The Ford Model T, the world’s first mass-produced automobile, will be 100 in September. Nobody present at its birth could possibly have imagined how deeply we would fall in love with its descendants - or indeed how dubious about their primacy many of us might become.
Henry Ford proclaimed that “no man making a good salary will be unable to own one - and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces”. Albeit rather to the detriment of those open spaces, he certainly delivered. The plaque marking the site of his original workshop in Detroit sums up the proud story succinctly enough: “That unpretentious auto was the start of the Ford Motor Company which played a major part in the automobile industry that changed the face of Michigan, and the world”.
Patterns of urban and rural settlement, shopping, working and schooling were to be utterly, irreversibly transformed by affordable motor vehicles, and Detroit prospered as a result. But the change never halts. The plaque above commemorates a building that has since been transported wholesale to a museum, and it’s fixed to the side of the stunning, immense 1920s movie theatre that replaced it. And that’s been gutted since the seventies, serving as an ornate, decaying parking lot.
The revolution begun by Ford and his contemporaries fuelled enormous wealth and success from the start of the last century, and a flowering of classic skyscrapers and grand residential structures was added to an already architecturally fine city. But from the 1960s on, as the auto industry consolidated, computerised and globalised, deserted buildings overwhelmed Detroit’s historic prosperity - and harsh economic reality descended on its worst-off residents.
The famed birthplace of assembly line mass-production has spent recent decades in deeply symbolic distress. And the uncontrollable shifts in its fortunes have left a collection of awesomely derelict structures; see the links below for the poignant images by Detroit-based photographers who have had the foresight to record them.
The Michigan Theater, opened in 1926, with its four-storey lobby and classical marble sculptures, seated 4050 moviegoers; it is now the downtown parking lot mentioned above. A roster of other abandoned buildings around the city still await rehabilitation or destruction, from art deco blocks like the United Artists Theater building to the Packard Motors site (closed 1956). Still more, like the Hotels Statler (1915) and Tuller (1906), lovingly described in their heyday at the Forgotten Detroit website, have been flattened in recent years. The beautiful limestone and brick Book Cadillac Hotel of 1926, happily, is just completing refurbishment.
For many Detroiters, of course, there are more pressing matters than the debate over what merits preservation or celebration, and what is beyond redemption. Harsh economic reality endures alongside much contemporary prosperity, the continued presence of the major auto companies, and surging regeneration in areas such as the Detroit International Riverfront.
But from a distance, the large-scale persistence of the ruins is inescapably fascinating. It brings issues surrounding decay, restoration and urban futures into sharp focus, and has provoked some extreme solutions. In 1995, photographer Camilo José Vergara used his exhibition Downtown Detroit: An American Acropolis to propose that a swathe of the most decrepit and troubled buildings could be converted to urban prairie, with nature allowed to reclaim the ruins of the skyscrapers – a provocative indication that, for some, Detroit had drifted very far from the notion of a viable major city.
No one is making such confrontational suggestions today. But in some areas, has the potential of historic, reworkable architectural heritage tipped over into a dead weight of useless old buildings? Henry Ford could hardly have conceived that Detroit might one day face such a question.
David Kohrman’s Forgotten Detroit: http://forgottendetroit.com/
Nicole Rork’s Detroit Ruins: http://www.detroitruins.net/
Lowell Boileau’s pioneering http://detroityes.com/home.htm
Frequently updated photoblog: http://www.detroitfunk.com/
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Most American cities have experience major decline at the core from the same root causes but Detroit was much more opulent and built due to the vast fortune acquired in the first half of the 20th century.
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