28 March 2010

Ruins of Detroit: Michigan Central Station in NYT

From the New York Times, the latest on the iconic ruin of Michigan Central Station:
Michigan Central is in a class of its own. Some city officials consider it among the ugliest behemoths to pockmark Detroit and have ordered its demolition, but others see it as the industrial age’s most gracious relic, a Beaux Arts gem turned gothic from neglect but steeped in haunting beauty.

Now Detroit has become embroiled in an urgent debate over how to save what is perhaps its most iconic ruin — and in the process, some insist, give the demoralized city a much needed boost.

“People compare it to Roman ruins,” said Karen Nagher, the executive director of Preservation Wayne, an organization that seeks to protect architecture and neighborhoods around Detroit. “Some people just want it left alone. But I’d love to see that building with windows in and lights on again.”

Having lost nearly a million people in the last 60 years, Detroit has a backlog of thousands of empty office buildings, theaters, houses and hotels. Downtown alone, more than 200 abandoned buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Most are examples of the Art Deco and neo-Classical styles that were popular before World War II, when Detroit was booming.

The great lobby (NY Times)

Detroit's moronic rush to purge itself of any building of historical interest is an American architectural tragedy. The notion that bulldozing abandoned buildings would cure the city's problems is a strange form of shamanic thinking - that appearance will create essence.

Some kids from Cass Tech made a cool video tour that gives you a good sense of the space:

The hobby of exploring abandoned buildings ("urban exploration") has gone from fringe to mainstream over the last decade, with its own organizations and even conventions. Detroit, with its forest of abandoned factories, is a prime destination. I first visited Michigan Central in 2002 and have been back every couple years. There's _always_ a group of eager young explorers in it these days, despite the razor wire and stern "Homeland Security" signs everywhere. There's a lively discussion about the site at the station's Facebook page (15,000 fans!), and there are serious discussions about turning the place into an official tourist attraction.

The cultural role of urban exploration is very complex and totally archaeo-pop. It's an interesting mix of archaeological tourism, industrial nostalgia, and the ascendance of "authentic" experiences as markers of the true self. In the American context, it also carries a frisson of class and race transgression, as white "explorers" enter racialized spaces like inner-city Detroit (which is 85% African-American).

I'll have a post about the genealogy and development of the hobby one of these days, but in the meantime check out infiltration.org, the zine and later website that helped catalyze urban exploration as a culture (RIP Ninjalicious, we miss your spirit.)

Me on the roof of MCS in 2003, gazing across the bridge toward Canada.

Swallowed from inside: a metaphor for Detroit?

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