The City of Sometimes Pretty, Sometimes Gritty
I recently returned from a solo trip to Detroit, one I found myself using the New York Times 52 places To Go In 2017 article that featured "the D" on its roster to calm my friends' and family's nerves. I was traveling there alone from New York to explore and photograph abandoned and occupied buildings, and learn about the rise, fall and now renaissance of such an iconic American city. My shutterbug spree really should've started with portraits of people's faces when I told them my plans - the fear, the confusion, and the disgust. Why?! I eventually shut my mouth and hoped my photos would explain the appeal for me.
I gained interest in Detroit 4 or 5 years ago after finding a Detroit based photographer online. I was intrigued by his raw and rebellious aesthetic and ability to capture an alternative perspective of the city I had never seen before. He also seemed to be as enamored with Art Deco ornamentation that is signature to the buildings of the city as I was, and his photographs embodied a mysterious "what happens after man?" meets Will Smith in I Am Legend vibe.
Due to the economic state of the city, there is an air of lawlessness that resembles minor league anarchy. How will people behave when they aren't heavily policed? When the consequences for breaking laws aren't a factor? Will the community innovate together as citizens to find solutions for issues the city usually has reign over? Do people take over land and homes that are essentially unaccounted for? Did those that don't typically have the monetary means to buy homes actually flock there? Is there a strong artist community? Coming from NYC, I was curious as to if untraditional ways of life were common since the primary pressure of making money just to afford basic living requirements is minimized.
As people typically select exotic or relaxing vacation destinations, I had a difficult time convincing any friends to use their PTO to join me. Despite having anxiety about going there alone, I booked, and since I was traveling stag, I opted to stay in a Hostel to cut cost and optimistically hope to pick up some adventurous companions. Cue more uncaptured portraits of friends' grimaced faces (someone will steal your stuff!, ew you share a bathroom?!, aren't you too old?). I almost let these people rain on my parade. Prior to this trip, I never considered staying in a hostel in America, but I stumbled upon Hostel Detroit with rave reviews in a drunken research session, and considered it too affordable and adorable to say no. That decision changed the trajectory of my entire trip.
I splurged on a room in the Greektown Casino for the first night, where I quickly remembered it is still legal to smoke indoors in certain places, and how watching people who didn't appear to have much to loose gamble depressed me. Detroit has not 1, but 3 newish casinos in an incredibly small radius. I understand that Casinos are designed to draw people into the city, but considering the city filed bankruptcy in 2013, their presence felt slightly predatory to the already struggling locals. One of my Uber drivers confessed that he had battled with dropping his gambling habit for so long, he went to one casino and voluntarily added his name to a "banned for life list"! After one lap around the casino I decided the Trump voter to me ratio was way too high, grabbed a burger and headed back to the room to reluctantly watch 50 Shades Darker on HBO with some sweet potato tots.
I had scheduled an early morning photography tour of abandoned buildings hosted by a local resident and photographer, Jesse. When I arrived, he had me sign a waiver essentially outlining that we may be trespassing, I could get seriously injured, and he hopes my tetanus shot is up to date. "Not to freak you out or anything," he said. I scribbled my name and we boarded a tiny, yellow school bus to an abandoned church, Sunday school, broadcasting school and auto plant. Our guide was full of tidbits on the city - from political history, prominent figures, and even some street advice like what areas to ignore red lights and what gas stations to stay away from. He also told us he had recently purchased an abandoned home for $500 at a tax auction and had plans to turn it into a hostel.
One of the neighbors of this "bando" property had grown so tired of looking at all the surrounding vacant lots, he purchased a bunch through the state at $300 per lot to plant trees on. Since the city could not afford to upkeep them, he would in the hopes that it would beautify the areas for current residents and help areas look less desolate to visitors. This project became known as the Hanz Woodlands Project. We also made our way past Motown mogul Berry Gordy's old mansion where they just wrapped an estate sale. My stomach sank upon learning I missed the window by just one day -- can you imagine what sort of gems were up for grabs for probably nowhere near their value?! 6 hours and 400 pictures later, I got off the micro magic school bus and into an Uber headed toward Hostel Detroit.
After dropping my things, I walked over to Nancy Whiskey, a local institution, to kill some time and some drinks. Jack and Coke's were $5 dollars and someone told me I was pretty for once, so naturally I spent the next 7 hours there. The people of Detroit definitely lived up to the "Midwest Nice" reputation that proceeded them. I made friends with the regulars who affectionately called me New York, and chopped it up about their thoughts on the revitalization efforts, as well as the recent spike in tourists like myself. Cheryl, the bartender, recognized I looked about her daughters age and declared she was adopting me temporarily. There were a lot of free whiskey shots that night, and when I voiced it was time for me to walk home (literally two blocks over), everyone shouted in unison "NO! - It's dark let one of us take you!" Cheryl made me a drink to keep me busy as she closed up shop and dropped me around the corner. I promised to visit the other Nancy Whiskey in Tribeca and drop her name for a free T-Shirt.
When I woke up the next morning, I was relieved to find my hangover was maybe level 5 tops, and overheard hostel bunkmates chatting about their plans. We realized we all had similar itineraries and spirits, and the warrior posse of 8 was born. We had two Canadian circus performers, a powerhouse athlete from Houston that ran a marathon the day before, a camp councilor from England, a mysterious guy from New York, a Spaniard and a Brand New cult fan from Tampa. We rented a fleet of bikes on the RiverWalk, gave our biker gang a name, and headed to Detroit's capital of leisure, Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a sliver of land nested in the Detroit River that is home to America's gorgeous first aquarium- lined entirely with Sea Green subway tile, Giant slide - towering a glorious 50 ft high, a futuristic conservatory - previously home to the largest collection of orchids in the country, an abandoned zoo - yes it was as cool as it sounds, and more.
Creepy, soggy, defeated looking, oversized Teddy Bears let us know we had arrived at the next stop, the Heidelberg Project. Tyree Guyton started this art initiative in the mid 80s when he returned home from an Army stint to find his neighborhood in shambles. Similar to the Hanz Woodlands group, Guyton saw a "why not" opportunity in the abandoned land and decided to make something beautiful amid the ongoing deterioration. The project personifies one man's trash, another man's treasure, and consisted of things like funky polkadot paint jobs, hefty piles of shoes representing the people that once lived on the block, mannequins arranged in AA meeting fashion, and countless allusions to time. The art was so nonsensical in its presentation it was easy for each of us to interpret something entirely different, if anything at all. The project transformed the area from a place people actively avoided due to crime and drifters, to a visually quirky attraction, thus increasing safety with visitor foot traffic and giving the area a renewed sense of pride.
The final day consisted of running around downtown to snap lobby photos of the Guardian and Fisher buildings, the Michigan building - a jaw dropping former theater converted to a parking lot (for sure Joni Mitchell-esk), the must see Motown Museum, and the fist monument dedicated to boxer Joe Louis. On the way home, we popped into Slows bbq, then grabbed some booze, had the most sophisticated Faygo tasting, and proceeded to drunkenly debate social movements, our idiot President, trans issues, and whether or not we would move to Detroit to start a revolution next year.
While I personally get a giant boner for unorthodox lifestyles, unrealized potential (hence my lackluster trail of exes), and uncovering things along the unbeaten path, I encourage people not to be deterred by the lingering reputation of the city's struggle. I left town with some priceless experiences, new friends, and a renewed sense of confidence knowing I not only can, but enjoy traveling alone, even to "scary" Detroit. If you want to go somewhere, go. If somewhere speaks to you that no one else gets, go faster. Don't let peoples' fear influence you, including your own. Best believe I will defend Detroit in any conversation that comes my way. I will be back for the rest of you Detroit!