The Ruins of an Empire

Motown has ran out of gas. The city looks like a ghost-town or a place that has been hit by a typhoon. Some areas even look like war zones. As I drive around downtown Detroit and in the adjacent neighborhoods below the infamous 8 mile road that defines Detroit’s northern border, I have post-apocalyptic visions. All I see are beautiful abandoned art deco buildings and Neo-Gothic skyscrapers, rusted factories, broken windows, desolated churches, evacuated schools, unoccupied hotels and motels, dried up gas stations, empty supermarkets and shuttered shops. I also see thousands of deserted homes.

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

When I grew-up, everybody was middle class and successful – with a house in the suburbs and a car, or maybe two. Now, everybody is poor,” says Ed, a proud Detroiter, war veteran and local urban explorer. He adds, “Detroit has lost 1 million people over the last two decades” and more than half of its population since the 1950s. Ed is right. Besides a couple of homeless wandering here and there, the streets are empty. There is no pedestrian bustle, no commercial activity, no street life … only a couple of random cars animate Detroit’s immense avenues and boulevards.

The city is trapped in a vicious cycle of urban distress brought on by many factors, including the slow failure of the automotive-based economic model, the early white suburban exodus, the relocation of production plants in Detroit’s periphery, racial disharmony and the recent global financial crisis. According to the US Census Bureau, 30% of Detroit population lives below the poverty line, 1 in 3 Detroit residents is unemployed and the murder rate is at an all-time high. It is crazy to think that Detroit was once the living proof of American prosperity and the iconic representation of the American Dream. Today it is merely the shadow of what it used to be, a faded dream and a living case-study of urban decay.

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

Detroit was also more than just metal and motors. It used to be a thriving creative hub where countless talents have emerged in different fields, most notably music. The Supremes, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, George Clinton, J-Dilla, Alice Cooper, Eminem, Kid Rock, The White Stripes, and Aaliyah all have roots here. Detroit was a pioneer in sound creation, and the city’s various musical eras continue to influence the current music scene. But only a few of the above artists have decided to stay in Detroit, and truthfully, you can’t blame them.

In fact, people are still leaving Detroit. 10,000 people are fleeing to greener pastures every year and it appears that overcoming that obstacle might be impossible. Only one third of the land is occupied, and “even if 10,000 new homes were built every year for the next 15 years we wouldn’t fill up our city,” said Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s former corrupt mayor.

Abandoned House

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

The Ruins of an Empire

I asked Ed if the police were watching the buildings and factories that we were about to access and he retorted: “Nobody cares what you do in Detroit.”

I had ambiguous feelings when visiting Detroit. I felt a strange blend of sadness and thrill. As we explored the magnificent wreckages that once formed the most prosperous manufacturing empire in the world, I could not help but think of the disappearance of great civilizations like the Mayans, the Romans or the Egyptians and it reminded me of the ephemeral nature of things. Maybe, like the cycle of life itself, Detroit has to die so a new city can live …

Vincent Vega and I spent three busy days exploring and documenting the ruins of an empire, a tour that took us to Michigan Central Station, Packard and Fisher Body 21 production plants, an old high-school, the Wurlitzer building in downtown Detroit and many streets and avenues in the Metro Detroit area.

Michigan Central Station: Nothing embodies Detroit’s past grandeur better than Michigan Central Station. This Beaux Arts Classical style temple of transportation was completed in 1913 and was the tallest railroad station in the world, and the fourth tallest building in Detroit. MCS consists of a three-story train depot and an eighteen-story office tower. MCS was designed by the same architects that created NYC Grand Central Terminal. Potential cost of restoration are estimated at $300 million dollars and MCS is currently threatened by demolition.

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Fisher Body 21: This plant was built to house a body assembly line for Cadillacs and Buicks in the 1920’s and ceased operations in the 1974. The name was well known to the public, as General Motors vehicles displayed a “Body by Fisher” emblem on their door sill plates until the mid-1980s. Fisher Body is now officially a Detroit Police impound lot and faces an uncertain future. This plant was probably my favorite spot in Detroit.

Fisher Body Plant

Fisher Body Plant

Fisher Body Plant

Fisher Body Plant

Fisher Body Plant

Packard Plant: The Packard Plant is former automobile-manufacturing factory in Detroit, Michigan where luxury Packard cars were made by the Packard Motor Car Company. This 3,500,000-square-foot building closed in 1958. The city is currently looking at demolishing it.

Packard Plant

Packard Plant

Packard Plant

Packard Plant

Packard Plant

Wurlitzer Building: Designed in Renaissance Revival style this 14-story building opened in December 1926 and once housed the famous Wurlitzer Company, which made pianos, organs, jukeboxes, radios and instruments. After a succession of other business and offices, the building closed in March 1982. It is currently on the city’s list for demolition.

Wurlitzer Building

Wurlitzer Building

Wurlitzer Building

Wurlitzer Building

Wurlitzer Building

Cass Tech High School: Cass Technical High School was founded in 1861 and closed in 2005. During the 1920s Cass held classes in chemistry and biology in addition to printing classes. The city is planning to raze the building in June 2011.

Cass Tech

Cass Tech

Cass Tech

Cass Tech

Cass Tech

See full gallery here
Words and images by Charles le Brigand

All rights reserved. Une production de Brigand © 2010
Big up to Ed and Doppelganger for all the tips and recos.

Comments
30 Responses to “The Ruins of an Empire”
  1. Chris Horner says:

    Some really cool shots you have here. Nice article.

  2. David Angelo says:

    What a great series of work. Some of these shots are peerless.

  3. LuluR says:

    Have seen many photos of ruined Detroit but these are some of the best. You have found beauty in this desolation. I understand there is a growing artist community in Detroit that is well served by the abandoned buildings and factories; it sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

  4. camararonch says:

    awesome!

  5. Ponce says:

    Beautiful

  6. thank you people for stopping by and reading.

  7. christian says:

    do you remember what floor the letter press and art rooms where on in cass tech high school

  8. NosE says:

    wow
    man
    I wonder how you get to those places

    I want to make a deal
    YA!!!

    abrazo
    bro

  9. schimoler says:

    Dude, rich stuff. It’s beautiful and sad all at the same time. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Dave Williams says:

    The photographs are indeed beautiful, and full credit for that. However, let’s not miss the crucial lesson that this devastation is the INEVITABLE result when unions and liberal politicians take over. If we don’t stop our creeping slide into statism, in 50 years, we’ll be lucky if most of America doesn’t look like this….

  11. tristan1989 says:

    really nice pictures, i like the ones with the water reflects

  12. Daniel says:

    Great photos. It’s a shame what America is becoming because of globalism. There is some really cool architecture in those old buildings.

  13. Digital Dame says:

    My god, this is unbelievable. The photos are astounding, but so tragic. I’ll be having nightmares about this.

  14. An outstanding collection not just of photographs (which are both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time), but of history that helps put them in perspective. I’ve been fascinated by Detroit for a few years now, and few things have made me want to visit the city as much as these photographs. Thank you.

  15. Tom Purrenhage says:

    Got here through your Brooklyn in the summer series – found you had taken pictures of my old hometown – Terrific work. Gives me pangs of real nostalgia, not only for my own history in Detroit, but for Detroit’s own history of pride and prosperity of which i only remember only the tail-end.

    Thanks a ton.

  16. Thank you so much guys for stopping by. Your comments and kind words are really appreciated.

  17. Kamau Bashiri says:

    Wow! As a baby boomer born and raised here in the ‘D’ It is a moving and poignant experience to see these memory-provoking images. So much of what seemed would be with us and viable forever is shown here in their last stages of decay. My emotions are firing at full blast as I remember how these blighted out parts of the city once looked and felt like. Great job!

  18. Steven Smith says:

    When I joined the Corps I was surprised that people that I enlisted with thought I was a bad-ass. These were people from New York Philly and Boston, places I thought of as tough towns, but all these guys thought I was some hard as nails kid all because I was from Detroit. I guess it’s bad, here in the D, but i really don’t know. I’ve called this home for so long I never could see myself leaving. And yeah, I still call it Tiger Stadium.

  19. Sarah says:

    Been to Cleveland?

  20. Kurt says:

    Charles Le Brigand, these are beautiful photos and show how slanted import quotas, Free Trade, Corrupt Bankers and the U.S. Government can collectively destroy what a free people created. I drive a Truck and make local deliveries in Detroit every day. Your Photos show a long history of slow decline and decay, it didn’t happen overnite and it didn’t for no reason. Whhat you’ve show here is the end result of UNION BUSTING! Respectfully, Kurt Teamsters local #299 DET.

    P.S. Thank-you, These photos were vivid, raw, real and yet beautiful all at the same time!

  21. SP says:

    Pure genius! Keep up the great work.

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  1. [...] d’adrénaline. Mais globalement, je trouve l’URBEX restrictif et limité. Je me suis rendu à Détroit pour capturer les somptueux vestiges qui formaient l’empire industriel le plus puissant du monde à une époque. C’était une [...]



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