Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth
As a Detroiter I hate ruin porn. I particularly hate it when lazy journalists, bloggers, editors and video crews shoot photos or video, or worse, use stock footage and pics, of the Michigan Central Station and the old Packard plant. So I’m a little reluctant to share these photos that I shot just south of State Fair, east of Woodward. Ultimately, the photos were just too good, so emblematic of Detroit’s decay, that I had to share them. Also, it’s an opportunity to share some hope about the city.
I was coming back from Detroit’s east side headed to Woodlawn Cemetery to shoot some photos of the Dodge Brother’s tomb. Woodlawn is on Woodward across the street from the State Fair Grounds just south of the city limits at Eight Mile Road. My dad’s veterinary hospital was on Woodward just north of Seven Mile Road which meant it was more or less on my path. For some reason I decided to cut through the streets just off of Woodward, behind where my father’s clinic was (and where Dr. Francis, a nice Iraqi Chaldean who interned under my dad still practices). I was maybe two blocks east of Woodward and a block or so south of State Fair, at Bauman and Adeline which is only 1/2 mile south of Eight Mile. I had no idea that urban prairie had spread so close to the city limits.
This is what happens when a city loses 60% or more of its population.
I spotted this rear clip from what appears to be a 1980s Corvette sitting at the curb. I generally abhor ruin porn. I visited the Packard plant ruin not long ago and I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot any 3D there, but the Corvette has such a distinctive shape and the fraction of a car looked so incongruous and forlorn that I stopped to take some photos. Is there are more identifiable automotive body part than the rear clip to a ‘Vette? A broken and shattered symbol of Detroit muscle, characterized by the Corvette’s rear haunches, sits amidst empty lots and vandalized buildings.
I’m glad I stopped to take the photos, though, and not just because of some cliched images of the bottoming out Motor City. While I was taking these photos, I noticed what looked like a carnival of sorts behind a fence surrounding a cluster of remaining homes on State Fair and Adeline. You can see it in the background of the photo above. It turns out that some urban homesteaders are trying to make a stand, buying and rehabbing properties, and running a large annual Halloween event that has gained legendary status in the Detroit area, the Theater Bizarre. I stopped to speak to Ken Poirier who owns most of the properties and builds the sets for the show. There’s an abandoned elementary school on the carner of Bauman and State Fair. Poirier told me that only 10 years ago the city had spent millions renovating the school. Now, it’s slowly being gutted by strippers and scrappers.
Still Poirier has set down roots in the neighborhood and he and his merry band of artists and other creative folks are staying for the long haul. One would think that the city would appreciate people moving into the area and creating economic activity, bringing suburbanites and city dwellers together. Theater Bizarre has helped stabilize a rotting neighborhood and has grown from year to year. In 2008 it was 1,700 and in 2009 2,200 attended, costume required. Last year they sold 3,000 tickets at $65 a pop and that’s when the bureaucrats stepped in.
Understand that this is a labor of love more than profit. Theater Bizarre breaks even, and then only because there are volunteers who work hard to put on what is a truly a professional show with literally hundreds of entertainers. Still, bureaucrats and regulators will do what bureaucrats and regulators are want to do. Fire marshals shut down the 2010 event before it happened.
Speaking to the Detroit News at the time, Poirier explained “The fire marshal came down today and disliked everything, everything. Also, we are in a residential area and you can’t have something like this in a residential area.”
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s spokesperson Karen Dumas told the Detroit Free Press, “There are codes and requirements that the city must respect and enforce. We encourage those who wish to present events and activities to do the same.”
The event was moved to Detroit’s Fillmore, but it wasn’t the same.
When I spoke to Poirier a few weeks ago he was hopeful that they’d be able to get all the required permits for Halloween 2011. He’s a good neighbor. The remaining original occupants of nearby buildings love him and attend Detroit’s best Halloween party and spook show. Poirier’s properties may be surrounded by a tall fence but he’s not insulating himself. The fences are just to provide security and a sense of safety to the annual revelers. Poirier does his bit to clean up outside his fence. The tires you see near the Corvette clip are there because he put them there, collecting them from around the neighborhood, where dumpers had left them. In that sense the photos have been staged, but once you know the story what at first appears to be a sign of decay is actually the first green shoots of new growth.
You can see the photos in your choice of 3D formats at Cars In Depth.