Feral houses in the fallen city

November 4, 2010

A few weeks ago I traveled to Detroit with friends who wanted to show us their hometown of Wyandotte, Michigan, just south of the city. We stayed in a former Navy officers club on Grosse Ile, walked through Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, then drove in to see a baseball game.

But that's it. That's all we saw. We completely bypassed the infamous, abandoned tragedy that is Detroit 2010. We thought about the gutted neighborhoods as we sped past them on the interstate, thought about those who are pulling scrap out of abandoned buildings for a few bucks, those who are missing out on an education, those who have no access to a grocery store or doctor or modern bathroom. We stayed on the freeways and traveled the sports fans' well-marked path to the stadium.

Even if we had taken a tour of Detroit, where would we have gone? What would our friends have shown us? Perhaps the most important admission is that we did not know where not to go, and that many places in Detroit are dangerous.

But Jim Griffioen is not afraid, or if he is, he overcomes it. Griffioen has become the chronicler of Detroit in demise. He and his family live in the city, and he regularly visits its gutted neighborhoods or former neighborhoods with his camera. His photos of feral houses--his term for the 10,000 or so abandoned homes in Detroit--have drawn a following. Warning: they are not easy to view, especially all at once.

Adding to the awful silence of these photographs is the thicket of foliage and trees that is growing around and into many of these houses--because city mowers (if they show up at all) leave a wide berth, as if they don't want to get too close. In one photo after another, building skeletons sit as if collapsing because those who animated them have fled. The houses are mournful witnesses to a time when there were families here, and lovers, old people and infants--and tears and laughter and the tedium of daily life. Take Griffioen's photographs in small doses; too many at one time might convince you that we're in a national state of emergency re: our cities.

But this isn't all the news from Detroit. Some neighborhoods have been re-inhabited by artists, chefs and other creative types. Century advertising manager Heidi Baumgaertner, who pointed me to Griffioen's work, visited friends in one such neighborhood several years ago. She reports that one couple was living in a house with a collapsed roof--the first floor was safe and comfortable. They were content to tolerate the flaw because of the low rent. Other chefs and artists had settled in, and they often got together for laughter and good food.

There are other bits of good news. The New York Times recently featured Philip Cooley, a Detroit restaurateur who's made a great success of Slows Bar B Q, located at the edge of downtown, and is sharing his passion for redevelopment by becoming a spokesperson and leader for business revitalization.

Then there are the Christian communities that have stayed in town to serve those who've been left behind in Detroit's great exodus. In a quick search I found Central United Methodist, Fort Street Presbyterian, Genesis Lutheran (a merger of three churches) and St. Peter's Episcopal. These and other faith communities are fighting against the encroaching feral environment of poverty, homelessness, unemployment.

No one expects these efforts to resurrect a city that's been marked with a big, sad "X" by the entire country. But some hear a persistent call to leave the freeways, whether to record the urban apocalypse, make a new home, attempt to staunch some of the despair and hunger, or to be advocates for those who've been abandoned.


Feral houses in the fallen city

Thanks for the blog. You might also add the work that Historic Trinity Lutheran Church is doing in Detroit.
As one who grew up in Detroit and later pastored a church there, it is very difficult to go back to my "section" of town. In fact the last time I did went back my wife was so scared she said, loudly, "Let's get out of here." It was so difficult to see the house in which I was raised. I've been taught to consider those who are less fortunate and I agree with the premise(s) that Harrington made in his book, The Other America. And, I hope I'm doing something to help as I volunteer time tutoring kids, in another "little Detroit"city. But, sometimes I get angry when I think about how the beautiful home in which I grew up has been so destroyed by the new occupants, and I wonder why it had to be so. Bob Gibson


For a real eye opener, drive east on Jefferson out of Detroit and into Grosse Pointe. It's one of the paths I always follow when I'm showing folks around Detroit. The difference between the ravaged and derilect buildings and the pristine lawns within a few hundred yards of each other is startling.
Rev. Nancy W. Carle
Monroe, Michigan
formerly of Windsor, Ontario


This morning I've been searching for old friends, David and Nancy Carle. I'm hoping you are the Nancy that was a music prof at ABC in Moncton. You've been on my mind for the last while. Hope you are well.
Sheila Thomas

startling indeed

Dramatic indeed. There is an actual physical wall along much of that border with streets closed and blocked. Moreover, Grosse Pointers can use Belle Isle and all of Detroit's parks and museums, but Detroiters are excluded from The gated parks of the Pointes. If folks from Grosse Pointe cross into the city they will not be profiled by Detroit cops, but adds are Detroiters will be should the venture too far east. The defense against dereliction is firm.