Detroit: Ruination and Reincarnation

Growing up about 100 miles south of Detroit, I regarded it with…well, I gave it little regard.  There was the animosity for anything Michigan that is inculcated in many Ohioans due to a college football rivalry on par with the fervor of soccer rivalries worldwide (despite the irony that no one in my family had graduated from The Ohio State University or the University of Michigan).  The grudge transcends sports and is a fabric of the culture, including influence on mundane daily activities.  One way this was demonstrated to me was my father’s insistence on purchasing any gas or other necessities before crossing the Michigan state line on trips to the Detroit airport, so “those bastards don’t get any of our tax money”.

It was simple.  Michigan sucked. Detroit was synonymous with Michigan.  Ipso facto Detroit sucked, too.  Outside of occasional flights out of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport, we did not travel to Michigan.   So I grew up indifferent to arguably the most intriguing and diverse city near me (granted, its competitors were Toledo and Cleveland, nonetheless…).  Then, there was the protracted collapse of the industrial behemoth, punctuated by the implosion of the automotive industry in 2008, that left Detroit in shambles and perpetuated my childhood avoidance of the city and entire state.  However, that all changed last summer.

I was living back home in Northern Ohio for the first time since I was 19 in order to spend an extended amount of time with my family.  A friend from college was living in Detroit and invited me to visit him.  I took him up on the offer and visited him in August.  My burgeoning wanderlust has led to many changes in my life, including the erosion of prejudices, even silly ones rooted in my childhood. It took me 26 years to shake my disdain for anything and all things Michigan, the Buckeyes be damned, but I finally looked forward to a visit to That State Up North.

Though brief, I immensely enjoyed my visit.  I found Detroit to be vibrant with earnestness, awash in persistence, and threaded with dignified blue collar charm.  Art, music, food, and small businesses seemed be rising up out of the industrial collapse, creating a sense of a culture resurrected, one of redemption.  There was a buzz about the city that was unlike any other place I had ever been.  This exposure completely reversed my opinions of the city and the entire state.  Amidst the urban decay, the city’s spirit was a dandelion growing out of concrete.

I was given the opportunity to experience the decay firsthand when Josh, a fellow amateur photographer, suggested we go check out a pair of abandoned city government buildings he had found.  He explained:

“The buildings we’re going to used to be city hall for Highland Park, a city within Detroit. I have visited the building a few times before; it’s actually one of the first abandoned buildings I have explored while in Detroit. I came upon it innocently enough: it was visible from my commute to work. I made a mental note to investigate further, and the rest is history.

I did have one eerie experience there, however. During my explorations, my senses are always on high alert given the risks associated with venturing into abandoned buildings in Detroit. Once, I distinctly remember it was a particularly hot summer day, I was inside of the city hall building when I heard a noise. I thought it might be a squatter, so I froze, waiting to hear more. A few minutes later I spotted the source of the noise, a stray dog. The dog itself had a very knowing look, perhaps due to its life as a stray dog in Detroit. It was more scared than I was, however. After a few minutes of staring each other down, it scampered out the back door, and I never saw it again. It shook me enough that I left right after.”

I told him I was down without hesitating, my fears privately withheld. We packed our gear and drove to the spot.  I caught myself sitting straight up and shifting in the seat.  I forced myself to lean back and put my foot out the window.  Less than 15 minutes later we crept passed the buildings, which were located on a main road about seven miles north of downtown.  Josh made a U-turn in the middle of the four lane thoroughfare and pulled into a lot with unkempt shrubs and trees.  Weeds grew up out of the concrete in an apparent act of reclamation.  Josh aimed the car to the back of the lot and parked behind one of the trees.  We exited the car, gently shut the doors, and walked up to the brick and mortar building.

Front of the Abandoned Highland Park City Hall

We walked past debris, trash, an old tire, accidental decorations of neglect.  It was nearly 80 degrees and partly sunny, yet I shivered as we walked up the steps into the open

Tongue-in-cheek Humor Graffiti

doorway.  I stopped at the entrance and took in the scene.  The paint was peeling away from the walls, revealing the eras like sedimentary layers. Graffiti was peppered here and there.  The floor was covered in dust, dirt, and debris.  A desk sat haphazardly with one drawer slightly opened. With its functionality a thing of the past, it was now a mere prop in this scene.  There were no sounds but the breeze and the gravely crunch of our footsteps.  There were hallways leading to rooms to our right and left, with an exposed concrete spiral staircase directly ahead of us.  I followed Josh into the room to the right.  Light became sparse. My eyes adjusted. My senses heightened.  I gripped my camera bag tightly.

“This is crazy.  It’s absolutely stunning, depressing, and scary all at once. Thanks for bringing me here.” I whispered, out of as much a desire to break the silence as to express sincere appreciation.

Josh drifted off to an adjacent room while I stood in the center of the room, straining to see my surroundings.  I turned on my flash and began snapping photos indiscriminately.  The images began to haunt my preview screen; a room in shambles, with the light fixtures still dangling from the halfway exposed ceiling, the paint again peeling away.  The floors were littered, a table laid on its side, doors to adjoining rooms were halfway open, menacing and beckoning, simultaneously.  The scene could have appeared in the latest post-apocalyptic movie.

Advanced State of Dilapidation

Advanced State of Dilapidation

I walked back to the atrium and not coincidentally where the light spilled in from the main doorway and windows.  I wandered down the left hallway and back into darkness. I squinted at an open door with something written on the glass facing me. I snapped a photo.  Just as I thought it said:  “POLICE”.  I snickered as I entered the through the doorway.

Files were strewn about the floor and desk.  I picked one up.  It was a receipt for a $105 speeding ticket from 1981, complete with the violator’s name, address, birth date, and social security number. A desk in the middle of the room still had a coffee pot and mug.  The mug showed a map of Hawai’i. I stood motionless and imagined its owner cooped up in this office during the Michigan winter daydreaming of another place, another time.  I considered the daily grind of bureaucratic life he/she must have endured.  I wondered if the mug was purchased on a trip to the islands, or perhaps bought locally.  But that was all in another place, another time.  What was once the symbol of a dream getaway was now another artifact left behind, a dream forgotten.

I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and exited the room.  I decided it was time to explore upstairs.  I wound my way up the rail-less staircase, which was partially illuminated by an opened backdoor on the ground floor and windows on the top floor.  The top floor housed more offices, as well as the municipal courtroom that I decided I would save for last.  Corridors to the left and right once again led to adjacent rooms.  I went down the left hallway. The hall darkened, but light spilled in through each doorway from the windows of the exterior rooms.  I approached the first room ahead of me, but its entrance was impassable, blocked by the door leaning off its hinges.  I peeked inside and saw that the ceiling was partially collapsed with the ground steeped knee-high in fragments.  I turned to my right and I entered the room directly next to it, which faced the parking lot.  A modest office with two windows, one with the blinds halfway drawn, still contained a bookshelf.  Though the floor was covered with trash and dirt up to a foot deep in some places, there was still a book remaining on the shelf (“Michigan’s Compiled Laws: Annotated Edition”).  I left the book lay, continuing my Leave No Trace philosophy in this urban wilderness.  As I peered around the room, I heard a sound, something like a shuffling of feet.

“Hey Josh. You up here?” I called out.

I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on the first floor.  We had not discussed a plan beforehand and had not communicated since.  Recalling his story about the dog, I froze, listening intently.  Hollow silence.  I slowly began to move towards to the door when I heard the noise again.  I paused, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I gave myself inner counsel, reminding myself of the many experiences where I had been frightened only to later find out it was for no real reason.  I walked back into the hallway and towards the other side of the building, where the noise originated.  I continued exploring the other offices while I kept my hearing attuned to any new disturbance.  The doorways here were charred black.  Upon further examination, the room was charred around the edges and soot covered the ground.  I remembered reading somewhere that arson was most common in vacant buildings in urban centers.  As I snapped photos, I once again heard the shuffling noise, though much louder, much closer.  I moved quickly toward the sound and called out.

“Anyone in here? Hello?  Josh? Anyone?”

I entered the courtroom through the left side door and stopped in my tracks.

“Whoa.” I muttered aloud to myself, to no one.

The room was mostly intact. The judge’s bench still presided over the room with an aura of authority. The chairs were still in tidy rows, bearing witness to the proceeding now taking place, the erosion of time, the preservation of a bygone era.  Sharp graffiti art covered the exposed brick wall.  Light poured in through the window openings, with the former windows now broken glass on the ground below them.  One such opening still had blinds, but the right side was broken a quarter of the way down so that the remainder just dangled from the left side.  A gust of wind swept through the room from the left to right and as it did so, it caused the dangling blinds to shudder against one another, revealing my ghost.  I laughed.

Court in Session

While I was taking photos, I heard Josh approach.  I confessed being spooked by the wind and broken blinds, which sparked another round of laughter.  Then, we discussed the ruins as he set up his tripod.

“This place has a lot of energy about it.  It feels alive.  Like, I think about the lives that were lived day to day here, as well as the lives that were changed here in this courtroom.  You can just imagine a case being heard, all the emotions bottled up inside all involved.  I don’t really give much thought to or credence in ghosts, but a place like this…well, I just feel a lot of uncertainty.” I explained some of the private thoughts I had been chewing on throughout the adventure.

“Yeah, if only these walls…” Josh trailed off, as he finished his setup.

We continued to chat and shoot more photos, including some automated timer self-portraits to document our adventure.  We left the municipal building and went next door the fire house.  We snapped a few photos, but quickly left with our appetite for adventure satiated.  I gazed back over my shoulder as Josh pulled the car out of the lot, with a hint of nostalgia, knowing I was leaving a place and time behind that would not be again.

– –

It has been nearly a year since I was riding away from the Highland Park City municipal buildings in Josh’s Pontiac.  Upon reflection, two themes stand out to me about the experience.  The unknown always presents us with an anxious energy, part excitement, part fear.  I was bubbling over with that energy.  The former part would be most appropriately described as sheer childlike excitement.  Two children venturing into the dark corners of the playground, beyond the watchful eyes of authority, to the forbidden, liberated. Just as true of my childhood, my imagination ran wild in that place.  Daydreams, thoughtful repose, hallucinations, paranoia. I swung from end to end of my consciousness.  As I looked over the courtroom that day, I viewed it through the eyes of a 10 year old for whom the entire world was magic, a huge mystery to unfold.  I literally could not believe what my eyes were seeing because I did not know how to comprehend it.  It was beyond what I knew.  Instead of trying to box in that wonder, it was free to wander.  Where has that wonder gone?

The second part of the experience that stood out was the fear.  What exactly was I afraid of?  I could pinpoint a few things:  a squatter or opportunistic criminal, stray animal, a ceiling or floor collapse.  But really, these fears were unsubstantiated, and highly unlikely to have any credibility, anyways.  Too many horror movies, too much violence consumed through media growing up.  I, like the vast majority of Americans, live with this insane conception of the world as a dangerous place and other people as dangerous creatures.  Yes, there is danger in the world, yes dangerous people do exist. They exist at the fringes of statistical probability that you or me will experience it.  But it does not lurk around every corner dressed in all black or with canine features.  Our realest dangers are ones we welcome into our lives with open arms each and every day, cleverly disguised in the mundane.

“How could you have gone to that place?! You’re crazy.” was a common response when I told this story.  It is similar to the all-too-familiar warnings from others about how dangerous it is “out there” when I tell them of my travels abroad.  My response to this misguided advice is simple and consistent:

“Are you going to get into your car to drive home tonight?  Do you eat fried foods often? Do you exercise regularly?”

I went to the abandoned buildings with an understood calculated risk.  I do the same when I travel abroad (or anywhere, for that matter).  So while the fears may masquerade as fears of a rabid dog or desperate bum, that cannot be truly, deeply what I was/am scared of.  And I think my fear was revealed through the feelings the buildings evoked. Their state of ruin.  They had been abandoned by all of the people who once beheld them as an important part of their lives, left to vacantly rot.  These buildings’ lives, so to speak, had run their course, and were now close to their own death by wrecking ball.

All things pass.  Time marches on just the same, with never ending change following right behind. Or actually, rather, they are one in the same.  And it speaks the language of impermanence.  Nothing lasts, not even the essential parts of an empire.  No one could have imagined the buildings looking that way, being like that, when they were in their heyday.  Just the same, none of us can imagine our own demise at the height of our youth (or ever?). But, just like the crumbling of the walls, the cracking of the foundation, and the eventual demolition of those places, we will go, too.  We will be a thing of the past, and life will just continue on around our perished bodies.  It is terrifying to consider, but also deeply humbling.

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

Miscellaneous (aka the stuff no one ever pays attention to) (but you should pay attention this time!)

  • Josh’s photography can be experienced at and  Check it out.  The boy’s got skills.
  • More images of the urban decay in and throughout Detroit can be found at the website of two French photographers who made it a five year project to go around the city like Josh and me did for one evening.  So if you thought any of my photos with my basic Nikon DLSR were good, you should definitely check out these guys.  Unbelievable. (They even have a photo from the same buildings!) They even made a book out of it that apparently has sold many copies.

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