Bagley Optical and The Glass Man

Being from the Detroit area is a point of pride for many people in Michigan. It has also grown into an identity for many of us. Since I live out of state now, I always introduce myself as being from the Detroit area, or while traveling abroad, I usually say I'm from Detroit, instead of the US.. It's an odd habit that seems to stem from my childhood experiences in and around the city.

The Guardian Building peeking through in Detroit.

The Guardian Building peeking through in Detroit.

I had the great fortune of growing up on a little lake surrounded by other little lakes, 40 minutes northwest of Detroit city. My mom's dad and my dad's parents lived in the city for most of my childhood, so we got into the city on weekends, for baseball games at Old Tiger Stadium, to explore the historic Palmer Woods neighborhood, and for Christmas Eve, to attend the most magical mass of the year at Gesu Catholic Church.

A view of Green Lake from our backyard.

A view of Green Lake from our backyard.

Up until a couple months ago, my mom's dad, Grandpa George, owned a building on Bagley and 14th in the Corktown neighborhood in Detroit. He had been in the building for over 50 years. His optical had been running for 40-some years. From his rooftop (which I regrettably could not access for photos), you can see the Ambassador Bridge, the old Michigan Central Station, and several other historical buildings and neighborhoods in the area.

As kids, my brothers and I would ride along with my parents to the building, which we fondly dubbed The Dungeon. We were told not to touch anything, not to walk in the dark corners of the building, and to absolutely not go on the rooftop - which we did many times, usually because my grandpa would order us to do some kind of odd job up there. The staircases were always off limits, due to their unsteady nature.

Once we could drive ourselves down, my brother, friends, and I would go to concerts, Tiger's games, and always cruise to Lafayette for coney dogs. We'd stop by my grandpa's building and he'd hassle us about school, how much money we have saved or are making, and about why we are wasting our lives listening to this crap music. We always enjoyed showing people the mysterious and quirky building.

My Grandpa had created a closed off area he called a courtyard, and kept several unnamed and apparently untame dogs. When we walked by the patchwork of windows and doorwalls, the dogs would lose their shit and threaten us with teeth and absurdly loud barking. My grandpa kept busy by created partitions, dark, minimally livable spaces, and Gee's Bend quilt style repairs to the inside and outside of the building. He'd rent out apartments to whoever would put up with his crass remarks and his creative engineering.

Most people who stepped into the building in the last ten years knew grandpa didn't have a money making optical anymore - he kept it up to keep his friends around. They'd drop by, pretend to need something, recieve a quick snarky remark, maybe a repair frame or lens, and be on their way, back to their own dungeons and patchwork lives. He was George the Glass Man. When I'd call him, he'd pick up and say 'OPTICAL!' assuming people knew exactly who they were calling.

A sign maker's characature of my grandpa at work. 

A sign maker's characature of my grandpa at work. 

A couple days ago I went to the building, possibly for the last time, and took photos of the interior and exterior, trying not to disturb my grandpa's lair. He was in his last few days of moving out of his beloved building and I got to be there to listen to his stories about the random items that made up his home. I came across a lot of collections - he told us people would come to him, needing money, and offering random appliances and clothing in exchange for a good negotiation. There were piles of bullets to lost guns, lenses with no frames, posters of old eyewear advertisements, and chairs and dressers and sideboards piled up to the ceiling in one room.

Although it is sad to see this legendary building go from our family, I am excited to see what happens with it. The city of Detroit is going through an intense creative period and the new owners of the building are young artists, and have lots of energy to put into the building and are adding on to the already colorful history of the property.