Samantha Brown photography
Documentary, travel & new topographics.

Detroit - a photographer’s dream

In late September 2018 I fulfilled a bucket list dream and visited Detroit, on my own for five days, with my camera. The trip was a huge source of photographic inspiration for me. I spent time getting to know Detroit’s urban history, exploring abandoned factory buildings and driving through the city, developing my night time photography skills. It was a challenging trip in some ways - I had to think about every journey I made as some parts of the city were still not safe - but I was respectful and careful. I left feeling so much respect and admiration for this incredible city, which is rising from the ashes like a Phoenix right now. 

After a long period of decline, Detroit is on the up

First stop on our photography tour with www.motorcityphotoworkshops.com

Abandoned wrecks in the East Village area of Detroit

Fixer uppers bought by young creatives and coders

House prices have increased dramatically since several years ago but can still be picked up for $1500 in some areas

I arrived on a Friday to sweltering late summer heat. The first thing I noticed was how sprawling and deserted the city was: in 1950, central Detroit had 1.6 million residents, now it has around 700,000. The wider suburbs span a 60 mile patch and house a few million residents, but the overall population is still in decline. The roads are absolutely enormous and there’s a huge amount of space between each building, which makes for wonderful photographic framing - quite unlike the cramped urban areas of the UK.

The second thing I noticed was how every third home was an absolute wreck - literally falling apart, abandoned by some owner or landlord who was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments. Many of these buildings have been stripped of copper electrical wiring and other valuable resources by scrap gangs. The atmosphere was calm but quiet - eerily quiet. 

Saturday morning I was up at the crack of dawn and racing from my Airbnb in Mexicantown to the West Village on the other side of the city. I was due to take part in a photography tour, run by Jesse Welter in Motorcityphotoworkshops.com. The West Village is an up and coming area now, and young families are snapping up real estate there for around $300,000 +, which seemed expensive to me given that every third house was still a wreck. As our group drove around in the back of his old yellow school van, Jesse explained that many of these young families work in the tech industry, remotely from home. Where once car factory operatives lived, now you will find a coder instead. I felt inspired by these innovative residents, who were also very busy on the business scene, setting up restaurants, bars and artist studios to breathe new life into their neighbourhood. And certainly the housing stock was beautiful - once renovated. I could see why people were attracted to living there. But what of the people who could not afford to live in this neighbourhood? That was the question in the back of my mind.

Inside St Margaret Mary Catholic Church

Detroit is NOT dead

A type writing lesson from 1983 is still on the blackboard of the adjoining school

Our first stop was St Margaret Mary Catholic Church, which was sold to the baptist church and abandoned since 1983. Jesse explained that scrappers had broken into the church and stolen the electrical wiring and heat exchange. Now, young creatives use the venue for band shoots and alternative weddings. We also took a peek in the school next door, where you can see from the photos above the writing on the blackboard dating back to ‘83. The school used to teach young girls how to type, with the aim of preparing them for a job in the car manufacturing industry. 

Next up was a visit to an abandoned motor factory which was built in 1912, originally called Teledyne Continental. This later became an aluminium recycling company called Continental Aluminium. (I’ve got some great videos to add here but need to upload them to YouTube first ;). 

Continental factory

Jesse from www.motorcityphotoworkshops.com

Our last visit of the day was to the former Chrysler factory. This was originally built in 1918 for the Nash Calvinatir Company. It was then bought by AMC - the American Motor Company - before being bought out by Chrysler, where it became their R&D site. 

Chrysler’s R&D factory was stunning to shoot

So many of the old signs are still in the factory workshops areas

We found the original demolition plans for the factory. Evidently not worth demolishing from a financial perspective.

Upon the roof of the Chrysler factory

The beautiful art deco staircase, now turned over to entropy.

This tour was breath taking - the atmosphere in the blackened out R&D floor was so intense, it raised goosebumps on the back of my arms. I learned that Chrysler closed it down in 2009. We found the old demolition plans which were scoped by Chrysler - evidently clearing the site was deemed too expensive. It was then bought by a scrap dealing crook who eventually went to jail. The city now owns it and there are no plans to develop it. 

The next day I spent time wandering around the city’s maker markets, chatting with the local traders and learning about Detroit’s resurgence some more. 

Shed 2 contained some maker’s markets and I spoke at length with some of the artists and craftspeople there. I also took time to speak with every Lyft driver that I journeyed with - public transport is still pretty sparse in the city. 

I was curious to understand whether the new money that had been invested into the centre of Detroit (around the stadium) was really reaching residents in other areas. People had mixed views on this - the general consensus was that Detroit was improving for sure  - but the far reaching suburbs in the NW and NE of the city were still desperately poor and rife with crime. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Detroit is still the US murder capital with a murder rate per 100,000 of 42 - almost four times greater than any other US city.  Anyone can see that it will take an enormous amount of investment to turn this situation around - the city is so sprawling and vast that to regenerate every corner of it would take a bottomless public purse. I just couldn’t see how it could be done in a single lifetime, to be honest. Still, I admired the city’s optimism and I think it will become great again one day - it will just take a lot of time.

On my last evening, my thoughts returned to photography. I came to Detroit to shoot photographs - that was my purpose for the trip. And as much as I’d enjoyed learning about the history of the abandoned factories, I was surprised to not feel that inspired to shoot them, other than for the purposes of this travel blog. Abandoned buildings are great for exploring and for learning about the history of a city, but there’s something about ruin porn that I find inherently depressing, from a photography perspective.

Instead I hired a car by myself and took off to capture some night time new topographics and long exposure shots of the city’s urban buildings. These were wonderfully charismatic and idiosyncratic, with naive branding handpainted by the city’s shop owners who cannot afford expensive signs. I was inspired by the amazing work of Dave Jordano and Jeanette Kuhn, who shoot mostly at night in both Detroit and Chicago, capturing that quintessentially American urban existence through atmospheric shots of storefronts and industrial areas. My final shots were taken on one single, long hot late summer evening. I was forced to finish at 2am, when my car hire’s electric window broke down and it was no longer safe to park the vehicle outside the Airbnb, as I couldn’t guarantee it would be there in the morning. At that point, I called it quits and dropped the car back to the hire garage early. I posted live on my Instagram story throughout that evening, and in fact from the whole weekend. You can check out my final shots from the trip here.

What would I have done differently about my trip, looking back in hindsight? I would have definitely hired a car sooner than I did. I would have covered a lot more ground if I’d done that earlier in the trip, and saved myself some money too. I would have liked to have explored much more of the city, and to have talked to residents in other areas. Still hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I’m sure I will be back one day. I hope that by then, Detroit has redeveloped at pace, and the residents in the outer reaches of the city are reaping the benefits of this too. 

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