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December 11, 2008

Decaying Detroit

(click for full size)

Photographer Tim Fadek forwards this image from the Detroit area.   This is the old Michigan Central Station (designed by the Warren and Wetmore firm, which also did Grand Central in New York). Abandoned for the past twenty years, it’s mostly home to drug addicts and the homeless. It’s also a timely metaphor.

(h/t: AG)

Updated 2:06 pm.


(image ©Tim Fadek/Polaris images. December 2008)

About the Photographer

Tim Fadek

Timothy Fadek is based between New York and Berlin. He began his career in photography at 28, after having worked in advertising. He is represented by Redux Pictures. His key bodies of work to date have included conflict coverage in Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Macedonia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in addition to post-conflict coverage in Kosovo, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, presidential elections in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, social issues such as the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, the population explosion in Chongqing, China, foster care in New York, and most recently, the effects of the gold rush in Mongolia. He has worked on assignment for publications including Time, New York Times Magazine, Stern, Le Monde, and National Geographic. His photographic reporting has been published in scores of magazines worldwide. Fadek also has exhibited his work internationally, including the Polka Gallerie and the Centre National de la Photographie, both in Paris, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Palazzo delle Exposizioni in Rome. He has won several awards including Pictures of the Year (POYi), Best of Photojournalism (NPPA), Henri Nannen Preis (finalist), Communication Arts, and was named a Hero of Photography by American Photo magazine. Fadek has spoken at many organizations and universities, including the International Center of Photography, New York University, and the Paley Center for Media and has served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. See more of Tim's work for BagNews here.

  • Stan B.

    Whenever I see pictures of the waste and devastation that was once the great city of Detroit, I’m instantly reminded of an article that asserted that the key to neighborhood gentrification (at least in NYC) was the introduction of artists. In fact, the writer called artists “the shock troops of gentrification.” Of course, that is no doubt an over simplification, greed being the major ingredient in the mix. Artists, no doubt, are in turn victimized by their own “success” and neighborhood altering effects, almost as much as the “original” inhabitants.
    But here we are in what really could be the age of hope, change and new ideas… And I was just wondering, has the city of Detroit ever made a concentrated, concerted effort to lure artists on a national, even international basis with sweetheart deals on housing, work and exhibition space, etc. that would help rejuvenate and enliven their dying city? Surely they wouldn’t be the only contributing factor of what would have to be one phenomenal endeavor (not to mention investment in every green industry imaginable), but I can’t think of a better resource to begin with- or a better time. Detroit, MI- Art Capital of the 21st. Century! Why not?

  • indybend

    This reminds me of an achingly sad photography/history project called The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, which can be seen here:

  • Steven Reaume

    This is not the old Michigan Theatre that was in 8 Mile. This is the abandoned train station that was in Transformers. It is the only other train station designed by the person who designed Grand Central in NYC.

  • John Eaton

    As a kid growing up in the 50s in Cleveland, Ohio, I can remember the great downtown movie theaters on Euclid Avenue. If memory serves, the Hippodrome and the Stillman became parking facilities in the 1960’s but the State and the Palace survived – but not without incredible effort from dedicated citizens.
    Great photo. Keep up the good work.

  • Joe Lisboa

    I live not too far from there. Yes, it’s the old Michigan Central train station, yes as featured in the Transformers movie. It’s in spitting distance of what’s left of (Old) Tiger Stadium at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in the Corktown (i.e., old Irish) neighborhood of Detroit. Your updated description makes it sound like a hell-hole but the neighborhood itself has good food and great pubs (duh). I should mention that there’s plenty of resources on the net regarding the train station, it’s not just a hang-out for degenerates, it’s one of the highly sought after “urban spelunking” centers in the country. Look it up if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Also: thanks for a great daily read here at the BAG. I love it.

  • Swimmaven

    I lived in Detroit from 1971 to 1984.
    I would take the train out of that station to see my mom about once a month. It always felt like an important journey. I would imagine WWII soldiers in the station waiting to go to war or coming back from war.
    As far as artists go, there is an entire art community in Detroit. They are a rough and tumble group, with the factory work ethic. A lot of the art is amazing.

  • Wayne

    How important is history? How important is a visual emblem of history?
    Whatever one might think about the moral and legal complications of Lord Elgin’s agents’ having removed sculpture from the Parthenon, the fact remains that the peasant-class occupying Turks cared more about the Parthenon sculpture as fodder for their lime kilns than they did as art or emblems of history. And who could blame them? For any people to recognize the value of art and of historic symbols requires education.
    What makes this structure so wonderful to me is not that’s a wonderfully integrated expression of architectural style, but just the opposite. Look at it! 19th century historicism on the bottom, Louis Sullivan on the top. This building is a treasure! Obviously our people should care about the pure expression of a specific style. But our people should care just as much about the expression of a conflicted, uncertain transitional work.
    Why? Because politically that’s where we are right now. We are in a time (one can but hope!!!) of change. And in such a time should we not be continually mindful of what we’re trying to leave (and why) as well as of what we are embracing as principles and values for the future? Words matter. Images matter. Together the sum is greater than the cliche.

  • Books Alive

    Artists in Detroit? MoTown is about all that comes to mind for me.
    Having been able to shop on Woodward and Grand Boulevard, enjoy the dramatic theater in the GM building, and see Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn when they appeared downtown 45 or so years ago, my memories are of the beauty of a thriving metropolis.

  • iRobot

    I have 3 words for you: Third World Country.
    Seriously, what major industrial country has so many empty abandoned places like we do? Its not just detroit.

  • Jason

    Lowell, the guy who started DetroitYes.Com, is but a small part of a very vibrant art community in Detroit. (Not really the result of political leadership, however.)
    I used to rent an apartment near downtown from one of the leaders of CAID ( The art scene in Detroit is as vibrant (and interesting) as you could possibly imagine.
    (And that is just off the top of my head, and I’ve been away for a few years.)
    Right in front of the park that the station sits on are two of the most interesting establishments in the city:
    Slows is by far the best BBQ joint if ever been to, and I live in the south now.
    I also saw a play about the station a few years ago at a small theater not far from the station.,%202006/Homelands.htm
    The neighborhood that the station sits in is actually in a lot of demand (as much as anything can be in demand in this economy). It is being held in that state for political and economic reasons. The privately-owned company that owns it is buying up a lot of land around the likely places for tunnel or bridge building between Ontario and Michigan (I understand the same thing is happening in New York.) The only truck crossing in the area is privately owned, and the rail tunnel is too short for tall container trains. If you are interested do a search for Moroun or “Detroit International Bridge Company.”
    Detroit is “gentrifying” and changing, but it has been a slow go in the last couple of years, and it is only slowing down. In my opinion, the decline of Detroit is a perfect case study in the results of failing to compromise. It has been a political football (both internally and externally) for the worst kinds of ideologues (on both sides), since its rise about 100 years ago.
    There are many signs of change currently, but surprisingly, they have very little to do with the Big 3. Those companies have ceased to mean much for the center of the city decades ago. They are still important for the region, and by extension, the central city, but I think that Central Detroit will continue its slow rise regardless of the Big 3.

  • putnam

    I like this site because it examines images as language. And then there’s the always-fascinating verbal language. Like the word “gentrification.” What does it mean exactly? There are entrenched political factions enjoying a tug of war over this word. In the strict and more useful sense, it means displacement. In cities with limited new development opportunities, power and money can assert themselves into existing working and lower class neighborhoods by colonizing the space with “improvements.” These have the effect of raising rents and, before long, the original residents can’t afford to like in “their” own neighborhood. In this sense the word “gentrification” is utterly inappropriate for any neighborhood in Detroit. Detroit is not about different classes competing for space and location. And with the population in a dramatic 50-year decline it is hard to imagine this changing any time soon. It is a city built for 1.5 million yet home now to not much more than half that. Rome was home to over a million at the height of the empire. At a low point in the middle ages it had a population of a few tens of thousands. Not until the 19th century did it achieve its former peak population. The turnaround occurred during the renaissance. So it is not possible to gentrify Detroit. It can only be renewed.
    Of course, there is the more broad sense of the term “gentrification,” meaning up-scaling in general, without the power and victim implications. I think that’s how these posts are using the term (while helpfully keeping it sequestered in quotation marks at that!)
    I live less than a mile from the train station. It’s a great neighborhood, the most thriving in Detroit, as it’s been described by many. The train station is an artifact of the development politics of a bygone era, still practiced in this case by its owner Manny Maroun. The train station property sits on a defunct Canada/USA border crossing (rail tunnels.) Mr. Maroun happens to own another crossing, the most significant one, the Ambassador Bridge, and he is attempting to bully the public to allow him to build another. This way he can have more complete control of the most economically significant border point in human history. You can see why he might not want the train station to fall into the wrong hands, and so it sits.

  • yg

    what an arresting visual. how can there be beauty in decay? and yet, there it is.
    i first saw this building in a youtube video that spelled out the awfulness of bush’s legacy. bush wasn’t responsible for this one, but still, it’s emblematic of squandered potential and the heartbreak of a culture of decline and neglect. what does this say about us as a people that we would wantonly disregard such a treasure and treat it like so much garbage?
    thank you for giving specifics. i was so curious what the name and area was. wiki has its profile. i thought it might be depression era building but it’s older than that. google pulls up a shot of its interior:

  • Jason

    I agree about your “gentrification” comments. Good analysis.
    But FYI, the rail tunnels aren’t defunct, they just aren’t used as much as they used to be since a new tunnel was built in Port Huron that can accommodate full-height trains.
    Yes, the station opened about 95 years ago right now.
    Though it is hard for me to really understand what things are like in Michigan right now, it seems to me that in some ways, the current big-3 issues are only good for the long-term health of Detroit, both the region and the inner city.

  • g

    Jason, thanks for posting the links about Detroit. I’ve been visiting the Forgotten Ruins site for probably 10 years now, ever since I spent a couple weeks in Detroit on a job assignment, and found it just fascinating – and heartbreaking.

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