Sure is pretty around here this time of year.
Albion, Michigan is one of those towns that was hit hard by the flight of rust belt industry. One big employer leaves and the whole town gasps.
There’s the college. And a few taverns to grab a bite to eat. A few manufacturers here and there.
But there’s also quite a few of abandoned spots in town – a glimpse at what this place used to look like, not so long ago.
Some of these structures were built to last. Strong brick and wood. It probably means they’ll last for decades.
They’ll probably outlast their original owners.
But others? The paint’s peeling. The wood is splintering. The glass is shattering.
It’s all going to hell, fading in the sun and the seasons.
There’s that old adage about one broken window in a neighborhood can’t be tolerated, or else more will appear. Here, though, people just drive past.
Jesus fading in the window. Boards protecting the inside from the sun’s rays and onlookers’ curiosity.
I don’t see this stuff as ruin porn or a fetishization of the Rust Belt Economy that’s dying (or in some places, dead). For me, it’s cool history.
Some of these places have a story, and lives attached to them. Who were they? What did they do here? How long did they hold out? Where are they now?
As a kid, my family often went to Stagecoach Stop and Prehistoric Forest, and played putt-putt and drove go karts at the little amusement parks. Even back then there was a level of hokeyness – but it didn’t matter. Those places were tons of fun.
In high school, my dad and step mom were married at Stagecoach Stop’s little chapel, and their reception was held in the old timey tavern.
Stagecoach was a bustling place back in the day. You could watch a gun fight in the town square, grab some ice cream, pet a goat in the petting zoo, and even stay overnight in the motel. There was a working lumber mill, and horse rides, and a drive-through haunted Halloween tour.
Now those places are overgrown and fading away.
Driving down US-12 now, and passing through the Irish Hills, it feels like a ghost town. It’s almost like a run-down part of town, with all the windows broken out and no one left to protect it. Eventually, I’m sure, these roadside attractions will be mowed down completely.
Maybe the dinosaurs at Prehistoric Forest will survive. But more and more each year that place gets eaten by vegetation.
So last fall I took a drive out there, seemingly back in time, to capture some of those attractions I remembered from childhood. Before they disappeared.
At Stagecoach, I ran into a couple that was hosting a garage sale of sorts on the property. Most of the area was closed off, but I asked if I could walk around to grab some photos, and they said “yes.”
The Irish Hills Fun Center, a general amusement park with putt-putt and go karts, was completely abandoned. The kart track was still in decent shape, but the rest of the property was fading fast.
Prehistoric Forest, the true goal of my trip last fall, has been known as a target for vandalism. With motion sensors and cameras guarding the place, it was risky to try to grab photos of the place. When I drove past, there was a utility truck and a man taking measurements, so I played it safe and drove on.
Word is that the place has been sold. Who knows what will happen to it.
It was weird to see a place that was so bustling turn into such a dead spot. I may take another drive out there this fall to see what’s changed – if anything.
I get lots of stuff from Chicago. In fact, walking around downtown Detroit this summer, I felt like I knew the Windy City better than I know my local big city.
So in early August I had the chance to explore a bit while at a training seminar for work.
Sticking to mainly Woodward Ave., it was a fun stroll through the heart of the Motor City: starting at Hart Plaza (above), passed Campus Martius, and on down to the filming set for ‘Transformers 4.’
I’ve had Detroit on my photo list for a long time – to take a day or an afternoon and just explore. And shoot.
So it was nice to finally do that.
And it’s not like I saw a whole lot. Detroit is a giant city, geographically, and there’s no way a visiting tourist like me could do it justice.
What I did see, though, was a quiet city at sundown, with lots of graffiti.
There’s that whole Abandoned Detroit thing, and as much as I love the abandoned stuff I didn’t want to go there just yet. That’s like making out with someone on the first date.
Instead, Detroit and I shook hands on a warm summer evening.
(Photos processed with VSCO Film Fuji FP-100c Negative +++. See the rest of the set on Flickr.)
The good news, however, is that he may have found a buyer for the place. They have to get things worked out with the bank, but otherwise it’s a go.
That’s my friend Jon Hart in the background, there, digging through the alternative titles. I’m mainly a Spidey and X-Men guy, myself.
But it was his alma mater, his wife’s job, and his own first job in the financial world that brought him up to Harbor Springs, Mich. Now? He’s a barber.
In a tourist town like Harbor Springs, about 10 minutes around the bay from Petoskey, Jordan says his Harbor Barber shop does good business. Fifteen customers a day during the winter, and upwards of 40 during the summer.
He says it’s tiring, being on his feet all day, looking down at customers. But the money is good.
“You can still make a good living doing this,” he said.
Just do the math: $15 for a shave and a haircut. Forty customers a day in the summer.
Jordan says the old straight razors could nick a customer, and then transfer some of the blood onto the leather strap. Cross-contamination. So he uses the disposal razors, but treats them in the old-timey way.
The whole old-timey shave is a novelty, he says. Customers, though, enjoy the ritual: the warm towel, putting your feet up, the patient pace of the job.
Some of the guys felt like they could’ve gone to sleep after The Towel Treatment. Especially after a long night of drinking.
The bench comes from the southern part of the state. The stool comes from Georgia, but the metal was manufactured in St. Louis.
One room. One stool. One sink. One customer after the other.
Lots of abandoned goodness in Albion, Mich. Took a little drive Friday afternoon during lunch and spotted a row of buildings that looked like they used to be thriving businesses.
But no longer.
Amazing what you can find driving here to there.
[I gave a shorter, punchier version of this essay at Jackson Magazine’s 30 And Under banquet, as a way to warn these ambitious young professionals what was in store for them. They probably already knew the second part, but the first part was 30 And Under wisdom after I was honored last year.]
There’s not much tackier than unasked for advice, so we’ll call these next two tid-bits “tips” instead of advice.
Tip one: whether anyone who is honored as a 30 And Under winner likes it or not, you’re going to become a celebrity in Jackson. The picture and profile will show up in the magazine and you’ll have strangers on the street saying “congratulations!” It happens. And grandma and grandpa and that guy you owe money to will all call and say they saw you in Jackson Magazine.
It’s a heavy burden, those first few months after winning. You’ll be famous to a group of people who have a very local sense of fame. You’re now in a select group of people that will probably make appearances on JTV or United Way billboards.
And in case you weren’t busy enough now, you’ll have community groups and committees asking for your help for their next big project. Jackson needs help, so being an up-and-coming hotshot means groups are pointing their volunteer laser beam right at you. Be prepared.
Tip two: listen for what people say about Jackson, especially when they pipe up about an idea, project, or event being “too good” for this town.
I heard it even before I was honored, but now I pay more attention. Too often, someone will claim an idea will never go over, never be attended, never be supported – because Jackson just isn’t that classy of a town.
Don’t think about that wild project you want to tackle, because it’s too good of an idea. And don’t even attempt to tackle some barrier in town, because they’ve been there and tried that and it doesn’t work around here.
Jackson has a crisis of confidence – a low self-esteem that rates somewhere between Chelsea and Hillsdale. Maybe it’s too much bad news in the past generation, or maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever. It’s very real.
It’s also true that good ideas have died on the vine in this town. But I’d rather have too many good ideas than a hum-drum philosophy that accept mediocrity and doesn’t break a sweat.
So don’t settle. Don’t let “good enough” be good enough, or think that something exciting is too exciting for Jackson.
I often think about AKA Sushi, the little boutique eatery up by Starbucks on West Ave. A business owner could have played it safe and threw in another McDonald’s, or Tim Horton’s, and offer another chain restaurant. Those are good enough for Jackson. Anything fancier would never make it, right?
Instead, there’s a hip sushi joint that draws a crowd on a Friday night. Not settling has been good for business.
Jackson’s chapter of the American Red Cross took a chance on a pop-up art gallery. With real art! And people had to pay to get in! The result was a smash success. The RED committee didn’t settle.
But many of my 30 And Under compatriots understand this already. They don’t go to work and go home and flip on the TV, day in and day out. They don’t settle for a life lived as usual – if they did, they wouldn’t be honored by Jackson Magazine.
The way we make Jackson raise its chin is by doing what we’re doing: not settling. Experimenting. Taking chances.
It’s tough, and it draws attention to your efforts, but the payoffs are pretty cool.