Detroit Decay

The house on Stout Street

Relatives of mine lived on Stout Street, in northwest Detroit. It was once a middle-class neighborhood for working-class families. Now it has gone to hell. I have profiled the decay on this block before. I wanted to share how it looks with this short video. It still makes me want to cry every time I see it, because every house that used to be here is a story of lives come and now gone.

The footage was taken in September 2015.



Fisher Auto Body Plant, Detroit

Just off Interstates 94 and 75, north of downtown Detroit, at St. Antoine and Piquette and Harper, stands the abandoned and crumbling Fisher Auto Body 21 plant. It closed in the 1982. It used to produce auto bodies for GM, then limos and ambulances, before finally shutting its doors. Its design was not compatible with auto manufacturing needs, and the industry had long changed, moving to single story, vast production plants, located throughout the country.

The plant has frequently appeared on blogs celebrating the industrial decay of Detroit, of which I would have to count this web site among them, except I am not celebrating massive economic de-industrialization in the Motor City. I found this on my own, just driving. The plant stood out prominently, and I circled back to it once I left the freeway. It was completely surreal to see it, standing next to apartment buildings still being used and across the street from functioning businesses and a warehouse. No one in those buildings coming and going seemed to look or notice the structure, as it had become part of their environment. I saw a couple of guys hanging out there, and decided they were either security or perhaps folks I didn’t want to meet with a lot of camera equipment. Scores of photographers have been here before me, and will come after me, and you can see the wreckage in very accurate detail on Google Street View.

For many, it is just another eyesore and reminder of what was, and also a visible icon of what a declining industrial city looks like. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)


And now the house is gone, too

I recently visited Detroit, to see where parts of my biological family (I am adopted) once lived. I previously reported on what I had discovered about the neighborhood where my grandparents once called home, in west Detroit, on Stout Street, not far from River Rouge Park. Using historical snapshots with Google Maps street view between 2007 and 2013, I learned that the old house that my grandparents called home for decades up until the mid-1960s had fallen into decay, like literally tens of thousands of other abandoned homes in the Motor City. My grandparents left Detroit for the suburbs in 1968. That was a year after the devastating riots that marked a turning point moment in Detroit’s recent history defined by economic decline, white flight, and population loss that outpaces any similar decline experienced by any major American city.

This picture is taken from a Google Maps street view, for the purposes of editorial comment.

The Stout home in 2013; this picture is taken from a Google Maps street view, for the purposes of editorial comment.

On my return visit in September 2015, I found the spot where the house used to stand. It is now a cleared lot, on property now owned by the Detroit Land Bank public authority, which manages the thousands of distressed properties in the 139-square-mile city. Based on photographs I saw on Google Maps street view, the tearing down of the house and its neighboring homes was inevitable. Arson and looting was visible in feral houses still on the street, across from the now closed Kosciusko Elementary School, itself an abandoned property and among dozens of public schools now vacated and being gutted by scrappers citywide.

I took a look inside one of remaining burned and abandoned homes on the block. It is a cookie-cutter house, built for the emerging lower-middle class of Detroit in its industrial heyday. Tract houses like this run for blocks in all directions, either of wood or brick construction. It was disturbing to see what was once a home where families once lived in such a state of destruction, brought on by economic decline. There were still spices in the kitchen cabinet, along with a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup. About a quarter of a century earlier, when I first saw this street, it was still a home for the people who lived there. They, like my grandparents, had left too.

This was the small piece of real-estate where my family’s story intersected that the bigger narrative of decline that has proven stubbornly hard to turn around. And now there is no trace of that history to be found except a cleared lot.

Detroit public schools, abandoned and left to the scrappers

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

While driving in east Detroit, near the long-abandoned Packard Plant, I stumbled on another abandoned building, the recently shuttered Crockett Technical High School, originally known as the John Burroughs Intermediate School. It sits on the corner St. Cyril and Georgia Street. As recently as 2011-12, it was a functioning high school. Then, it was closed, and within less than three years, a perfectly fine and even upgraded school, dating from 1925, was left the scrappers and vandals and plundered beyond any reasonable repair.

In 2012, amid Detroit’s fiscal woes, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) announced a round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. All told, 16 schools building closed permanently. The Detroit Free Press reported that the DPS had lost about 100,000 students in the past decade, and 2012-13 enrollment was expected to be about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Seal of the City of Detroit on the front of the now closed building

Seal of the City of Detroit on the School Entrance

As recently at 2011-12, the Detroit Public Schools released an annual report on Crockett, noting, “Crockett High School made adequate yearly progress (AYP) in the tested subjects (mathematics, reading, science).” The same report noted, “Parents and community members are an integral part of the school program at Crockett High School. Parents and community members are included in decision making at the school levels through their involvement on committees and special programs. The Local School Community Organization (L.S.C.O.), provides programming for parents/guardians and the entire community.”

Another high school, Finney, also was slated to closed, and students from there and Crockett were to be sent to a new $46.5-million East English Village Preparatory Academy being constructed on the former Finney site. Meanwhile, the DPS allowed Crockett to fall into total disarray and be gutted and destroyed by scrappers.

I spoke to two guys working on a car across the street from Crockett, who told me this story. They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.

I casually walked around the school. It was easy to enter it. I jumped in a window. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Perfectly good school furniture was left to rot in the elements. Science labs were ripped apart. The structure of the building, however, looked perfectly sound, appearing better than public schools I attended growing up and have seen elsewhere in the country. The neighbors I met with said the school had even been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

It reminded me eerily of the film Children of Men, in a future world where humans are sterile and are unable to reproduce, and schools are left to rot without children to fill them. Crockett was one of the saddest things I saw in Detroit. In nearly any other major American city, such a situation would provoke outrage and activism. Here, no one seemed to care. Meanwhile, the DPS–whose motto is “see it, believe it”–is looking for a buyer for a school it decided it could not even protect. And another piece of Detroit slides into decay, without much fanfare to accompany the fall.

God has left Detroit

In April, I spent a couple of eye-opening days in my home town, Detroit. I was born here. My grandparents lived here for decades. My biological family (I am adopted) grew up here on my birth mother’s side. I only lived here a year, before my adoptive parents left in 1966, a year before the deadly race riots of 1967, one of several that have spanned more than 120 years.

Photographers who parachute into Detroit, like me, are rightfully accused of being disaster voyeurs. Photographing Detroit is now its own photo genre many dub “ruin porn.” Taking pictures of a dying place, where real people are struggling just to survive, is by definition schadenfreude.

I guess I have a saving grace. I am a native son. I really was born in a hospital here. My family, on my birth mother’s side, has true Detroit roots, and for that reason I feel a strong attachment.

I wrote a short essay about my trip in April, and I find myself feeling deeply unsettled now about how the last eight years of our Great Recession have been handled and the wars that preceded it. Going to Detroit you cannot ignore the massive impact of trade policies like NAFTA and the globalization of manufacturing in the years before and after its signing, when the United States began to export its manufacturing jobs overseas.

Jeez, here we are the wealthiest country on earth, and yet we let our great industrial center literally collapse before us, all while venturing overseas to preserve our strategic interests. We all watched and let the patient wither in agony, at times laughing at the patient’s demise. Today the lethal court clown of a city titillates us with reality TV that delights in the destruction of Detroit and the goofy exploits of its charismatic preachers, reality star cops, and wacky urban survivalists.