It seems everyone has an image of Detroit, Michigan as a broken, bankrupt city ($18.5 million in debt). A place that has had a mass exodus of its citizens and is full of abandoned buildings. A city where pawn shops are a boom business and crime is a major problem.
In many ways this image of Detroit is true. You can explore parts of the city that contain vast abandoned factories and streets full of abandoned homes, along with empty apartment buildings, schools, churches, liquor stores and more. The variance in the types of abandoned buildings is baffling at times. Many of these places used to be the centre of a community that is no longer there.
Detroit Motor City was once a jewel in the crown of American cities. Car companies like Ford, GM and Chrysler made it a car manufacturing hub and a prosperous place. By the early 20th century it was the fourth largest city in America.
Racial tension in the 1960’s resulting in the 12th Street Riot of 1967 (43 people died, 342 were injured and 1,400 buildings burned down), the oil crisis of the 1970’s and finally the Global Financial Crisis of the 2000’s impacted heavily on Detroit. Businesses closed or downsized and people left the city. Many headed for the surrounding areas and the suburbs. Fewer people resulted in less tax income for the city. By the 21st century Detroit was the 10th largest city in America. Between 2000 and 2010 a quarter of the population departed Detroit resulting in it now being the 18th largest city today. It has been a city in slow decline.
One of the most famous abandoned buildings in Detroit is the Michigan Central Station. This building is a huge former passenger train station that was completed in 1913 and was in operation until the last train left the station in 1988. Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places the building has been abandoned ever since. The good news is that since 2011 some restoration work has been in progress to repair the roof, replace windows and remove asbestos to improve the prospects of selling the building(during my visit in 2013 it appeared some restoration work was still in progress).
To date nothing concrete has been set in place as to the future of the Michigan Central Station but at least it is not being left to rot away. The Michigan Central Station Preservation Society has set up a website to obtain community feedback on future proposals for the station. The station is so big it would make an ideal apartment building, offices or a hotel. Who knows maybe it could even become a train station again with a combination of businesses and apartments within the building?
The most colossal abandoned site in Detroit is the old Packard Automotive Plant that was once a 3,500,000-square-foot (325,000 m2) factory producing luxury Packard cars. Built in 1903 this was once considered a state of the art factory. The company merged with Studebaker in 1954 and by the late 1950’s the demand for large luxury vehicles was declining. The company was struggling to compete with other major car manufacturers and sales were dropping. The automotive plant ended up closing in 1958.
The Packard Automotive Plant site remained in use by various companies and also for storage until the late 1990’s. By the early 2000’s a few companies still operated in the outer buildings. Today the place has been stripped and laid to waste. It is sad to see but also fascinating to visit from an urban explorers point of view.
I spent hours exploring the plant and saw nowhere near all of it (nor did I come across many people there). You have to take care wandering about the buildings as there are parts of the floor and roof that have caved in and stairwell rails are long gone! To see more on the plant please take a look at my other blog where I have posted more photos.
The days of urban exploring the automotive plant may well be over very soon though. The site was purchased on December 12th, 2013 by a Brazilian developer Fernando Palazuelo for $405,000. Over the next 10 to 15 years he plans to turn the site into a multipurpose development for residential, commercial (offices, retail, light industry), entertainment and arts use. It will be interesting to see what happens there. In the meantime he has one huge environmental cleanup to do!
Around Detroit you can wander along overgrown broken foot paths past empty lots that once had homes on them. Many of the locals just walk on the road as it is generally in better condition. Stepping out at night can mean you walk in darkness as street lights no longer work. There are places you would not want to wander in fear of your safety too.
On residential streets there can be a perfectly good home with a happy family living right next door to the shell of an abandoned house. What happened to its former occupants? How did their home end up like this? Many questions arise from a walk around the neighbourhoods of Detroit.
So far I have painted a picture of Detroit that fits the image in most people’s minds but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many parts of the city have been left untouched by this devastation. Downtown has been subject to much renewal and has become an entertainment hub of the city. Downtown you can find coffee shops, restaurants, music venues, theatres, casinos, the Detroit Riverwalk and world-class sporting arenas. The Detroit Tigers baseball stadium is one of the most impressive I have ever seen.
The inner core of the city is where the majority of abandoned buildings seem to exist but even amongst them life is returning. You can find streets with renovated buildings along with museums, restaurants, bars, cafe’s, bakeries, hotels and even community based art projects. People are returning to the city. It is going to take a long time but there is life in the old girl yet. She may not return to her former glory but there are signs that things are slowly getting better. If you head further out into the suburbs the picture looks even better with very few abandoned homes and people just going about their day-to-day life, just like any other city.
Head up to the 8 Mile and you can visit American Jewelry and Loan, the pawn store made famous on the TV show Hardcore Pawn. Unfortunately Les, Seth, and Ashley were not in on the day I visited the store. The surrounding area seems to be a busting commercial district and not what I expected at all.
The people of Detroit are also very friendly. I explored areas that a normal tourist would never enter and not once did I every feel threatened. I travelled by local city bus (sometimes I got stranded by a reduced transport system at night!), I walked the streets. I found the average person I met helpful and welcoming. Many people smiled and would say hi to me on the neighbourhood streets. Some gave me strange looks but it was all OK. They were surprised to see me walking around there I think (not a common sight)?
The chats I had with people on buses always were surprising. Many couldn’t believe I was even on there and then when they discovered I was Australian they wanted to talk more! All in all my experience in Detroit was initially somewhat saddening but once I spent more time there, I began to gain a better understanding of the plight of the city and also the hopes that they have to build a strong Detroit once again. I met a number of people who had purchased abandoned homes cheaply and plan to renovate them. Each home that is rebuilt or renovated is a step in the right direction. I wish them all the best and hope to return there someday to explore it even more. Don’t be afraid to go to Detroit, it still has a lot to offer!
Special thanks to the staff at Hostel Detroit for your hospitality. The hostel is in Corktown, not far from downtown and is a great place to stay if you are on a budget.