The Detroit News
Feb. 28, 2001


Artist's Internet site paints the real Detroit

    By Maureen McDonald / Special to The Detroit News

About midnight, I strolled across the street from my hotel in Las Vegas last month and watched a fake volcano at the Mirage explode 100 feet into the air with pyrotechnics, lights and rumbling sounds. Then I went to the Bellagio and viewed some electronic water jets dance to the tune of Singing in the Rain. It seemed so real that people clapped.

On to the Venetian to watch human gondola drivers ply historic boats along a synthetic canal that wound through a shopping mall. O sole mio, take me back to Detroit.

Here at home, we're sitting on the ultimate tourist destination and we're too blind to see it. Many of us would sooner hop a plane to "Glitter Gulch" than look around. Thanks to Lowell Boileau and his Web site artistry, the truth is shining through.

"Tourists through the centuries have beheld the ruins in awe and wonder ... the last hidden ruin site passes unnoticed," he said with poetic imagery.

Click and take a virtual tour of the defunct Packard Plant on Mt. Elliott, beleaguered Michigan Central Depot on Vernor, ghostly houses in Brush Park, noticing the intricate beauty in decay.

"I've always been fascinated with ruins," said Boileau, a former Highland Parker who recently moved to Farmington. "You get a strange feeling when you are in them. You feel what must have been incredibly vibrant spaces now deeded to the ghosts.

"Visit Athens or Rome and see ruins. Ours are bigger. Theirs are revered as tourist sites. Ours are despised," he said, noting Detroit was the arsenal of democracy, birthplace of Motown, forerunner of minimum wage.

I took a pair of reporters, Terho Puustinen and Timo Plyvanainen from Finland, on a tour of the Packard's perimeter recently. Pylvenainen nearly jumped out of the car as he gawked at the formidable site, a place that once hummed with 10,000 workers, now housing less than 12 businesses and countless piles of trash.

Staring at the mile-long building that begs for renewal, rapidly clicking his camera, he said he hadn't seen such grotesque buildings since visiting East Berlin.

That was done by bombs in a war. This was done by years of benign neglect and leadership that fails to value preservation. Others find its value in cyberspace. Boileau, a painter turned Web site builder, gets 5 million hits a year on his Web site. It was Yahoo's pick of the year in 1998, even generated articles in Wired magazine and The New York Times.

It recently spawned lively e-mail discussion group with folks from all over the world inquiring about Detroit. The series of shots on his Web site depicting Hudson's implosion drew so many requests that Boileau began selling posters of the pictures.

Each has a haunting verse: "an inch of dust covered everything for blocks around and there, in the midst of it all, lay the smoldering and shattered heart of 20th century downtown Detroit."

When Boileau hosted a techno party at the Cass Cafe recently for his local Web site followers, word spread faster than a new blond joke on e-mail and crowds jammed the Wayne State hangout. He hopes to have more events.

"The Web is a unique forum for discussions like Detroit's ruins," Boileau said. "People make statements in their e-mails and these can be embodied as text around photographs and illustrations. The art work takes on a feeling of a virtual community."

Let's hear it for a real community -- one that cares about preserving some of the landmarks. Otherwise, all our towns will look as synthetic as Las Vegas, with the real stuff preserved on photographs in cyberspace.