Detroit stands for Motown, for a golden age of automotion, for the uncompromising toughness of 8 Mile or Eminem – and a fair share of poverty, vacancies, crime, and unemployment. Few people have never heard of the Michigan metropolis. And most of their impressions might be unfavorable due to a steady string of negative headlines that highlight Detroit’s decline of industry, obvious tears in the city’s fabric, the steady human exodus and encroaching ghost town status – and its shattered and broken unpredictability. Nowadays, no one chooses to come for a visit. And even fewer choose to stay.
All of this has come to pass despite Detroit’s strategic geographic location as a key trading hub between Canada and the United States. When the budding car industry picked up on this advantage in the early 20th century – and came to stay and prosper – Detroit enjoyed a major boom. But the economy’s rollercoaster nature stopped the flourishing industrial city cold when a recession hit the U. S.
Recently, local government even struggled to meet the bill for basic street lighting. Conflicts stirred, barely contained. Anyone who could, left. Those who had to stay were left behind. With few options or perspectives. The rest is history – without precedence.
After a long period of steady neglect, Detroit has returned to the news – starting with an all-too-predictable revelation: In 2013, the city declared bankruptcy, initiating one of the biggest insolvency proceedings in United States history. According to sources, even this was bungled to some extent – Ronald King, attorney of the Detroit pension fund, was five minutes late in requesting an injunction against the city’s insolvency filing to safeguard at least some of the citizen’s retirement savings. That’s karma – welcome to Detroit. Does all of this sound too pessimistic? Well, you might be right. After all, things have been stirring in the ailing city beyond the headline-grabbing nightmare news. Right now, Detroit is about to “reinvent itself from the middle”, to dust off a hackneyed media cliché. Or, rephrased more carefully: Something is going on.
While we shouldn’t hold out for imminent loft living or in influx of America’s artist elite, people are starting to regain hope despite the indescribable hardship and brutality that continues to rule the city’s streets. Tony, a local photographer, talks about the new energy that pervades the city. “I currently live downtown and progress is being made there as far as repopulation goes. Businesses are slowly appearing. In terms of the outskirts of Detroit – that remains a different story… Only last week, 27 people were murdered in Detroit. It made national news. It is as unsafe to live in the outskirts of Detroit as ever. There is hope, though … Mike Duggan is running for mayor. Hopefully, he will win. He brings a much-needed perspective on the rebuilding of Detroit.“
It is hard to grow up in such an environment and Tony confirms the ever-present threat of unseen dangers. ”I grew up in the most notorious part of the city, Brightmoor. Most people who are not from Michigan or the United States might not know about Brightmoor, but you can certainly google it! Even at a very young age, I could comprehend danger. Brightmoor made me that way. Today, this part is still Detroit’s most dangerous and crime-ridden area. Imagine, if you will, living in a city street with forty houses on each side of the block. Now imagine that only one or two of these houses are inhabited. The rest are either burnt down or abandoned. It is straight out of a horror movie. If you walk the streets at night, your very life is in danger. If the vampires don’t get you, the zombies will,“ adds Tony, who left the city at some point to see what it’s like to live in the outskirts. Returning to the center turned out to be a huge surprise. “Roughly ten years ago, I moved back to Detroit. I did this by choice. I moved into a loft in the downtown area. Back then, it was a ghost town. The loft complex I moved into had one-hundred units. Only four of these were occupied. The loft units were surprisingly expensive, considering that they were surrounded by abandoned houses. However, I still chose to move in. The area I moved to is called Brush Park. It was a gathering place for artists of every field. And people are still moving to Brush Park and the rest of downtown Detroit. They are slowly reviving the area. This started about two years ago … I guess people just said, “enough is enough!” Over the past two years, the downtown area has undergone noticeable change. Businesses are opening. People are volunteering to clean up the area.“
Those who picture a bohemian scene, however, are entirely mistaken and Tony is quick to temper his hopeful words. “This is only happening in downtown Detroit. The outer areas are still a nightmare. I would estimate that forty percent of the houses in the outskirts of Detroit are abandoned. It is indeed as I show it. People sometimes ask me why on earth I show so many abandoned houses on my Instagram feed. Well, I do it because this is what I see. I want to bring awareness to Detroit’s situation. The recent news of Detroit’s bankruptcy is no shock to those of us who live here. We see it every day!“
There is indeed something sinister, almost morbid about his photography. And although this might be rooted in the motif of an abandoned city, there is more to it as Tony confirms. “Detroit is beautiful. To some, I only show the run-down parts of the city. To me, I show its realism and beauty. I grew up watching Saturday Morning Creature Feature when most children my age were watching cartoons. Not me! That being said, I find myself drawn to darker images. Scary looking architecture with dead trees. In my images you can see my “horror movie” influence. That’s who I am. That’s what I aim for. I take pride in my type of photography. I couldn’t do what I do in Chicago or Los Angeles. Detroit is a one-of-a-kind city. A city perfect for my scary images. At the same time, I want to draw awareness to the city’s acute blight. Walking around in some parts of Detroit isn’t for the faint of heart. However, the pay-off is worth it. There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned structures just waiting to be immortalized on camera. And you know what? They deserve to be. They were all once proud buildings. As they sit in their final death knell, they scream out for attention. They almost invite me in to document their final days. And I certainly take them up on their offer.“
Meanwhile, bike shops and bicycle manufactories are popping up all over the city – and people start to joke about Detroit Bike City. Yet mobility is no longer taboo: People literally want to move – and move others. Tour de Troit, for example, promotes an engine-free future and regularly organizes communal bike tours. A drive welcomed by Erik Mitchell, Scott Wozniak, and Jeff van Andel of local bike shop Hammer and Cycle. “We wanted to provide an affordable way for people to get to work and around town,“ state the budding entrepreneurs who set up shop in 2010 as part of the BUILD initiative, a program of workshops for Detroit start-ups. And BUILD is just one of many projects that supports such ideas and guides people through the professional set-up and management process. For a comprehensive overview and exhaustive archive of business know-how, future businesses head to the umbrella network D:hive to swap and receive tips on how to set up shop, find the right spaces, and avoid well-known pitfalls. By now, the organization has become the first point of call in Detroit’s city center – and a hub of hope for the city’s financial future.
High time for a visit and bike tour, Detroit!
Text: Agi Habryka
All photos, incl. the header image, by Tony Detroit