Detroit: Garden of Earthly Disappointments?

This past weekend I went to visit a friend in Detroit. I’ve been vaguely intrigued by Detroit’s story of lost grandeur for several years now, and it was so interesting to see this once great American city up close and personal.  To say Detroit is a mess would be to do messes a grave injustice; it is an epically embarrassing third world level of a mess that, quite honestly, makes Strato 3 Bogota look good. In some parts, it looks like zombies invaded, bombed the crap out of everything and left few survivors. What is left is this mostly surreal, dilapidated, graffiti’d post-apocalyptic kind of place that could easily be the backdrop for many a horror movie. If I could pick a work of art to represent Detroit’s rise and fall, it would be Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (current status: Third Panel). As an English major, I can’t help but compare it to the mythical tragic hero, rise, fall, tragic flaw and all. OK, maybe I’m being a little dramatic (I am Latin, after all) but it is hard to believe that this place used to be a major economic engine and once boasted the country’s highest per-capita income.

GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS

 

So here is my short Detroit trip, in photographs:

Part I: Downtown. A city is born. 

Downtown Detroit actually isn’t so bad. There are some vacant buildings, plenty of graffiti and it’s by no means beautiful, but it does resemble an actual city. I think there’s a big downtown revitalization project underway and there is the opera house, coffee shops, the river walk (not all that great, but not horrible either) and the financial district. Except for the fact that there are very few people walking around downtown, it’s possible to imagine this was a once bustling district of the city.

Detroit downtown 1

Downtown is one of the few places I saw people. Only like two, but still, signs of life. We had a breakfast at an independent coffee shop and then took the rail around the downtown circuit. One article I read about Detroit described the mono rail as a trip from “nowhere to nowhere” and it’s true that it doesn’t seem like the most effective form to transport people, but it is a good way to see the downtown area from above. And it only costs $0.75 per trip!

DETROIT DOWNTOWN 2

GM is housed in this cluster of darkness on the riverfront.

A mural outside the GM building.

A mural outside the GM building.

BRIDGE TO CANADA

Bridge to Canada. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my passport.

WINDSOR 1

Windsor actually looks quite nice. One of the strange things about Detroit for me was that you are part of a Canada-U.S metropolitan area. Many of the radio stations are Canadian and Windsor is actually to the south of Detroit!

DETROIT DOWNTOWN 3

A view of downtown from the Broadway station. Do not step on the yellow line. You will be sternly reprimanded by an omnipresent voice on the speaker system. I think it’s the only thing the guy does all day.

DETROIT DOWNTOWN 4

I saw people and I had to take a picture. It’s not a site you see everyday in Detroit. Maybe downtown is much more vibrant during the week, but I can’t imagine a city like D.C or even Baltimore being this dead on a Sunday.

Detroit downtown 5

The hipsters are coming! Downtown’s revitalization may be coming in the form of bespeckled, bearded cyclists. I mean, it is pretty cheap to be a creative type in Detroit…you can buy a house for $1,500.

DETROIT DOWNTOWN 6

Another view of downtown. Can’t you just imagine what a happening place this must have been circa 1950?

Part II: (Non) Motor City. 

Detroit may be known as “Motor City” (or was, I should say) but there were surprisingly few cars on the road. Again, this could be because it was the weekend, but I’ve never been to a city whose highways are so completely devoid of cars. All of these were taken from the comfort of the car.

Motor City 1

Heading to downtown. Not much traffic to contend with.

MOTOR CITY 2

To use a metaphor, the city kind of resembles a methhead’s mouth: A few good teeth, some missing teeth and lots of rotting teeth. A lot of Detroit looks like this, streets and roads dotted with the occasional business or building, though many are closed and boarded up.

MOTOR CITY 3

There is something a bit unnerving about a six lane highway surrounded by mostly boarded up one and two story buildings.

MOTOR CITY 4

$5 all day parking in downtown. Take that, D.C and New York!  Seriously, how does the owner of this lot make money? There were a total of five cars in the lot when we parked here.

 

 

Part II: Neighborhoods. Where did all the people go?  

I was only in Detroit for a day and a half so I can hardly say I explored lots of neighborhoods or really got a feel for the city, but the only semi-vibrant neighborhood I saw during this trip was the Eastern Market Area. I’m sure there are others, but I didn’t have time to explore.

Eastern Market Supino's

I’d been craving pizza for days and we had lunch at Supino Pizzeria in the Eastern Market neighborhood. Yes, those are four fried eggs you see on the pizza. The pizza was good and the place felt like an authentic old-time pizza place, but there was no A/C or fan. Old age has made me a fan of creature comforts.

Neighborhoods Eastern Market 2

According to the Eastern Market website, 45,000 people visit the neighborhood/market every weekend. One thing I noticed was that goods and produce are much, much cheaper than DC area markets, probably because this is the midwest, after all, where most products come from. Two hanging plants? Two for $5. Three mid-sized cartons of strawberries? Three for $5! Amazing.

Neighborhoods Eastern Market 3

A shoe repair shop! Now this is a site you don’t often see in the U.S, land of replaceable goods.

Neighborhoods Eastern Market Print Shop

Like I mentioned above, hipsters are kind of big in the downtown area. So it’s only fitting that the Eastern Market neighborhood has an industrial looking print shop.

Neighborhoods Eastern Market

Eastern market was probably one of the more aesthetically impressive neighborhoods I saw. Sure there’s a giant sand field in the middle of the neighborhood, but at least the buildings are (mostly) occupied and not in complete shambles.

There are quite a few restaurants and shops in the Eastern Market neighborhood. This was by far the busiest neighborhood we visited.

There are quite a few restaurants and shops in the Eastern Market neighborhood. This was by far the busiest neighborhood we visited.

neighborhoods Greek Town

Greektown apparently only has three actual Greek restaurants, three real Greeks and takes up approximately one city block, but it is one of the more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods in Detroit. Nowadays, it’s best known for the Greektown Casino (incongruent blue building in the back). I find casinos to be neon-infested infernal places with with sad people in sad situations, poor decor and a palpable air of desperation, and I found this one no different.

Neighborhoods Greektown

A historic structure in good shape! This is Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, one of Detroit’s older Catholic Churches. I found it quite beautiful. I’m not sure why I didn’t go inside; I like exploring churches.

Mexican town is also pretty small, mostly on a one block area. We went to a very mediocre restaurant here.

Mexican town is also pretty small, mostly on a one block area. We went to a very mediocre restaurant here.

Neighborhoods Lone survivor

Lone survivor. One of the most unusual (saddest?) aspects of Detroit is the urban fields where houses, buildings and other structures have been demolished. This house is right off Heidelberg Street. This is a pretty common scene…one or two remaining houses where a neighborhood once stood.

Neighborhoods Sherwood Forest

There’s at least one nice house in Detroit. Just kidding. This is the Sherwood Forest neighborhood with it’s sprawling, Tudor-style houses. Most of them look like they were in pretty good shape, though the almost complete absence of cars on the street lead me to believe that a lot might be abandoned. The houses in this neighborhood actually reminded me of the stately Tudor semi-mansions in Chapinero and Chapinero Alto and Bogotá.

Part IV: The Fall.

Over the years, most of my knowledge about Detroit has come from ruins photography. Some call it ruins porn because these photographers create these poignant, beautiful images and find aesthetic beauty — or at least a sense of nostalgia and significance — in scenes of decay and decrepitude. While I think there is a certain voyeuristic quality about this type of photography (I mean, something about enjoying images of spaces and structures so completely lost and abandoned seems just a little bit wrong because these structures — churches, factories, apartment buildings — they all meant something to someone at some point, and you have to assume that the people who loved, worked in and cared about them are also at least a little worse off), I have to admit I really like looking at photographs of once great buildings and spaces in decay. They give me this sense of longing, nostalgia, loss, sadness…lots of emotions, so I can’t help myself. As someone who enjoys finding beauty in unexpected places, I find something poignant and touching in the way these photographers are able to render the ugly beautiful. I do honestly believe that anything can be made beautiful from the right distance and/or perspective and this is kind of what ruins photography does. I guess that’s what the whole criticism is about; maybe ruins photography misses the point because you’re simply looking in at a problem, making it artistically aesthetic, without offering any kind of solution. I don’t know.  Anyway, Detroit is a ruins photographers dream come true because so much of the city is in various states of decay and shambles. I think this is a good example of what ruins photography is, in case you’re curious.

Anyway, the whole point of this tangent is to say that much of Detroit is in shambles and it made me sad and nostalgic the way looking through old family albums, going to used record, book or antique shops or watching black and white movies does; time just never stops. Everything has a beginning, middle and end, a rise and a fall. Some rises and falls may be more dramatic or impressive, but nothing lasts forever. I don’t know why that fact makes me so sad. Maybe part of me still hopes there’s something really great out there that will last forever and seeing a city — a real life place with real life people that has seen it’s glory and downfall in such a short span of time — makes it very clear that truly, nothing lasts forever. My trip was short so I didn’t get a chance to take as many pictures or visit as many neighborhoods and spaces as I would have like to, but here are some pictures, taken mostly from the car, that show the state much of Detroit is in.

Not exactly a building in ruins, but I thought the sign was fitting.

Not exactly a building in ruins, but I thought the sign was fitting.

Decay 6

A building in the process of demolition.

DECAY 7

Michigan Central Station was probably one of the saddest examples of urban decay I saw. This monumental, 18 story beaux-arts building was completed in 1913 and closed its doors in 1988. That seems like a short run for such a monumental structure. The whole thing is empty and windowless and the city doesn’t know what it’s going to do with it.

Another view of Michigan Central Station.

Another view of Michigan Central Station.

DECAY 8

Another sad example. This 15 story building once provided office space for shops and offices and was a big jewelry center. It closed down in 1977 and most of the windows and graffiti covers the first couple stories of the building.

Decay building

I guess this was a factory back in the day? Doesn’t look like it’s producing much now.

Decay Church 2

I’m not sure if this church is vacant or not. In any case, it’s surrounded by cracked sidewalks and open space and looks more like an abandoned country church than an urban place of worship.

Decay church

Same goes here.

Decay neighborhood

Sad-looking Detroit Neighborhood.

 

From the car window.

From the car window.

Decay Graffiti 2

Car scenes.

Decay graffiti

Intense graffiti.

DECAY GRAFITTI 3

Punk.

Decay grafitti 4

Artistic graffiti?

If you’re interested in graffiti art here’s an interesting article on graffiti in Detroit.

Part VI: Now What? 

I guess this is what no one really knows. At 140 square miles Detroit’s a pretty spread out city and much of its land is covered in urban fields where houses and other structures once stood. One interesting use of unoccupied land is the Heidelberg Project, started by Tyree Guyton in 1986. I hadn’t heard about the Heidelberg Project until I started researching things to do on my trip. According to the webpage, “the Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.”  I don’t know if this is really true. It’s nice to think that creativity and art can transform more than a few lives here and there, but it’s hard to know if it really transforms the lives of the people whose lives most need transforming. Anyway, the best way I can describe the Heidelburg Project is as a deliberate outdoor museum/junkyard that somehow comes together as a powerful and colorful collage and tribute to the city. Detroit’s lost nearly 1.2 million residents since the 1950s so it’s tough to even begin to come up with a solution for how to incorporate all that unoccupied vacant land into a much smaller, more modern and livable city. Anyway, I liked Detroit from what I saw. I’d like to spend more time there in the future to get a better feel for the city.

The project spans about two city blocks and consists of mostly found items deliberately placed, piled, inserted and painted.

The project spans about two city blocks and consists of mostly found items deliberately placed, piled, inserted and painted.

Read more about my U.S travels here.



Categories: American Cities, U.S Travels

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4 replies

  1. As a former Detroit (city) native, you did a nice job introducing the city in a good way with a lot of research. Most people just freak out. I love the zombie movie comments – I’ve been saying that for years. How all zombie flicks aren’t made in Detroit just blows my mind. No need for a set, just film the city.

    Sadly, it’s hard to get a real feel for life in the city unless you visit with a local. There are so many cool, reimagined spaces and venues but they are not on any guidebooks or websites. Detroit is the strangest, most interesting, mind bending and also depressing city I’ve ever been to. It’s just totally crazy. You should also check out the urban farm movement in the city. Lot of cool things going on and, as you’ve seen, there is plenty of open land to work with.

    Anyway, love the blog and keep up the good work.

    • Hi, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I really liked Detroit and found it to be a very interesting layered city. I’d really like to go back and spend more time there because I know there’s so much you miss on such a short trip. I’ve read a little bit about the urban farming movement, but am interested in the reimagined spaces and venues because I really don’t know much about that. I lived in Bogotá Colombia for quite a while, so I guess the city in many ways reminded me of a lot of Latin American cities.

  2. Interesting post and nice photos. A few years ago I used to visit Detroit frequently on business travel, and your photos really bring back some memories, especially the first few in Part II: six-lane streets leading through mile after mile of boarded-up buildings, pawnshops, all-night laundromats, and liquor stores with lottery signs.

    On a humorous note, this reminds me of the scene from Scary Movie 4, showing Detroit before and after an alien attack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38p2dORj9Ic

    🙂

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