The Impulsive Traveler: In Detroit, ruin porn and an incipient renaissance


Tyree Guyton created this the “Motor City Lot” (taxis and cars) as part of the Heiderberg Project in Detroit, MI. The artist asks “Where are we going?” referring to the city of Detroit and Detroit auto industry. (Michelle Figurski/HEIDELBERG PROJECT)
July 15, 2011

In Detroit, there’s room to ride.

I spent my last day in the city on two wheels. The light traffic on downtown roads makes the Motor City surprisingly accommodating to visiting cyclists who don’t really know where they’re going. (Okay, there were a few times when somebody yelled “Get the [expletive] off the road!” from a passing car, but those were the only exceptions to the cheerful welcome we got from most locals.)

Had I known about the show the city would put on, I would have gotten on a bike much sooner. I rode Grand Boulevard into the city’s eastern neighborhoods, turned north into Hamtramck (a two-square-mile municipality that’s technically separate from Detroit but sits smack in the middle of it), then traveled back west through the tree-lined streets of the historic districts of Arden Park and Boston-Edison.

The city is a visual feast: urban farms, derelict houses, art deco skyscrapers, 19th-century churches, industrial ruins and vibrant murals declaring, “Detroit Lives!” Above all, there’s a lot of space.

It’s a more eclectic picture than I’d imagined. After years of stories about population loss, bad government and auto industry bailouts, it’s a safe bet that the overwhelming view of Detroit among those who’ve never visited is one of decline. Yet as of late, the city is undergoing a revival, however nascent, led by creative types and entrepreneurs attracted to the low cost of living — and all that space to do stuff with.

More encouragement came in April when the Hostel Detroit opened its doors. There hadn’t been a youth hostel in the city for 15 years. The ribbon-cutting drew hundreds who saw it as proof that the city that gave the world the Model T, Motown and techno is on the verge of becoming cool again. I checked in with two friends one month after the party. We wanted to see the city we’d heard so much about for ourselves.

Hostel Detroit is in the North Corktown neighborhood, an area on the western fringe of downtown that has reawakened in recent years but retains a wild, deserted look. In some sections you see more open fields than houses — and many of those have been emptied and left to crumble. In what some have referred to derisively as “ruin porn,” the more egregious examples of urban blight have even become tourist destinations. Go ahead, shake your head, but I admit, we were curious.

Just a short walk south of the hostel is the city’s most infamous ruin, the Michigan Central Station. When it opened in 1913, it was the tallest rail station in the world. After the last Amtrak train pulled out in 1988 it was left to waste away. The ghostly structure gave us the heebie-jeebies when we visited it at twilight. Two days later, stopping by with the sun overhead, we were tempted to venture in. Yet even though many urban explorers have conquered the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the building, the safety risks of wandering around a semi-collapsed building held us back. And the threat, however unlikely, of being charged with criminal trespassing was also a factor in our chickening out. While we were there, a Homeland Security SUV circled the property.

On the other hand, nothing prevents you from wandering through the vast remains of the Packard automobile plant on the city’s east side. We borrowed worn but ridable bikes from the hostel (for a small donation) and made the 45-minute trip out to East Grand Boulevard. Our jaws dropped. The wreckage, stretching for several city blocks, is overwhelming. It’s a sad end to a brand that, up until manufacturing ceased in the late 1950s when the plant shut down, had been known for producing one of the premier luxury automobiles on the market. Now there are no doors or locks and very few exterior walls. Pools of water sit to stagnate, graffiti covers nearly every surface, trash is dumped and left to rot.

For visitors, these neglected spaces are dramatic scenes. But they’re not the full picture.

Our first night in Detroit, we wandered into the Nancy Whiskey Pub, a North Corktown watering hole since the 1890s. It’s just across from the vacant lot that used to be the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium. Nearly destroyed by an electrical fire in 2009, it sat shuttered for a year but was brought back to life last fall. If it’s your first time in the city, the bartender will pour you a free shot of the bar’s namesake liquor. After we’d swallowed ours, he told us that he’d recently moved back to Detroit after living in Brooklyn for a few years, where he’d become broke and burned out.

On his advice, we later walked over to PJ’s Lager House to catch a live show. It was a Sunday night, and our expectations were low. But the bar was lively, and at 11:30, the lead singer of the Detroit band Danjee Flesh Nation walked up from the crowd and took the stage. In her flamboyant green dress and decadent Goth makeup, she resembled a praying mantis. Ziggy Stardust would have approved. Next to her, a scruffy bandmate in tight corduroy pants and a tank top rolled around clutching an effects unit that distorted the band’s progressive metal sound. There was lots of fog.

Two days later, on our bike ride, our wheels screeched to a halt when we caught sight of hundreds of multicolored shoes lying in a vacant lot not far from the Packard Plant. Painted in bright colors, they formed a large pathway through an open grass lot. Sitting in the middle of the shoe path was a dirty recliner that we took turns resting in. We later found out that this was street art created by the Heidelberg Project, an arts organization known for its bright outdoor installations (entire abandoned houses have been painted in multicolored polka dots) in the city’s poorer eastern neighborhoods. The street art injects a touch of whimsyinto a dreary part of town.

Exhausted after a day of biking, I slunk into midtown’s Motor City Brewing Works while my friends popped into some nearby shops. I was on my second Ghettoblaster, the name of the brewery’s popular English ale, when they rejoined me. In a Detroit-themed gallery and retail space called City Bird, my friend Alec had bought a blank greeting card. On the cover was a black-and-white picture of the present-day Michigan Central Station. Only, the photo had been touched up. The unkempt grass and trees on the property had been trimmed. The windows were intact. The barbed wire had been removed. Written in the bottom righthand corner was “Bon voyage.”

It looked nearly ready for arrivals.

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