March 28, 2011 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Life in the Ruins

Crumbling Detroit Packard plant becomes hallowed ground for many

Packard plant explorations
Packard plant explorations: The ruins of the old Detroit auto plant attract all kinds of artists, preservationists and curiosity seekers.

For some, it's Detroit's most spectacular ruin. But for an intrepid few, the Packard plant's crumbling facades and twisted piles of rebar and concrete are as familiar as their backyards.

In a way, it's because it is their backyard, a sort of secret garden that casts its spell and lures them back day after decaying day.

They are filmmakers, urban explorers, paint ballers, graffiti artists and photographers — connoisseurs of the wreckage of Detroit. They know they're technically trespassing. But they're drawn to the wind whistling through the broken windows, creaking steel and vastness of this seemingly post-apocalyptic plant.

Mike Glinski, 20, is one of them, visiting and photographing the plant since he was 15 and drove with friends from Romeo to explore its caverns. Now living in the city and studying photography at the College for Creative Studies, Glinski says he's fascinated because traipsing through the plant is like "walking on history."

"People were making the most luxurious cars ever here years ago," he says, "and now you're here walking in their footsteps."

An eyesore to some and treasure to others, the plant on East Grand Boulevard once housed 47 buildings on its 37 acres. Now, it's 3.5 million square feet of deteriorating brick and steel. The Albert Kahn-designed complex opened in 1903 , was considered revolutionary then and employed 40,000 people at its height.

The plant churned out the Packard Motor Car Co.'s best-selling luxury vehicles and even aircraft engines for World War II. But the company stopped making cars at the plant in 1956 when it merged with Studebaker. Over the years, the complex has been home to many small businesses, the scene of legendary rave parties and the backdrop for music videos and films from indie productions to Hollywood's "Transformers 3."

Today, there's one tenant, plenty of vandals and scores of appreciative day-trippers like Glinski.

He comes almost weekly — to check in and see what's changed. Because it's always changing. Sometimes it's the result of metal scavenging. Other times, it's just nature doing its work, and a bridge he used to travel from one building to another will become unstable or collapse.

Many who photograph Detroit's decay are accused of engaging in "ruin porn." Glinski doesn't see his work that way, since he sees the beauty of Kahn's masterpiece.

"I have almost four years of my life tied up here," he says. "Days and weekends spent wandering and thinking a lot and looking through a viewfinder and trying to compose the best image that I can."

"I love this building in every aspect, and I don't want it torn down at all. I think there's definitely options and possibilities for keeping this here and rehabbing it."

The owner

Dominic Cristini says he loves the complex, too. He claims his company, BioResource, is the sole owner of the facility, and he's spent years in court battling the city of Detroit since former Mayor Dennis Archer took possession of it and began demolition. Cristini prevailed in court, went to prison for four years on a drug charge and recently returned to lay claim to the property again.

Detroit officials say the plant is a nuisance and are amid an exhaustive title search to determine ownership.

"I'm a business person," Cristini says. "I could see selling or developing or doing a joint venture with the city to redevelop it. There are tax credits available.

"I'd love to work with the city."

But when he's not battling the city, he's battling scrappers — and losing the war.

"I could put in a whole fleet of security guards and not secure the place," Cristini says.

"There is still a risk factor, and I wouldn't want someone getting hurt," he says. "I don't approve of people coming and going or stealing scrap — but I love the artwork (and graffiti)."

The graffiti artist

The Packard is a canvas for graffiti artists like Nate Mingo-Williams, 28, who grew up in and lives in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood and has painted the plant's walls since 2007.

"I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the Packard," says the divorced father of a young son. While it's a quiet place to paint, the potential for injury is real.

He doesn't consider what he does vandalism, but realizes not every one would agree. "It would be hypocritical to say I don't approve of the vandalism in here. ...," Mingo-Williams says. "But the people who come in here and break windows and punch holes in walls just don't have the respect for the building that you ultimately should have.

"You can really tell a lot about where people come from and what they're about by how they conduct themselves in places where no one's watching."

The caretaker

Despite the sense of solitude, someone might be watching.

Allan Hill, 66, lives at the plant. Thirty years ago, a friend bought and rehabbed a large single-story series of sheds to house a structural steel fabricating business. That enterprise went under, and six years ago Hill moved in to keep an eye on the place.

Now, he supports himself doing some car repairs with his roommate, Greg Irving, and works with Peacemakers Church helping others find the road away from drugs and alcohol that he found there.

He says he feels a part of this community of "people who are brought together by the plant ... people who love the place, one of the fans of the Packard plant."

Hill has seen urban tourists, filmmakers and artists from France, Germany, Switzerland. He pulls out a stack of business cards he has collected from visitors "from all over the globe." He has watched bridal parties pull up in limos to take pictures and knows college professors who regularly visit.

"It's probably one of the best-known structures on planet Earth," says Hill, who maintains a live webcam of the plant, www.mycampage.com/packardproject.

"It's like Detroit's Eiffel Tower," he says, "which is incredible because Detroit was considered the Paris of North America."

Hill sees himself as a bit of a watchman, trying to dissuade vandals and calling the fire department.

"It's very touching to walk through it and see what could have been," says Hill, "but at this point it's apparently too little, too late. People talk about tearing it down, but it would cost a fantastic amount of money," he says. "And then what would they have? A vacant lot."

The Packard plantís water tower, shown here in 2010, is no longer standing. Owner Dominic Cristini denies he sold it for scrap. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Nate Mingo-Williams grew up and stills lives in Detroitís Woodbridge ...