ghost city (detroit part 2)

I’m not really sure why I have such a fascination with abandoned buildings. I know that they’re ultimately a negative thing, that they are a strain on a local economy and often an environmental catastrophe. An abandoned building is a place that represents a failure or a retreat. Lock the doors and run away. Maybe it is that tragic mystery that intrigues me. I like old, historic architecture, but I have to admit that I have little interest in newly renovated buildings. I’ll take a photograph of a run-down building from the 1950’s over an immaculately restored building from the 1890’s any day. Renovation scrapes away more than just the leaky roof and layers of old paint. It scrapes away the mystery, and scares away the ghosts. In Portland, back when the Simon Benson mansion was boarded up and scary looking, I would go and look at it every couple of months. It was a stop on the sightseeing tour I’d take my out-of-town friends on when they’d come and visit. But now the Simon Benson House has been completely renovated and returned to it’s original grandeur, and now it just seems like another old mansion or boring tourist attraction.
Detroit is filled with so many abandoned buildings that it becomes overwhelming, and the only thing that outnumbers the abandoned buildings are the vacant lots. The vacant lots are scars left over from where a building once stood. Some were clearly grand mansions from the turn of the century, others were luxurious hotels or car factories from the 1920’s. Nature has reclaimed these spaces, and could confuse a visitor into thinking that Detroit has an expansive, if poorly manicured, system of city parks.
An abandoned space is a sad, mysterious enigma, but it also represents an opportunity or maybe a new frontier ready to be rediscovered and re-claimed. Maybe that is the allure: that you as a passer by can stake a small claim in the building, adopt a bit of the building’s sad story and stake out your own little piece. A renovated space reminds you that you are the public, and that you are a spectator who will have too eventually go away. Abandoned buildings are also clearly in danger, and subject to disappear without warning or comment. I think the first time I became aware of the visual landscape of a city was when I first moved to Portland and was walking by a recently demolished building. I strained my memory to think what building was there; I knew something was there, some building that was at least four stories tall, but I couldn’t remember what it was or what it looked like. A parking structure with an Office Depot and Kitchen Kaboodle on the ground floor has since been built in its place. I remember thinking that there should have been some plaque, or some memorial set to remind people of what used to be there, the history of that particular corner, and a gesture to all the memories associated with that space.
In Detroit, a lot of the abandoned buildings are pretty easy to sneak in to, and once inside you realize that you are in a different dimension. My friend Kristine and I walked right into a giant old Ford manufacturing plant that is now just a lumbering compound of decay. The floor was thick with remnants of the old ceiling, and a heady bouquet of toxic, mildewy scents filled the air. It felt more like walking into a cave than a building. We stumbled into some illegal metal salvagers who had driven a truck right into the plant and were tearing sheets of metal off the ceiling, and it was clear that we had just walked into the wild west, or maybe the age of the dinosaurs, where a hole new set of laws and realities applied. A lot of the buildings in Detroit have been damaged as much by vandals and salvagers as they have been by the natural elements. Elaborate marble carvings from old buildings are stolen and sold on the black market, and then mysteriously appear in new buildings as far off as Chicago and San Francisco. And apparently something like 400,000 feet of cooper wire has been stripped from the walls of the once-magnificent train station. Then there is just plain vandalism, like in the case of the majestic old UA Theatre, which was just torn and battered to pieces, leaving perhaps one of the greatest movie palaces of all time an utter mess of smashed statues and ripped fixtures. The theft and vandalism gets me pretty mad, but when I think about the history of Detroit and figure that the perpetrators are probably people who had their entire livelihoods yanked out from underneath them by the auto industry, it seems a little more justifiable. I mean, what has happened to all the buildings in Detroit has happened to the people as well. I’d want to steal all I could too, and then smash the old memories into the ground so no one else could reclaim them. Sometimes it’s better to let things die than to let them turn into a theme park.

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15 Responses to ghost city (detroit part 2)

  1. Robin says:

    i think you just cover all the points of adandon structures. I am often amazed by the these places myself. it is a shamed, but in a way I wander what would be more fitting. I often feel like there should be a sort of memorial places at rural and urban abandon places. In hopes, perhaps that more people could take the time to wonder and dream in the shadow on an old factory. Think of what was and what could be.

  2. Rob W. says:

    There is some famous film with a long moving shot of an abandonded factory in Detroit as the opening. The Tate Modern’s ruined power plant gallery was used for many films before its oh so clean incarnation now. On the West Coast, the patina of pleasing decay found in Europe’s high rent cities seems exotic. The fetid decay of the deindustrializing Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and America’s midwest manufacturing produces a more complex response. Sounds like pop culture’s post apocalyptic future is already here.
    In Japan, small towns are just being abandoned as the population falls:

  3. Brian Frye says:

    Thanks for directing me here. I’m beginning to sense a theme already. More ghost towns, please…

  4. matt mc says:

    hey all- good to hear from you. thanks for the links and feedback.

  5. emily wilensky says:

    ahh, nice to know that there are others who share this fascination, which is so difficult to describe to those who don’t feel similarly.
    I am impressed to see that you managed to pick out some of my favorite buildings in this post industrial wasteland.
    These stories speak so strongly through the rubble, begging for our attention, and understanding…thanks for spreading the word.

  6. Erica says:

    I was wondering what the last building in the above photographs is? We drive to Windsor, Canada a few times a year and have always wondered what that building was. To me it has always appeared so haunting and beautiful at the same time. Thanks for the info!

  7. matt mc says:

    that is the detroit train station- it is one of the prime ruins of detroit. do a google search and you’ll find lots of stuff.

  8. Ska Bob says:

    Unfortunately the Train Station is no longer as safe or easy to spelunk in as it used to be. There are regular patrols to clear out the homeless and the curious, and quite often you find large parts of it flooded after a lot of rain.
    One of the oddest things, as a resident of Detroit (ok a suburb right now, I’m 11 miles from the core of the City – for scale, the outskirts of the metropolitan area known as Detroit are almost 40 miles out) is to see what happened to the city for the Super Bowl. There’s townhouses ALL OVER the place in spots that used to be abandoned lots or entire blocks burnt out from some Devil’s Night past or even the ones left over from the race riots in the 60s…It’s like somehow the city decided people were going to fall so madly in love with Detroit from going to the Super Bowl, that they’d move in. Yeah, with no jobs, THAT’s gonna happen.
    Probably the best part about your post is the bit about the attitude of those that destroyed the UA theater. It’s very much become the Spirit of Detroit. “This place sucks, so I’m gonna do whatever I have to, screw over everyone and anyone I need/want to to get more, and get the Hell out of this place!” Just about everyone here is trying to get rich quick, even the rich…That’s how Detroit’s divided, btw – not by race. We’ve got the most diverse population I’ve ever seen in a big city, especially in terms of quantity (the largest population of middle eastern descent outside the middle east, for example) and nobody, NOBODY gets on eachother just about race. If you’re stupid, or annoying, or in the way – you’re gonna catch Hell…but it’s because you’re stupid, or annoying, or in the way. It’s a level of honesty that people hide from with things like racism. It’s the REAL melting pot.
    btw, I’ve got access to a pretty decent collection of spelunking pics…feel free to toss me an email if you want some, and I’ll see what I can dig up…

  9. Donald says:

    I was born at the old Delrey Hospital on West Jefferson way back in 1937. I left Detroit to join the Army in 1954 and have many found memories of the City as it was nearing the end of its golden years. I feel that I let the city down by staying in the West after my time in the Army. Recently I returned to Detroit to visit my mothers grave and had to leave within a few hours as I could not relate to anything from my past. I truly was so depressed by the decline of the old neighborhood that I felt cheated.

  10. Karli George says:

    Man, how have I missd this site??? I am fascinated with abandoned buildings, and I feel the same way as the author-couldn’t care less about them once they have been restored-and I think the author stated it perfectly for me as to why that is. Good job. Is there anywhere at all I can fond a listing of abandoned buildings in and about the Portland area? They seem to be disappearing like crazy and it makes me sad

  11. Hello, I’m working on a screenplay that is set in Downtown Detroit and I was hoping that you had more pictures of the city and abandoned buildings that you wouldn’t mind sharing. Thank you, it is very much appreciated.

  12. Hello, I’m working on a screenplay that is set in Downtown Detroit and I was hoping that you had more pictures of the city and abandoned buildings that you wouldn’t mind sharing. Thank you, it is very much appreciated.

  13. louise says:

    I used to live in detroit 22yrs ago and its real sad to see some of the places I used to know the way they are now.

  14. Rob G says:

    After growing up in a nearby Detroit suburb during the 60’s & 70’s, I am encouraged by the many that want to reclaim Detroit’s 1920’s charm and architecture. My parents grew up and worked in Detroit. Listening to their stories of the past about Detroit was only a mystery to me
    Pity, most of my life I have seen nothing but the city abandon most of these treasures, now their seems a renewed interest in reclaiming these treasures from the grave.

  15. Lisa says:

    Thanks, I find these images really beautiful and like to incorporate abandoned buildings as imagery in my paintings. There is something about the building being abandoned by humans, it takes on an identity of it’s own. A space of held memories. The building lies on the border of being demolished in an impending space.

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