After decades of decay and neglect, intrepid visitors are beginning to discover the ghostly beauty underneath Detroit’s grimy shell. If you’re a fan of ruins, taking a day to explore central Detroit can prove a fruitful photography trip and even an archaeological treasure trove of 20th century life in what was once one of America’s greatest cities. As you uncover the history of such a formerly significant place, you’ll see how decay gives birth to imagination and reinvention.
Appraise the situation from above
Begin your trip in the most obvious place to look for history: Downtown Detroit. Take a ride around the area in the People Mover, Detroit’s circular rail line that moves above the city streets and offers a good overview of Downtown’s main sites. From here, you can plan which places you’d like to explore further. If you get off at Grand Circus Park or Bricktown, you’ll easily find your way through some of the most beautiful and grimiest areas in the central city.
In the early years of the 20th century when the auto industry was growing, a number of opulent skyscrapers in Renaissance and Art Deco styles were constructed along a central corridor where business thrived. Although some of these buildings - like the Penobscot, Guardian and Book Cadillac - are still functional gems, there are plenty of masterpieces in ruins, too. Ask a local about stories of the David Stott Building, where free-falling elevators and nine-story floods are part of a torrid decade of slow-motion destruction.
Wander historic neighborhoods on foot
Radiating out from Downtown in a circle, there are a number of historic neighborhoods with Federal, Victorian and turn-of-the-century Queen Anne homes. Many have been burned down for insurance money, invaded by squatters, or simply abandoned by residents sick of waiting for the corrupt city to deliver essential utilities.
Start your neighborhood tour by taking Michigan Avenue west to Corktown, an area settled by Irish immigrants in the 1830s. There you’ll find the beautiful Michigan Central Station, a proud train station that was once the Grand Central of the city. It’s now shrouded in barbed wire and fences, although a peek through the cracks provides a killer view. Across the boulevard in the residential part of the neighborhood, the Federal and Victorian style houses may have once been as lovely as San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, but today many of them are in shambles, either abandoned or burned or both. Classic beauty and contemporary struggle are juxtaposed richly in this contemporary museum of apocalypse. The very intrepid photo-journalist might even try stepping inside an abandoned house.
Take the car to industrial ruins
As the home of the auto, Detroit boasts many auto plants that are both architecturally significant as well as historically important. The Picquette Avenue Plant, Ford’s inaugural large factory, is a tattered testament to a growing company. The more extensive - and dangerous - Packard Plant, two and a half miles away on Concord Avenue, is one of the largest auto plants in history, and is now the victim of frequent demolition crews.
These large-scale industrial buildings are sometimes off-limits, but not always. Construction dust, withered wallpaper and empty door frames don’t keep curious neighbors and unceremonious squatters away. In some of these sites, you’ll also see how Detroit’s artist community has already begun to repurpose and reimagine these spaces.
Visit the remnants of historic Detroit before it's too late!
While some of the ruins of the once-proud Detroit will be renovated and revitalized, many are already being destroyed by wrecking balls and demolition bombs in an effort to shrink the city to a manageable size. But these historic sites are a window into a different time and an American “way of life” that was once considered aspirational. Exploring and photographing these sites is an anthropological necessity, and maybe one more important in today’s disposable culture than ever before. One day, maybe Detroit’s ruins will be explored and examined with the same interest as the Acropolis or the jungle’s reclaimed temples at Angkor. But until then, it’s up to curious tourists like us to document these significant sites.