb Skin Co. Then I do something I wish I had done more often in the many years I’ve been shooting the Alleys & Ruins: I shoot a video of the area. It’s still light out and my friend Nate (who’ll be watching my back) hasn’t arrived yet.

Since I normally shoot exteriors, I’m not prepared for the hazards of the enormous amount of rubble, especially the nails, and I very nearly puncture my foot while shooting the video.

After the video, I’m back near the couch thinking about the photograph I’ll be shooting, and how do I light this – the couch, the rubble, the weeds in the background. I wonder if my foot will get impaled during the shoot, while I stumble around countless exposed nails with my lights in the dark, wearing the wrong shoes. As always, I want to create a kind of fairy tale version of this bleak scene…and then I wonder who sleeps on the couch… is it Chuck?

Then I notice behind me, Stan the Man is walking down the alley. “You going to get your beers?” I call out.

“You know it!” he yells, fist in the air, and laughs.

By the time the shoot is over, it’s near midnight. Nate and I pack up and walk out to the street. Chuck is fast asleep on the same couch, but Sam is not around. Maybe he’s in his bed. I dig into my pocket and pull out another fiver. I roll it up and jam it into a crack in the chair… a little morning surprise for the brothers. It’s the least I can do for the Viper.

 

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Update: Over the years, a beautiful urban recreational path – the Dequindre Cut Greenway – has slowly replaced the once notorios Cut.

 

The Dequindre Cut Greenway is an urban recreational path that opened to the public in May of 2009. The two-mile greenway was developed through a public, nonprofit and private partnership—comprising the federal government, City of Detroit, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation—and offers a pedestrian link between the East Riverfront, Eastern Market and several residential neighborhoods in between.

Formerly a Grand Trunk Railroad line, the Dequindre Cut is a predominately below-street level greenway that runs parallel to St. Aubin Street, between Mack Avenue and Atwater Street, just north of the riverfront. Well-known for its examples of urban artwork and graffiti, the greenway features a 20-foot-wide paved pathway, which includes separate lanes for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

A half-mile extension of the Dequindre Cut officially opened in April 2016.  It runs from Gratiot Avenue to Mack Avenue and takes pedestrians into the heart of Eastern Market.  Buildings on each side of the Cut along this stretch provide users with a glimpse of what the railway looked like when it was a busy hub of activity bringing people and products to Eastern Market and to the Detroit Riverfront. 

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