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
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
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
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.
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