Excerpt from "The Future that Never Took Place: Exploring Detroit’s Abandoned Buildings." First published in Meanjin 72.4 (2013). To see images of some of the places mentioned in this excerpt, visit Detroit Urbex. To read the rest of this essay, purchase this issue of Meanjin.
I arrive late at a Detroit diner on a hot October morning in 2011. I’m here to meet an urban explorer who takes photographs of the city’s abandoned buildings. Trusting in the flimsiest of arrangements, all made via email, I’ve come to Detroit from Australia to meet this guy, who goes only by the name of DetroitUrbex. I don’t know his real name, or if he works alone, or even if ‘he’ is a he. I only know that he takes remarkable photographs of an increasingly emptied city, photos that have compelled me to learn more about him and Detroit. I’m not a journalist, and I’ve never interviewed anyone before. But I want to write a story about this guy. At the very least I want to meet him.
I’m usually unfashionably early for appointments, but this morning I’m running twenty minutes late. I don’t have DetroitUrbex’s number, so I’m relieved to spot the sign for the diner, Duly’s. As I swing open the door and step inside, five men turn to face me. I’ve accidentally walked into the Mexican barbershop next door to Duly’s.
‘Hi,’ I say to the silent assembled men, ‘I’m in entirely the wrong place.’
I hightail it next door to the diner. This time, ten male heads swivel towards me from the long counter. No-one waves or gestures. No-one gives any indication I’m in the right spot at all. It’s a long slip of a diner with counter seating only. I order a Coke and take a moment to settle and collect myself.
I consider the possibility that DetroitUrbex has already left. Maybe he’s late. Maybe he saw me go into the barbershop like a fool and is ignoring me now. I look briefly through the glass storefront to the street, then back to the illuminated menu on the wall in front of me. Prices here are frozen in time; you can buy a pancake breakfast for $2.25.
It’s only now that I’m inside and out of the heat that I realise how hot it is outside. I swipe at the sweat that trickles from my short hair to the neck of my T-shirt. A few seats down from me, a young, white, bearded man leans forward into the counter and looks across at me. He nods. It’s DetroitUrbex.
Urban exploration, or ‘urbex’, can be described as ‘seeking out, visiting and documenting interesting human-made spaces, most typically abandoned buildings, construction sites, active buildings, stormwater drains, utility tunnels and transit tunnels’. That’s the definition given by Jeff Chapman, aka Ninjalicious, a Canadian explorer who literally wrote the book on urbex with his guide Access All Areas. Urban exploring is a kind of subculture. Explorers connect online to swap locations, tips and warnings. They share pictures and videos on blogs, Flickr, and YouTube. Some serious photographers turn their explorations into coffee-table books, such as Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit, and Dan Austin and Sean Doerr’s Lost Detroit.
What DetroitUrbex does is not new, exactly. But there is something understated and striking about his photographs. They are simple, unsentimental pictures of abandoned places. He displays his lovingly crafted and meticulous photographs on his website and unlike most other photographers he gives a sense of historical perspective with his ‘Then and Now’ photographs, in which he splices together a historical image of, say, a classroom as it looked filled with students in the 1980s and a current image of the same location. The effect is both heart-warming and devastating.
Perhaps most striking of all are his pictures of an abandoned seven-storey building in a high school called Cass Tech. Paint peels from walls in great curling flakes. A gymnasium’s water-damaged wooden floor buckles into knee-high wooden waves. An empty dance hall is strewn with forgotten papers, notes, cardboard boxes. But now, on DetroitUrbex’s site, embedded in the picture of the ruined gym is an earlier photo of basketball players, lively and vibrant in the unruined gym, perhaps in the 1980s or 1990s. A basketball and a basketball player hang in midair forever, unaware of the encroaching ruin. And so it goes on: we see picture after picture of unruined spaces embedded in other images of what they have since become. Svetlana Boym writes that ‘ruins make us think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place’. That is what these pictures do, too—but they also show us the future that did take place. The images are even more striking when you discover that the building was demolished in 2011.
DetroitUrbex captures two different lost pasts in one image, a kind of dual haunting. What sort of person is he, I wondered as I pored over these images in Brisbane, and what has brought him to be an unofficial caretaker of abandoned places? Why does he do this?