Twenty-five city blocks west of downtown Detroit, Michigan Central
Station looms over the old Corktown neighborhood like a monolith.
You don't think it will be so big or so terrifying, but it is
monstrous and impressive as befits a very old, very powerful ghost.
Eighteen stories high and massive, as broad as a city block. Ornate
neoclassical columns in the front. Every window on every floor broken
out in shards. Walls covered in tags and messages. Michigan Central
Station is magnificently empty and has been for more than two decades.
There are other ruins in Detroit but none so great and awful. To walk
across the snowy field toward the building on a bright and frigid
afternoon is to be seized with awe and terror. I felt the wind against
my cheeks and squinted into the sunlight. Who am I to approach this
structure? And what if it should turn against me?
When I was there so was Travis Gooch, a 19-year-old Detroit native who
had stopped to take pictures of the station with a powerful camera.
When I talked to Travis Gooch he said he was interested in
photographing "the scenery."
"These things," he said, "they are phenomenal. There's not many places
you can find such large facilities that... They're just here."
Detroit is now identified in the popular imagination mainly as a city
of ruins. This is not fair. I know because when I was there I saw not
only the abandoned skyscrapers and foreclosed houses but also new
urban farming initiatives, a contemporary art museum in a stunning old
warehouse space and a brand-new, multimillion-dollar Rosa Parks
Transit Center, a glass-and-fiberglass structure that rises like a
spaceship from the middle of downtown.
Yes. The ruin porn you find online is not a true portrait of the city.
The photos are true, and they are portraits, but they are not the
But am I mistaken or is there also a sense of self-righteous scolding
and bourgeois prudishness about the anti-ruin-porn backlash? As if
what Detroit really needs is for everyone to just get on the same page
and agree that everything is fine and there's nothing to see here. As
if we are wrong to be fascinated and drawn to the images of decay even
as we're repelled.
When ABC announced that it would carry a television program called
"Detroit 187," Detroit City Council member Kwame Kenyatta offered a
resolution calling on the show's producers to change the title, on the
grounds that it would associate Detroit with murder. (Michigan's penal
code doesn't actually use "187" for murder, but never mind, there was
no mistaking the producers' intentions.) The alderman offered no
alternate titles, but perhaps he would have accepted "Detroit Gentle
Happy People" or "Detroit No-Crime-Whatsoever City."
Too many houses, too many buildings. Detroit is an attractive,
interesting small city trapped inside in the body of the booming,
sprawling mid-century city that it will never be again. From 1.8
million people in 1950 to 715,000 last year.
To lure them back into the city, Detroit now offers cops foreclosed
homes for $1,000. One thousand dollars!
Beautiful brick houses with four steps leading down to the sidewalk.
Old trees on the boulevard. Padlocks on the outside of doors; plywood
across the windows. Detroit has shrunk in the way American cities
never shrink. Only the empty buildings are left.
New developments downtown next to rotting abandoned skyscrapers.
Wooden panels peeled away from the bases of the empty ones, allowing
those who need it to crawl in for a place to sleep or get high or
I speak to a guy named Michael Lundy on his way out of the YMCA
downtown. He is 27, a bartender at the Detroit Opera House, lived here
his whole life, and thinks, now, about moving.
"I wish the best," he says. "But until we see some upward mobility,
employment-wise, you have to look at other options. A lot of people
want to stay here, and it's reasons to stay here. But if it's
somewhere I can go that gives me a better opportunity, I can't just
sit here and ride on faith, as much as I want to. ... I can't just stay
here and wallow in the sorrows."
Is it wrong, I ask Michael Lundy, for those of us who are not from
Detroit to want to see the ruins of Detroit? Am I a ghoul for gawking
at Michigan Central Station? He tells me a story.
"A friend of a friend, he was visiting from Germany," he says. "And I
asked him, what have you been doing? He said, we went to go visit the
ruins. And I'm like, what the hell are the ruins? He told me he went
over in the Cass Corridor area, and to Michigan Central Station. I'm
like, wow. It really is ruins. It's not ancient, but it's modern
Above us, the Detroit People Mover passes by on its elevated rails, empty.
"But what can you say?" Michael Lundy says. "Until they do something
about it, I can't be mad at people from other places discussing it or
having an opinion about it. It's understandable."
At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn there is a prototype of
Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House -- the round, aluminum house that
the eccentric Omaha futurist once imagined would become an American
norm. It was my favorite part of the museum, which I visited on the
last day I was in Detroit.
Like all of Fuller's ideas, the Dymaxion House was an embarrassing
failure. But in the new postwar world, Fuller could have been a
genius. He was solving a problem that seems impossibly remote from
Detroit, 2011: the anticipated shortage of housing for returning
soldiers and their families.
"These dwellings are helping to fill the housing gap," intones the
announcer in a film that the museum runs in a loop outside the display
house. "A complete house for $6,500 -- the price of a Cadillac."
I think we are fascinated by Detroit because we wonder whether America
is Detroit. Or put another way, whether Detroit's decline foreshadows
America's decline. The idea that our best days might be behind us,
that we've entered a long, slow evening. That the homes in our
neighborhood will empty of people. That all of our great buildings
will be vacated and left vacant until the windows are all broken out
and the floors are warped and the walls are stained.
Across the city there are billboards that read "I'm a Believer," part
of an urban self-esteem-boosting campaign led by the city's new mayor,
former professional basketball player Dave Bing. In the shadow of
Michigan Central Station, I asked Travis Gooch if he believed.
"I'm a believer," he said without hesitating. "Our whole thing is
bringing back Detroit to the way it was. ... It's showing that we are
still here, and we still can do something."
Yes. I want to believe this, too. But what.