Postcard From Detroit: 36 Hours In The USA's Forgotten City

Nowhere is the decaying beauty of a fallen giant more apparent than in the Motor City.
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Nowhere is the decaying beauty of a fallen giant more apparent than in the Motor City.

It’s late – 2 or 3 in the morning. In a pharmacy parking lot along Gratiot Avenue, the realities of a forgotten city come to life. Walking bodies begin to roam the streets. They wander with blank stares as if their entire souls have been taken. They barely lift their feet as they shuffle along cracked and weed overgrown sidewalks. They look in dumpsters and fixate on objects like walls and street lamps. Only they know what fascinates them. They are, for lack of a better term, the pure mold of a junkie. The subsequent wreckage of drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else. The “what’s left” after the body remains functioning once the soul has departed. Somewhere beyond this moment, the faint sound of sirens begins to cut their way through a rusted city. The shopkeepers have long since rolled down their gates. 24 hour fast food joints have locked their extra secure doors and now take orders from behind a thick, bulletproof window. Detroit spends the night reconvening their battle against robberies, homicides, and arson; another night of war. It’s a city of vastness and vacantness. A place where the last one out is told to turn off the lights. And as I take a lost look of the walking body, I can’t help but think how does this happen in America?

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“Not this shit again,” says a voice behind me. It comes from a guy who has the appearance of a man who has, in fact, been through “this shit again.” People slowly begin to appear on front porches of homes that at a quick glance look empty and condemned. They all face the same direction – up the block toward a man running stressfully back and forth from his house to his garage and to the street. He does so 3 or 4 times, cursing in huff and puffed tones. He knows what may happen here. He too may have smelled, heard, and seen this shit before. The smell of wood burning, the sound of banshee like sirens getting closer, and the distinct possibility somebody lit the house next door on fire. Of course it’s a structure fire – collapsed prior to our arrival under the heat and flames. The man, black, in his 40s, wearing timberland boots and heavy duty work shorts gets a little bit of help from the driver of the first due fire engine – Engine 50. The driver or FEO (Fire Engineer Officer) wills a low pressure hose line onto a section of fire as the man dashes for his small, barn like wooden garage. He flings open the door with one swift tug as he’s brushed away by a lick of flame. Inside, the orange glow of the fire sparkles off a shiny grey escalade SUV. The FEO pulls the hose closer to the garage and acts as a buffer between the front door and the fire. The Escalade backs out hard and turns down the street out of danger. In a matter of minutes the garage is engulfed. It’s a small victory for the man in a city that has very few.

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I could’ve walked up to those people on their porches and asked them about this city or this fire, but I would’ve felt a fraud. I was leaving in a day and a half. Back to my own life in a different city in a different state where I had a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood and a job. This was Detroit – the boom to bust, gold to rust story of once upon a time. I wasn’t looking for a story, I wanted a snapshot that had no beginning or end. A snapshot taken on a random weekend in a random month of a random year. For its firefighters it could still be 20 years ago. For its police, it's always tonight. And for its people it could be 10 years from now. Because, so far as I know, in Detroit, there is no time, no months, no years. Everyday is any day. Except maybe on Sunday, when they all go to church.

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It took me a few looks to see what it said. It wasn’t written badly; I just wasn’t really paying attention to what the spray painted statement said. POOP DECK: ALL ABOARD. Sprayed in red paint on the side of this random boat. Actually it was more of a skiff than boat. Something, I imagined, for 1 or 2 people paddling around a lake surrounded by beautiful trees and mountains. However, what drew my eye was the fact it sat in the middle of one of the biggest modern day ruins on the planet. And yet, despite its helter skelter existence, it wasn’t totally out of place. Beyond the touch of the species, I was standing in the middle of a relic, a tortured beauty, Detroit’s Coliseum - the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant. Virtually a city in its own right at the height of its corporality, it now made me feel like the last man alive after a nuclear holocaust. I don’t stray to far off the main drag (if that’s what you want to call it). First it’s a climb over a mound of cinder blocks and computer equipment. It eventually bleeds into the general rubbish spread out for as far as the eye can see. On the immediate left is the remnants of a 5 story structure. It’s the bare minimums that remain. Piecing blue skies push through its skeleton to allow a sense of prettiness toward the building. The steps I take, they are calculated – a full one there, a half one here. Broken glass, bricks, needles, tires, former pieces of automobile have all landed at this cradle of forgotteness. 

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A grey love seat basks in the incoming sunlight through the structural columns. It reminds me of a couch my parents used to have. Its in an area with spray painted tag ups that is a nice lamp away from feeling homey. For lack of a better term, the room is cinder blocked. An area of maybe 10ft has been knocked down as if to make a larger living space. The afternoon light shines in from the right hand side along the yellow graffitied wall. Squatters are known to live in the old Packard Plant. They make little apartments of each of these huge areas. Every once and a while I see laundry hanging from self made clothes lines. I can’t help but think how much an apartment at these sizes would cost in Manhattan or Brooklyn. 2500 a month, maybe more. In Detroit, they are free for those who dare to exist in such a place. The plant continues on. Endless to my eye. Things around me move. I feel eyes, though I don’t see them watching me. The wind shakes something rusty and its clattering adds to my uneasiness. I’m not afraid, I’m just unsure. Like hiking in a forest, I feel if I’m to get lost, how would I find my way back to my car. Its sheer awesomeness overwhelms. It could be Everest. It feels more like end of days.

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I guess somebody stole the water!” It’s a sarcastic remark from man on the corner of Cicotte and McGraw. “I guess somebody stole the water!” He shouts again for the 3 or 4 time now. Adjacent to the man’s location, firefighters peer their heads into a doorway. They have a look for a sign of life, but unless they see or hear one, there’s no going in on this one. The remnants of caution tape along the structure makes me believe its not a virgin to fire. At first glance its hard to figure out what this building might have been. A commercial structure for sure, but a warehouse or some sort of mechanics perhaps. The only certain thing right now is that any smoke that blocked our view of it has been replaced by an angry push of flame. Its heat has already started to burn power cables and its poles – knocking out power to the immediate neighborhood. The man on his porch paces back and forth. He shouts at the firemen every so often. They know the man’s frustration. They’ve seen it before and will most likely see it again within hours somewhere else in the city. They know they could be doing more, but other than the few hundred gallons on their very leaky fire engines, they have no water to work with. The first hydrant is out of service and the next one means a tedious relocation maneuver around the block. Adding to the frustration, the ladder company assigned to this fire doesn’t actually work. So even if they had a good hydrant, they couldn’t use the ladder truck to douse the flames from above. It’s a lot more common than you would think in a city seemingly broken. The wait for a new truck company is another dreary moment. A stand around wait around moment. Not something both the man on the porch or those on the fire ground are willing to tolerate. All the while fire rages from the roof. Its mediocre discipline comes in the form of 2 hose lines at either side. It’s a crowd please at best, but it does protect the few occupied houses nearby. Across the street, hidden behind the choking smoke is a school. On a normal weekday a school this size could have a hundreds, maybe even thousands of kids. But, the windows are boarded up and the front door is gated off. It adds to the tally of abandoned structures on this block. A quick count reveals 8 vacant and 2 occupied. This of course includes the already burnt out house 3 doors down.

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At first glance it is a scary city, Detroit. It’s a place that makes me feel the people here are alone, cut off, even a little stranded. Like no other city I’ve been too, I feel that Detroiters are left to fend for themselves. Its hard to explain, but I never felt so isolated or remote in a city, let alone an American one. But the majority of its people shine. They exude light in a city of darkness offering hospitality to the best of their ability and beyond. After our time in Detroit, it felt like I was getting off the ride while it still moved. That world we had driven around in, ate in, met amazing people in, and seen destruction in wasn’t a one off. This world, this hauntingly beautiful world, spins on its own axis and all the things we had seen in those few days, well they happen every day and night. This is Detroit – a great big hole in the road, a flicker of providence.

To see more of Chris’ work visit FirstDuePhotography.smugmug.com