Detroit, Michigan State

Welcome to The D

Date October 2009
Posted February 2011
The abandoned car plants of Detroit, Motor City
"So, do you have a gun? Although, to be fair, there's not really any point packing heat if eight armed guys raid the place. Not unless you have a MAC-10 or something."

Previously such conversations I'd only heard in films, and yet here we were taking weapons advice from a local explorer of Detroit's ruins, a guy who knows his stuff. My friends and I stood here on the dark streets of night time Detroit protected 'only' with a couple of polymer knives (the guy with the gun was elsewhere). In a city where there just aren't enough cops to go around you're better off hedging your bets and risking being done for carrying a blade than being caught short in an abandoned building. Those with the appropriate paperwork carry firearms. And all we were talking about here was going inside a disused theatre. London or Manchester this was not.

Arrival at the border, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Regaining entry to 'These United States of America' had not been a simple affair. Picture the scene: an MPV rolls up to your border gates packed to the roof with furniture, boxes and bags. Up front are a tired duo - a New Yorker (female) and a Floridian (male). Somewhere at the back, almost buried amongst the cargo, sits a solitary representative of good ol' Blightly, clad in dusty dark clothing, badly in need of a hair cut and sleep, not to mention mildly hungover. Suspicion in such circumstances is guaranteed. Miss X turned off the engine as instructed, and we waited for the drama to unfold.

In one simple yet alarming movement an arm swooped in through the open window and the keys to the van were gone. The blur of a second officer shot around behind the vehicle, coming to a stop on the other side of the window which for a good few hours now had been my pillow. Through the drool and the mist our eyes met, my puzzled look no match for a hardened steel stare honed at one of the USA's more colourful borders. The US Customs and Border Protection officer lurched away, grabbed the handle of the sliding door and yanked it open. I tried hard to prepare myself for the grilling that would certainly follow.

Fisher Body Plant 21, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

The threats of vehicle seizure and dismantlement gave way to a barrage of questions levelled in all directions, a thorough examination of the contents of my pockets and the rifling through of various boxes chosen apparently at random. Our story was half-told but nonetheless true. In reality we'd stumbled from bar to bar in Toronto the night before, then at some point had descended through a subway vent onto the track only to find workers on the other side of the door. Some time during the early hours, darkness still abound, myself, Miss X and one Shane Perez had climbed inside the van and set a course roughly south-west. With the sun just starting to rise I remember waking up to find us in a carpark, but then I remember little else until being woken as we rolled towards the border.

Things didn't look good, drugs were mentioned, those hard eyes searching our faces for a reaction, for some hint that perhaps we weren't being entirely truthful. Eventually though they seemed to tire of this tirade - we'd been sitting here for about 20 minutes now - and threw the passports back into the vehicle. We were in. I rolled my head back against the cool glass and resolved never to mock siologen again for warning about turning up at the US borders looking like a hobo. Now we travelled down relatively empty streets, a surprising amount of grass to be seen in a city with such vast industrial heritage. The sighs and sounds to be had even at this hour warned that we were in no rough Parisian banlieue or Glaswegian no-man's land. This place was in a league of it's own. In the KFC orders were placed by shouting through a small hole in the half-inch thick perspex, food passed out through a big armoured drawer in the counter.

After unloading Miss X's kit into her new warehouse studio we prepared for a tour of some of Detroit's abandoned car plants. En route there were signs signs for well-known landmarks spots such as 8 Mile Road and the huge General Motors HQ. It wasn't long before we pulled up alongside a chainlink fence, behind it the stark white shell of the former Fisher Body Plant 21. Until 1925 this factory produced bodies for Buick and Cadillac cars, but during the Great Depression work ceased and the building was used as a shelter for homeless people. By the time WW2 was raging, the plant was once again being used for an engineering purpose, producing various aircraft parts to help the war effort. After reverting back to Cadillac production, GM shut the plant down in 1984.

These places - consumed by rot, decay and damp, home at times to tramps, drug addicts and gangs - are unforgiving at the best of times. Within the premises we found hazards a plenty, including one huge section of floor that had collapsed in, leaving a gaping hole above a mountain of rubble. Within the confines of this crumbling ruin we hoped to find each floor devoid of activity, arriving a little while later on the top floor. Up here remains a motorised track and various painting equipment, about the only equipment still left in the premises. One last clamber out through a window and we were on the roof, where air was noticeably fresher.

Industrial waste, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Later we jumped back in the van to drive to the notorious Packard Plant, a larger and even less intact body pressing plant not too far away. At an intersection the three of us sat in the car waiting for a gap in the traffic whilst two gangs hollered over our heads at each other. It became apparent that one guy didn't want to see another on 'his block'. The newspaper headline 'caught in the crossfire' sprung to mind along with an image of Miss X's now bullet-hole-riddled MPV, but only momentarily: seconds later we were rolling onward, through rough estates of abandoned buildings and the burnt-out husks of houses, with occasional homeless guys sitting on milkcrates occupying street corners.

Arrival at the Packard Plant brought with it more wariness, for me anyway. Shane was quite happy carrying his $2.5k camera around in plain view, whilst up on floors above we could hear noises and hushed voices. I should imagine the Packard Plant is one of those abandoned places where you're never alone. There's always someone hidden away somewhere, and you never quite know what's going to come flying down from above.

Packard Plant, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Down in the piles of rubble Shane found a way to drop down into a tunnel system below the buildings, which was now flooded in a few inches of a dark sludge, part water, part hazardous chemical of no discernible identiy. Down here in the depths of the factory it felt, strangely, a little safer. From here we worked out way through the lower floors of the plant, all of it completely wrecked and therefore easily accessible. We emerged on the other side of the plant where a bridge provided a much-needed reminder that we were in the Motor City Industrial Park. It's a sad end to a factory that, in its heyday, was considered the most modern car plant in the world.

The nearby beer shop was as fortified as the KFC, but unlike those in Toronto didn't seem too preoccupied with our health, and the staff were happy to sell us what we wanted when we wanted. Back at the warehouse I set about constructing a little bivvy in one corner using blankets foraged from around the room. With gaps between the window frames and glass and relatively little heating it was going to be a cold night.

Later we had dinner in a big chicken restaurant, again out in the suburbs. The giggling waitress asked for my order three times before she'd had enough of a British accent which, one can only imagine, doesn't get heard much in such a place. And herein lies the saving grace with cities like this: the people. True, there's a lot of bad stuff going down in Detroit, but on the whole the people met were friendly and helpful. Warm, even. For that quality I'd say that Detroit and Buffalo stood out the most during my time in America - two cities that were once of vital industrial importance, but which survive today despite the collapse of their trade.

The warehouse, Detroit, Michigan State (2009) courtesy of

Day became night and we stopped once more, this time outside the derelict Michigan Central Station building. And this was how in a roundabout way we came to be standing in the cold having that discussion about knives, guns and places not to go. Not so long before my visit to Detroit a few people had been surrounded by an armed gang in a well-known abandoned theatre: they were lucky to escape with just the theft of their valuables. Now we were in two minds as to whether or not to go there on this night. Detroit is a truly fascinating city, but it's a place where you really, really need to avoid trouble.
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Further reading...

Car plant history
Fisher Body Wikipedia
Packard Plant Wikipedia

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