A Ticket to the End of the World

If you've watched with envy as the internet fills up with endless photo galleries of abandoned buildings in Detroit, perhaps now is your time to get in on the action: for the low, low price of only $45, you can buy a ticket and take locally-run "tours of abandoned factories, churches and schools." A Detroit ruin tour takes 3 hours, and taps into your inner J.M.W. Turner.

Reporting on one such tour, the Los Angeles Times described a kind of Urban Exploration Lite™:

Led by tour guide Jesse Welter, [attendees] crawled on their hands and knees to peek inside a train station closed long ago; they squeezed through a gap in a fence to climb the stairs of what was once a luxury high-rise; they ducked under crumbling doorways to see a forgotten ballroom where the Who held its first U.S. concert.


The paper adds, however, that "it's not legal, per se, to enter these buildings. Police will give $225 tickets for trespassing if people enter schools, Welter says, but have otherwise told him they don't mind him going into other buildings."

And there are a lot of "other buildings." After all, the numbers are not good for Detroit, as the city has reached the astonishing point where nearly 85% of the city has "experienced population decline," the Times points out. This doesn't mean that 85% of the city is empty, but it does mean that the receding tide of residents—not to mention the city's already well-publicized financial difficulties—have led to its surreal shell-like existence, with once grand houses now surrounded by resurgent meadowlands and whole streets seemingly consumed by trees.


The over-riding puzzle remains of what exactly to do. Indeed, Detroit and New Orleans both have become the heavily patronized cause du jour for many self-styled urban theorists seeking a target for their spatial plans and socio-utopian aspirations. Should we give away houses for writers to help revitalize neighborhoods? Should we ask residents what they want to do before they die? Should we turn Detroit into the world's largest urban farm?


Or could we perhaps transform the depressed business district into a "skyscraper ruins park" and let successful housing fill in around these newly spectacularized ruins? You might already be familiar with photographer Camilo Jose Vergara's only somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal to do exactly that.

In his book American Ruins, Vergara suggested that, "as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis." As he would later write for Metropolis:

We could transform the nearly 100 troubled building into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley... Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals–squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects–would live in the empty behemoths, adding their call, hoots and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.


Or, of course, we could just sell tickets to the decay, become disaster tourists and stand by on the sidewalks to watch as families are evicted or forced to relocate elsewhere, their favorite possessions left behind and eaten by mold, taking multiply favorited Instagrams of old children's toys no one gets to play with and gawk at lost jobs to tell our European friends back home.

Like 21st-century hermits in the garden, perhaps even local human beings—those rare animals of the ruins—could be paid minimum wage, or even just small tips, to emerge from their imploding houses and factories to tell their tales, serving as perverse ornaments in the narratives of others, unwitting cast members in this ensemble play of a collapsing city. [Los Angeles Times]


Lead image by Jennifer Durban/Creative Commons.


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