DETROIT: The hollow hulk of Detroit’s once majestic train station draws a steady stream of tourists to see how far the mighty Motor City has fallen.
The Beaux Arts building was the tallest railway station in the world when it was built in 1913, and its 18-storey office tower once housed more than 3,000 workers.
Abandoned to the elements—and to vandals who smashed its windows, spray painted its yellow brick walls and stole its brass fixtures, marble and decorative railings—Michigan Central escaped demolition largely because the city lacked the funds for such a monumental task.
“It’s kind of like the ancient pyramids—once an amazing place and now completely run down,” said Bernhardt Karg, an IT manager who was taking a group of friends visiting from Germany on a ruin tour.
There are signs of life behind the razor wire fence erected to keep the vandals and squatters out. A handful of new windows fill the gaping frames and trucks and workmen come and go. So far, no formal plans for the building have been announced.
The city of Detroit’s spectacular bankruptcy — the largest in US history when it was filed in July and a complex legal process expected to take years to complete — has masked a long-sought revival which is gathering momentum.
‘Deindustrialization, obsolescence and ruin porn’
On a recent sunny afternoon, crews could be seen painstakingly repairing the brickwork on yet another downtown skyscraper slated to be transformed into condominiums.
Posh bars and restaurants dot the streets near the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium built across from the beautifully restored Fox theater on the northern edge of downtown.
A short drive up Woodward Avenue is the bustling Midtown neighborhood, where upscale shops like the expensive Whole Foods supermarket have followed the influx of young professionals seeking an urban lifestyle within walking distance of the renowned Detroit Institute of Art.
Key to the revival has been the policing provided by Wayne State University and two major hospitals, which supplement an overwhelmed Detroit police department that has an average response time of 58 minutes.
The island of safety and good management has attracted craft manufacturers like Shinola, which proudly stamps “made in Detroit” on handmade watches built with Swiss components.
“While the city will go through this (bankruptcy) transition, we fully believe it’s in the process of regenerating itself,” Shinola chief executive Steve Bock said during a tour of the chic office and assembly room on the campus of the College for Creative Studies.
‘To be part of it is fantastic for us’
The 120 jobs at Shinola are nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands who were employed by the auto industry as it built Detroit into a wealthy industrial giant.
But Shinola’s “hipster story” is helping to change perceptions of a city which has for too long been synonymous with “deindustrialization, obsolescence and ruin porn,” said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State.
“The real challenge is how do you connect the improvement, the investment, the incoming new residents in the midtown, downtown area to the rest of the city,” Boyle said.
‘It hurts, it hurts, it hurts’
Outside the handful of healthy or reviving neighborhoods lies an urban wasteland housing 78,000 abandoned buildings.
Many are single family homes whose wooden structures have collapsed after years or even decades of neglect as the population shrank from 1.8 million in 1950 to 685,000 today.
Plenty bear the scars of arsonists.
Step inside and the detritus is puzzling. Scrappers are quick to pull out the copper wiring and metal fixtures. Yet there are often piles of clothing, furniture and clues to a past life. Too often there are used needles and rats.
Frank Pickett, 69, sat on the sidewalk watching as bulldozers attacked the Frederick Douglass Homes, the nation’s first public housing project.
Pickett grew up in the projects, which were once home to Motown legends Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and actress Lily Tomlin.
He stayed on after they were officially closed in 2008, squatting in the solid brick buildings behind boarded up windows which kept out the worst of the cold.
“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” Pickett told AFP. “All these years I never thought the city would tear them down. They said they were going to rebuild it. I don’t understand why they’re doing this.”
‘If Detroit can pay its police and teachers that bodes well’
Clearing out blight is a critical component to transforming Detroit into a livable city and the federal government is providing millions to help cover the cost of demolition.
Yet it’s not clear how—or if—Detroit will be able to fill in the miles upon miles of empty lots or to link its few vibrant, but scattered, neighborhoods into some kind of functioning whole.
A new light rail system is in the works to connect downtown and midtown. Urban farming projects are popping up. The latest in a series of master plans for the city seem promising.
A trial to determine if the city is even eligible to erase its debts in bankruptcy is scheduled to begin on October 23. There is simply no precedent for what happens next.
“When we talk about what Detroit is going to look like after the bankruptcy, my answer is pretty good,” said John Pottow, a bankruptcy expert with the University of Michigan’s law school.
“The main thing is they need to focus on having a credible operating budget that doesn’t have a structural deficit in it,” Pottow said in a telephone interview.
“If Detroit can pay its police and teachers that bodes well.”