Destinations

New Travel Angle for Detroit: Tour the Ruins

Dec 26, 2013 2:30 pm

Skift Take

Detroit has a unique angle when it comes to marketing itself: See what happens when an economy collapses. Now if city leaders and entrepreneurs can figure out a way to package the experience.

— Jason Clampet

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Ian Ransley Design  / Flickr

Ian Ransley Design / Flickr


Detroiters may despise the ruins that surround them, but the hundreds — if not thousands — of tourists who come to see the derelict buildings say the experience helps them understand the Motor City.

There are hundreds of buildings to explore: Jesse Welter, the photographer and urban explorer featured in a Los Angeles Times story, calls the city “an amusement park.”

Cindy Lindow has gone on 22 tours with Welter. She lives in St. Clair, about 50 miles north of Detroit, but grew up in the city and has some nostalgia for the way it used to be.

Her uncle was a priest in a church she has toured. Although it’s in ruins now, she likes to picture him walking around, ministering to worshipers. That’s what make the tours so interesting, she said: The buildings are ravaged, but there are still hints of humanity inside.

“It’s so devastating — it reminds me of what something would look like after a war,” she said. “You almost get a sense of all the people that used to work there — what a busy place it might have been at once point in time.”

Lindow went on tours with Welter because she’s heard it can be dangerous to go to the ruins alone. A friend did and got mugged, and her car windows were shattered, she said.

Lindow knows some Detroiters don’t like people coming to view their shattered city, but she thinks it’s beautiful. “Even though something like the Fisher Body Plant may look horrible from the outside, there is beauty in it. You just have to look for it,” she said.

Chicago resident Kevin Kelly visited Detroit without a tour guide. Driving through on his way to Canada four years ago, he pulled off the highway, shocked at all the abandoned buildings. He brought his girlfriend back recently so that she could see the decay.

“When someone goes there for the first time, it’s kind of shocking how many buildings there are that are abandoned,” he said.

Kelly said he understands why residents would be unhappy with the idea that tourists come to see the ruins. But otherwise, he said, outsiders might not understand Detroit’s plight.

“If someone wants to understand the bankruptcy, seeing Detroit with their own two eyes would help them grasp what’s going on there,” he said.

For Oliver Kearney, an 18-year-old British student, Detroit is a blank canvas that makes him want to move to the city and rebuild it. Kearney, an aspiring architect, went on a tour with Welter this year.

“There’s a real opportunity to put your mark on a struggling city,” he said. “At the same time, there’s architecture there now that’s stunning.”

Then there are the tourists who say Detroit makes them realize that their own situation isn’t so bad. Chris Jonhis and Vera Nikou are from Greece, and they were traveling from Chicago to Boston recently by car on a U.S. tour. They were deciding whether to stop in Cleveland or Detroit. A friendly Chicago policeman advised them to stay away from Detroit, but friends said they couldn’t miss it. They were astonished at how much Detroit was crumbling.

“Greece is bankrupt too, but it’s not like this,” Jonhis said. “People are just less comfortable and have less money. But they go on as normal there.”

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