How Detroit lost its title as 'ruin porn' capital
German citizen Jakob Schweizer spent a summer vacation last week in Detroit. He wasn't here to see family or friends, visit museums or check out downtown's new boutique hotels, but rather to tour abandoned buildings.
“I came specifically to Detroit for the ruins," Schweizer, 41, a biologist who lives in Berlin, said Saturday outside the old Packard Plant, one of the city's best-known urban ruins. “Once I saw a book with these photographs of the ruins, I was really intrigued.”
Yet Schweizer said he was somewhat disappointed to discover how many of the blighted buildings he saw photographed are now locked up and off-limits to exploration. He also expected to see more of them.
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From the Michigan Central Station to the former Brewster-Douglass towers, many of the abandoned buildings that made Detroit synonymous with urban dilapidation have been demolished or purchased as redevelopment projects. This real estate rebound has been stripping the city of its unflattering reputation as a "ruin porn" capital.
There is still no shortage of empty houses, school buildings, factories or storefronts in Detroit, yet most of the big structures whose decay and fallen grandeur attracted photographers and so-called urban explorers from around the world no longer exist in the startling condition they did a decade ago.
"That chapter in history is gone; we're onto the renewal," said Andrew Moore, a New York-based photographer whose 2010 photography book, "Detroit Disassembled," showed dramatic images of the city's many desolate buildings at the time.
"I don't think there was any other city in the world that was comparable to Detroit," Moore, who photographs around the world, recalled this week. "There was Chernobyl, but it wasn’t a metropolis like Detroit was."
Some of Detroit's most notorious ruins, such as the abandoned Brewster-Douglass towers where a young French street artist was slain in 2013, have been demolished by the city because of blight. Others, including the Southwest Detroit Hospital at the edge of Corktown, have been cleaned up and fenced off against trespassers and can't be explored.
And several landmark ruins have been restored or are undergoing renovation at the hands of ambitious developers who, encouraged by the rising downtown-area real estate market, have tackled projects that would have once seemed crazy.
"The market is at a point where they can take those on," said Arthur Jemison, director of Housing & Revitalization for the City of Detroit.
The latest and most dramatic example is the Michigan Central Station, the grand depot along Michigan Avenue in Corktown that opened as the tallest train station in the world 105 years ago and stood vacant since 1988 as a recognized symbol of Detroit's fall.
Once easily accessible to trespassers and metal scrappers, the building's windowless exterior and crumbling interior appeared in numerous photography books on abandoned places and urban decay.
But all that is history.
In June, Ford Motor Co. announced it had bought the station to redevelop as the centerpiece of its new Detroit campus in 2022. Ford's plans also include the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, another notorious ruin, which neighbors the station and will receive its own overhaul.
The revitalization trend has generally been welcome news for city officials, local businesses and residents in neighborhoods near the blighted buildings.
Yet it also heralds an end to an era, one in which the novelty of urban ruins has drawn faraway visitors to Detroit as well as artists who find beauty in the wreckage.
Local photographer Jesse Welter, 47, has been giving unauthorized group tours of abandoned Detroit buildings since 2011.
His $75-per-person trips are considered the grittiest multiple-site ruin tours in the city, and still sell out during summer months. But the revitalization boom has meant fewer open and abandoned buildings for his groups to explore.
Roughly half of Welter's tour-goers are international visitors, he said, including some who come just to see urban ruins.
“I do see the disappointment sometimes," Welter said. "They say, 'can I see this and can we go see that?,' and I have to explain that people are rebuilding them or you can’t get into them.”
Moore, the New York photographer, spent four months in Detroit between 2008 and 2009, capturing images for his book. A pair of French photographers came out with their own book, "The Ruins of Detroit," at about the same time.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Moore said he has been back to Detroit about 10 times since the book's release and noticed how many once-empty buildings are now renovated and occupied. The economic transformation, particularly downtown, has been miraculous, he said.
"I literally thought it would take 30 years or 50 years for Detroit to come back," he said.
Some of the buildings and structures photographed in Moore's "Detroit Disassembled" that no longer exist are:
- Arnold nursing home
- Old Cass Tech High School
- Mark Twain branch library
- Tiger Stadium
- A Boblo Island boat
Other once-dilapidated buildings in the book that have been redeveloped include Broderick Tower, Book Cadillac Hotel and the Scott mansion in Midtown, which will soon reopen as apartments.
Only a handful of the photographed buildings remain empty with no plans for redevelopment. And only one of those, Fisher Body Plant No. 21 on Piquette, is still easily accessible to trespassers. (City crews, however, have welded shut the building's stairwells.)
“My urban explorer friends (in Detroit) have mostly moved on. Some of them have left the city, some of them no longer take pictures," Moore said. "In that kind of perverse way, probably 2005 to 2009 was the golden age of urban exploration in Detroit. So many buildings were open, there was little police supervision."
Evan Ambrose, co-director of Hostel Detroit near Corktown and the Michigan Central Station, said he occasionally must inform out-of-town guests that it's no longer possible to sneak inside the depot.
"They are like, 'Oh man, I saw the train station over there, can I go in?,' " he said, "and I’m usually like, 'Yeah, if you were here five years ago.' "
The old Packard Motor Co. plant on the east side is perhaps Detroit's second best-known urban ruin after the train station. It dates to 1903 and the factory's main sections have been mostly vacant since the 1990s, attracting rave parties and later hordes of explorers, metal scrappers and the occasional dumped body.
The abandoned plant appeared in many photography books, films and music videos, and was a recurring backdrop for newscasts during Detroit's 2013-2014 municipal bankruptcy. It also was featured in a CNN segment by the late Anthony Bourdain.
Trespassing at the Packard Plant mostly ended in 2014 when its new owner, Spanish-born developer Fernando Palazuelo, hired security guards and made plans to redevelop portions of the site into commercial space, perhaps with a hostel, European spa and techno club added later on.
Authorized and guided tours of the plant started last year for $40 per person. However, much of the 40-acre grounds is off-limits because of city officials' safety concerns.
A group of 17 people donned white hard hats Saturday morning during a tour of the plant's graffiti-strewn corridors. The tourists included Schweizer, the Berlin biologist, as well as visitors from Toronto, an Indianapolis couple on their wedding anniversary and a pair of friends who hadn't seen much of Detroit before.
“I said to my husband, 'we drive all the way to Chicago to take architectural tours. We live an hour away from Detroit, why don’t we explore Detroit?' " said Gabriele Mayer, 61, of Okemos. “So I said to my friend Anne, 'come and visit me and we’ll go.' ”
The tour included the defunct automaker's administrative building, which was once filled with debris and is now largely cleared out. Palazuelo's plans call for it to become offices, event space and a gallery as part of the redevelopment's $16-million first phase.
But there was little visible construction progress since the project's May 2017 groundbreaking event. (Representatives for Palazuelo's firm, Arte Express, didn't respond to requests for comment.)
Tour guide Steven Gutterman explained how the Packard Plant is one of several landmark ruins in Detroit that have been getting cleaned up.
"There’s a term called ruins porn, which is taking an interest in all of this decline," he told the group. "And while it does have a certain aesthetic beauty, we’re also kind of glad to be getting rid of that reputation, and a lot of that ruins porn is beginning to disappear."
"So enjoy it while you can," he added.
Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JCReindl.