Alana Semuels: “Detroit’s abandoned buildings draw tourists instead of developers” – LA Times

Posted on :Dec 26, 2013

By: Alana Semuels

LA Times

December 24, 2013

Detroit has seen an uptick in history buffs and photographers visiting its ruins  since its bankruptcy filing.

DETROIT — He’d heard stories of ruin and blight, but that didn’t prepare  Oliver Kearney for what he saw:

Prostitutes roaming the streets at 8 a.m., rubble-strewn parking lots overrun  with weeds, buildings taken over by bright pink graffiti, the message scrawled  on blackboards in deserted schools: “I will not write in vacant buildings.”

He took 2,000 photographs his first day.

“No other American city has seen decline on this scale,” Kearney said. “It’s  really a once-in-a-lifetime thing you’re going to see.”

And he saw it all on a tour.

Kearney, an 18-year-old aspiring architect, persuaded his father to travel  with him from Britain to Detroit to participate in one of the city’s few  burgeoning industries: tours of abandoned factories, churches and schools.

Led by tour guide Jesse Welter, they crawled on their hands and knees to peek  inside a train station closed long ago; they squeezed through a gap in a fence  to climb the stairs of what was once a luxury high-rise; they ducked under  crumbling doorways to see a forgotten ballroom where the Who held its first U.S.  concert.

“In Detroit, you can relate, you can see traces of what’s happened, you can  really feel the history of a city,” Kearney said. “In Europe, when things become  derelict, they’ll demolish them.”

That’s not possible here. The city estimates it has 78,000 vacant structures,  and demolishing each derelict residential building costs $8,000 — money the  bankrupt city can’t afford.

The city says that 85% of its 142.9 square miles had “experienced population  decline” over the last decade, and efforts to persuade investors to buy  commercial buildings and rehabilitate them have been mixed, at best. For  example, plans to turn the Michigan Central Depot, a once-grand train station,  into a casino and then into police headquarters have gone nowhere, and it’s  stood empty since 1988.

Photographers have flocked to the city to capture the decline; two French  photographers even produced a book, “The Ruins of Detroit.” But since the city  declared bankruptcy in July, hotels say they’ve seen an uptick in visitors  inquiring about the ruins. So have restaurants in the up-and-coming district of  Corktown, near the abandoned train station.

Welter says he had to buy a 12-seat van to accommodate the growing  interest.

Welter once worked as an aircraft mechanic and then an ATM repairman. He  dabbled in photography and began venturing into the city from his home in the  suburb of Royal Oak, taking pictures of derelict buildings and selling the shots  at an artists market.

The photos, though grim, brought back sweet memories: Viewers would remember  passing through the train station in its glory, or recall photographs of their  grandparents honeymooning at a posh hotel, depicted in Welter’s photos as a  decaying tower.

Welter, 42, figured that if other people were interested in seeing the  buildings, he could guide them around and, perhaps more important, keep them  safe. In October, two tourists were carjacked while visiting an abandoned  factory; others have been assaulted there.

Welter guided his first tour in late 2011, but the business has really picked  up this year. His clients pay $45 for a three-hour tour and explore some of  Detroit’s most famously blighted structures: the Packard Automotive Plant, the  train station and the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church, which features  peeling paint and vast balconies.

Welter, who is bearded and slim, knows how to sneak into buildings closed to  the public. He knows which neighborhoods are plagued by packs of feral dogs, and  which ramshackle building contains a recording studio with equipment still set  up as if its occupants just left for lunch. He knows the churches so well that  he helped a young couple find an abandoned one in which to conduct their  wedding.

It’s not legal, per se, to enter these buildings. Police will give $225  tickets for trespassing if people enter schools, Welter says, but have otherwise  told him they don’t mind him going into other buildings.

On a recent weekday morning, he brought a visitor to one of his favorite  spots, St. Agnes Catholic Church, a rotting structure where graffiti vandals  have made their mark. A beam of sunlight shone through the windows, falling on  the one remaining pew in the church, a haunting image that illuminated the  church’s destruction. Then Welter heard a motor idling outside and quickly  ushered his guest toward the exit.

“Someone’s pulling up out there; let’s start walking this way,” he said,  moving toward the crumbling staircase that leads to the church’s courtyard,  which was littered with soda cans and food wrappers.

He’s not afraid of the authorities — they’re in short supply in this  cash-strapped city — but of scavengers, vagrants and others who might take  advantage of someone with an expensive camera. That’s why he usually begins his  tours at 7 a.m., the best time to avoid other humans, he says.

Next, he headed into a girls’ school attached to the church, climbing the  stairs to a hall of classrooms where rubble was everywhere, as if a bomb had  gone off. Some books and magazines dated to 1962 and told outdated stories of  boys living on the prairie. A bird’s nest sat in one of the large windows where  a pane used to be.

Locals use a derogatory term, “ruin porn,” to describe the phenomenon of  people gawking at the decay. They want visitors to see the positive parts of  Detroit, such as the vacant fields that enterprising farmers have turned into  urban gardens. If tourists are going to look at the ruins, they should then  volunteer in the community, many Detroiters say.

“The decay is not cool, not arty-farty,” Jean Vortkamp, a community activist  and onetime mayoral candidate, said in an email. “I see the lady with bags and  three layers of clothes on, and then I see a group of white young people climb  out of their dad’s cars with cameras that are worth so much.”

Some Detroiters, including a group of urban explorers, have a beef with  Welter in particular. They scrawled a message on the walls of the St. Agnes  Church, “Go Home Jesse … We HATE you and your tour bus.”

Welter says he’s opening visitors’ eyes to the problems of Detroit, which  could potentially drum up political will to help the city.

“People are going to do this anyway. Why not do it in a way that’s going to  be safer, easier for everyone?” he said.

Jason Schlosberg went on a tour with Welter when he was visiting Detroit on a  business trip. Schlosberg, a lawyer and photographer from Washington, D.C., said  he had long looked forward to exploring the “mecca” of run-down buildings that  is Detroit.

But his experience touring crumbling ballrooms and onetime high-end  residences caused him to think long and hard about what lessons Detroit can  teach the rest of the country.

“It makes you question your mortality as a species. We try to make our mark  on the planet by building these concrete and brick structures, but Rome  obviously fell,” he said. “What is Manhattan going to look like in 300 years? Is  it still going to be a bustling metropolis?”

Whether Detroit will seek to capitalize on the tourists, or stop them, is unclear. The office of Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager of the city, declined to comment for this story. Another city full of ruins, Gary, Ind., has taken advantage of the photographers flocking to its abandoned buildings. It charges $50 for a photography permit.


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