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March 24, 2004

Life Among the Ruins


Thanks for the reference to an amazing website, “DetroitYes!” with its remarkable subtitle: “Home to the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.” (You should check this out, here.)

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. However, after reaching the ripe old age of 18, I only lived in the Detroit metropolitan area (on and off) for three more years prior to leaving for good at 26. Possibly because of youthful callowness and self-centeredness, I don’t think it really struck me at the time or even after my relocation to California that the period of my “blossoming” into adulthood had coincided with a truly remarkable collapse of my old home town.

Oh, sure, even while growing up in Detroit it was known as The Murder Capital of the U.S.A. Heck, during my first job out of college when I was working downtown I myself was kidnapped at gunpoint while being relieved of my wallet and my car. (Nobody took this too seriously, not even me.) And the city was known for its racial tensions, what with the ’68 riots, white flight to the suburbs and the fights over forced bussing in the Nixon years. And in my few reflective moments during my stint working downtown (1976-8) it struck me as odd that whole swaths of downtown had been demolished as a result of something called urban renewal and didn’t appear to be slated for rebuilding anytime soon. (Few cities I’ve visited since combine skyscrapers with sudden patches of uncut grass growing in vacant lots a la Detoit.) And it did seem peculiar that some of the city’s worst neighborhoods were housed in large, stately structures that must have once verged on mansion-hood.

But the true dimensions of what was happening didn’t really register, at least not consciously. After all, in many ways metropolitan Detroit was (and I assume remains) a wealthy area. During my youth, I recall, it was the third largest (media? retail?) market in the country. The auto industry was a huge money pump, and not only to its large executive class: in the late 1970s semi-skilled (if unionized) labor on the assembly line was paid $40 an hour (counting benefits, anyway). The suburbs, at least, continued to expand, swallowing up farmland north and west of the city. If you focused on that part of the story, things didn’t look so bad.

But when I opened this website, I realized what a remarkable story had been unfolding under my nose. The creator of this website, Lowell Boileau (a painter) is a long-term Detroiter who has kept his eyes open during the past 30 years. He tells how he became a chronicler of ‘the fabulous ruins of Detroit’--

In the summer of 1971, I returned to Detroit after two and a half years in Africa, the Middle East and Europe where I had visited numerous ancient ruins.

Detroit was restive, as the social revolutions of the late 60's played out their effects, and in transformation as its population began vacating the city to the surrounding suburbs.

Still, Detroit seemed little changed from its model developed in the teens of the 20th Century when it became the preeminent industrial city in the world with its accompanying wealth and large home owning middle class.

Unseen to the eye, during that hazy summer, immense economic, social and political forces, that had been set in motion years prior, were to render large sections of the city and its industrial structures into ruination. Could one be instantly transported from that time forward twenty year it would appear as if large areas of the city had been carpet bombed leaving behind huge hulking ruins -- ruins larger and more extensive than those I found in my travels to Zimbabwe, El Tajin, Ephesus, Athens, or Rome.

Put aside their negative image, so sensationalized by a self flagellating media, and view them, for a moment, as you might one of the celebrated ruins of the world. Then you may come to understand why I call them The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.

Mr. Boileau photographically catalogs a number of now-empty but once beautiful buildings that may be on the verge on either restoration or demolition:

New hope has arisen that the Book Cadillac Hotel, once grandest of Detroit's downtown hotels, will be restored. Intense negotiation and serious activity are combining to assemble resources to renovate this Detroit legend into combination hotel and condominium complex. Let's take a look around…
L. Boileau, Book Cadillac Hotel, Exterior and Grand Ballroom, contemporary

It felt like exploring the Titanic, but not underwater. The elegant Grand Ballroom of the Book Cadillac, ravaged by time, elements and scavengers, underlined both the challenges and promise that restoration of Detroit's most famous hotel holds.

Book Cadillac Exterior 1945; Grand Ballroom 1930s

I’ll admit, I never understood the grandeur that my home town had once possessed (and, in a High Romantic life-among-the-ruins sense, still possesses today) before checking out this website. It makes me feel like an ancient Egyptian transported by time machine to the ruins of Luxor.

I take my hat off and vote a “Blowhardy” to Mr. Boileau and his website, “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.”



P.S. I’m also going to have to introspect a little on the ways the whole experience of living through such a decline-and-fall—even if not consciously noticed—has molded my outlook. Have you ever considered how the ‘drama’ of your natal city may have influenced how you think about the world?

posted by Friedrich at March 24, 2004


Good question. Have you read American Pastoral by Philip Roth? Great book and a different take on this subject, applied to Newark.

Posted by: JT on March 24, 2004 11:48 AM


I grew up in Cleveland, OH. From my early years, I understood urban blight. But from the summer of 2000 to the fall of 2001, I worked in Detroit. When choosing where to live, I decided on a nice little town south of Flint called Fenton. Everyday I drove 45 miles to work. I lived between two major cities that are prime examples of urban decay. Flint itself is another story.

But Detroit really was the pits. The first time I went downtown, I couldn't believe how many boarded up and burned up buildings there were so close to the city center. All the attractions downtown were quintessential "diamonds in the rough." Hockeytown USA, Comerica Park, the State Theater. Ford Field hadn't been built yet. I couldn't understand how a city could let itself degrade so much.

But I loved living in Fenton. Great town with great people. And you know what? A large portion of the town residents commuted everyday to Detroit like I did. By the end of my time there, I had grown weary of the traffic. So I moved back to Cleveland, with its own problems. I truly do hope Detroit can come back. Lord knows Cleveland might be heading for the same place.

Posted by: sean on March 24, 2004 12:51 PM

Cheers for an excellent blog as well. Right before my abortive attempt at graduate education at University of Michigan I discovered DetroitYes as well, and while at UM did some exploring of Detroit as well.

It really is one of the most interesting places in the US, if only for the wonder at its incredible demise. Coming from the west, where there are real ghost towns, I think Detroit would count as the biggest ghost town of all. Its funny how you can find little things stuck in time there, a diner that looks like it closed in the 60's almost ready to fire up again.

I wonder though if Detroit will ever return to glory. Perhaps only after the culture of distrust between the races is ended, and the easy land grab policies of Michigan, that give sprawl virtually endless inertia. Tis a shame though that so many beautiful buildings have been lost, and so many more will fall as well.

Posted by: Boots on March 24, 2004 1:15 PM

All I know is that after seeing urban downtown decay in my youth, I thought Chicago's downtown was the most glamorous, beautiful place in the world. How could anything bad happen to anyone there? I can certainly understand how growing up in Chicago and walking down Michigan Avenue would leave you with a dramatically different impression of the world than growing up in Detroit or other decaying cities. I remember Neil Simon saying he knew the world had somehow changed for him when he stayed at the Plaza in the late sixties in New York and saw a crack in the ceiling of an expensive room. Very symbolic. City was overrun with muggings and going broke...etc.

BTW, it really says something when someone from Cleveland disses Detroit. Wasn't Cleveland once the ultimate symbol of urban decay, when the river caught on fire? What is odd is that I think Cleveland has undertaken a rehabilitation, which is what never seems to quite take hold in the city of Detroit (not suburbs).

Posted by: annette on March 24, 2004 1:22 PM

Well, I think the city is really trying; there are few examples. Like that elevated train loop (even though it's small, it's a start) or that nice public building in Greek town (don't know the name, sorry, been there only once) where they left the old exterior envelope and constructed independent structure inside - it's not original, but it's a solid professional job. Sort of like Chelsea Market in New York; I've also seen similar approach in Bristol, RI

Posted by: Tatyana on March 24, 2004 1:47 PM


I'm sorry if you thought I was "dissing" Detroit. That was not the point of what I was saying. Believe me, it's embarrassing enough to be from "the mistake by the lake". Cleveland went through a period during the early to mid-nineties where Jacobs Field, Gund Arena, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Great Lakes Science center, and the warehouse district were projects that were completed. But the last few years have been tough.

A lot of good housing has been built downtown, but there aren't enough businesses to support them. Businesses largely defected to the eastern suburbs along Interstate 271. Progressive Insurance was supposed to build a tower downtown, but chose to stay on the eastside because Cleveland was largely hostile to businesses.

Cleveland State University is located on the eastern edge of downtown, but it is largely a commuter campus. Plans are afoot to make it a dorm-style school, and that wuold be good for keeping people downtown after they graduate. But, alas, I digress. Detroit(including the metro area is a good town full of great people. But, like Cleveland, it has lacked good leadership.

Posted by: sean on March 24, 2004 2:10 PM


Take a look at Ross MacTaggart's article, "The Detroit I Remember." Do Ross's recollections mirror yours in any way? I find them very romantic, filled with the awe of childhood. Detroit has lost a lot, in my opinion.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on March 24, 2004 6:07 PM


It seems that we are in similar situations, a generation apart. I am from Pontiac, the next major city outside Detroit (and a microcosom of the whole Detroit situation) I went to Wayne State, and lived in the Cass Corridor during that time (94-99). I then hit the bricks for Washington DC, touting the motto: "its better to be FROM Detroit than IN Detroit"
A similar story to yours, however, you probably remember a time when the city was "functional". My generation has no idea what it was like to live in these spaces. Its like growing up under the parthenon, you can see the ruined architecture, but have no idea of how it was before. It is particularly frustrating for me because, as a painting/theater student, I was completely in love with my surroundings. There were all sorts of misguided installations, exibitions, etc. that we mounted crying out about the modern ruins that we were living in. We would look in horror as the strip-malls blasted way past Pontiac (filling in between Pontiac and Lapeer!)
As a young kid we would go "bomming" (grafitti) in the city...can you imagine, a kid with a desire to paint, a spraycan, and acres of walls to do so? We were even the source of an urban legend involving a bowling ball and an abandoned train station.
There is so much to say about this subject. Every Detroiter I know is fiercely passionate about their city. They all secretly love the ruins. The biggest shame of it all is that the infrastructure is all there just waiting to be plugged in. When that happens, it will be a great (living) city again.

Just a few more points about previous posts. The "people-mover", (the aforementioned elevated train loop) is a joke. This is architecture gone awry. You see, the "Renaissance center" (the big cylinder that dominates the skyline) was designed as a fortress. At the ground level it has a giant barracade (decorated with ferns) that prevents the pedestrian from leaving or entering. The idea being that people visiting town shouldnt go out into the city, its too dangerous. So a fully self contained tower is all that the city needed to create a new renaissance. Wrong headed Mies Van Der Rohe thinking (BTW there are some wonderfull examples of his work in Detroit)
Anyway, the people-mover was added in the mid eighties to connect all of the buildings in the downtown area. SO now you dont even have to touch the ground in Detroit when you visit. You can view the whole thing from an air conditioned monorail.

The only other quibble I have is that when I was living in the Cass Corridor, there were many streets that were in disrepair. Some with the orginal rails and brick for the streetcars. Streetcars you ask? In the motor city? I personally credit Motown with 80% of the mess we are in today. They drove out the mass transit (which will never return [see above people mover]) and put everyone into cars, which require more space, etc. (everything from the change in the way signs are placed along roads to handicap access to sprawl...) It would be ironic if Detroit were the birthplace of the new urbanism. They have the vacant land and architectual anchors. But IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN as long as the car is king.

I apologize for the flame-like nature this post has taken, but Motown touches a nerve in everyone who has lived there.


PS I love the blog, you guys are great.

Posted by: Jared on March 24, 2004 6:32 PM

Jared couldnt have said it better. Detroit is saddled both with a corrupt city government, which has for too long been suspicious if not downright hostile to whitey, and the suburbanites who hate the place back. I met a lot of people from Ann Arbor, and the other suburbs who despite having grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, had NEVER been there. The city is doomed unless some very large and very rich company/person decides to spend all the money necessary to truly do something to improve it. Unfortunately this will never come from within, the natures of the people there are contrary to it. Anyone with money moves out, Tom Monahan, the Domino's magnate, sold out his stake in the Tigers, and is moving his university and law school to Florida. Michiganders know only one way to improve, get out.

Posted by: Boots on March 24, 2004 7:00 PM

Okay, this is a cow-out-of-the barn comment, but here goes, anyway...

Back in the 1920s, the automobile industry was rapidly expanding as annual sales pushed their way up to 4+million units by 1929. The city grew along with the industry. Then the Great Depression struck and Detroit (from a development point of view) was arrested.

One can still see its "frozen structure"--or at least I seemed to back in the late 80s when I did a fair amount of consulting at GM. Here is my take: basically, the city had an axis with one node being downtown and the other node located about three miles up Woodward Avenue at West Grand Blvd., where General Motors' HQ and the Fisher Building were. Between were the library, the museum, etc. (I forget what cultural institutions) that were housed in grand, classical structures. The idea, or so I think, was that development was to have filled in along Woodward amongst the civic and arts buildings just noted.

So, I wonder how things might have fared had the Depression never happened and the city became firmly anchored around the Woodward axis.

On a related note, I was raised in Seattle. At the time (the 40s and 50s) it was a semi-backwater. But it grew steadily and evolved into a world-class metro area (in Europe, folks seem to understand when I say I'm "from Seattle" (though I now live 60 miles away). The city itself has, thanks to the politicians it elects, some serious problems. But that is a subject for another time.

Donald Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 24, 2004 8:18 PM

I grew up outside Rochester, NY, mainly in the '60s, and go back once a year or so still. Very fond of the area, though most of my feelings are bound up with the countryside and small towns around the city, which strike me as touching and beautiful, if also modest and clueless. On a small scale, the city went through something like it sounds Detroit went through. Prosperous and proud (in a small-city way), then expressways, cars, 'burbs, riots and even more white flight. My mom worked downtown for years, and my sister did later, and growing up as a kid in the towns outside it was one of those growing-up markers -- when were you allowed to go downtown on your own? And could you find your way around? There were some reasons to do so back then. A great big department store, the Eastman theater, a nice downtown museum, the Eastman House (which ran a nice film series) ... Some gorgeous neighborhoods (the blocks off East Ave. have some jaw-dropping houses), some glam old buildings. There were even some restaurants that were probably lousy but that were considered worth going downtown for. But over time the city kind of emptied out, got dirtier, less attractive. There seemed less and less reason to bother with it. I never lived there as an adult, but friends tell me that a common thing was to drive on the freeway from your house in the 'burbs, right into the parking lot in the modest skyscraper where you worked, then back home at night, so though you worked downtown you never actually interacted with downtown. I guess there are still sentimental reasons to make the effort -- an annual flower festival, an annual clothesline-arts festival. Eastman theater is still active; there's a good art-movie theater. And it's easy to get to. Unlike bigger cities with more sprawled-out 'burbs, people in the Rochester area can get more or less everywhere they might want to get in 30 minutes or less. But the city itself seems to have become irrelevant to the experience of living in the area. (Eager to be corrected here by anyone who knows better.) So, yeah: white flight, dangerous downtowns, decay, sprawl, making your life on the shoulder of a city without dealing with the city much ... Compounded in the case of Rochester by a lack of regional pride, I'd add. It's a pretty area with lots of attractions and an interesting history -- western NY could do a fairly convincing job of peddling itself as something quite nice, in a Bridges of Madison County kind of way. It kind of breaks my heart that they don't know what they have, or maybe it's that they don't know what they might do with it, although that cluelessness is part of what I'm fond of. A great farming area, for instance -- but the food you'll be served in local restaurants is about as bad as can be. Beautiful, classic small towns, but very little awareness that they're beautiful, or that there might be things that can be done to protect them.

Yeah, I'd say the dissipation of city life ... crossed with the cluelessness about what's beautiful and pleasant and to be valued ... had quite an impact. On visits back, I used to drive around wanting to roll down the windows and shout at people, "Don't you have any idea of what you've got here? Why are you pissing it away?" It's still a lovely part of the world, and I still miss it. But that cluelessness is probably a big part of why I moved away.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 1:19 AM

Can I peep in here with a mini-rant? Remember how I've gone on (tediously, I'm sure) about what a different environment books are part of these days than they used to be? And how many projects that once might have been books can now take other forms? Well, doesn't DetroitYes! qualify? I mean: mighta been a book. But isn't. And it's maybe better as a website (free, for one thing, and accessible to millions, shorter, and if unedited probably also much more full of idiosyncrasy and personality than it might be if it were a full-dress, pro book)than it would have been as a book.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 3:22 AM

I am an outsider, I only visit Detroit from time to time since my sister lives in Farmington Hills and of course your opinion weights tons more. But still - I don't quite see your objection to the monorail. Here in NY there are miles of elevated train rails in our subway system (there are 4 other boroughs in a city besides Manhattan, you know), and it looks considerably worse, dirtier, uglier, more outdated (station-wise) then the loop in Detroit (I hate to call it people-mover; all transport is that - so?)- but it is convinient as public transportation vehicle, and millions of people use it here. If you're in favor (as I've assumed from your comment) of public transport, why not start with what city already has? Yes, it's a toy, but it serves its purpose, no? If you want to divide traffic, leisurely stralling pedestrians could walk "downstairs" while people in a hurry use Elevated. Is that so bad?
I'm sure as picturesque as streetcars were (can anybody clarify for me what exactly streetcars are: trams? trolleybuses?), if they were abandoned there were economic reasons for it. So my guess - until there is no potentially profitable economic invective, talks will remain just talks.
Generally, I think if there're no residential blocks in the city, decay is inevitable.
I'm not an urban planner, so I might be wrong.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2004 2:50 PM

I am all for public transportation. I actually took the bus for a good part of my life in the Detroit area (there are two systems, both very bad, in Detroit; one for the city one for the suburbs). The people mover is not viable as a way to get anybody who lives in the city around. Its like Chicago's loop...but thats all; no lines that run out of the city, or even other parts of the city. It becomes a way for visitors to get around without interacting with the city. How many shops do you think would be built underneath something that encourages people to go ONLY from A to B. The implication is that the people mover is safe, and its stops are safe, but the rest of the city is not, so dont you (dear Detroit tourist) ever leave the saftey of this faux public transit cocoon.
Your point is well taken about there not being enough residential housing in the city. When I was there we had two choices for food shopping: The liquor store across the street, or getting in our car and driving out to the burbs...I must confess that I do live meijers (24 hour mega stores in MI and OH)
In short, architecture should be used for good and not evil...Detroit just happens to be the best place in the world to do a retrofit to prove it can be done.
Michael, I totally agree with you about DetroitYes being a great book. What would be even cooler is turning downtown into a preserve, like the Greenfield Village/Henry Ford Museum...

Posted by: Jared on March 25, 2004 6:53 PM

The direct answer to the question, "What happened to Detroit?" is simple enough. It was a different people who built the old Detroit than who later moved into it and live there today. This is not to say that the today's very black Detroit is not as good as yesteryear's very white Detroit, just that it's very different. It can't be expected to be otherwise.
Perhaps you can come to appreciate the achievements of black Detroit in the modern era instead of hoping for the rebirth of some distant past.

Posted by: Tariq on March 25, 2004 10:22 PM

The industrial age isn't coming back to Detroit and there's no use dwelling on bygone days. This PR schtick of NewDetroit is hollow without jobs to go with it, and let's face it, as long as the machine controls city services no large business is going to chose the city over the burbs. Urban renewal is not going to be built on federal pork and past glory.

Posted by: Alexander Crawford on March 26, 2004 4:52 AM

All right, I'm going to be The Insensitive One and ask Tariq, what exactly the architectural "achievements of black Detroit in the modern era" are, since we are talking about architecture here? Prey, tell me - I'm the ignorant foreigner, you know. I haven't notice any during my (very few, I admit) visits.
Personally, I don't like the limits Tariq wants to channel the topic of this conversation to.
As everything, in my opinion, racial clashes stem from economic basis, so I have to agree with Alexander Crawford here: until there are no high-paying jobs in the city, no private investment is feasible and decline will continue.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 26, 2004 11:14 AM

This book looks interesting. City reform from a free market perspective...

Detroit is run for the benefit of its rulers, and let's not forget it.

Posted by: Brian on March 26, 2004 7:52 PM

Growing up in the suburbs of Southfield and Livonia, I occasionally wondered why I never saw or did anything in downtown Detroit...

Except for the DIA. (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Now, when I tell people I'm from the "Detroit Area", I try to tell them about Southfield, Farmington, or Royal Oak. I know those "Downtowns" much better than I know Downtown Detroit. And that's just the North/Northwest side of town.

I also noticed Wonderland (and Northland) Malls decline from economic centers into fading wrecks.

When will the city return to life? I can't tell.

Posted by: steve h on March 29, 2004 10:27 PM

Tatyana: Perhaps black Detroit hasn't built quite as much as your beloved old Detroit people. So? I'm talking about fine arts, especially music. Black Detroit's works in these areas are unsurpassed, and today Detroit is a leading hip hop center.
You can have your big dumb buildings, give me the music of the people any day.

Posted by: Tariq on March 30, 2004 2:26 AM

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