Urbexing in MoTown
Motor City has long fallen from the graces of Americana since its heyday of the early twentieth century. Today thousands of houses and commercial buildings around the city stand stripped and abandoned, all in various states of decay. The financial crisis there is still very real- in 2013 Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy.
As far as American cities go, Detroit is pretty old; it started as a trading post for New France in 1701, and became U.S. territory in 1794 with the Jay Treaty. It wasn’t recognized as a town until 1802, but its prime location and the lure of free land saw to a steady (albeit slow) population growth.
In 1900, Detroit had only 285,000 residents. Three years later, the Ford Motor Company was founded, which spurred the rise of the automotive industry and created a large market of jobs. As expected, the population boomed, the suburbs metastasized. Detroit grew to be one of the biggest metropolises in America, going up to 1.85 million people in 1950. Since then, however, that number has shrunk to 701,000, in 2013.
…You may ask why I’m talking about Detroit. Yes, Austin is a long way from Detroit, and I had no plans at all to visit.
In fact, just two weeks prior to my visit in February 2014, I exclaimed to my friend via imessage “Michigan is out in the middle of nowhere, why would I want to go there?!” (Of course I added “other than to visit you lol”).
Then bam–life happened–and suddenly I was in Jenny’s foyer stomping the snow off my sneakers.
Well, turns out it’s not so bad. Grand Blanc, Michigan might be flat and white and brown in the winter, but it has a nice rural charm to it, and people are just so dang friendly and outgoing.
Jenny suggested we spend at least an afternoon exploring Detroit, insisting it wasn’t that bad. She introduced me to her friend, Nate, born and raised in the 313, who was all too happy to show off his hometown. Nate fed us nuggets of history as Jenny drove around town, and answered every question I threw at him. I honestly don’t think I could’ve gotten a better introduction to the city of Detroit.
From Belle Isle Park— Windsor, Canada is on the left of the bridge, Detroit the right
For me, urbexing–urban exploration–meant half adventure and half photo op, but Nate helped me realize that in Detroit urbexing also means traveling back in time.
We visited the sprawling ruins of the Packard Automobile Plant first, and I wanted to take off and explore, but security found us before we’d even had a chance to park the car anywhere. They did back off and allow us to snap a few pictures, but that was as far as it went.
I muttered a few choice words, but Nate warned that urbexing is potentially very dangerous, especially since the Packard plant is falling apart. It’s been scrapped a thousand times over, is deteriorating rapidly, and especially with heavy layers of frozen winter snow, there is no telling what kind of conditions the floors and overall structure was in… so we were better off moving on.
Well, move on we did, for I was quickly distracted by the whimsical Heidelberg Project.
Much of the neighborhood was blanketed in snow, but I was still damn impressed with what I saw. It was obvious, right from the start, that these were no ordinary piles or houses of junk. There were a few recurring socio-political themes–the history of Motor City or American consumerism for example–but each participating house had its own theme and message.
From there we headed downtown for some craft beer, delicious appetizers and a quick lookysee before ending the tour at Michigan Central.
Check out this awesome website, Detroiturbex, for lots more urban sites to learn about (and visit)!
the historic Goeschel Building— built in 1914
The Heidelberg Project started, in 1986, as a response to the steady deterioration of the Detroit neighborhoods the artist Tyree Guyton and his Grandpa Sam grew up in. They decided to take it upon themselves to beautify the neighborhood, to try and create a sense of community, to foster a good atmosphere for both young minds and old. The streets and sidewalks are awash in color, trees are covered with bits and odds, grassy lawns and houses alike are outdoor galleries.
The project has somehow managed to weather the years despite scrutiny from city planners, although it has lately been suffering from a bout of arson attacks.
“The Heidelberg Project is an outdoor community art environment. The elements of the canvas contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit. Each work of art is carefully devised to tell a story about current issues plaguing society. As a whole, the HP is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have become discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, what do you really see? Is it art? Is it junk? Is it telling a story? That’s for you to decide.”
We headed off to see a bit of downtown before the last stop of the tour. The heart of Detroit is still beating, despite its fractured legs and arms, garnering hope for its staunch citizens (like the bearded Nate!)
The Metropolitan, built in 1925
the book tower opened in 1926
The once grand michigan central station was first put to use in 1913