The Decaying Ruins of Detroit as an Art Project

Culture Watch

Ms. Horn is an HNN intern. She received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota.

Recently, during the Super Bowl XLV, there was a commercial by Chrysler declaring that Detroit was not yet defeated and would not turn into a ghost town.  There have been numerous articles and images drawing our attention to Detroit in the last few years which have highlighted the issues Detroit is facing and that the city may not be able to bounce back from this economic recession.  One of the victims in Detroit, of this recession, are the many buildings, especially historical ones, which are abandoned and decaying.

These abandoned buildings and the neighborhoods they are in are scattered all over Detroit, with a few in the suburbs.  Lowell Boileau, creator of the website Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, has depicted a map of all these major Detroit ruins.  According to Mr. Boileau, there are between 30,000 to 40,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit and the surrounding area.  This estimate includes a variety of buildings such as homes, schools, churches, public libraries, government buildings, factories, train stations, and stadiums. 

Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have recently published a book entitled the Ruins of Detroit in which they photographed numerous Detroit buildings which have been abandoned. As they photographed the buildings, Mr. Marchand said they were affected by what they found, for example “an abandoned police station with everything left inside, from crime evidence to corpses’ pictures.”  At the same time he said “what’s the most impressive is the atmosphere of liberty, wildness and melancholy you feel when you’re photographing around.”  Mr. Boileau offers an online tour of the ruins, along with updates on what has been done or is currently in progress. He says the ruins are very “stimulating,…evoking a lot of emotion” in those who see them.  This emotion generates a lot of questions about how this situation came to be and what has to happen now for the city.

As of 2006, Detroit (the city not including the suburbs or the international metropolis) was home to 871,121 people.  The surrounding international metropolis, which includes the suburbs, and neighboring Windsor, Canada, across the Detroit River, includes up to 5 million people.  Mr. Boileau explained that the issue with the ruins lies in the progressive population move from the city of Detroit to the suburbs.  Eighty to ninety percent of the Detroit metropolitan area’s homeless and disabled population now lives in the city of Detroit.  This creates high healthcare costs and insurance rates for the city dwellers, as well as an increase in crime.  These issues are just a few of the factors preventing the middle class from moving back into the city, they are unable to afford living there.

In an effort to revive Detroit, the city has announced incentive programs which would alleviate some of the high costs of living in downtown Detroit.  These projects include Detroit Works Project, Live Midtown, Project 14 and “15X15” along with foundations which are providing matching funds to attract people to move back to Detroit.  Part of these projects is encouraging new business and a light rail system to move onto Detroit’s Woodward Avenue.  Woodward Avenue is a central road in the city and runs by and close to many of these abandoned buildings.  Through these programs a great many of these buildings would be demolished or altered for the light rail and the new businesses.

Although the main concern in Detroit at the moment is moving people back into the city, not the restoration of the buildings, numerous buildings have undergone restoration and been preserved.  Just a few of these successes include the Gem Theater, Fox Theater, Orchestra Hall, Orchestra Place, the Detroit Opera House, the First Congregational Church, Dunbar Hospital, and the Old Main Hall of Wayne State University.  Many more building have been renovated and used for an alternative purpose such as apartment complexes. These include the Parke Davis buildings, the Frank Hecker House and the Stearns Pharmaceutical building.  There have been petitions to save numerous other structures such as the Tiger Stadium and the Lafayette.

In an effort to rebuild Detroit, many funded projects have focused on Woodward Avenue, with much demolition and renovation happening along this route.  Some neighborhoods have received new buildings in an attempt to boast their area and this has helped to revive interest in the surrounding abandoned buildings.  Examples include the Model T Plaza, built next to the abandoned Model T Plant, and the abandoned houses on Ferry Street which are close to a growing cultural area.

Detroit is a city struggling to be revived and strengthened in today’s economy.  This is very apparent when looking at the buildings.  The few that have been renovated and restored are symbols of the potential for the remaining structures and the city itself.  Unfortunately there appears to be a preponderance of these buildings falling into decay with a lack of time and money to renovate and preserve them.

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Christian James - 2/27/2011

Photographic exposes of Detroit's - and others' - abandoned buildings are hardly new. In fact, it's cliche by now. I'll use the cynic's term for these superficial exhibits: ruin porn.

(For a good rundown on the debate, check out

I, for one, doubt whether dramatic images can really prompt the necessary, substantive debate on revitalizing cities and our manufacturing base.