Saturday, January 18, 2014

Detroit City

When I was a little girl my grandparents moved from Tonawanda, NY to the Detroit suburbs. Several times Mom and I took a train from Buffalo to visit them. A few years later my family followed them, and my New York state grandmother would come by train to visit. Dad and I would go to Detroit to meet her at the Michigan Central Train Station. I remember walking through the vast empty concourse while Dad told the story of the decline of the trains, how in the old days the halls were crowded and bustling with activity. I could see it all in my mind, and over fifty years later I still remember Dad weaving that tale of a by-gone age.

Postcard of Michigan Central Station.
Circa early 1900's.

Today the hundred-year-old train station has sat empty for twenty-five years, falling to ruin and stripped by scrappers. A changing world, a changing economy has left Detroit one more victim to the decline of the Rust Belt cities that were once the base of American industry. Gone are the jobs, the workers, and the money--and the glamorous movie theaters and dance halls and many storied department stores. Detroit has become the poster child for all the cities whose shining star has set.

For Christmas I received a copy of Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor Cities Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin and photos by Sean Doerr.

Most of the buildings in the book I had never seen. My family sometimes went to Belle Isle to the aquarium or to just watch the freighters go down river. Or we'd go to a museum, or to see a parade. Even though my dad worked in an auto plant in the city, test driving new cars and knew the city we rarely went downtown as a family. But Dan Austin's words and Sean Doerr's photographs brought to life those ruined buildings the way my dad's story did fifty years ago. This book tells stories that should be remembered.

These grand architectural gems still bear pockets of dazzling artistry: painted ceilings, towering columns, carved stones and mosaics that illuminate their past glory. I wish I had seen these buildings in their heyday. Some photos from the book appear in this news article from the Detroit Free Press.

I first noticed architecture after we moved to Philadelphia, for that city was alive and thriving when we arrived in 1974  just before the Bicentennial celebration. We visited Independence Hall and the 18th c houses in Fairmont Park, walked the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from Robert Indiana's Love statue to the temple on the hill called the Philadelphia Museum of Art, strolled through Society Hill and Elfreth's Alley which is the oldest homes in America, shopped in the grand department stores, John Wanamaker, Strawbridge and Clothier, Lit Brothers. It was there I learned how architecture could teach us history. Like the Egyptian motifs popular after the discovery of King Tut's tomb and of course the classical Greek influence on the early republic's government buildings. has a good overview of important Philly landmarks.

The fascination we have with urban decay is perplexing. Perhaps it is related to the same motive that makes our society so fascinated by the end of the world scenarios, vampire or alien take-overs destroying earth, or even asteroid collision or global warming climate change ending civilization as we know it.

Empires rise and fall. History has not provided us with one civilization that has lasted even through written historical memory, which is just a blimp on the timeline of the universe.

I am reminded of Thomas Cole's "Course of Empire" series of paintings tracing a civilization from "savage" to pastoral to empire to destruction and decay. The last image is "Desolation."  What remains bespeaks a lost a lost glory, a lone column amongst ruined arches.Oddly, Cole thought the pastoral the ideal culmination of a society and many envision Detroit's empty spaces to be turned into farmland and gardens. The new open spaces within cities are called "Urban Prairies".

We plan to retire to the Detroit suburbs. And I find myself aligning an identity to that city, hoping for its future, hoping that Detroit chooses better leaders and makes wiser decisions. For I remember the awe of coming out of the Windsor Tunnel and driving up Woodward Avenue, seeing the tall buildings and later the mult-leveled expressways, the vast thriving city. The city that provided my dad work that supported our family and allowed him a comfortable retirement.

1 comment:

  1. I hope that Detroit can have an urban revitalization like many cities have had during the past 30 years...Boston, Washington D.C. and Baltimore come to mind. (I restored an 1860 row house in Baltimore and in the time it took to do it the entire street was rehabbed...)