Day Four – Urban Ruins

I spent the day driving around the city on a mission to find urban ruins. I knew of a few, and during my traveling I found more than I could imagine. The city is truly FILLED with old abandoned, sometimes damaged buildings that have been rotting for years. Some of the most famous ruins such as The Fisher Body Plant, The Packard Plant, and Michigan Central Station are easy to find and are well known. What I did not expect was to find so many other buildings, from multi-family housing, to fire stations, to small shops. The abandonment just gives the city an eerie feeling.

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I began to wonder what the city would look like if all of the abandoned and damaged buildings were torn down. What would the city fabric look like then? This sprawling city would be reduced to nothing more than a downtown area and satellite areas of neighborhoods and business. There was an article in the paper for the day that highlighted some of the public work changes that are occurring around the city. It noted that the city was going to begin to focus its efforts in neighborhoods that had potential for a successful future. The city will only spend money “where it will do the most good.” This statement foreshadows a bleak future for neighborhoods that are in long term decline. A map accompanied the article which highlighted neighborhoods and their potential. This map illustrates how the city could be transformed if neighborhoods in decline were removed. The downtown area would be on an island and most of the population would be situated along the river bank and northern areas of the city. A greenbelt could be situated around the downtown area, providing much needed long term greenspace for the city.

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City finding a way to make Detroit Works actually work,

Why has the city held onto these buildings for so long? Why are there no requirements by the property owners to do something about a majority of these buildings? Is the issue neglect or just pure abandonment? If it is abandonment, why has it taken so long for the city to do something about the problem? I drove up to the Packard Plant and was amazed that I could just walk into the building. The building appears to be very unsafe, as parts of the building have collapsed, and others are showing extreme signs of decay. There was no fence around the building and it was literally trashed out. The ground was covered in debris, almost like a landfill. There were piles of tires in one corner, remnants of old burned up furniture in another and nothing worth anything was left in the building. Is it not the responsibility of the property owner to provide some sort of security on their site?

The shocking part of this trip is the history that sits behind many of these buildings. So many of the iconic buildings are directly tied to the automobile history of the city, and other than the original Ford Plant on Piquette Street, the remaining buildings sit in disarray and ruins. The Ford Piquette plant was recently restored and now has tours that run from April to November. Many of these buildings, including dozens in downtown are local, state and national treasures, but they sit with little to no attention.

The nightly news is pretty depressing, as it is mostly filled with reports of the downfall of the city. One report was about how the city ambulance fleet is in such poor shape that they are asking for donations from municipalities around the country. They want other cities to donate their older ambulances, ones they are not using or are looking to get rid of. The report began with an account of a women dying because the ambulance broke down on the way to get her and the backup unit did not make it in time. Watching the news while I have been in Detroit makes me fully aware that the city has no money, but that has not always been the case. Much of the abandonment has been going on for quite some time, but the recent economic downturn has exacerbated the issue. So why did the city wait until they were flat broke? What has the citizens tax dollars been used for over the last 30 years? Has it been used on endless efforts to build new ideas and provide typical and expensive urban public projects like the Detroit People Mover? This may be the largest example of how to not run a city, and why it is important to remember that a city cannot change its direction by just building a football stadium or putting in a public transit system that only serves a small population.

I have a friend who is from Detroit, but moved away about 4 years ago. He still visits the city as some of his family lives just north of Detroit, and he recounts that the city has been like this for some time. He noted on our trip while we drove around that he had not realized it had gotten this bad. On the other hand, his mother kept telling me that the city is not all that bad. She is very positive about the city and believes that there are pockets of good things happening. I want to agree with her, but after what I saw over the last few days, my reaction is semi-hearted. I personally feel that this is just about as bad as the city could get, and that it only has the potential to go up. I do believe that it is heading in a better direction that it has in quite some time, but it is going to take some time to make a big dent in the over 30 years of decline. It appears that Mayor David Bing has the right idea on what to do with the city. Although it may be tough to tear down so much of the city and its history, this may be the best opportunity for the city to start over. How many cities get this opportunity? Cities like Houston just keep building on top of itself. This is where I think the biggest potential lies with the city.

During the afternoon, I went to the Detroit Historical Museum just north of Wayne State University. The museum had on display much of the city’s history, most of which focused on the automobile industry and the early discovery and development of the city. There was a small section dedicated to the architecture of the city. This area highlighted the movement and development of the Big Three car manufacturers and architecture accompanying their movement. The city has a rich history and it was amazing seeing the pictures of the city in its hay-day and then driving up Woodward Avenue and seeing the stark difference of the city today. The city streets, like Woodward, were once bussing with activity and future, but today most residents opt for the highway which provides a quick in and out of city. This leaves streets like Woodward relatively empty and less traveled.

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I learned of an organization by the Big Three automakers to collaborate on technological advancements. This effort is called USCAR (United States Council for Automotive Research) and they are partnered with Ford, GM and Chrysler to provide and promote advancements in automobile technology. At first glance, it is difficult to tell how successful this organization is and how integrated it is with advancing technologies in automobiles. It will take some more digging and research to determine the full extent of its involvement and contributions to the automobile industry.