This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

Evolution in the Rails

Tonda Shimbo

"At this same train station my grandparents had arrived a half century earlier. Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had revealed their secret here to Sourmelina; and now their son, who never learned it, was pulling in behind the station, also secretly" (Eugenides, 502). Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex not only tracks the sexual evolution of Cal(lie), the male pseudo-hermaphrodite raised as a girl only to find out when he hits puberty that he has a Y-chromosome; but he also tracks the evolution of a city – of Detroit. Detroit was not built to be the capitol of crime, poverty, and murder that it is today. Detroit was built to be the city of the rich. The large houses were beautifully constructed with the greatest of care, and the old storefronts, now covered in graffiti with all windows broken in, have very high class architecture, showing a certain forgotten grandeur that only Detroit can allow. It is not like Philadelphia, with its connected townhouses and still vibrant city attractions. The houses were built for the elite – amazingly spacious with intricate design and architecture which are now frightening to drive by, much less live in. As Eugenides pointed out, the White Flight in the sixties and seventies did a number on the city, and its school system is now one of the worst in the country, yet still not allowing outside programs like Teach for America in its bounds. But one of the biggest monuments to this decay – one of the most striking aspects about Detroit – is the Michigan Central Station off of Michigan Avenue in the heart of Downtown.

Called Grand Trunk Station in Middlesex, the description in the book can point to only one station in the metro-Detroit area, and that is the Michigan Central Station (through which the Grand Trunk Railroad Line ran). From the ornate architecture to the sparkling stone floors, Michigan Central was the epitome of what was then a first-class city. As Eugenides points out, it was the cities attempt to rival New York – which is a feat in itself of any city. And this $15 million investment did more than its task in its day:

"Its base was a mammoth marble neoclassical museum, complete with Corinthian pillars and carved entablature. From this temple rose a thirteen-story office building...Telephones in a hundred shipping offices ringing away, still a relatively new sound; and merchandise being sent east and west; passengers arriving and departing, having coffee in the Palm Court or getting their shoes shined, the wing tips of banking, the cap toes of parts supply, the saddle shoes of rum-running... Grand Trunk, with its vaulted ceilings of Guastavino tilework, its chandeliers, its floors of Welsh quarry stone. There was a six-chair barbershop, where civic leaders were mummified in hot towels; and bathtubs for rent; and elevator banks lit by translucent egg-shaped marble lamps." (Eugenides, 83)

Eugenides provides the perfect description for this hub of travel, money, and commerce, opened in January, 1914 – just in time for the Stephanides to arrive safe from Bithynios, their secret in tact. As late as the fifties and early sixties the city was bustling with families shopping at Hudsons or one of the other many shops along Woodward Avenue at Christmas time, or comfortably strolling through one of the cities many parks. Sadly for those who've witnessed it, Detroit did not stay this way. By the sixties we see the race riots, which my own grandparents and father witnessed from their house in Detroit. The splendor of the big city was quickly fading, and with it went all the dreams of a high-class metropolis. With the White Flight came an extinction in the city of the upper-class, who had left for the quieter, safer suburbs surrounding the city. And with this extinction came the impregnation of our beautiful French Detroit (say it in French and it sounds much more elegant) with an entirely new species: poverty and despair.

The train station in times of old was a symbol of all that Detroit represented: wealth, wheels, and a constant moving forward. Comparing pictures from then and now is startling and inescapably depressing. The "half a hubcap" (Eugenides, 80) of the city is still visible in modern maps of Detroit ((5)), but the photos provided by the myriad of articles or enthusiasts on the web distinctly show that the city is no longer the great city Judge Woodward, or any of the city's many other forefathers, intended it to be (see (3) or (4)). When the last train pulled out of Michigan Central Station in downtown Detroit in 1988 (2), Detroit had already lost its wealthy and was in the midst of a terrible depression because of the slowly progressing loss of its wheels. It was a dangerous place for Asians of any sort, but especially the Japanese, because of the success of foreign cars crowding the Detroit-based Fords, Cadillacs, General Motors, and Chrystlers out of the market. And when these plants faltered, all Detroit's hopes and dreams boarded that last train, and left the city forever.

"For the past 14 years Michigan Central Depot has been considered for use as a monastery, a casino, a shopping mall, an athletic club, and a fish hatchery" (4). Those who live in, work in, or even pass through the city know well what kind of shape Detroit is in now. The graffiti covering once breathtaking architecture, the toothless homeless people in dirty, ripped jackets knocking on your car window for money at stoplights, and the quickness of running from your car (which you hope to God stays where you parked it) to your destination and back again. Driving down Woodward Avenue, you can't help but glance over at the old 18-story Station with a pit in your stomach. "Growing up in are put on close relations with entropy" (Eugenides, 517); it's true, and it's heartbreaking. The Detroit Michigan Central Station; where Lefty and Desdemona exposed their secret in the height of its elegance and success, and Father Mike led Milton through abandoned terminals and eventually to his death over the Ambassador bridge (where 19-year-olds now daily trek over to Canada for alcohol), holds a significant place in the lives of the characters of Middlesex. It is a place where weaknesses are revealed, and where insecurity lies. And that place lies dormant, for now. Still structurally sound, Detroit is now thinking of making this historical monument the home of the police headquarters, and filling many of the never-used floors with offices and the 36th District Court, among other things. This new transformation could signal positive progression for the city, which hasn't even dreamed of such advancement for years. But for now, the forgotten meme is hidden under the lush plantation which has grown to cover the once bustling tracks beneath the station, and Cal's history is guarded by its walls, echoing the architecture of his ancestors, with no one left to let it out.


1) Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. Picador® Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York New York: 2002.

2)Ferensten, Tim. Ferensten Photos: Michigan Central Railroad Station, Information and pictures of MCS, then and now

3)Kohrman, David. Forgotten Detroit, A website with tons of photos of Detroit past and present, with a beautiful comparison of the train station 1913 to 2003

4)Palm, Kristin. "Ruins of a Golden Age." Metropolis Magazine May 2002, An interesting article about the original elite Detroit and what now stands in its place

5)Yahoo Maps, Map of Downtown Detroit - See the half hubcap?

| Course Home Page | Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:46 CDT