The shock wasn't the burnt-out houses, the crumbling mansions or the fact that nature is reclaiming the city. House after house consumed by vines and undergrowth, condemned and awaiting demolition, or just gone entirely. We had read about Detroit's wasteland suburbs and we knew what to expect - or so we thought.
What really surprised us were the vacant blocks. In the inner-urban areas of a city of almost three quarters of a million people there are whole blocks of nothing. No houses, no shops, no schools, no parks, no factories - no anything. The population has fled. Here and there a house or two remains - derelict, falling down, burn-out, very occasionally inhabited. Sporadically there are sad looking crops, as if planted in an attempt to camouflage the decay. Mostly there is nothing - nothing but weeds and vegetation run wild.
If you followed our recent roadtrip you will know that one of the last places we visited was Detroit. We stayed at Dearborn, just outside Detroit and more or less indistinguishable from any other middle class metropolitan neighbourhood - with one exception. A fifteen minute drive takes you into central Detroit and its inner-urban rings of post-apocalyptic ruins.
We didn't seek out the wasteland suburbs, although there are entrepreneurs who will take you on organised tours of the worst areas. We just stumbled upon them. They aren't hard to find. Detroit has 80,000 abandoned buildings. In the 1950s it had a population of 1.8 million people. Now there are less than 700,000. The exodus from the city began in the 1960s when race riots left dozens dead, hundreds injured and thousands of buildings destroyed. The collapse of the car industry played a part and as the affluent and the well-educated left the city its tax base constricted, services were cut back and the inner-urban flight accelerated. Emergency services don't function, streetlights don't work, roads, footpaths and city buildings aren't repaired. Those who are left are the poor, the desperate and the criminal. Abandoned houses become drug distribution centres - neighbours flee and more houses are abandoned. Some are condemned and demolished, some just fall down. A few remain. Many are destroyed each year on Devil's Night in an annual orgy of arson.
We prowl the streets for an hour or more, reluctant to leave the ghoulish fascination of the post-apocalyptic scenes. We drive slowly and carefully, never stopping completely, never leaving the car. In our almost new Chrysler carrying bicycles on the back we might as well have a flashing neon sign saying 'tourists' but still I keep the camera out of sight. It seems foolhardy to provoke the locals too much with our obvious curiosity. There aren't many people around. Even so we slow at each intersection to check out the road ahead just in case. When we see what we think is a drug deal in progress we turn in the opposite direction, finally heading home toward the safety of Dearborn.
|Crops planted on vacant land.|
|Abandoned houses and abandoned street.|
Nestled in the heart of the decay is Indian Village, once an upscale neighbourhood with homes designed by some of the world's leading architects. A proliferation of private security signs betrays the peaceful atmosphere - as do the real estate prices. Mansions which anywhere else would be the preserve of the wealthy go for a song - if they sell at all. Why would anyone want to move here?
The residents have banded together to pay for patrols by off-duty, uniformed police officers. They remove graffiti quickly and keep an eye on each others' property. There is an Indian Village association and a sense of shared community but go one street north, south, east or west and the decay returns. Many of the homes have derelict back neighbours with nothing but a fence to insulate them from the devastation.
|Indian Village house - with private security signs on the lawn.|
|Indian Village house.|
|Proximity to Indian Village could not save this house.|
Downtown Detroit stands in stark contrast to the no-mans land surrounding it. Walk or cycle along the shores of the river and it feels like any other modern American metropolis with stunning new skyscrapers as evidence of the efforts of those who still believe in the city. Wander outside the immediate city centre however and you find yourself very quickly back in the apocalypse.
|Hard to believe this is the same city as the wastelands.|
|The river walk - a true gem but don't wander too far.|
|Evidence that even the very centre of the city can be dangerous.|
|Don't wander too far from the city centre.|
|Abandoned buildings at the start of the River Walk.|
11 Oct 2014
Articles on Detroit