Exploring the post industrial ruins and abandoned neighborhoods of Detroit is a humbling experience. To marvel at the muted beauty of these artifacts is also an act of mourning. Where I stayed in Pole Town had a "returning-to-prairie" feel, with tall grasses and urban farms mixed with guerrilla art projects serving as models for revitalizing decaying neighborhoods. But you might want to brace yourself for an apocalyptic vision of what happens when the system breaks down. Empty factories and cottages still haunt the landscape in what were once stalwart working-class communities.
A century ago, Detroit was the engine of the American dream. The hometown of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Madonna, it is also the place where Henry Ford’s Model T mass production methods revolutionized American society and molded the world we live in today. The motorcar came to represent the American dream by offering independence and adventure to the average man. Just as Ford changed the way Americans live, work and travel, Motown founder Berry Gordy’s vision was to replicate the mass production methods of companies like Ford within the pop industry. Motown is a portmanteau of motor and town.
How could such an economic powerhouse, such a uniquely American city, utterly collapse? While Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time, Detroit put all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. In less than five decades the once vibrant Motor City lost more than half its population and gained a reputation as a failed metropolis in part due to the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, race riots in 1967, the decline in auto manufacturing, and the 2008 financial crisis. Some neighborhoods have remained vibrant, some are being revitalized, and some are approaching the point of no return.
Start your visit with a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts where you’ll find Diego Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry Murals, a series of frescoes by the Mexican artist consisting of twenty-seven panels depicting industry at the Ford Motor Company. Painted between 1932 and 1933, at the center of his work, Rivera placed the industrial working class, portrayed not as a gray mass but an immense, living, social power, which probably didn’t go down too well with the famously anti-union Ford.
Next head over to Corktown where Michigan Central Station remains a painful symbol of the city's collapse for many Detroiters. When the station was built in 1913, it was intended to be a key gateway to the Midwest. By the late 1970s, however, the massive depot southwest of Detroit's downtown had fallen into disrepair, and the last train left the station in the late 1980s. Now it's shuttered, a failed modern Greek temple. Graffiti covers the train station and its 18-story tower. Nearly all the windows are blown out but plans are afoot for the station to be rehabilitated.
Make sure you join one of Pure Detroit’s awesome tours, in particular catch Jake on the Guardian building tour whose curiosity and eagerness knows no bounds. And it's free at 1pm on Saturdays. The aztec-deco masterpiece was where the region’s auto industry money was housed until 1932 when the industrial colossus was laid low by the Great Depression. They’ll also guide you around the Packard Automotive Plant—the reigning king of Detroit's abandoned factories designed by famed architect Albert Kahn and completed in 1911. The majority of the factory closed in 1958, with some businesses using the property through the 1990s and finally dwindling to the final tenant who packed up in 2010. The crumbling behemoth has been a scrapper’s paradise, a home for vagrants, a canvas for installation artists, and the site of a recent tiger escape. Purchased in 2013 for $405,000, construction’s beginning on turning it into living, retail, and office spaces.
Downtown Detroit’s pivot toward the fashionably adroit continues apace. Have a coffee in the lobby of The Siren hotel (opened Jan, 2018), an early 20th century Renaissance Revival building, which once housed the famous Wurlitzer Company. Next door the 14-story neo-gothic Metropolitan Building is soon to open as the Element hotel. Designed by the Detroit firm of Weston and Ellington, it opened in 1925 as a jewelry emporium, housing diamond cutters, goldsmiths, and silver workers on the upper floors and retail on the lower levels. Much like the recently opened Aloft Detroit at The David Whitney (also redeveloped by the Roxbury Group), this project will include the restoration of the hotel’s exterior and a top-to-bottom renovation of the interior, while preserving elements of the Metropolitan Building’s original ornate lobby and mezzanine.