This week had great traveling potential. I was thinking South America. Santiago? Galapagos? Quito? I had even booked a hostel. None of them happened. I ended up mostly staying home and catching up on things I have been procrastinating on, the most important of which was a tune-up on my D300. This took me to my nearest Nikon repair station; the fine folks at Midwest Camera Repair in the Detroit suburb of Wyandotte, MI. I flew up to Detroit Metro on the first flight of the morning, rented a car and drove straight to the shop. I dropped off the camera and headed south to Trenton, MI for some breakfast at a local diner, Ramsey’s Family Restaurant. The experience was everything I’d hoped it would be, complete with perfectly greasy hash browns, an unemptiable cup of coffee and waitresses and locals heckling each other like they’d known each other for decades. I was admittedly more than a little disappointed my camera wasn’t handy. This was a business that, from what I understood, had closed during the worst of the downturn and had recently found the funding to reopen and was back to employing local people; I even witnessed a woman get hired! I thought wow, Detroit must be on the rebound! I’ve been here less than 2 hours and already witnessed active job growth!
Midwest made quick work of my camera, and by the time I returned to the shop I had my backfocusing fixed, a new aperture feeler tab, a new lens mount, and a clean sensor with a few hours left to see the city. Everyone has seen the news, heard the rumors; Detroit is bankrupt, the city is shutting off water to those who aren’t paying, it looks like a war zone. I have seen beautiful work from other photographers of the disparaged industrial complexes around. That said, I was skeptical. There was no way a city in the Midwestern United States in 2014 can be nearly as bad as it was made out to be.
I had planned to spend a couple hours photographing rusty steel mills and railroad tracks, find a nice late lunch and catch my flight home. Then I started to shoot. I was shocked. I started off with a few industrial shots, but I couldn’t look past the neighborhoods I was driving through. Apparently my diner in Trenton had been somewhat of an isolated case, there is no recovery here. No fewer than 1 in 5 houses I encountered were uninhabitable, and at least half of those had burned. That became a consistent theme throughout; charred wood, melted plastic siding and broken windows everywhere I looked, torched shells of once-beautiful homes left standing in place because no one had the money to demolish them. I drove for 3 hours, neighborhood after neighborhood, Ecorse, River Rouge, Melvindale, Dearborn, Highland Park, many others, they all looked nearly identical. Once Middle and Upper Middle class, now decimated, with boarded up windows, collapsed porches, and overgrown lawns. All the local businesses were vacant and some of those had burned as well. The only companies that remained were payday lenders, cell phone retailers, and the occasional fast food joint. Jobs are obviously few and far between, and the people are proof of that. Dirty and torn clothing, looks on their faces ranging from empty hopefulness through utter despair. Trash lined the potholed streets and billboards all offered various forms of salvation ranging from Jesus to the government.
I never did find that late lunch. No matter, my appetite was mostly gone. I took a quick cursory pass through downtown and stopped in at Astro Coffee on a tiny island of new money in a neighborhood known as Corktown. Vacant buildings still weren’t hard to find here, but also present were hipsters drinking wine and sustainably farmed single-origin coffees, no doubt supporting some village in Sumatra or Costa Rica that really needs it. The irony of this next to the need of their neighbors was screaming, but then of course, there I was drinking the same single-origin coffee myself as I reflected on the issue. Maybe I am a hipster after all.
That said, I’d had my fill for the day. I forced my way back to the airport through the rush hour madness of people escaping downtown Detroit to their homes in more comfortable towns like Ann Arbor. I returned my rental car and hopped on my evening flight home. Many Midwestern cities have hints of what I experienced; Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Chicago, all the rest. They all have a derelict, rotting neighborhood or two. The difference in those cities is those neighborhoods are the exception, not the rule. Detroit was a sobering experience, following shortly will be a selection of my shots, and I will no doubt be back soon for more.