Initiation Among the Ruins

Somewhere inside the Packard Plant, Photo: Adam Flor

Monomyth:  I. Departure II. Initiation III. Return

There are all sorts of initiations one can experience in life. Some are minor and go unnoticed while others are profound and are embedded with meaning. Most aren't understood as such until some reflection after the fact. As a teenager I had many. Going to a punk show for the first time. Having a hallucinogenic experience. Wandering Jamaican beaches all alone in a foreign country for the first time. Later on, there were physically and mentally grueling initiations on the mats of martial arts dojos, led by hardened teachers. Today I am able to more consciously seek these all-important initiations out with intention. As a young boy, they just happened, thrust upon me without premeditation.

Danger, risk, death and re-birth are common symbolic themes that are signposts of strong initiations. To initiate is to begin something – to enter a new way of life or to uncover a new way of understanding oneself or the world as a whole. In fact, there was some level of seeking out and desire for growth that went on within me as a young boy and man. I sought out moments of danger on a regular basis as a matter of fact. Driven to feel something stirring inside. To let loose repression and angst. To break all the rules.

I picked up a 35mm camera for the first time at 15-years-old. This I did in emulation of another older kid from the neighborhood who had created a strong identity for himself as a photographer. It seemed very sophisticated and cool. A fairly easy way to express myself and channel my unfocused creativity. At that age most of us are stumbling around trying to grasp onto something to do that can bring definition to ourselves. I was ready for something new, something personal.

My old 35mm cameras from high school
It wasn't very long after I barely learned how to load up a roll of film that my older friends began taking me along on their photo shoots. They had already been initiated. Now they were prepared to initiate me. The true test of character to hang with these guys was whether I could hold my own in the big, bad city of Detroit. Not just walking the city streets, but actually finding remote abandoned buildings to trespass into. If you know anything about Detroit, sadly you know there are no shortage of these ruins, especially back in the 1990's. Was I willing to risk life, limb or jail to get a cool photo? Abso-fucking-lutely. This initiatory journey had my name all over it. So, with my used manual Olympus, I jumped in the backseat of a red Dodge Shadow to meet destiny head-on.

There was even a distinct soundtrack for these adventures. At that particular time a couple of albums seemed to be the ones always on the car stereo. There were others but the sounds of Plastikman's classic minimal techno masterpiece, Musik and the mind-blowingly inventive, dark hip-hop sampling of DJ Shadow's Entroducing embed into my memory the deepest. These recordings perfectly set the tone for the menacing dangers that lay ahead of us, as we left the comforts of suburbia behind us.

The guys I was with were crazy skateboarding outcasts. They had no fear at all. I had pulled plenty of reckless stunts with them before this one, including getting one kid's car impounded and myself hauled to the police station for underage driving. I was desperate to be older than I was. Breaking laws was nothing new to me, I was a constant vandalizer and shoplifter among other things. The actual law wasn't the real boundary I was breaking. I was going against the law of the streets. Abandoned buildings could belong to anyone. From gangs to gun-wielding slumlords to plain old mentally ill squatters. When you get inside one of these places, there's no telling what can happen or if you'll come out in one piece. (I've had a gun pulled on me first hand. My friends have too.)

It has to be said that since the 90's there has been a deluge of what's known as "ruin porn." It's a category of photography that attempts to artful portrait the utter destruction of once beautifully designed Art-Deco architecture of the early 20th Century. I personally have no more interest in this type of work whatsoever. It's depressing in an expected and cliche way by now. Why this subject is worth remembering has very little to do with the photos we took. The importance of the experience has everything to do with the passing of a trial. The willful descent into a physical Hell on earth and the reemergence back into the sunlight of day. Having become a little changed in the process. I internally felt different about myself after the fact. There was some silly pride going back to school and knowing I had done something truly dangerous over the weekend. I had gotten off my ass and thrust myself into the unknown. That I did it for the sake of "art", romanticized it all the more. The photos once printed up, became a badge of honor. A certificate of merit. Proof of courage. The rewards of embarking on a true rite of passage.

The most remarkable property I ever step foot in, was certainly the Detroit Train Station, properly identified as Michigan Central Station.  Located in a district known as Corktown, the landmark was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. A little background from Wikipedia- 
"At the beginning of World War I, the peak of rail travel in the United States, more than 200 trains left the station each day and lines would stretch from the boarding gates to the main entrance. In the 1940s, more than 4,000 passengers a day used the station and more than 3,000 people worked in its office tower. Among notable passengers arriving at MCS were Presidents Herbert HooverHarry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, actor Charlie Chaplin and inventor Thomas Edison.
The building is of the Beaux-Arts Classical style of architecture, designed by the Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem firms who also designed New York City's Grand Central Terminal. Michigan Central was designed at the same time, and is seen as a spiritual twin to Grand Central in New York, as both were meant as flagship stations on Vanderbilt's rail lines, as well as the fact that both were designed to have office towers in their original design concepts (Grand Central's tower was not built until the MetLife Tower was built in the 1960s), and both have the same detailing, and were opened six months apart."

The rails came to a halt in 1988 and it's been decaying ever since. It's nearly impossible to get inside today after years and years of trespassing and vandalization. It wasn't easy to get into in 1996 but it was still possible. In fact, making it inside was at least half the excitement and risk. There was a real sense of accomplishment and slickness once you got through one of the few openings. Luckily for me, I was with people who had previously discovered the easiest route in.

It was truly a glorious sight to my 15-year-old eyes. We had entered a whole other reality. A cavernous darkness, with only holes in the windows and ceilings to light the way. Someone may have been smart enough to bring a flashlight. Possibly a knife. Otherwise it was just our frail teenage bodies holding cameras in baggy skater clothes. But we had reckless self-abandon and quick feet.

The whole purpose of the trip was to climb as high up the 18-story, 230 foot structure as we could. It wasn't easy, as we had no maps to reference and the way we moved through the place was completely spontaneous and erratic.  The more experienced guys could help us along by recognition of some specific piece of destroyed left behind object or more likely a piece of memorable graffiti tagged on the wall. It may not have been on my first excursion but on a few occasions I got a glimpse of the city from the rooftop. It was a feeling of freedom, accomplishment and rebellion all at once.

Detroit Train Station
Was it scary getting all the way up there? No doubt. Not the kind of fear that made us turn back but plenty enough to keep the adrenaline on high. The place is an absolute freak-show of horrors. The blackest shadows forming all sorts of threatening and monstrous shapes. The echoey dripping of burst pipes. The snapping and cracking of debris under everyone's feet. The inexplicable bangs of an old building crumbling apart as we breathed. We would hear sounds coming from other floors, never sure if we were the only ones there. We most certainly were not. There would be the relief of bumping into some other group of thrill-seekers with the same idea that we had. We passed each other in the dark with knowing acknowledgement. With all the interiors essentially cleared out,  enough day light allowed us to see a far distances and potentially spot trouble coming. I vaguely recall voices being heard and the hope of safe escape. The fact was, the farther up we went, the more trapped and pinned down we became. Once up past the half-way point, there's just no quick way out of there if shit went bad. Would I have ever gone in there at night. Not a fucking chance.

Detroit Train Station
Luckily, I never came under harm. And for that reason, it remains a memory of young naiveté and an era of innocence being broken. I have all the film to this day and a few of my darkroom prints going back to my first trip in. I had more luck in that the light was just right and my aperture and shutter settings were forgiving on a couple of frames here and there. Largely what I shot just looks like piles of garbage or too dark to decipher. It wasn't easy to get a really nice image, considering all the elements at work. It really was the bounding of friends on a secret escapade that made it so vital.

With all the built in security of growing up in the suburbs, we felt it necessary to put ourselves through a manufactured trial by fire. To see if we could hold up under pressure. Not necessarily a Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey, but it was something.
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
The infamous Train Station wan't the only dark passage I undertook in those days. Another infamously mythic danger-zone lie in another Metro-Detroit city of Northville. Home of a long abandoned Psychiatric Hospital. Let's get real, this place was a haunting insane asylum that was once known to perform eugenics experiments. A really, really freaky place to visit. Although not in the heart of Detroit, I found the grounds of this place more disturbing. I think an old insane asylum carries more psychic weight. Psychologically, there are more associations of derangement to contend with. Walking through the floors of that old place plays tricks with the mind. There was plenty of time in the darkness to imagine the tortured life of past patients and the possible spirit resonance still active between the walls. That place was different. People died miserably there.

Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital
One of the guys I went there with actually had the nerve to take LSD on the way there. It's something I would have done had I not wanted to take photos coherently. But as it turns out, that wouldn't have made a difference. I had the odd experience of my film never turning out from these trips. All the frames turned out horrible. Blurry, dark, unprintable. This is largely because of the much darker conditions inside the structure compared with the Train Station. There was much less natural light coming into the place. I know other people got off good images, I just never could. In reality, the camera was just a prop to get me through the experience and not be too freaked out.

The myths and tall-tales of the place were whispered to me in the high school lunch room. Haunted underground tunnels. Screams and glass being shattered. Neo-Nazi skinheads looking for a fight. The legends again being funneled down to me from my older friends. Old enough to have cars to drive themselves there. Soon enough I was to take several of my own trips there with different groups of friends. In this case, more than just the photo kids were interested in making the trek. The allure of a haunted insane asylum drew all sorts of kids in. The property is notorious for teenage trespassers and is under heavy surveillance seemingly at all times. But back in the mid to late 90's you could pull it off without running from the cops. It was the other threats that we were worried about. That could come jumping out of the shadows at any instant.

You see, this place was more than just a hospital for the mentally ill. Its history holds even darker and more sinister secrets. A little cross-referencing will reveal the facility had been run under a different name, the Wayne County Training School.
"Wayne County Training School, alternately known as the Wayne County Training School for Feeble Minded Children or the Wayne County Child Development Center, was a state-funded institution for developmentally-disabled children, located in Northville Township, Michigan. Construction of the institution began in 1923, and it opened in 1926. Expansion on the property continued until 1930. The school closed its doors on October 18, 1974. Most of the buildings were left abandoned until 1998, when the land was sold to contractors and the school was demolished in July. Today, a golf course and residential housing stand on the former school plot.
On May 23, 1923, Michigan governor Fred Green signed the state’s sterilization bill. This made sterilization for anyone deemed feeble minded mandatory with court order. The school was used to enforce the state’s eugenics law, though fewer forced sterilizations took place in Wayne county. At the Lapeer Home an Training School, a total of 216 males and 688 females underwent sterililization surgery by 1934. From 1930 to 1934, 14 boys and 47 girls institutionalized at the Wayne County Training School were ‘rendered incapable of passing on their defects to a new generation’." 
If there are spirits still haunting the halls, they're probably pissed. Over the decades of it's history a number of abuse and corruption scandals were reported. The property was completely abandoned in 1978. Since that time the empty buildings, tunnels and grounds became a haven for partying, drug-dealing and gang activity. There's even a story of a kid falling to his death off the roof in the late 90's. Unfortunately for me, I never got to explore the underground tunnels. They were either destroyed by the time I was there, or we simply couldn't find the entrances. A much more detailed personal account of the entire facility can be read here. Here's an incredible tidbit -
"I once scanned through all of the Northville Record microfilm in the Northville District Library, and in doing so learned a lot of interesting things, plus took some notes on pertinent dates and events. Aside from the many positive news articles about the hospital such as community events that took place there, some of the common problems noted in the Police Blotter section of the paper as having occurred at the hospital or that were committed by its patients (against themselves, each other, staff, or nearby residents) included the endless stream of escapes, numerous home break-ins, suicides and other deaths under questionable circumstances, larceny, burglary, arson, weapons possession, malicious destruction, mugging, assaults, knife assaults, rapes, a strangling, car theft, car arson, taxi theft, moped and bicycle theft, bomb threats, and holding hostages—plus jumping in front of traffic and other grotesque attempts at suicide via a third-party.
Most of these crimes were committed in the process of affecting an escape from the hospital by some means other than on foot; often the prospective escapee wanted a vehicle, weapon, or some other way of improving their chances of successfully evading capture, even if it was just to enact a diversion. Granted, despite all of these incidents I just listed, the majority of the "escapees" were harmless people who were just confused or lost. Most of them turned up in the restaurant across the street, which telephoned the hospital daily to have lost patients returned."
A crappy photo of mine that still manages to capture the creepy factor
Like the Train Station, there's an underlying tragedy to record. In this case, the closing of a mental hospital and the untold numbers of patients cast out on the street and the many who would never have a place to go. Michigan has closed down many of its hospitals for treating the mentally ill. Everything about the place remains unsettling to me. I realize today that for every dilapidated building that provided me with an exhilarating rush, came sat a cost of great heartache and pain. My experience is my experience for better or worse. These outings led me to more interesting creative and photographic work later on in life. Although, the rush and adrenaline has subsided considerably, at least as it relates to the actual capturing of the image itself.

The last time I entered an abandoned building wasn't that long ago actually. Maybe 7 or 8 years back. Some new photo-buddies wanted to check out other historic buildings of the old automotive glory days. The Packard Plant that's been closed since 1958, the Fisher Body Plant, and a slaughter house in Eastern Market to name a few. It was during this post-college, "professional" era that I had a gun pulled on my by a super pissed off guy who claimed to "own" the building we were in and demanded we get the fuck off his property. It really isn't worth it anymore. I had my experiences and the payback for the risk isn't there any more. It's not the pictures that hold the value anymore, but the memories of times past. And there's no recapturing that.

Fisher Body Plant
Packard Plant 
Packard Plant
Packard Plant
Packard Plant
Junkyard Unknown

Junkyard Unknown
Fisher Body Plant
Photography // Jeff Wolfe


  1. Nice write up. However I think you have confused the Wayne County Trainimg School with Northville Regional. The WCTS was demoloshed in 1998. The pictures you posted are of NRPH. Check out


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