I was recently driving out of the great city of Chicago. Leaving the bright lights and gothic architecture behind, I crossed the state border into Indiana. Surrounded by roadhouses, fast food, self-storage warehouses and various unimpressive structures, it was almost as if the urban landscape had no end.
Within about 40 minutes, I arrived in the city of Gary, Indiana. I’d read about this town. The once charming home to the Jackson 5 is now famous mostly for its resemblance to an apocalyptic wasteland. Moviemakers flock to the town, drawn by its derelict decadence.
Just under four hours from Gary, a far more famous example of urban decay sits idle as curious onlookers filter through. Detroit is perhaps the reigning monarch of abandoned urbanism, with the grand Michigan Central Station an icon of the once great city. Wandering the streets is a fascinating, eerie and slightly scary experience: streets that look like those in any other city stand entirely empty of people and tall buildings echo and howl as wind gusts through their windowless shells.
This is a city with a rich and proud history as the towering architecture on display proves. But despite its vast, albeit faded beauty, Detroit simply has more historical structures than it can withstand. The Lee Plaza Hotel was constructed in what was an upmarket area of the city back in 1929. Today the empty art deco marvel stands alone, its 15 stories casting a shadow over the Detroit suburbs.
Without doubt, the Lee Plaza is a wonderful piece of architecture. But with the need for urban renewal becoming increasingly desperate, Detroit must weigh the importance of its heritage with a realistic vision for its future.
The weekend saw the destruction of the Park Avenue Hotel. With a history spanning more than 90 years, the implosion of the structure gave symbolism to the blurring lines that divide concepts of ruin and renewal. It was a sad moment but the city’s rebirth need not be seen as mass architectural murder. If Detroit can escape the rampant corruption that has helped stifle its attempts at a comeback, this could be a rare opportunity for a city to reinvent itself almost from scratch. Investment has already begun to trickle back in.
New York City failed to understand the significance of its magnificent Penn Station, while Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles no longer bears any resemblance to its legendary reputation. Even great cities can get renewal very wrong. By balancing who it was with who it wants to be, Detroit could become an example of how renewal is really done.
Ben Rylan is Monocle 24’s associate producer.