Report - Exploring Detroit, April 2017

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28DL Regular User
Regular User
Jun 5, 2009
'Have you been to Detroit?'

Unless you've been living under a rock your entire life, everyone knows of Detroit. When I tell people I go to America to explore, 'have you been to Detroit' is usually the very first question out of their mouth. I had wanted to explore Detroit ever since I started planning my first trip, but organising contacts and stuff in the city never worked out one way or another, so I had to wait until spring last year until I could finally cross the city off my 'to do' list. I had already explored in Gary, Indiana twice which is kind of like a pint-sized Detroit and suffered a similar fate from the closing of most of the industry and white flight, so I really had no excuse to not go to Detroit.

Luckily I was able to organise a few days roadtrip with my friends from Buffalo in Western New York who had been before, which is a long old drive but the long journeys are all part of the adventure to me. Now don't get me wrong, Detroit is a very dangerous city if you don't know what you're doing. It's somewhere you need to be on your guard more so than anywhere else I've been as there are so many added risks to exploring in the city. The Police are heavily cracking down on explorers for one thing, which is why we steered clear of many of the most well-known spots, and in some areas there is a very real threat of being robbed in buildings as gangs are known to lie in wait for photographers and have their gear off them. Thankfully we had no such trouble, although it was a little nervy when one of our group decided she wanted to shoot the outsides of some houses at dusk....

Given the above info, I was a little apprehensive about the city on the journey there but all that changed on arrival. It's one of those places I instantly gelled with, and I haven't felt that about a city since NYC and Chicago. The city is crazy, there is no other word to describe it, but in a mad, great, brilliant way. Although we stayed out of it, there is a crazy contradiction between the downtown which is all shiny skyscrapers and hugely expensive, contrasted with the bombed out ruined derelict neighbourhoods nestled right up to it. And then after travelling north through the ruins of neighbourhoods you emerge in the middle class white suburbia that is Dearborn, where we were staying. Dearborn also has a middle eastern meat market/restaurant that does the best barbecued meat I have ever, ever had. One of the best meals I have ever eaten.

We arrived in the city late in the afternoon and after checking in to the hotel headed straight to our first location. It was a church located right on the edge of a ruined, mostly cleared neighbourhood, surrounded on all sides by abandoned houses, with the closest inhabited house a good couple of hundred metres away.

Second location, second church. This large church occupies a prominent position on a busy main arterial road through the city, and as such since closure in 2008 it has been a magnet for undesirables. However I loved the decay in here, it was beautifully ruined. The entrance was rather funny too as dumped right by the access point was a new Dodge Charger, stripped of all it's parts and quite obviously stolen...

The next day dawned and three of us woke up nice and early to go do something I had wanted to do for a long time - shoot the sunrise from the top of the Boblo Island Warehouse on the banks of the river that forms the border between America and Canada. The Boblo Island Warehouse, also known by it's official name as the Detroit Harbor Terminal, is a ten storey, 900,000 square feet former cold storage facility - it's referred to as the Boblo Island Warehouse because of the huge mural on one side advertising the former Boblo Island Ferry service.

We arrived and after a scramble through the fence and a slide through the one and only access point we were in. After ascending what seemed like a million flights of stairs we eventually got to the roof just in time, and it was awesome being able to see two countries from one rooftop. On the roof you had to be very careful as the border police patrol the river in boats and it's very exposed but luckily we were fine. Inside was very samey floor-by-floor but it had an awesome power plant attached to the side which was the other thing I wanted to see.

America on the left, Canada on the right.

After that industrial excursion it was back to churches. The Bethany Lutheran Church suffered a major fire in 2016, which was believed to have been started when a burning ember from a house fire a few blocks away landed on the roof of the structure. The roof and upper level was largely destroyed, and it was demolished at the end of last year.

The next and final church was another Lutheran one with a silly long name I can't remember.

Our penultimate Detroit explore was a fomer ballroom located above a block of abandoned shops. This was easily one of the most unstable locations I've ever explored, with catastrophic water damage leading to large collapses of walls and very bad floors. We chose the most stupid risky way in possible then realised the front door was unlocked on street level which would have avoided near death....

Our last Detroit explore was easily the most memorable. The only kind of location people are serious about protecting in Detroit are their schools, as a lot are historic buildings and can easily be turned into apartments. As such all abandoned schools come under care of DPS, Detroit Public Schools, for disposal to buyers, and a lot of them are kitted out with alarms and cameras and have all doors and windows covered with metal VPS shutters. However when one is sold the owners can lapse on the security and that happened here, with Cooley High School.

Cooley is widely considered one of the grandest schools in all of Detroit, but it's sale meant security lapsed, the alarms were turned off and it allowed a window for explorers to get in before the scrappers and looters. We had tried it earlier in the day but were put off by a city workers van parked around the back so left it until the late afternoon to go back. We parked behind a fairly shady looking cheque cashing shop that was on the edge of the school and after we sent in one of the group to check for access a Cadillac Escalade turned up and parked almost next to us, and the driver was met by someone else who appeared from round a corner. Escalades are driven almost exclusively by druglords or gang members so we sent our buddy a message to stay put and we were gonna see what happened. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, we decided to move the car and try another angle, and we moved maybe five feet before being beckoned to stop by the guy who was talking to the guy in the Escalade.

At this point we thought oh shit, but he called over 'hey you guys wanna go shoot the school?', to which we replied yes, and the guy said something like 'go ahead, burn it down if you want to I don't give a shit'. So long story short we ended up talking to the guy who arrived in the Escalade and the other guy for about fifteen minutes, it turned out they were the owners of the shop! They looked like the kind of people you wouldn't want to meet on a dark street at night but turned out to be really nice, to us at least. They loved the fact I was British as well of course. The only bad thing was he said we shouldn't leave the car behind their shop after 6pm when the store closed, as chances are it would be ransacked. So we ended up only having about 45 minutes in the school, which sucked, but we ran around as much as we could keeping an eye on the time. When we emerged back into the car park they were still there, so we chatted a bit more and admired the owners Lincoln Continental convertible a lot, and were on our way.

In October last year the gorgeous auditorium was completely gutted by a huge fire.

I really hope to make it back to Detroit at some point.

Thanks for looking :)
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28DL Regular User
Regular User
Jun 5, 2009
Keep them coming. I'm really enjoying these and this is no exception. That school is something else mate.
The school is the best school I have ever seen, I only wish circumstances had been different and we had more time in it, as we missed the old gymnasium among other things. When the owner of the shop warned us to not leave our car there past 6pm we wholeheartedly believed him, as next to where we'd parked were two cars that had been smashed up and obviously just left abandoned. Maybe I'll be able to go back next time, although when I heard the auditorium had been comprehensively destroyed I was so gutted, as all my photos of it sucked ass. Sadly as soon as word gets around that schools in Detroit are explorable they don't stay very good for very long as it's kind of a race between the photographers and those who only want to tear the places apart.