Grootse Verval Van Detroit"
Jeroen van Bergeijk
translation by Bart Van Leeuwen
Comeback City, this Wednesday's late episode is called. Although
the inner city of the former Motor town may still give an astonishing
image with all those derelict, caved in buildings, there are
signs that indicate a change. Artist Lowell Boileau, maker of
the web site The fabulous ruins of Detroit, is optimistic too:
I think that Detroit means just the triumph of the American
web site "The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" does very
much remind of a war zone. Detroit's downtown area seems to
exist out of unoccupied, ramshackle, collapsed or half broken
down buildings. The once so prosperous Motor City got a lot
to bear from the early seventies on: the oil crises and Japanese
competition brought the obsolete ways of production of the American
car industry to light. In the following years plants closed
down and moved production to the suburbs and cheap-labor countries.
With the car industry the white middle class also left. The
inner city population dropped from 2 to 1 million.
the web site artist Lowell Boileau show the consequences. The
Henry Ford model-T plant, the plant that changed the world,
as Boileau puts it, stands abandoned and dilapidated. Here for
the first time a car was made in mass production. The fate of
the plant where every car-driving American from the fifties
dream car - the Cadillac -was made isn't much better: the Fisher
Body Plant 21 is listed for demolition.
Boileau does not only show the decay of industrial buildings,
housing to was to go. The magnificent 19th century upper class
houses in Brush Park are about to collapse: birds have nested
in the roofs, walls are overgrown with ivy. And where there
are no jobs or people, schools, banks and hotels degenerate
also. Boileau paints a detailed picture of the process of emptiness
and degeneration. The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit is an impressive
experience, although depressing at first sight. I wouldn't call
it depressing myself, but sooner saddening, reacts Boileau.
At the end of my tour I also show that there is rising hope:
some buildings are being renovated and reused.
site comes right from the heart, tells Boileau, who himself
lives in the downtown area. He is no activist who struggles
for preservation, but an artist who lets the decay inspire him.
I have always been interested in the transition from the industrial-
into the information era. The buildings that you see on this
site perfectly symbolise this transition. To me most buildings
are glaring symbols of institutional greed. What attracts me
as an artist is their visual inescapability, their enormity.
Their decay commands awe and respect and there is nothing I
can do but to look at it in gaping. In the art it is my ideal
to create an atmosphere, that frightening feeling you get in
the presence of great art. The irony of the careless, total
destruction (the consequence of neglect) of such rich historical
buildings supplied the dynamics for the idea for this web site.
Detroit, the embodiment if the humiliated industrial city, provided
both paint and canvas.
ruins of Detroit are not only interesting as symbols of the
late-industrial age, but also carry an intrinsic value according
to Boileau. The Model T plant was designed by Albert Kahn, who
also built numerous other plants and sky-scrapers in Detroit
and the rest of the country. His firm has even designed many
industrial buildings in Russia for Stalin in the thirties. The
Bauhaus architects are strongly influenced by his ability to
imaginate the industrial era. Bauhaus later tried to translate
his ideas into housing, which in my opinion miserably went wrong.
It is a scandal that the work of those architects is being neglected
in this way. The Fabulous ruins of Detroit is aside from an
account on industrial decay, at the same time a cheerful comment
on the concept of the travel guide. With plans and accompanying
text Boileau tries to interest the visitor as a tourist for
his decayed city. This effect is enhanced by comparing the ruins
of Detroit with, for example, the ruins of Athens and Rome.
Boileau: the comparison between the ruins of Detroit and the
classic ruins is more in the contrast than in similarities.
These ruins will be gone soon, although some could withstand
with ease the centuries to come. Where the ruins of the classic
world became legends and are worshipped, our ruins are despised
and taunted. The classic ruins define the values of the cultures
which produced them, our ruins are looked at as the definition
of failure and lack of culture.
Boileau would rather see that these ruins would be preserved,
or still better restored, he must admit that this is not a serious
option. Some people suggested a ruins theme park, and although
I think it is a great idea, the people who live here now won't
hear of it, let alone those who are in control. I don't know
either what to do with those buildings. They are an economic
burden to the city. Look, the point is that these buildings
do no longer meet todays standards. The industrial age was vertical
and concentrated. The information age is horizontal and decentralised.
Putting people together in huge amounts, the proverbial small
wheels in the big companies, as these buildings presume, has
become an anachronism. These buildings can only survive when
new destinations are being found. Every now and then this happens:
sky scrapers are being converted into apartments, and act as
sites for telecommunications antennas, old plants are used for
rave parties or are converted into workshops or studios. There
even is a training facility for mountaineers at an old production
But Boileau has no high hopes. Meanwhile downtown Detroit has
deteriorated into a state where large scale redevelopment is
hardly economically viable. And contrary to what you would expect,
the downtown area is not attractive to shops or companies. Moreover,
Detroit as good as lacks public transport. The only subway line
- the people mover - makes a small tour around the centre, but
is mostly used by only a handful of people. There is no decent
connection between the neglected areas in the centre and the
suburbs where the employment is. The political will to restore
the buildings does not exist. It is not economically viable,
so the only thing to do is to do nothing until they are completely
rotten. Public opinion is to tear the the whole downtown area
down and start all over again. This has already started: many
ruins have been cleared to make place for malls and sports complexes.
through the web site the visitor may get the idea that Detroit
embodies the failure of the American dream. Boileau most certainly
disagrees. It may seem that way when looking at my pictures
on my site, but don't forget that ruins just do interest me.
Not all of Detroit is in ruins. What's more, the greater Detroit
area, this is Detroit and its suburbs is very prosperous. I
even think Detroit means the victory of the American Dream.
After so many set backs we still come out on top: unemployment
and crime have spectacularly gone down over the last couple
of years. Economic activity is huge and contrary to what you
might expect, the car industry is doing well too.
Boileau the reactions of the visitors are one of the most rewarding
aspects of his web site. The fabulous ruins of Detroit provoke
intense emotions from visitors. I have e-mails from people who
wrote that they bursted into tears. On the web site a visitor
writes: I returned to my native town a couple of years ago,
after having lived somewhere else for fifteen years. Refinding
my Detroit roots proofed Thomas Wolfes' axiom that you can't
go back home. In this case because home does not exist any more.