Adventures close to home: The way we were the week that was

(Editor's note: J. Anton Blatz and Rene Wymer are serializing loosely-connected tales of city life in the form of an illustrated, non-fiction novel. Find last month's installment here. Look for Adventures close to home every month in Model D.)

Chapter 4: Growing Pains

On a Tuesday afternoon, I cruise down to the cafe from work. The storefront is under construction, probably two or three months away from its official opening. A bright new facade, built to match the historic style of this 1880s block, still has tiny nail holes waiting to be filled. Inside, the owner has set his iPod up inside an industrial lampshade as an amplifier.

The night before it had been decided, over birthday cake sometime around midnight, that Astro Coffee would unofficially open at 3 p.m. today. Lucky patrons getting a sneak preview include people from last night's celebration, some neighbors, a few people on break from Slows Bar B Q a few doors down, and some baristas from Comet Cafe in Ann Arbor.

The ceiling is high, painted crisp white. Exposed brick walls flank two sides, with two dark volumes set inside. Wood planks lay across the plywood sub-counter as a makeshift bar. Baristas filter single-origin coffees through ceramic cones.

A gentleman who is set to open a classic cocktail joint called Sugar House in the storefront next to Astro arrives with his lovely wife who's expecting a child. They stepped in through the open door on their way upstairs to their apartment. The two future business owners trade tales of permits and contractors.

A pair of tattooed men in a leather jackets sit on chairs by the front windows. One is starting a band called Mexican Knives; the other has just landed a steady DJ gig at St Andrew's. It's about 4 p.m. and most of us have finished up work to come drink afternoon coffees.

A painter enters the café, looking disturbed. He's hopped up on caffeine, and having a mighty hard time getting back to his work on the space next door. Before his trial-run coffee he had downed a Red Bull.

The owner, Daisuke, has spent over a year working to get to this point. He scouted locations all around the city before settling down on Michigan Avenue. One space was a three-foot by four-foot window on the side of a 1920s-era high-rise building downtown, a garden-level spot at the corner of a cobblestone street lined with distinctive Victorian mansions caught his eye for a while. He had looked at a one-story brick building near Wayne State, a freestanding corner building on Vernor, and countless others.

A man cycles by with wire baskets straddling his back tire and a big handlebar basket up front, sipping coke from a White Castle cup and wearing a winter jacket. The air feels more like May than April (editor's note: as we publish, giant snowflakes are falling outside our window making it feel more like March than April). Giant clouds sail by across a bright blue sky. Daisuke has thrown a long wood bench on the sidewalk and some folks wander out to sip coffee and watch the people walking in and out of Slows, which shares this same block.

Across the street, the haunting façade of the Michigan Central Train Station looms overhead. Roosevelt Park stretches out across the opposite corner. Last fall, Slows took over the park, hosting a 5-year anniversary party and beanbag tournament under the dramatic backdrop. The Imagination Station flanks one corner of the park, where the Robocop statue will end up one day soon.

There is growth all around this block. Slows is getting ready to expand into O' Connor Real Estate Development, which will shift down the block into another available space to accommodate. Sugar House is a couple months away from slinging it's first Old Fashioned. Tenants have just moved into the rehabbed apartment above Astro. The block is starting to hum. Can you you hear it? We can.

Daisuke's wife Jess pulls out some delicious homemade cookies, and slowly, conversations begin to fork in different directions: workouts, dinner plans, evening meetings, and one more coffee. With Rene at his sketchbook, I head out into the fading sunlight.

The next day I find myself at Peoples Records, buying a stack of early 1960s Marvin Gaye records. Later, I'm up the Woodward corridor a few blocks collecting a press pass at the Art X at MOCAD and finding out it came with two drink tickets.

Walking through the gallery, surrounded by an impressive body of work from the Kresge Arts Detroit winners. I see: a man sitting atop a pile of clay, surrounded by four urns containing the ashes of abandoned houses, a collection of striking portraits capturing a cross section of a multiracial neighborhood, a tool kit for modern survival complete with a bike-powered covered wagon; a slick film about each of the nearly 40 artists who have been awarded the $25k artist grants in the past two years, featuring poets, rappers, painters, photographers in abandoned factories, iconic institutions, living rooms, libraries and gardens.

I spot Rodriguez, one of the city's greatest unsung heroes walk by, and striking up a conversation with the troubadour.

'It started out with butterflies, on a velvet afternoon. With flashing eyes and promises, caught in hell too soon.'

Rodriguez is half-guitar player, half-poet, full-on music legend with the biggest hands you'll ever shake.

Back home, I drop a needle on that stack of Marvin Gaye, opening up the sweet-soul world of Motown's golden years.

On Friday, we stood in the early morning rain, waiting for our hard hats.

Inside the wood-paneled trailer, the foreman is on the phone, working out his strategy for Tiger's home opener. He is planning to cut out of work early and drink at the bars around the stadium. He has no interest in long beer and bathroom lines.

We walk toward the entrance, passing between building-eating machines. Two units are already hard at work, devouring steel and vinyl to our right. A huge puddle forms in the footprint of a former section, snot-colored with traces of kelly green paint. This section had been built in 1985 and looked like a much easier takedown job then the massive 1920s behemoth behind it.

We walk through an arched doorway into complete darkness. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust. Eventually we make out some forms lining the walls: elegant curved iron wood-top desks, a bank of lockers and an antique paper cutter, items that had been carried down by the demo workers and set aside for the school's Alumni Association.

Completed in 1922, this section of Cass Technical High School has two giant light wells carved deep into the enormous rectangular footprint. They helped cast a dim light on the scene.

The building looks like a tornado had blown through. Each room is a mad hallucination of its former life: a landscape of overturned glass cabinets fills the chemistry lab, with numbered drawers and cubbies splayed open along the walls.

Broken glass spreads across the hallway, with piles of organized chaos dotting the way. Computers pile up outside one classroom, desks and tables outside another. One room houses stacks of unused textbooks, 'The African American Experience,' 'Chemistry' and 'Economics.' It looks like someone was setting up a textbook sale for zombies.

Scrappers had long since discovered the plumbing veins, and thrown aside whatever stood between them and the metal pipes. Rumor has it that the first wave of them crawled into the building through the sewers.

We slowly make our way, gawking and cautious, up to the printmaking studio on the sixth floor.

When it first opened, Cass Tech was the state-of-the-art high school in Michigan, and one of the largest in the country, a factory for young professionals. Admission was reserved for the highest-achieving students, and facilities included machine shops, science laboratories, commercial kitchen and baking classrooms. An auditorium with near-perfect acoustics, a nuclear physics department, an aeronautics department, and much, much more. (Grab a copy of Dan Austin and Sean Doerr's Lost Detroit for a stunning photo essay and history of the life of this magnificent building).

Today my job involves salvaging equipment from the graphic design and print studios, for future use at a nearby institution. An easier job if the studios were not up so high, or the freight elevators worked. Some of the letterpress machines weigh upwards of 5,000 pounds. Though valuable, almost functional (nothing a healthy dose of elbow grease couldn't fix), and one-of-a-kind, the fate of these large presses is all but sealed. Today our focus is on smaller items that help make a letterpress studio hum.

In total, we spend nearly 90 minutes in the school. It seems like 20. I struggle my way down with a lithography stone in my backpack, carrying a drawer full of letterpress nick-nacks: a composing stick, some brayers, quoin keys to lock up type, and other critical and hard to find items. We make our way back to the trailer to work out a charitable donation arrangement. We will be back.

J. Anton Blatz is not afraid to get his hands dirty in a neighborhood near you each month in Model D.

Illustration by Rene Wymer.

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