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Much of the mid-west was built on the manufacturing demands of the auto industry. This is especially true for Detroit, Michigan whose pivotal role in the rise of the American auto industry earned it the nickname “Motor City.” I grew up in Toledo, Ohio which is approximately 50 miles south of Detroit. Much of Toledo’s infrastructure was built and developed due to its proximity to Detroit. In it’s heyday, Toledo would come to be known as the “Glass City” because of its role in supplying Detroit with auto glass. That said, the economic stability of my hometown has always been dependent on Detroit’s success and the fate of these two cities are seemingly intertwined.
Earlier this year, my brother Jeff (JeffBallPhotography.com) and I set out to capture unique imagery of the decaying rust belt. While this brief journey would takes us to cities like Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Gary and Chicago, nothing could compare to the images that we discovered in Detroit. As it was the first city we visited on the tour, we later joked that maybe it should have been the last since it set the “urban decay” bar rather high. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, Detroit is now a mere shadow of its former self. Despite what local politicians would have the public believe, Detroit has become the “poster boy” for economic decline, political corruptness and overall urban decay. While I have amassed thousands of images to illustrate the rotting infrastructure of the city, today’s blog entry is focused on one of the more “popular” attractions of forgotten Detroit.
It was late March and as soon as we entered the city we exited the highway. It took maybe five minutes of driving before we came across this beautiful structure. The images in this blog post are from Michigan Central Station, also known as Michigan Central Depot. Without going into too much detail, this structure was built in 1913 and finally closed in 1988. It is a relatively high-profile location and when we first pulled up, there was a tour bus full of curious spectators. We spent maybe 30 minutes at the site and there were at least 3 other photographers doing exactly the same thing we were. I did my best to capture some images that were both unique and descriptive but this particular building is rather popular and a quick Google search will yield thousands of images of this structure alone. For that reason, I thought that it was a rather fitting first stop. As the project went on, we ventured farther into the rotting core of the city into forgotten locations that were both dangerous and wondrous. However, Michigan Central Station gave us our first glimpse into the soul of Detroit.
The thing the caught my attention most was the giant razor-wire fence that spanned the entire perimeter of the building. I kept trying to incorporate the jagged shape of the fence into my photographs. In the top photo, the morning sun was reflecting brilliantly off the surface of a single razor and I positioned myself to try and capture it. While the building was stunning within itself, I found the contrast between the stone surface of the structure and the rusted metal of the fence to be intriguing. Michigan Central Station was built to commute people into Detroit, welcoming them with open arms. 87 years later, a crude barricade made of razor wire and gnarled metal fencing stood to prevent people from even entering the station. It was obvious that urban explorers were unwelcome. As the morning was brilliantly clear and there were several onlookers, we figured that it was in our best interest not to try and find an entrance into the structure. Those circumstances aside, I couldn’t help to wonder what kind of architectural wonders and engineering marvels were hidden behind the building’s gray exterior.
I felt sadness and empathy for the hollowed structure and I remember thinking what a great treasure this building was for the city of Detroit. While grass-root efforts have been made to save the structure, the future of Michigan Central Station is not bright. In 2009, the city passed a resolution to demolish the building but a single citizen sued the city citing the national Historic Preservation Act of 1966. While the structure still stands, it most likely will continue to decay until time takes its inevitable toll. Michigan Central Station is an iconic Detroit structure and its history seemingly parallels the city’s. Once a strong symbol of progress, it proudly served the city’s citizens until it found itself obsolete and without purpose. It now sits idle, waiting for redemption or destruction, whichever comes first.
While these images help draw a parallel between this single structure and the city of Detroit as a whole, I can’t help but find a deeper meaning. My mind keeps going back to that fence and its underlying purpose. The tangled mess of barb and razor was erected to keep people out of Michigan Central Station. While this is undoubtedly for their own protection, it reaffirms the city’s attitude towards the preservation of its own treasures. This is not a foreign concept as many of us are guilty of committing similar internal injustices. We build internal walls and erect metaphorical fences to protect ourselves from being hurt by others, essentially muting our own potential. Whether this behavior stems from a past history of disappointment or it is a direct result of our contemporary culture, we often refuse to let others in. As human beings, our most prized treasures often dwell in the strength of our own hearts. However, we tend to build our own tangled fences of barb and razor in an effort to shield the treasures within. While it is good policy to always be on guard, we have to learn to lower our own defenses in an effort to truly experience the human condition. Fences will keep intruders out, but they will also prevent those who will truly appreciate the treasures within from ever getting to see them.
October 6th, 2010
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