Flowers in the Ruins – further reflections on a visit to Detroit

In an earlier post, Visions of the Apocalypse – a visit to Detroit, I gave one side of the story of a visit I made to the city a few weeks ago. My focus then was on the sad state of much of the downtown and surrounding areas, and I used it to reflect on the role of cities in post-apocalyptic fiction.

With the news today of Detroit becoming the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, I thought it might be a good time to do as I promised in that earlier post and write about the positive side of the city. As it goes through the pain of dealing with the fallout from bankruptcy, I’d like to talk a bit about the  beauty of the city – firstly the remnants of the golden age of industrial Detroit, and secondly the new flowers sprouting in the ruins.

Remnants of the Golden Age

It’s almost axiomatic that a city have had great wealth at some time in the past. Without the attraction of a means of making a living, why would people go there? Detroit is no exception, and you can still see the high water mark of the city’s prosperity in some of the buildings and artistic treasures.

We gained part of our view of the glory that was Detroit through a walking tour with Urban Adventures, which I highly recommend if you’re thinking of visiting the city.   The tour goes through the downtown area, and takes in a number of the major landmark buildings.

Guardian Building

One of the most extraordinary is the Guardian Building, a 1920’s skyscraper also known as The Cathedral of Finance.

Detroit has an interesting downtown vibe. Although it has a fair bit of high rise it also feels open. It’s not as open as Paris, but you don’t feel enclosed by the skyscrapers the way you do in Manhattan. Even looking up at the Guardian I didn’t feel that sense of intimidation that big buildings can sometimes give off.

The Art Deco designs at and above street level are interesting enough, but the real stunner is inside the lobby.

Detroit - art deco 2

The details on the walls and ceiling are remarkable, and are done in a Native American theme. The ceiling is painted canvas, a technique I hadn’t heard of before, and the walls in the entrance lobby have beautiful tiled murals. It’s a space clearly meant to impress, and it would do so in any city in the world.

Spaces like this offset the feeling of decay and absence that you experience elsewhere in Detroit. The contrast between this kind of extraordinary architecture and the crumbling houses and empty lots elsewhere in the city is striking. Of course, there is today a certain irony in a building known as the Temple of Finance being located in a bankrupt city.

Fisher exteriorFisher hallway

Away from the downtown, in an area called the New Center, is another great Art Deco building, the Fisher Building.

This one was put up in 1928, across from the General Motors building (or Cadillac Place as it’s known now, also a fantastic piece of architecture).

The Fisher Building also has a wonderfully decorated interior, with huge chandeliers hanging from ornate ceilings. It’s home to the Fisher Theatre, a National Historic Landmark, and radio stations still use the antenna at the top of the building for local transmissions. Walking through the building, a masterpiece of design with wonderful art deco detailing including golden elevator doors, you feel the empty magnificence of it all.

And the New Center does feel as empty as the downtown area. It has some of the same odd characteristics as the downtown in that you can walk a block or two from a beautiful urban space and find yourself in a semi-derelict neighbourhood. The feeling is made all the more pronounced when you walk another block or two and find yourself in a neighbourhood of mansions, one of which was lived in by Henry Ford.

A short drive away you find yourself in Hamtramck, a neighbourhood populated by a wide range of immigrants looking to make a life in the city, and beyond that the derelict Packard Automotive Plant that I talk about in my earlier post.

The final place I want to mention in this section about the legacy of the money that flowed through the city is the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum has one of the best collections of art in the US, art that might end up on the auction block to pay off Detroit’s debts.

They have a wide selection, including Van Gogha self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (whose acquaintance I just made again in a Dr Who episode). The modern art section is very good, too, with works by Picasso, Gilbert and George, and Max Beckmann. The real masterpiece of the collection, though, is the mural paiRiveranted by Diego Rivera in one of the ground floor halls.


Known as the Detroit Industry Murals, the work covers all four walls and contains a wealth of detail and symbolism. It alone was worth the price of admission. When Detroit comes out of bankruptcy I hope the city is able to hold on to its collection of art – they’d certainly have trouble taking the Rivera away, in any case.

Flowers in the Ruins

The other beautiful aspect of Detroit is the urban art and the renewal that is taking root in odd corners.

There’s a cycle path and walkway called the Greenway Trail that runs inland at 90 degrees to the Detroit River. It’s an old railway route, aDetroit muralnd it’s now a strip of green with a pathway. It runs from the Rivertown Warehouse District up to the Eastern Market where there is a marvelous farmer’s market and some great places to eat. The route passes beneath a number of bridges, and murals have been painted to brighten up the spaces.

Detroit - Unity


There is one odd feature of the route, which are the signs that have been hung at regular intervals along the way. They hang from light poles and carry slogans that I’m sure are mean to be inspirational, but occasionally come off as the sort of thing you’d expect to see hanging in cities on Airstrip One.

Still, you can see the effort they’re making build a sense that Detroit is a place that can rise from the ashes and create for itself a new vibrant future.

There is one more example of flowers in the ruins that I’d like to mention, and it’s one of the most extraordinary – the Heidelberg Project. This is one of the most unusual urban art projects I’ve ever seen. It has been put together over many years by an artist named Tyree Guyton, and is partially a protest at the state he found his neighbourhood in after he returned from service in the army.

What Tyree has done is to decorate the abandoned homes and streets in a wide variety of ways. It’s hard to describe the experience of being there – if you go to Detroit, make sure you go and walk around – but it’s by turns surreal, charming, ominous and inspiring. Nothing you’ve seen before can prepare you for it.

Detroit - the LP HouseFor example, one of the houses is completely covered in vinyl LP’s. The theme of the circular records is echoed in polka dots painted on the sidewalk. You find yourself just staring at it from different angles, it’s such a strange sight. A little further down the block though is something even odder.

The animal houseIn England we’d call this a Cuddly Toy house. In America, it’s a Stuffed Animal House. It’s covered on the outside with all kinds of soft kids toys. They’ve been out in all weathers, so they’re showing the marks of the exposure to the elements. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find out in the woods in a particularly creepy slasher film.

As you walk around you can see other animals looking out at you from the windows. It’s a strangely disturbing sight, and I can only imagine how it might look at night with some uplighters to enhance the effect.

Notwithstanding the oddness of some of the decor, you get a feeling of hope looking at the artwork on display. There’s hope in the fact that someone is taking a blighted urban landscape and transforming it into something else. Here’s hoping that Detroit can continue to transform itself and that there will be in the near future a lot more flowers sprouting from the ruins.Heidelberg 2