The D, D-Town, Motown, the Motor City. Detroit. Is there really a more fascinating, more disturbing, more inspiring historical city in the country, maybe even the world? A city that with the infrastructure meant to support 2 million sits mostly empty on even the busiest day. It never fails to touch me deeply as I drive down its wide, sparsely populated boulevards, or peer through the window of locked car doors at mile after mile of empty city lots and crumbling, boarded up houses.
Detroit’s past is what makes it so interesting, even haunting, today. In the 19th century the city was a major waterway and international hub and served as a major stop in the Underground Railroad, as well as a key trading post for alcohol during Prohibition. Detroit has been known for it’s huge union movements, Ku Klux Klan presence, race riots, and of course an enormous automotive industry.
From 1920-1940 Detroit was the fourth largest city by population in the US, behind New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. From 1950-1970 only LA snuck in there to make it 5th in the nation. The year 2000 was the last time that Detroit made the top 10 list, By 2010, Detroit’s population decline put it in 18th in the nation.
White and middle-class flight to suburbia, along with the fall of the traditional automotive industry, led to severe population decline and resulted in tens of thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. This, in turn, led to a decreased tax base and the subsequent decline of public services. Most areas of Detroit are afflicted with poverty, high crime rates, and urban blight. My fascination with abandoned buildings and post-apocalyptic theory have led to my deep infatuation with the remnants of Detroit’s glory days.
The Rich and the Poor
One of my favorite roads to drive is Alter Rd. On one side of the road, the Detroit side, houses are boarded up block after block and trash tumbles down empty streets. On the Grosse Point side of the road, one of the wealthiest suburbs features enormous homes, fancy boutiques, walkers with manicured and clothed pets on studded leashes, trimmed flowering bushes and sweeping green lawns.
Empty Lots and Desolate Urban Wasteland
Much of Detroit is a wasteland of boarded up houses and empty lots. The city of Detroit has considered razing entire neighborhoods to the ground and moving the few remaining residents into a more concentrated area, in order to provide basic services, such as fire, ambulance, and police patrols. Some who live in the area have turned empty lots into organic vegetable gardens.
Revitalization on the Riverfront
The riverfront is cleaner and safer than ever*. You can walk the promenade along the Detroit River with views of Windsor across the water, as well as taking in such skyscrapers as the GMC building, Rennaissance Center, Joe Louis Arena, and the Cobo Center. *By cleaner and safer, I mean that I would go there during the day, in a group.
My Favorite Buildings
Michigan Central Station
Built in 1912, at its peak the station served 4,000 passengers per day and was serviced by 200 trains. The popularity of car travel decreased usage of the train station so much that by 1957 the owners attempted to sell the building. A very small portion of the massive building was used to service Amtrak trains until 1988, when the building closed all services for good. Since then, the train station has been a premier spot for abandoned building seekers, the homeless, and all sorts of delinquents. This is the ultimate abandoned building. I’m mildly obsessed with it.
The Fisher Building
Completed and opened in 1928, a year before the great depression, the Fisher was supposed to be the largest commercial building in the world, and was a gift from the millionaire brothers to the city of Detroit. The Great Depression prevented the second, taller tower from being completed. The building was meant to be an office complex, shopping center, apartment and condo building, featuring two art galleries, a theater, a club, and a radio station. It was intended to be “a city within a city”.
This is one crazy old looking sky scraper. At the time it was built, in 1926, most people agreed it was garishly overdone. It’s last tenant left years ago. I would just love to climb around in it!
What is there to DO in the D?
Ok so there are a lot of cool, old abandoned places, everything from theaters to factories to grand hotels. But what else is there to do besides just exploring the remnants of a grand history and dismal recent past?
The Dream Cruise is basically like a fair and car parade on steroids. Every summer on this up to 40,000 classic, old, or funky cars (and other vehicles) drive Woodward Ave, the country’s first highway (the original ‘cruising the ave’) , with over a million people lining the streets to watch.
The International Auto Show is another huge event held in the Cobo Center, and features, among other things, the futuristic concepts soon-to-come, or simply experimented with, in the auto industry.
The River Front area features all kinds of fairs and activities throughout the summer months, including The Downtown Hoedown and The International Jazz Festival.
Detroit’s biggest park, along the shore of the Detroit River, with water slides, beaches, boating, nature and bike trails, playgrounds, an aquarium, and a conservatory.
There has been a market here since 1891, and now, especially on Saturdays, it’s a huge farmer’s market and carnival type atmosphere featuring vendors from every corner of the world.
Cross via Ambassador Bridge or tunnel into Windsor, Canada.
Drive by the mansions of Rochester or Bloomfield Hills. Check out the gay centers, restaurants, bars, and shops in Ferndale and Royal Oak. And there’s other things, like The Detroit Zoo (which is really quite great) and The Detroit Institute of Art, which features all sorts of exhibits year-round and has a pretty stellar permanent collection.