Early in the Detroit project, Kevin O’Connor borrowed the truck for a couple hours during one of his breaks. He didn’t drive far – just within five blocks or so of the Polks’ house in Russell Woods. He was shocked by the number of abandoned homes he found, some of which are featured in the following photos.
Many of the abandoned homes are victims of theft. Before the Polks bought their home, the HVAC unit was stolen. In other homes, items like copper pipes or lead window weights are taken and sold as scrap materials. The only silver linings in these scenarios are when homeowners can make upgrades; the Polks, for example, had the option to install a modern, high-efficiency HVAC system.
By 1920, Detroit was one of the most populated American cities, placing fourth behind New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. It’s known as the “Motor City” for its large role in the automotive industry, inspired by the creation of Ford Motor Company in 1903. Soon after, Durant, Dodge, Packard, and Chrysler all contributed to Detroit’s rapid industrial growth. The population peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million (placing it at fifth largest, also behind Los Angeles), and a suburban sprawl began.
At peak population in 1950, Detroit accounted for one-third of the state’s people. As people moved to the suburbs, that number declined; by 2010, the population of Detroit was only one-tenth of the state's population. By 1956, the city’s streetcar (which, at its prime, ran once per minute) was removed. But the move to the suburbs left notable architecture behind. In the photo here, you can see intricate brick work on the lower level, detail work above the arched windows, and a small second-floor patio.
“Middle-Class Housing Mecca”
“Detroit was a sort of middle-class housing mecca,” Kevin says. Though there were some apartment buildings, most people lived in single-family homes. This was different from the vertical brownstone development found in the other big cities at the time, like New York.
Detroit’s decline began most notably in the 1970s. Unemployment was on the rise, as gasoline crises and America’s desire for more fuel-efficient vehicles from foreign makers left Detroit’s auto-industry struggling.
Michigan Central Station
Kevin drove south out of the Russell Woods neighborhood and quickly happened upon the Michigan Central Station, what he calls “an abandoned architectural gem.” It opened in 1914, around the same time as its architectural sibling, Grand Central Station (both were designed by architectural firms Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem). It closed its doors in 1988, and though there have been many complete restoration attempts, none have come to fruition. Fortunately, though, some smaller projects have been completed, like window restoration.
In the meantime, it’s been a popular destination for ruins photography, and has been featured in movie scenes for Transformers, The Island, Four Brothers, 8 Mile, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The City of Detroit Today
The empty spaces in Detroit have primed the city for its own renaissance. Many artists and writers are resettling in the city, and new offices and restaurants are inspiring one another to flourish. To some, Detroit is well on its way to becoming a hard-working, community-focused close cousin to Brooklyn.
Tune in to this week’s new episode to see how the Polks and their community continue to come together to restore and renovate the Russell Woods home. Check your local listings.