Monday, 1 October 2012

Detroit Decay

Detroit was always one of the centrepieces of my tour of America.  Right from seeing this series of photographs in the Observer a while back I was determined to make it part of my trip.  The city's reputation is pretty well known and it's not a positive one - a google search for "is Detroit..." autocompletes to "is Detroit safe".  As I talked about in my previous post, the reality is that it's a city just like any other - and one that looks like it's on the up.  In many of the neighbourhoods I've been in I've encountered great businesses and organisations that are making a positive contribution to the area - Avalon International Breads and Astro Coffee to name just a few.  

But as great as these places are (and they are great - tasty, cheap food with a warm welcome from the staff and other customers) the overwhelming impression of the surroundings and the rest of the city is of a serious amount of urban decay.  The area where my hostel is located in known as Corktown after the high numbers of Irish immigrants that settled in the area back in the day.  Despite being somewhat brutally servered in two by the arrival of the I-75 motorway it looks like at one time it would have been a packed and probably desirable residential district being about a mile and half from downtown.  

To walk around it as I did on Sunday morning wouldn't suggest that this would ever have been the case.  Block after block is just missing - fallen into such disrepair that the buildings have had to be pulled down.  And the buildings that are remaining aren't in great shape either.  But the odd thing is that it feels totally safe.  I fully expected to be have to be a bit wary but I felt as ease.  Yes, it was Sunday mornning but even so.  I guess this is because there just wasn't anyone around - it felt a little but like those scenes in a post-apocalypic films like 28 Days Later where the landscape is familiar but all the people have been wiped out.  

But then the more you look, the more its clear that although this has happened, people are slowly struggling back.  There are a number of urban gardens being well tended in the area, the grassed over areas where houses used to be are well mown and looked after and the City is using the space to act as a nursery for a number of new trees to go towards a project to 'green' Detroit.  

I also walked out towards Michigan Central Station.  Some really interesting history of it here.  It's a building that pretty well dominates the local area and it's only as you start to look closer as you approach it you realise how derelict it really is.  

A bit like Cincinnati's railway station which I briefly went to see the other week, it's an incredible piece of engineering and design which was sadly well ahead of the demand for railway travel in the US.  There is how a well organised pressure group to try to save the station and promote ideas for its reuse - I hope they're successful!  

Sunday I also went to the historic site of the production of Henry Ford's Model T - or the T-Plex as the current owners would have it.  Owned and run by volunteers it's a really impressive set of displays over two floors including some beautifully restored original cars.  I spent a couple of hours there but could easily have been even longer.  

The surrounding area ('Michigan Junction') used to be the centre of the car manufacturing industry as it was where three trainlines all intersected so was ideal for bringing in the parts and exporting the finished products - in the years around 1900 there were up to 40 car manufacturers in the area!  Of course now it's a different story and another very quiet and somewhat desolate neighbourhood.  

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