Abandoned Detroit?

It seems everyone has an image of Detroit, Michigan as a broken, bankrupt city ($18.5 million in debt). A place that has had a mass exodus of its citizens and is full of abandoned buildings. A city where pawn shops are a boom business and crime is a major problem.

Detroit Bankrupt
Detroit – does this sign say it all?
Pawn Stores and cash loans Detroit
Pawn Stores and cash loans

In many ways this image of Detroit is true. You can explore parts of the city that contain vast abandoned factories and streets full of abandoned homes, along with empty apartment buildings, schools, churches, liquor stores and more. The variance in the types of abandoned buildings is baffling at times. Many of these places used to be the centre of a community that is no longer there.

abandoned home detroit
Burnt out and abandoned
Abandoned apartment building Detroit
Abandoned apartment building
abandoned homes detroit michigan
Ironically that sign says “Community Improvement Association Incorporated” and it is in front of an empty block and abandoned homes!
An abandoned school up for sale Detroit
An abandoned school up for sale
abandoned Detroit
abandoned Detroit
Abandoned liquor store Detroit
Abandoned liquor store
empty factory abandoned Detroit
An empty factory or warehouse
abandoned apartment building Detroit
Another abandoned apartment building
abandoned church Detroit
An abandoned church in the inner city of Detroit
abandoned church windows
Overgrown windows of the abandoned church
Abandoned commercial property Detroit
Abandoned commercial property
abandoned apartment detroit
More abandoned apartments
Another home long since abandoned in Detroit
Another home long since abandoned
trashed apartment building Detroit
People still live in the parts of this apartment building that are not trashed
Some decorative touches to a boarded up suburban home in Detroit
Some decorative touches to a boarded up suburban home
Abandoned apartments detroit USA
Abandoned apartments abound

Detroit Motor City was once a jewel in the crown of American cities. Car companies like Ford, GM and Chrysler made it a car manufacturing hub and a prosperous place. By the early 20th century it was the fourth largest city in America.

Detroit Motor City
Detroit Motor City
The original Ford Piquette Plant near downtown Detroit
The original Ford Piquette Plant near downtown Detroit
A Model T in the original Ford Piquette Factory
A Model T in the original Ford Piquette Factory

Racial tension in the 1960’s resulting in the 12th Street Riot of 1967 (43 people died, 342 were injured and 1,400 buildings burned down), the oil crisis of the 1970’s and finally the Global Financial Crisis of the 2000’s impacted heavily on Detroit. Businesses closed or downsized and people left the city. Many headed for the surrounding areas and the suburbs. Fewer people resulted in less tax income for the city. By the 21st century Detroit was the 10th largest city in America. Between 2000 and 2010 a quarter of the population departed Detroit resulting in it now being the 18th largest city today. It has been a city in slow decline.

Detroit - The car manufacturing base of the USA
Detroit – The car manufacturing base of the USA

One of the most famous abandoned buildings in Detroit is the Michigan Central Station. This building is a huge former passenger train station that was completed in 1913 and was in operation until the last train left the station in 1988. Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places the building has been abandoned ever since. The good news is that since 2011 some restoration work has been in progress to repair the roof, replace windows and remove asbestos to improve the prospects of selling the building(during my visit in 2013 it appeared some restoration work was still in progress).

Michigan Central Station in Detroit - abandoned since 1988
Michigan Central Station – abandoned since 1988

To date nothing concrete has been set in place as to the future of the Michigan Central Station but at least it is not being left to rot away.  The Michigan Central Station Preservation Society has set up a website to obtain community feedback on future proposals for the station. The station is so big it would make an ideal apartment building, offices or a hotel. Who knows maybe it could even become a train station again with a combination of businesses and apartments within the building?

Michigan Central Station  Detroit Abandoned
Michigan Central Station must have been an amazing bustling hub in it’s heyday?

The most colossal abandoned site in Detroit is the old Packard Automotive Plant that was once a 3,500,000-square-foot (325,000 m2) factory producing luxury Packard cars. Built in 1903 this was once considered a state of the art factory. The company merged with Studebaker in 1954 and by the late 1950’s the demand for large luxury vehicles was declining. The company was struggling to compete with other major car manufacturers and sales were dropping. The automotive plant ended up closing in 1958.

Detroit The Packard Automotive Plant in its heyday aerial view
The Packard Automotive Plant in its heyday
The Packard Automotive Plant today Detroit Aerial View
The Packard Automotive Plant today (photo source: Detroit Free Press)
1930 Packard Model 745
Luxury cars like this beautiful 1930 Packard Model 745 used to run off the assembly lines of the Packard Automotive Plant (I took this photo in Cleveland, Ohio @ the Historical Society Museum)

The Packard Automotive Plant site remained in use by various companies and also for storage until the late 1990’s. By the early 2000’s a few companies still operated in the outer buildings. Today the place has been stripped and laid to waste. It is sad to see but also fascinating to visit from an urban explorers point of view.

abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
Enter the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant
The walkway that joins the two separate parts of the Packard Automotive Plant
The walkway that joins the two separate parts of the Packard Automotive Plant
Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
Packard Automotive Plant
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit Michigan
The Packard plant towers above you
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit Michigan
The Packard plant is almost like urban canyons
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit Michigan
The scale of the plant is amazing
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit Michigan
Everything is trashed
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
This part of the building has car ramps going all the way up
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
A burnt out car wreck within the plant
Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
Remnants of the floor boards

I spent hours exploring the plant and saw nowhere near all of it (nor did I come across many people there). You have to take care wandering about the buildings as there are parts of the floor and roof that have caved in and stairwell rails are long gone. I took so many photos whilst inside the plant my next blog will be just on this exclusively!

Abandoned Packard Automotive Plant Detroit
Watch out, no rails!

The days of urban exploring the automotive plant may well be over very soon though. The site was sold in December 2013 and over the next decade or so will be developed as a multi-purpose residential and business project (more on this in my next post).

Save the packard plant detroit

Around Detroit you can wander along overgrown broken foot paths past empty lots that once had homes on them. Many of the locals just walk on the road as it is generally in better condition. Stepping out at night can mean you walk in darkness as street lights no longer work. There are places you would not want to wander in fear of your safety too.

Overgrown footpath's are pretty common in Detroit
Overgrown footpath’s and empty lots are pretty common in Detroit
Detroit empty lots
Don’t cut the power! There may be empty lots but people still live around here!

On residential streets there can be a perfectly good home with a happy family living right next door to the shell of an abandoned house. What happened to its former occupants? How did their home end up like this? Many questions arise from a walk around the neighbourhoods of Detroit.

boarded up home detroit
A home long boarded up
Abandoned house Detroit Michigan USA
What happened?
Abandoned house detroit MI
Where did the neighbours go?

So far I have painted a picture of Detroit that fits the image in most people’s minds but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many parts of the city have been left untouched by this devastation. Downtown has been subject to much renewal and has become an entertainment hub of the city. Downtown you can find coffee shops, restaurants, music venues, theatres, casinos, the Detroit Riverwalk and world-class sporting arenas. The Detroit Tigers baseball stadium is one of the most impressive I have ever seen.

riverside park downtown detroit
Looking back towards downtown from the riverside park
Downtown monument to boxer Joe Louis "The Fist"
Downtown monument to boxer Joe Louis “The Fist”
Downtown monument to boxer Joe Louis "The Fist" Detroit
Downtown monument to boxer Joe Louis “The Fist”
GM corporate HQ in downtown Detroit
GM corporate HQ in downtown Detroit
Riverside Park Detroit
Riverside Park
Wayne County Commission Building Detroit
Wayne County Commission Building
Downtown Detroit as a café set just like any other big city
Downtown Detroit as a café set just like any other big city
Comerica Park the home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team
Comerica Park the home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team
The grand entrance to the Detroit TIgers stadium
The grand entrance to the Detroit TIgers stadium

The inner core of the city is where the majority of abandoned buildings seem to exist but even amongst them life is returning. You can find streets with renovated buildings along with museums, restaurants, bars, cafe’s, bakeries, hotels and even community based art projects. People are returning to the city. It is going to take a long time but there is life in the old girl yet. She may not return to her former glory but there are signs that things are slowly getting better. If you head further out into the suburbs the picture looks even better with very few abandoned homes and people just going about their day-to-day life, just like any other city.

Renewal in Corktown Detroit
Renewal in Corktown – restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries and more
Slows in Corktown - Best BBQ pulled pork I have eaten anywhere in the US
Slows in Corktown – Best BBQ pulled pork I have eaten anywhere in the US
Rodan's The Thinker outside the Detroit Institute for Arts
Rodan’s The Thinker outside the Detroit Institute for Arts
A home from the glory days of Detroit
A home from the glory days of Detroit
Some cool street art in Detroit
Some cool street art
A colourful neighbourhood art project in Detroit
A colourful neighbourhood art project

Head up to the 8 Mile and you can visit American Jewelry and Loan, the pawn store made famous on the TV show Hardcore Pawn. Unfortunately Les, Seth, and Ashley were not in on the day I visited the store. The surrounding area seems to be a busting commercial district and not what I expected at all.

8 Mile Detroit
Up on the 8 mile
American Jewelry and Loan - Hardcore Pawn Detroit
American Jewelry and Loan – Hardcore Pawn (no I didn’t get thrown out!)
American Jewelry and Loan Detroit
The T-Shirt I bought at American Jewelry and Loan

The people of Detroit are also very friendly. I explored areas that a normal tourist would never enter and not once did I every feel threatened. I travelled by local city bus (sometimes I got stranded by a reduced transport system at night!), I walked the streets. I found the average person I met helpful and welcoming. Many people smiled and would say hi to me on the neighbourhood streets. Some gave me strange looks but it was all OK. They were surprised to see me walking around there I think (not a common sight)?

Corned Beef sandwich Detroit style
Corned Beef sandwich Detroit style

The chats I had with people on buses always were surprising. Many couldn’t believe I was even on there and then when they discovered I was Australian they wanted to talk more! All in all my experience in Detroit was initially somewhat saddening but once I spent more time there, I began to gain a better understanding of the plight of the city and also the hopes that they have to build a strong Detroit once again. I met a number of people who had purchased abandoned homes cheaply and plan to renovate them. Each home that is rebuilt or renovated is a step in the right direction. I wish them all the best and hope to return there someday to explore it even more. Don’t be afraid to go to Detroit, it still has a lot to offer!

The Spirit of Detroit statue
The Spirit of Detroit

Special thanks to the staff at Hostel Detroit for your hospitality. The hostel is in Corktown, not far from downtown and is a great place to stay if you are on a budget.


14 Comments Add yours

    1. Deano says:

      Thanks Ricky 🙂 Have you been to Detroit?

      1. Ricky Leong says:

        I’ve always wanted to visit … the closest I’ve come is buying a book called “Detroit: An American Autopsy” (which I haven’t started reading yet)

      2. Deano says:

        Sounds like an interesting book. I think there is a good documentary on Detroit being like an acropolis

  1. I call this an “award winning post’ and I am very sincere about that. Tremendous insight, photos and you’ve given the reader a feel for Detroit that is both positive and negative. It is so unfortunate that this grand city has so many bruises. I still feel the auto industry owes the people of Detroit; it was the people of Detroit that helped GM thrive. With the BIG profits from GM, that entity could do more in helping to revitalize at least some of the city’s infrastructure.

    As a resident of the Midwest, (Ohio), I will confidently say that the good people of this region are very, very friendly indeed! 🙂 Thank you for this feature and I look forward to more of your stories on Detroit. \m/\m/

    1. Deano says:

      Thanks Stone. I really appreciate your feedback. I think you are right. While I was there I met some capital investment people, just started talking to them at a bar. They were raising money for investments from the wealthy of Detroit. I thought good, this sounds positive for Detroit. Turns out all the money was to be invested in other cities! You would think the wealthy locals would have a vested interest in improving their own city?

      1. I truly appreciate the time and work that has gone into your travels and journalism.

        That is pathetic! It doesn’t surprise me at all, that those ‘investment people’ are taking the money to run elsewhere. The same investors that cry poor in Detroit should take a long hard look at how they ‘honestly’ invested in the people and city of Detroit… for they didn’t! Your photos (alone) tell the whole story.

        This type of shady investment maneuvering has gone on in too many cities in America for decades now; and the ‘domino affect’ of it all has finally caught up with our country’s economy.

        One economic factor that has hit countless cities in America (Detroit too I’m sure) is the increasing amount of municipal pensions being paid out… and these pensions were negotiated at very, very high scales too; enough to cause bankruptcy in these cities.

        My apology for being long winded! Your delving into U.S. urban decline has me engaged!

      2. Deano says:

        Not a problem at all. I wanted people to see both sides of Detroit. Many US cities I have visited in the past 12 months have empty buildings, abandoned buildings and the like. None are quite like Detroit but it is noticeable elsewhere (even historic Charleston in SC). I would have loved to have been able to see Detroit in it’s heyday. Interestingly on another city, Los Angeles – I remember when I first visited there in the 1990’s that downtown was pretty much a no go zone after business hours. Lots of run down buildings and old classic theatres. Now it is experiencing a revitalization. Old buildings are being renovated, being turned into apartments, business is returning, people are living there again. Great to see.

      3. Great to hear about LA! I agree, many large cities downtowns have become the social and business epicenters they were intended to be, after years of decline. I lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania and saw how that city was moving forward in the right direction once again. Outstanding people live there.

        A LOT has to do with having a mayor that’s a ‘legitimate’ business ‘and’ community leader. The big pensions were still a bottleneck in Allentown too, unfortunately. I lived outside of Hartford, Connecticut and saw that city go from thriving, to losing jobs, losing an NHL (Hockey) team, along with rampant crime returning… and it really all rested on the mayor’s and city council’s shoulders.

      4. Deano says:

        Hartford is an “interesting” city. As you know I have travelled extensively across the USA and that is the only city I have ever experienced any real issues in. Racial stuff directed at me just because I was walking along the streets – never had so many things yelled at me before in my life! Strange indeed! Made me laugh at the time as it was so ridiculous, but highlights deeper problems in that city I guess?

      5. Yup. Back in the 80’s it was moving forward nicely, Hartford Whalers Hockey games brought people into the city, restaurants and bars thrived. The insurance industry was booming there too! Lots of money in the suburbs.Then, a change of mayors and you’d be surprised at the crooked government that has passed thru that city!

        I NEVER felt safe in the North End of Hartford or the Frog Hollow area of that city, even during good times. When I left Connecticut, Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven and Bridgeport were crime central. Sad.

      6. Deano says:

        Such a shame! Providence, Rhode Island on the other hand seems to have gone the opposite and cleaned things up

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