Perhaps it's nothing more than a weird coincidence that as I finally sat down to write this article, the Detroit Lions had just beaten the Minnesota Vikings, ending their 20 game losing streak. The Lions victory at Ford Field in downtown Detroit would be a sign of hope that maybe the fledgling NFL franchise was beginning to improve, but what about the city and it's vast amounts of poverty, crime and abandoned buildings surrounding the domed stadium? When is Detroit itself going to recover?
I want to make it clear to those reading that this article isn't intended to be an attack on Detroit. As we explored the city we met many friendly people and saw some of Detroit's greatest urban assets and attractions. We saw examples of redevelopment and hints that eventually the city may come back around. It can't be ignored though that Detroit is a shell of it's former self.
Some, like the Provost of Cincinnati, say that Detroit "quite literally, drove itself to death." The city's economic reliance on the automotive industry allowed itself to prosper in the past, yet as the auto industry declined, so did Detroit. Although Detroit's fall from grace can be attributed to many factors, the rapid collapse and outsourcing of it's main economic industry certainly didn't help. Thus, Detroit is laced with block upon block of abandoned and crumbling structures ranging from entire neighborhoods to train stations to skyscrapers. For years Detroit's plight has been covered by trendy, armchair journalists while photographers have been making pilgrimages to the Motor City to see it's abundance of abandoned buildings. While many view Detroit as an "urban explorer tourist destination," I had been wanting to see and capture Detroit for myself, showing not only it's fading history, but it's other vibrant aspects and areas where the city is far from being lost. Detroit isn't just abandoned industry and crime statistics. The following photographs and report are from a two day trip we took to Detroit in August, 2009.
I had taken the entire weekend off of work. The plan was to visit and photograph as much of Detroit's abandonment as possible within a two day period. I would be going with longtime, fellow Cincinnati explorers Seicer and Venkman, as well as newcomers Sam and Barry. We had arranged to meet up with il Duce of Ohio Urbex. il Duce would serve as our local guide, we had explored with him before and he had been photographing Detroit nearly every weekend for the past year.
The trip got off to a rocky start. After planning to leave at noon, Seicer had run into construction traffic on his way returning to Ohio through Kentucky. He stopped at his Cincinnati apartment to pick up his gear only to encounter Cincinnati's rush hour gridlock. We met up at my place and finally departed the Queen City at 4:00 P.M., the approximate time we had wanted to arrive in Detroit. Stopping only once for a dinner and bathroom break in Lima, Ohio, Seicer's SUV trudged forward through Toledo and into the state of Michigan. At around 8:30 P.M. we finally arrived, shaking hands with Venkman who had been waiting for us since 4:00 P.M. and had travelled ten hours from New York City where he was interning for the summer. We checked into the suburban Super 8 hotel before grabbing some food and drinks and calling it a night.
The next morning we met up with our friends Sam and Barry at McDonalds, waiting for a call from our guide, il Duce. The call came and he informed us that he was experiencing car trouble outside of Toledo and would be delayed. We decided to go it alone and head on out to our first destination; Michigan Central Station. If Detroit is the urban explorer's Disneyland, then Michigan Central Station is Cinderella's Castle.
I felt a tad uneasy as we laced up our boots and grabbed our camera bags, leaving our vehicles along a desolate street behind the station. I had never really felt threatened or worried about being mugged/assaulted while exploring in Cincinnati, but a recent article about two Dutch reporters who had been violently car-jacked and Detroit's notoriously high crime rates had me questioning my safety multiple times throughout the trip.
We approached the station, gaining entrance to the basement in the lower bowels of the 18 story building. Our dim flashlights revealed large, square holes in the ground which lead to an uncertain injury should we fall down them. Our group precariously found our way through the basement which had once been a warehouse for passenger luggage and cargo.
After fifteen minutes of stumbling around in the dark and arguing about where the entrance to the main station was, we found ourselves back outside the building. Peering through the broken windows it seemed that the stairs to the upper floors had been demolished or removed. Had we come all this way just to be denied access to the very symbol of Detroit urban exploration?
Looking up at the windows, I saw a figure looking down at us. I waved and he waved back. Was he a bum? A fellow explorer or photographer? How did he get up there? As I questioned these things, my cell phone rang. il Duce had finally arrived. We traversed back through the dark basement, linking up with the flashlight wielding man on the other end. Pleasantries were exchanged and il Duce noted that we had made a wrong turn, the main entrance was not far off from our original entry point. As we walked up a dusty ramp out of the basement, we entered into the breathtaking main lobby of Michigan Central Station.
Completed in 1913, Michigan Central Station served as the central hub for passenger rail in Detroit. Although located far from the urban core, the hope was that the mostly vacant area surrounding the station would prosper. The Great Depression prevented a large buildup of industry and development around the station and the 18 story, 230 ft. tall tower never reached full occupancy. Although the station saw a huge spike in rail activity during World War Two, it would begin a steady decline thereafter.
By 1967 rising maintenance costs and a decline in passenger rail demand left the station's restaurant and shops closed and empty. The main lobby, seen above, was closed and used for storage. Amtrak, the nations passenger rail service provider, embarked on an ambitious $1.25 Million renovation plan in 1978, but abandoned the station for a new location in 1984. Since 1984 the station has sat unused and has been heavily vandalized. In October 2006, director Michael Bay brought film crews to the station to shoot a scene for his 'Transformers' film.
After exploring the main lobby we made our way up the stairs. The original marble had been ripped off of nearly every stair, leaving thin metal sheets as the only form of support during our climb.
Eventually, we reached the top floor.
Then the roof.
il Duce went back downstairs, offering to take our picture from the ground. Looking down at the park below through my telephoto lens I could see him setting up the shot amongst a crowd of sleeping homeless people and the occasional onlooker who would stop and get out of their car to take a picture before moving on.
We spent a lot of time on the roof gazing out at the Detroit skyline and surrounding area.
We descended back down the stairs and again through the basement. As we neared our exit, again watching for holes in the floor, we could hear music in the distance. A text message from il Duce, our man on the ground, stated "Dude, there's a three piece band playing down here." We emerged from the basement to find a local folk group practicing.
After listening to the band play through a few songs we set out in search of the Detroit Farmers Market. The market was bustling with activity. As we searched for a place to eat lunch we were accosted by several city council and mayoral candidates. It seemed like at least half the people in the market were running for some form of public office.
Following lunch, we went to church. An abandoned church. St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church had become home to the Catholic Martyrs of Uganda parish in 1989. Recently the Archdiocese of Detroit closed the church and it's adjoining school due to rising maintenance costs. The church had an eerily similar resemblance to the one attended by Clint Eastwood's character in the film Gran Torino.
We entered into an adjoining building between the church and school which had at one time been home to the parish priest. I went in first. As I proceeded through the kitchen, I heard a noise ahead of me. I turned around to see that Venkman and the rest of the crew were still making their way in. The footsteps in front of me approached faster and faster. "Shit!" Was it vandals? Scrap Thieves? Homeless vagrants? As Venkman came up behind me, we readied our tripods to be used in self defense if need be as two men rounded the corner and let out a sigh of relief. So did we when we saw that they too were photographers and explorers. We introduced ourselves to each other and proceeded to explore St. Agnes together.
Even before I had looked into the history of the church I could tell it had been a Catholic church. St. Agnes was remarkably similar to St. Ann in Hamilton, Ohio, the church and school I had grown up in. What remained was an empty sanctuary, a few organ pipes, an electric piano and a confessional booth that had been retrofitted into an elevator (check out the Queen City Discovery Photo Gallery link at the end of this article for all of the photographs). The back room areas still contained the wooden cabinets that had once held the priest's holy vestments and wardrobe. Upon seeing these I almost felt was if it was 2002 again and I was an altar boy at St. Ann's in Hamilton.
Downstairs, a Christmas tree remained on an otherwise empty stage as hand made relics from the former sunday school classes adorned the walls.
The church had been so similar to the one I had grown up in , that I desperately wanted to see if the adjoining school was equally similar to the one I had attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. The only thing connecting the church to the school though was this steam tunnel:
In the tunnel we painfully found out that we were not the first visitors since the church's closing. Many of the tunnel's pipes had been ripped off the walls in an attempt by thieves to steal precious metals. On more than one occasion one of us walked directly into the exposed pipes before reaching the boiler room where we found that the stairs had been ripped out in an effort to deter any unwanted visitors to the school.
We departed St. Agnes and headed for Highland Park, which is surrounded by the neighboring cities of Detroit and Hamtramck. In the early 1990's Highland Park faced a serious budget crisis and disbanded it's police force and fire department, relying on the public services of nearby Detroit.
Entering the Highland Park Police Station was like walking into an episode of N.Y.P.D. Blue. The old school set up looked just like the "15th Precinct" from the popular television show.
In the upstairs administrative offices we found old incident reports, fingerprints and police records.
But down on the main floor we found the holding cells.
At this point in our trip Barry and Sam had to leave and head back to Cincinnati. We said our goodbyes and wrapped up photographing the police station. As we exited the abandoned police station and rounded a corner outside, we were greeted by a surprising, yet ironic visitor; a Highland Park police cruiser.
The officer in the car motioned for us to come forward and rolled down his window to talk to us. "What are you guys doing?" he asked. "Well, we drove up from Cincinnati to photograph some of the historical and abandoned buildings in Detroit." I replied. The officer chuckled and said: "You came all the way from Cincinnati to photograph abandoned buildings in Detroit?" "Yeah!" I exclaimed. After talking with the officer I learned that he was a University of Cincinnati graduate and a photo buff who just stopped by to see what was up after he saw us taking photos on the street. "Highland Park has a police force?" Seicer said to the officer. Again, the officer chuckled before saying "Well, I certainly hope so!" Apparently, the Highland Park police force had been reactivated in 2007, while their former headquarters had not. We gave our business cards to the friendly officer and said goodbye before departing the city of Highland Park.
The sky had darkened and rain clouds began to roll in as Venkman parked his truck on the overgrown street. Overhead, low flying planes were coming in for a landing at Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport. A bearded man in raggedy clothes shouted inaudible words at us and waved a stick from far away. The street lights were busted out and every other house was partially demolished, boarded up or crumbling, while the other half were well maintained and in great shape. We were in the "City Airport" neighborhood. In 1994, the local government had begun an attempt to purchase numerous properties in order to expand the neighboring airport. Fifteen years later, many residents were left in a "no-man's land," surrounded by crumbling properties and grassy plains that had once been blocks of residential housing.
"The city bought every other house at first in an effort to lower the property values of the remaining houses which they could buy for cheaper prices at a later date. The upkeep of the remaining houses is the residents way of protesting what the city is trying to do." il Duce explained.
I stood a few houses down from where the rest of the group was exploring when a car pulled up the deserted street and the occupants rolled down their windows to say "Hey man, what you doing?" I gave my usual "photographing abandoned buildings" response to which the driver replied "That's cool, you wanna buy some weed?" "No, I'm good." I replied. "Alright, well you keep doing your thing, show what's happening here, the only time we ever see white folks in these parts is when they wanna buy weed." he said before the car drove off.
We had one more stop as darkness was approaching. The Packard Automobile Plant spans seven city blocks and covers 35 acres, all but one small section is abandoned. The building is a frequent target for scrap thieves and arsonists while the numerous abandoned automobiles on the property hint at it's current use as a chop shop.
As we stood atop a pile of rocks looking at the vast abandonment, we noticed chunks of metal and dust flying out of one of the windows on the far buildings. The Packard Plant was being scrapped for metal right before our eyes. With daylight fading and the obvious other visitors inside, we called it a day on exploring.
"We're headed to get some dinner and check out downtown." I said to il Duce, "Wanna come along?" "Nah, I think I'm gonna head to Michigan Central, get some night shots and set up camp for the night." Duce replied. "You're gonna do what!? Listen, Duce, you can crash on our hotel room floor if you want." "Nope, the view from the top is pretty amazing and the night photographs will be pretty wild, plus I've always wanted to spend the night in an abandonment before. See you tomorrow."
ilDuce left to go set up his camp atop the abandoned Michigan Central Station that we had explored earlier in the day, while Venkman, Seicer and myself headed downtown. We parked the truck and hopped on the 'People Mover,' taking it to Greektown.
Don't be fooled, the People Mover is not considered to be a form of rail transportation and is only a small downtown circulator. Detroit is the largest American city without any form of rail transit service, Cincinnati is right behind it in second place. While the 'People Mover' is in no way comparable to the proposed Cincinnati Streetcar and is often criticized, we found it be a bumpy, yet convenient and quick ride over to the Greektown neighborhood of Detroit. Greektown was bustling with people and seemed to be the center of Detroit's nightlife. We stopped for pizza at "PizzaPapalis" where the service sucked, but the deep dish pizza was damn good.
Not only was the immediate area around the Greektown Casino crowded, upbeat and upkept, but most of downtown is well manicured, landscaped and cared for. On a saturday night in the summer, downtown Detroit was hopping. The vibrance and vitality of the urban core was a stark contrast the abandonment of the outlying industrial areas we had been seeing all day and the negative reputation many had given Detroit.
Even downtown though, has it's vacant buildings. Opting not to take the People Mover again, we walked the streets, further exploring with our cameras in hand. We noticed that even a few of the high rise skyscrapers in the city sit vacant.
The time was nearing 2 A.M., we had been out exploring since 8 A.M. We decided to turn in for the night, wrapping up our first day of exploring the Motor City and retreating back to the Super 8 hotel. We had another day ahead of us tomorrow.
Did il Duce survive his night atop the Michigan Central Station? What's it like to explore an abandoned zoo? Click here to read "Part 2!"