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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.