Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Detroit's post apocalyptic wasteland. Where have all the people gone?


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.


Indian Village  


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

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.


For all my blog posts on this road trip click - here


11 Oct 2014

Articles on Detroit


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10190379/Detroit-Where-did-it-all-go-wrong.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10191824/Detroit-bankruptcy-survival-the-only-goal-in-city-that-once-epitomised-the-American-dream.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/13/us-usa-detroit-arson-idUSBRE96C06E20130713

http://amicuscuria.com/wordpress/?p=12351

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/02/detroit-ruins-marchand-meffre-photographs-ohagan

http://www.fastcompany.com/3007840/creative-conversations/how-young-community-entrepreneurs-rebuilding-detroit

20 comments:

  1. I love the style of American house, Can you imagine how much those derelict houses would cost if they were in Melbourne, or Sydney??!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it. Some of the houses in Indian Village would conservatively be $5 mil or more. It's scary that this can happen to a city.

      Delete
  2. It's amazing and scary that this could happen in what was a major city in America. You expect this sort of thing in backwoods towns, not a metropolis! Thanks for posting. This was fascinating. I saw Detroit from an airplane a few weeks ago, you couldn't really tell anything was wrong from up in the air and the airport was too cool for a weary traveler to realise that the city was bankrupt.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ren, thanks for the comment. We would have liked to explore more of the ruined sites. There is an old railway station which is supposed to be amazing but we just weren't confident that it would be safe. If you google "Detroit's abandoned train station' you will get images which could be out of a science fiction movie. 17 October 2014

      Delete
  3. What a fascinating post. I'm going to have to follow some of those article links to read more about it. We took the Amtrak train from Washington to NYC, and just outside Philadelphia there was an area we passed through that almost looked like a warzone. The US is a country full of many contrasts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Fairlie. Thanks for the comment. David and I have always been fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings. The great thing about the US is there is so much written on its history you can always find something on the story behind what went wrong. Sometimes in other countries, it has happened in Sth America a few times, we are just left wondering.

      Delete
  4. Wow, what an interesting post. I live in Australia and I didn't know things were so bad in Detroit - such a sad situation. It's certainly not the Detroit we see in movies and TV shows. Thanks for sharing and educating about this.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Sarah. Thanks for the comment. It's funny that we hear so little about Detroit here. Occasionally I read an article about purchasers buying up real estate very cheaply. I know that there are people trying to move the city forward but the obstacles are significant.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wow....I had no idea that Detroit was like this. A fascinating read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Campertrailertravels. Thanks for the comment. I hadn't noticed it before which is just weird because I've got my comments set to moderate before they are published. I'm sure there are nice parts of Detroit but the inner urban ring is just sad.

      Delete
  7. I didn't realize things were quite that bad in Detroit. Sure I knew that the city was struggling since the sixties but i didn't know that some of its suburbs were just wastelands. How sad, I hope the city finds a way to rebuild itself somehow.

    Thanks for sharing your photos with us. It was both an instructing and fascinating post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Pearl. Thanks for the comment. The sad thing about Detroit is the population decline. People just couldn't or didn't want to hang on any longer and abandoned their homes and left. City taxes work differently in the US as well. There are quite substantial costs in keeping a property - much higher than our council rates so it is hard to hang onto a house you don't want to live in and can't rent out.

      Delete
  8. I follow an Instagram account called abandoneddetroit. I almost feel guilty for being fascinated by the whole thing but it's history, and recent, and tragic- "There but for the grace of God go I." Photos make it very real. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi April. I know what you mean. I find abandoned buildings and ruins fascinating too and digging out the history behind them is really interesting. One thing about Detroit though is that there is hope. There are plenty of people trying to reverse the decline. Just the fact that so many of the abandoned houses have been demolished rather than left to rot is promising and the way many of the now vacant lots, not all, have been sown with crops and had the grass mowed makes you think that there is a chance for these areas of the city yet.
      I might look up that Instagram account you mention - thanks.

      Delete
  9. hope you enjoyed Michigan there's much nicer cities than Detroit but like the pictures

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We loved Michigan. The area around the Great Lakes is just beautiful. Detroit was fascinating and uplifting in many ways because you could see hope and progress taking over from the despair..

      Delete
  10. The program that practically pays people to purchase and fix up a house in Detroit has brought this quite a lot of attention lately, but I'm still not sure people really get just how serious this problem is. It seems like such an uphill battle, hopefully there is a positive story to come out of this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sure these areas will come back one day. It is probably just a matter of time and effort.

      Delete
  11. Your reference to "suburbs" is confusing. Are you referring to residential areas within the city of Detroit? To me, the suburbs are outside of the city: Southfield, Warren, Royal Oak, etc. Many of those areas have suffered but remain vibrant and safe to visit. In fact, if you go to suburbs such as Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham, you will find some of the nicest suburbs in America: rolling, wooded hills, scores of small lakes amid upscale neighborhoods. It's not all blight.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the confusion comes from the fact that I write in British/Australian English not American English. In Australia, the word city usually refers to the greater metropolitan area so that suburbs can be quite close to the centre of the city or quite far out. I knew that Americans defined the word 'city' differently but wasn't aware that 'suburbs' also means something different. By 'suburbs' I mean what Australians would refer to as 'inner suburbs'. I don't know what you would call them.

      I agree with you that many of the residential areas further out are quite livable.

      Delete