Ghost Houses of Detroit

Photographs shot in Detroit during the summers of 2013 and 2014.

Ghost Houses of Detroit is my project documenting the remains of the city of Detroit. During my two recent trips there this summer I saw a level of urban devastation that was part war zone, part abandoned factory town. On Detroit’s East side, Gratiot boulevard was in ruins. Drive up and down the side streets where single family homes were build a century and more ago and see blocks in various states of despair, where the residents have been waiting forever to have the burned down and abandoned homes on their block finally removed. I have never seen such disinvestment in a major American city. There are blocks where there are so many destroyed properties that it made me think that this is not just a recent phenomenon, but a decade-by-decade stripping away of the core and life of the city. Yet on a Sunday morning on Detroit’s East Side, I saw dozens of African-Americans in Detroit wearing the same styles of clothing – from fancy hats – to sharkskin suits – that I saw in my native Cleveland and personally experienced as a child. While shooting photos of a dead house on a side street near the church I am referring to – which had a huge man working as a armed security outside wearing a bullet proof vest and carrying a massive handgun, I overheard Motown music hits playing. There was a woman in her early sixties on her front porch, enjoying the early morning summer sun in the Midwest, while reliving her days of youth when Detroit was swinging with all night block parties that celebrated the elevation of the Detroit sound into the world of popular American music. Nearby I also saw men driving everything from a 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood to a Buick Electra 225 (“A Deuce and A Quarter”) and 1960’s Thunderbirds. I could see that Detroit is much more like Cleveland that I had imaged, and nothing at all like Chicago, even in its heyday in the 1940s. My project will continue to document the disintegrating urban landscape of Detroit, and report upon new shoots of growth and life such as in Detroit’s Corktown.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

During my second trip to Detroit I came to realize much more of the degrees of destruction the city had experienced. It became apparent that there had been successive waves of economic disruption to working class neighborhoods, in the form of two and three mile long factory shutdowns that started at the end of WWII when Detroit was no longer the war machine manufacturer for the US military. Between 1947 and 1963, Detroit lost over 100,000 factory jobs. Working class homes made of wood were built on what now appears to be farmland, as were the factories themselves. There is also a haunting feeling of nature returning with an unbelievable force, to reclaim a part of the earth that it lost when concrete was poured over it to create streets and roads. While in Detroit in August I drove by homes where women were sitting on their porches while listening to the sound of Motown songs from the 1960’s. Motown was played in a Kentucky Fried Chicken where I stopped for lunch. People coming from church were dressed like I remember from the 1960’s, when I myself wore a sharkskin suit to church. There are entire streets of abandoned houses. There are clusters of burned down houses on hundreds of city blocks, which no longer look like city blocks but more like small town neighborhoods with a few houses still standing. I said to myself while there – what would it be like to live on a block where all of the other properties were destroyed? What would it be like to walk outside to a barren block with no street lights? Yet of the many people I spoke to while I was there, none seemed ready to give up home and leave. What also seems to have happened is that no one was held responsible for the abandoned properties, which later were destroyed during two decades of Hell Night, where crazed Greater Detroit residents rode into Detroit proper and set the city on fire, then blamed the citizens in town for the city’s destruction. Another thing I want to point out is that I first visited Detroit in 1977. I drove there from Cleveland, where I grew up. I had been to Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Buffalo and Minneapolis. I had never seen any place that was as beaten down as Detroit was then. I recall saying that it looked like the riots had just happened – but they had happened a decade before. The ragged and burned out buildings were still there, unlike in Cleveland, which had torn them down. During this trip I was in Chicago for a few days at an artist retreat before arriving in Detroit. Chicago does not look like Detroit. It has a much more refined layering of dramatic architecture. It also mows down derelict buildings. It is clearly evident that Greater Chicago loves their city. It is also clear that Greater Detroit does not care about Detroit dying. Of course there are many dead cities in the US – Camden, East St. Louis, Gary, Indiana; but there are also completely devastated smaller cities in Michigan that when whole were never as broken as these places. I’m talking about Grand Rapids, and Flint, Michigan. Detroit gets all of the attention, yet there are tens of thousands of blown up homes throughout the entire midwest. Maybe photographing in those cities will bring them more attention. We’ll see.

Vincent Johnson
in Los Angeles

During the last days of May and early days of June, 2013 I visited and took photographs in San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City and Houston. This is what struck me about my visit to Detroit: The astounding Henry Ford Museum – with its actual enormous Industrial Revolution machinery, the dazzling Charles Wright African-American History Museum, which has a sculptural display of what African slaves looked like on a ship from to the new World, and the total gem laden Detroit Institute of the Arts – whose extensive collection of contemporary art were a great surprise, was how there seemed to be an utter abandonment of the city. Whole avenues of derelict buildings. Historic office towers in downtown Detroit missing all of their windows. Yet in Detroit’s Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, a small collection of great yet casual bars and restaurants has formed in the shadow of the mammoth, dead Detroit Train Station.

What I had just seen in San Francisco, the Tenderloin was a densely populated zone of homeless persons who are provided a vast array of humane services. While massive and rapid gentrification is happening – with stunning new cocktail bars opening seemingly every week. Downtown Detroit is no more beaten down than San Francisco’s Tenderloin. What is different is the degree of investment into the area, from having the entire district protected by the National Register of Historic Places, because of its 1950’s jazz scene, to creating one of the most cool neighborhoods in which to party into the night in all of America. I know that Detroit has a phenomenal jazz festival, international auto show, and a mind-blowing 40,000 car show of every kind known to humanity. Yet I ask how can it be that Detroit, once the richest city in the world in the 1950’s, could have allowed itself to fall completely apart, yet at once have maintained its roaring rich suburban enclaves, where the executive class worked, while the inner city folk toiled in the endless factories, plants, mills, refineries. Detroit’s footprint is larger than Cleveland. Its land area is 139 square miles, while Cleveland is 78 square miles, same as Brooklyn.

I went to art school at Pratt in Brooklyn during the 1980’s, I have a distinct recollection of how deadly and dangerous, raw and rotten Brooklyn, and even most of Manhattan were at that time. Yet somehow even half or more of evil old gangster paradise Brooklyn has become a hipster paradise, Chicago is an Alpha City of the highest order – even with loosing a quarter of its residents. It’s a dead town in terms of manufacturing, but a lively dynamo that has transformed even a bit of the South Side into a world of gorgeous condos, superb bars, phenomenal cooking in great world-class restaurants, international level shopping.

Now for me Chicago always had the best housing stock of any major U.S. city, with double pane lead glass windows and countless classy elements built right into their stellar apartment buildings. So much so that during the 1980’s it was difficult to tell what a bad neighborhood was – because besides the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green,many gangland areas in Chicago had just as great a set of dwellings as did the far more affluent neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, both on Chicago’s North Side. I lived in Chicago as an art student at the Art Institute of Chicago in Wicker Park. There were cheap places to eat. One place sold a foot long sausage on a bun and a paper bag loaded with hot French Fries for a couple of dollars. A Mexican food place sold meat stuffed sweet and white potatoes for a dollar. The area was historic and forlorn, and over the next decade became one of the most exciting places to live in the country. This happening of course after the tidal wave of gentrification washed over cities such as Portland, Seattle, Austin, but also Pittsburg, Miami Beach, Houston. How this tidal wave of gentrification by its local citizens missed Detroit is my question.

If you look at downtown Los Angeles, you see what I am saying. Downtown LA was considered an off-limits no mans land for more than 50 years. Sometime during the last five to ten years, a fire was lit under several of the locals, who decided to transform downtown Los Angeles into a high-end bars and upscale restaurants playground, in the midst of generational homelessness on Main Street, that featured as many as a hundred thousand people. So in may ways downtown Los Angeles is like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, ragged but also highly polished, defeated and forgotten yet being refreshed, invigorated and given a new life in a renovated and often restored physical body. Let me now speak to what is happening in Cleveland, which looks a lot like Detroit, but on a smaller scale, with many fewer homes burned to the ground, despite what I saw and recorded there as one of the most frightening scenes of American private family architectural collapse. In the center of Cleveland’s East Side, there is a five avenue wide, 50 block deep new building program happening that is taking control of dead city blocks with a single house on it. Brand new 4,000 – 8,000 square foot homes for urban professionals working in the nearby world-class Cleveland Clinic are giving dead zones a complete rebirth.

So I ask, outside of Corktown’s stellar model transformation, which is such a draw that taxis bring in folk from downtown hotels, did I just miss these type of transformations in Detroit, when driving along its historic corridors of Michigan and Woodward avenues and beyond, or it is actually the case that the Detroit locals who are sitting on major paper from a century of automobile production, just cannot bring themselves to invest in their city because of it being the homes of generations of inner city working class African-Americans. I have no idea what the real and total answer is, but I did get a kick out of seeing luxury sports car owners, including a drop-top Testarosa, touring the same ruins in downtown Detroit that I was also witnessing.

Detroit Photograph - Destroyed Home # 100

Detroit Photograph - Destroyed Home # 100

Detroit Photograph - Destroyed House No. 102

Detroit Photograph - Destroyed House No. 102

Detroit Photograph - Retired Abandoned Mister Softee Truck

Detroit Photograph - Retired Abandoned Mister Softee Truck

Detroit Photograph - Dead Car Parked in Brush

Detroit Photograph - Dead Car Parked in Brush

Detroit Photograph - Michigan Train Station - Corktown Hero

Detroit Photograph - Michigan Train Station - Corktown Hero

Detroit Photograph - Detroit House in Back to Nature Setting - With Tire

Detroit Photograph - Detroit House in Back to Nature Setting - With Tire

Detroit Photograph - Front Porch Living Room Window

Detroit Photograph - Front Porch Living Room Window

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Candy Store

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Candy Store

Detroit Photograph - Collapsed Porch

Detroit Photograph - Collapsed Porch

Detroit Photograph - Mercury Bar - Corktown

Detroit Photograph - Mercury Bar - Corktown

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Collapsed Apartment Building

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Collapsed Apartment Building

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Purple Fun House

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Purple Fun House

Detroit Photograph - Triangle House Burned to Foundation with Stairs

Detroit Photograph - Triangle House Burned to Foundation with Stairs

Detroit Photograph - Outlaws Detroit Office

Detroit Photograph - Outlaws Detroit Office

Detroit Photograph - Sledgehammer Creates Doorway

Detroit Photograph - Sledgehammer Creates Doorway

Detroit Photograph - Faygo Pop Painted Sign

Detroit Photograph - Faygo Pop Painted Sign

Detroit Photograph - Fire Window

Detroit Photograph - Fire Window

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Factory Scrapped

Detroit Photograph - Detroit Factory Scrapped

Detroit Photograph - Wall Remains of Blue Detroit Home

Detroit Photograph - Wall Remains of Blue Detroit Home

Detroit Photograph - Free Couch

Detroit Photograph - Free Couch

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