August 01, 2003

It's Time To Return To The World

I've been traveling to Detroit on business for several years, and it always strikes me as does no other place. It is a city in decay, but if you've not been there, it's difficult to understand the level of decay.

No one lives downtown. No one goes downtown for entertainment, save to visit the casinos. Storefronts and buildings across the center of the city—not the fringes, not the margin where office buildings become row homes … the center of the city—stand shuttered, windows boarded, littered with graffiti, playbills, and notices.

And I’m always left asking, “How could this happen?” Not 40 years ago the city was grand. The architecture remains grand, a testament to the golden age of post-World War II American industrialism and commerce. Yet today, visit downtown and you're left to wonder how a populace could leave this building vacant, standing alone on an empty street, surrounded by razor wire and trash (click the pic to see the full-size shot).

This is the Hall of the Grand Army of the Republic. It is an extraordinary structure, built in 1897 as a meeting hall for Union Civil War veterans. It’s on the National Register of Historical Sites, and it’s been the home of rats and addicts for more than two decades.

Or why a business would vacate this building:

This is the Guardian Building, another National Register site, and one of the most extraordinary examples of Art Deco skyscraper masonry in the world. It is unique and stunning, and it stands in the very heart of Detroit, nearly vacant. (The primary tenant, by the way, moved here.)

For some time my trips to Detroit have had the slightest essence of reminiscence, tugging at some familiarity that I could never quite locate. This week I found it: visiting Detroit recalls this passage from the final pages of Atlas Shrugged—

The news of the continent’s severed artery had now engulfed the city, men were deserting their posts, trying, in panic, to abandon New York, seeking escape where all roads were cut off and escape was no longer possible. The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations—and that the lights of New York had gone out.

Detroit is a city in which men have fled and the lights have gone out. It is a city in which not only the people, but the possibilities, are absent. And it should serve as a lesson for every urban area in the country.

The city is striving for a “comeback.” The sports franchises have built stadiums downtown; Compuware is locating its new world headquarters in the city. Still, the answer is not to simply encourage the return of commerce. For Detroit to regain any semblance of vibrancy, at some point the citizenry must remember what a city can be, and begin to believe in Detroit’s return.

“The road is cleared,” said Galt. “We are going back to the world.”
Posted by Avocare at August 1, 2003 09:06 AM | TrackBack

You forgot my "favorite" abandoned building...

Posted by: CB at August 1, 2003 04:00 PM

CB, I'm glad you found and posted those links. I didn't get over there to take snaps, but wanted to. Of course, just down the street from the train station is yet another vacant example of historic American architecture: Tiger Stadium.

Posted by: Alan at August 2, 2003 01:21 AM
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