Detroit's Historic Buildings Crumble With Decay, Vandals

Motor City's vacant properties are a playground for urban explorers, criminals.

April 16, 2010, 10:15 PM

DETROIT, April 18, 2010 — -- Preservationist Karen Nagher is fighting to save the landmark eyesores of her troubled town, such as the abandoned Michigan Central Depot.

Built in 1913, it was once the tallest rail station in the world. Today it sits empty, a towering reminder of what has happened to so many once-great buildings in this town. Some have compared it to Roman ruins.

"It's certainly iconic enough. You can see it from just about everywhere around here," Nagher says, as she looks past the tall fence and barbed wire surrounding the old building. "We just need to keep the people out."

Those people are the many vandals and urban explorers who trespass in Detroit's 10,000 abandoned buildings and homes. People come from all over the world to enter the structures illegally and take pictures of the city's decaying buildings, posting those photos and videos online.

Some do more than take just pictures: They add to the destruction. Last fall a crew of vandals spent several months pushing a rusty old dump truck from the fourth floor of the abandoned Packard Motor Plant. They first had to smash out part of a wall and jack it up to fall off the edge, returning several times to finish the work.

Stephen Mcgee, a freelance photographer from Detroit, videotaped their efforts. Mcgee also recently captured scavengers as they dropped refrigerators from the upper floors of an abandoned apartment complex, gathering the valuable parts once the appliances smashed to the ground.

Oftentimes the crimes are far more serious.

When arsonists struck the Packard building earlier this year, the fire was left to burn itself out because Detroit firefighters are under orders to only fight fires from the exterior of the dangerous building. Earlier this month, homicide investigators were at the plant investigating a body found in the trunk of a burned out vehicle.

This month the movement to rid Detroit of its dangerous structures reached a fever pitch when the first of 3000 abandoned homes was torn down by the city.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing wants to raze 10,000 abandoned or vacant buildings by 2014 as part of his efforts to downsize his city of abandoned properties. Plans call for the vacant land to be used for urban farming or to be turned back into countryside.

Michigan Central Added to National Register of Historic Places in 1975

Dave Yrhus, who lives next door to the first home to be demolished, was happy to see it go. He spent years chasing teenagers, drug dealers and arsonists from the abandoned house.

"It was just an ongoing battle," he said. "It's been a long time coming. I hope it works."

There have also been battles over places like Michigan Central. The city tried to have it torn down a couple of years ago, but high costs and history won out. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and that designation helped to save it, for now.

But what to do with so many empty and decaying buildings?

Some have been saved and restored, such as the historic Book-Cadillac Hotel. The 31-story hotel was closed for 20 years, and became another victim of scavengers and vandals. After years of legal battles, it finally reopened in 2008 following a $200 million renovation.

Many Detroiters have become frustrated and increasingly protective of their city's violated buildings. The phenomenon has reached the point where it prompted the Detroit Free Press' Web editor Mark Smith to ask in a recent online column "are we obsessed with ruin porn?"

Some of his readers had a few questions of their own: Why could the vandals be videotaped but not arrested?

Others criticized the national media for using images of Detroit's decay to illustrate the city's problems. But still others said the attention focused on abandoned buildings is warranted. One person wrote, "It is mind-blowing how far gone The D is, especially in the eyes of visitors."

But Karen Nagher still sees the possibilities in many of Detroit's old buildings. She remains hopeful that the old train depot can be saved, perhaps turned into a market or government building or even a casino. But for now Michigan Central, like many of Detroit's iconic buildings, remains a twisted tourist attraction -- ignored by time, but not the morbidly curious.