The Motor City: Detroit, Michigan

If I understand the point of this somewhat incoherent essay, it’s that a tension exists between various groups who want to define the “real” Detroit — is it the Detroit of the bustling past, the shockingly ruined present, or the inevitably gentrified future? While this debate is inexorably being proved pointless — nostalgia will prove increasingly profitable, while incipient hipsters and self-appointed urban pioneers make the place safe again for developers — nothing points to a better future for the dispossessed who could never afford to leave and who won’t be able to afford to stay.

I believe authenticity is a delusion. In the theme-park Detroit of the future, there will be both “Motown” and Autopia, both Conies and French Bistros, with riots staged nightly at nine. And today’s hipsters will scoff and say they were there when the real Detroit was still ruined.

Mark Pritchard, San Francisco, New York Times Comments

It came to my attention after my recent research trip to Detroit, that apparently the Motor City is one of the most popular places in the United States, even the world, for people to visit in order to photograph “decay.” I never use that term, and while it sneaked into a couple of earlier posts on this site, I have sought to extirpate its presence when I come across it while revising older work of mine. There are certain words in my vocabulary that I feel are “loaded” and that I only use in certain contexts, and “decay” is one of them. I only use that word when referring to “tooth decay” and “radioactive decay.” I hate, hate, hate using it in reference to buildings.

I will state it is wrong, and unethical to come and have fun photographing abandoned buildings in low-income neighborhoods if your only purpose is to document the ruins for aesthetic purposes. I think I have made it abundantly clear in my work, and in interviews, that I am attempting to ask tough questions when I photograph distressed neighborhoods. That said, since it seems like there are already thousands of people having fun photographing “decay” in Detroit from around the world, I will be showing you very few abandoned buildings in my photographs. While they will certainly appear, they will be in context of showing you a truthful image of what the city is like today, in 2023.

And I was very much seeing the Detroit of 2023, not 1978. Many of the iconic vacant buildings that appear in so much of the collective consciousness of the world’s mind of the city are now actually renovated, billions of dollars invested into their salvation. No sneaking under the fence to walk the silent halls of the Michigan Central Station, or climbing up dozens of flights of stairs in the vacant Book Tower at 1:00 AM in the morning (St. Louis Patina legal counsel: no trespassing occurred on this trip). They’re both renovated and have reopened or are about to reopen. So much for “urban exploring.”

What I’m getting at is that Detroit, once the wealthiest city in the United States, is not some gigantic dump that people make it out to be. While I’m not naïve to the horrible crime that still wracks many of its neighborhoods, I was pleasantly surprised by just how many nice areas I found, and no, I’m not talking about gentrified ones. I’m talking about solid, African American neighborhoods that were a direct repudiation of the image that stalks this city. Yes, Detroit declared bankruptcy a couple of years ago, but there’s so much potential here. I loved driving here; fellow drivers are calm and laid back–too bad the writers at Wikitravel are hopped up on paranoia:

When travelling through Detroit, sticking to major roads and freeways is key to avoiding unnecessary problems. Carjacking, while uncommon, can occur in dangerous and isolated neighborhoods. Also noteworthy are the aggressive, sometimes violent confrontations that can occur after car accidents, especially involving pedestrians.

Unsafe suburban areas are typically far away from any tourist attractions and have little to no interest for the typical traveler. Nevertheless, however, NEVER enter impoverished neighborhoods outside of downtown Detroit that are known to have dilapidated and mostly abandoned houses and it is far less safe to enter at night due to increased gang activity, and there is a high chance that you can be a serious victim of carjacking or worse, murder, if you find yourself surrounded by armed and dangerous hoodlums and police rarely patrol these kinds of areas.

Wikitravel, Detroit, Stay Safe

While I did drive on the ridiculously oversized freeways and major avenues, which both average ten lanes wide, I did not stick to them and drove around many isolated neighborhoods without tourist attractions. Amazingly, no drug dealers surrounded my car and tried to murder me. Sigh… Anyway, don’t read Wikitravel.

Indeed, Detroit is definitely seeing a positive buzz lately, but it is in a very constricted area. I’m happy that for the first time in decades, a visitor can photograph buildings open and redeveloped after being vacant for decades. But problems remain. We’re going to look extensively at Detroit because I think it has many lessons for St. Louis, as well as being a very beautiful city.

I purposely skipped Hamtramck. I purposely skipped the Heidelberg Project. I purposely skipped the Dequindre Cut. I went looking in some vain attempt to find a Detroit that was out there if I just wandered.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sean B says:

    To be honest, I feel there’s too much film format based, “national news media” attention given to a start to finish, 20th century era Metro Detroit west of the Winsor Tunnel, and not enough for some longer period of time, post Louisiana Purchase, greater Saint Louis that’s many square miles away from Senegal 🙁 Like there have been a couple authors like James Neal Primm, Rosemary Feurer, Colin Gordon, Henry W. Berger, and Walter Johnson who have wrote books with enough information to make a documentary mini series out of their research, but for some people, the late Howard Zinn’s, along with one University of Colorado, Boulder campus, expelled Indigenous Studies professor Ward Churchill are too on the nose for some people, even when you add some accurate Arabic, Kashmiri, and “post 2014” Old Church Slavonic (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) subtitles for the English language recorded films beyond Spanish

  2. Beverly Snider says:

    Good for you. I was born and raised in the
    Detroits’ “Boston Edison” district until the summer of 1959… A large contract offer moved our family to Chicago Hts ILL till summer of 1961, another contract offer to St. Louis Mo, for one year, then to Webster Groves; Last stop Clayton, and Back to Detroit in 1970….. West Outer Drive area, till college, Marriage/Sherwood Forest area, Divorce/University District, Empty nester / Detroit water front🤗

    1. cnaffziger says:

      Oh, I’d love to hear your memories and thoughts of the places I visit! I did see a little bit of West Boston Boulevard.

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