Finding "Lost Detroit" Among the Ruins
“Every building in Detroit has a story.”
And, thankfully, Dan Austin and Sean Doerr are the storytellers. Austin, 29, is the main wordsmith. Doerr, 20, is the photographer. Together, their not-for-profit “Buildings of Detroit” web site gives life to edifices otherwise left for dead. It is required reading if you've ever taken a ride on the People Mover and wondered,” What's that building?” or “Why is something so breathtaking left to virtually rot?” (More on Time.com: See pictures of the remains of Detroit)
Austin and Doerr also are the authors of newly released “Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins.” This amazing book tells the tales of 12 of Detroit's most stately structures “from the day they opened to the day they closed,” Austin writes. Highlights include Michigan Central Station, Vanity Ballroom, Cass Tech High School and more.
A self-professed history nerd, Austin accepted my challenge of chatting about the book, the view from his front porch (think giant, dilapidated train station) and his challenge to the billionaires who own these “ruins” all while patiently waiting for a 426-pound pallet of books to show up Tuesday. Thankfully, the books showed up – just in time for the Thursday release party at City Bird. (Austin also will be on WDET's Craig Fahle show today around 11 a.m. Tune in.) (More on Time.com: See why City Bird was opened in Detroit)
Read on, bibliophiles.
Some background from the BoD site: “BuildingsofDetroit.com is a two-person effort by historian, author and photographer Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr to spread awareness of Detroit's architectural history. The site has existed at the present domain since May 2006 but dates back to about 2004. By documenting buildings - both past and present day - we hope to raise awareness about preservation of our history and our landmarks, as well as bring attention to the threats to our city's architectural heritage, such as looting, vandalism, and demolition by neglect.” Also, Austin works at The Detroit Free Press. Doerr is a student at the College for Creative Studies.
Q: How did the book come about?
A: We had been running Buildings of Detroit.com for about five years. We were contacted by a publisher (History Press) who asked us if we were interested in putting out a book. So it wasn't our idea, but we were glad to do it. The hope here is that people who might not know of the web site but are interested in Detroit – via its architecture, they grew up here or they saw something on Dateline – can learn a little more about Detroit. Abandoned buildings have become synonymous with the Rust Belt, the fall of American manufacturing, crime. What we're trying to do with the book is educate. When people see these buildings, say they are going to Slow's Bar BQ and see Michigan Central Station, they realize it's unlike anything they have ever seen before. What we're trying to get people to realize there's a story behind every one of these buildings. People worked there, they played there, they met their future wives there. They took trains out of the Depot to go to war. They're not just abandoned buildings; they're a key piece in Detroit's story, Michigan's story and in many ways, America's story. (More on Time.com: See a TIME special on how Detroit lost its way)
Q: Do you feel like some of Detroit's best architecture is lost?
A: Yes, many of these buildings are lost. But the other thing people have lost is the stories. We were trying to do the buildings justice with the space we had. We settled on 12 of the 25 we wanted to do. We really had to whacked it down to make the book affordable; I had to cut the manuscript by 15,000 words. But if this one does okay, if it's well received, maybe we'll do another book. … One of the things I'm sensitive to is being accused us of jumping on the “ruin porn” thing. We're not trying to capitalize on Detroit's abandoned buildings. That's a different book. (Our goal) is that someone will see something like the Metropolitan Building in the book. It is a building not a lot of people know about but it one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire city, at least in terms of the exterior. By bringing it to people's attention, that might encourage people to swoop in and save it. Or at least care enough about coming in to save it.
Q: Is every one of Detroit's “ruins” majestic? What about that iconic Packard Plant?
A: We did not include the Packard; it is one of those big (symbols of Detroit's decline) to people. We passed on it for a number of reasons. For one, the place is just huge. It's so impossible to do it justice. It's also not an attractive building; it was a factory. The only decent looking thing was the entry, and that was removed and sold to the Packard Museum in Ohio. So it's not majestic. … At the same time, there are some buildings that are probably beyond saving. We address that. It's not a fiction piece. This is an honest, no-holds bar look at these buildings and preservation in general. I think that both Sean and and I are building huggers. The both us understand that you're not going to be able to save all of these. (More on Time.com: See 10 things to do in Detroit)
Q: Do these buildings serve any purpose?
A: We're hoping people will pick up the book learn a little bit more about not only the buildings but the city and hopefully instill a sense of pride. A lot of people in Detroit are embarrassed by Michigan Central Station. I can stand on my front porch and see it every day. I don't want to see it torn down, even if it's not saved. It's coming to terms with who we are and respecting it. I don't want these buildings to be seen as eyesores. … I'm also a journalist. When I graduated from college, I moved out to Manhattan, then Seattle. The whole time I was out there, my whole goal was to get back to Detroit. I'm a huge booster. I'm in it to win it. I bought a house in Detroit. I seldom go to the suburbs. I mean, rarely. I'm really committed. The people who (own and operate) Leopold's Books, City Bird, Inside Detroit – they're all my friends. It's a tight-knit group of people. We recognize (the passion) in each other, and we stick together. When the book was coming out, it was a no-brainer: I could help out and they could help me out by selling the book. This book wouldn't really be possible in other cities. It was all kind of grass roots.
Q: How did you become a “building hugger?”
A: The web site started on a whim; I was interning at the Free Press in 2001 or 2002, and I was on the People Mover. I had never really spent a lot of time in Detroit because I grew up in Milford (a small town in Oakland County) so I never really knew what living in the city was like. So when you're riding up above these post-Depression buildings, you wonder: What was that? There's this hotel in Grand Circus Park and the People Mover went completely around it. You were literally on eye level. And I'd ask people: “What was that?” And no one knew. That got me starting asking about that. There are a lot of these fascinating little nuggets that no one knows. (The web site) has gone a little crazy. It's interesting to look at your stats online, it's always interesting to see what people click on online. For me, I'm far more interested in building's that aren't here anymore, like old City Hall. But you've got people clicking on Hotel Charlevoix, which is across from Cliff Bells. These are people are coming downtown to go to Tigers games or the Park Bar and they want to know what this building is. We're trying to fill that void. (More on Time.com: See TIME's special report "The Committee To Save Detroit")
Q: Does this book and the web site defend Detroit?
A: I just wish I had more room to include more of these stories. Some of these stories are phenomenal. There are people here who either want to remember those memories or they want to learn about those memories. Whether it sells 500 copies or 5,000 doesn't really matter. It's about getting those stories out and being a counterbalance on negative attention on the city. “Dateline NBC” is the main offender. People trusted (reporter Chris Hansen) to tell the story, but then he goes and cribs the “Detroit Blog” piece about the raccoon story. This is a city of prideful people…We care. Yeah, you have people who throw their empty bag of garbage on the street. But there are those who are incredible prideful. You see an abandoned, burned-out hulk. I see one of the most beautiful train stations east of New York. Some 4,000 people worked each day in that building. I see the Grande Ballroom and think of how “Tommy” by The Who performed live for the first time in this building. Maybe we shouldn't tear it down. If we could have done this with the Lafayette building downtown, then maybe it would still be here. … If we could have given that building it's due, maybe people would have thought twice about it. But they just saw a building with graffiti and a tree growing out of it. … Some of these buildings are owned by billionaires (and) the city is the largest landlord. We're just trying to light a fire under these people.
To meet and greet the creators of "Lost Detroit," you can check them here:
The Craig Fahle Show WDET 101.9FM - Sept 15 11am.
City Bird - Sept. 16 4-9pm (release party)
U245 Gallery, College For Creative Studies - Sept. 23 12-2pm (book signing)
Baldwin Public Library, Birmingham - Nov. 21 2pm (presentation)
P.S. Challenge to anyone who made it this far in the post...Can you name the buildings in these five photos?
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- <a href="http://twitter.com/TheDetroitHouse" target="_blank" class="beforetweet">TheDetroitHouse</a> After a year of learning, observing and understanding, TIME says goodbye to Detroit. Podcast: All Good Things... http://shar.es/0V3I7 - 4 years ago
- <a href="http://twitter.com/TheDetroitHouse" target="_blank" class="beforetweet">TheDetroitHouse</a> Our Donation to Detroit http://shar.es/0FX2T - 4 years ago
- <a href="http://twitter.com/TheDetroitHouse" target="_blank" class="beforetweet">TheDetroitHouse</a> Read Kristy Erdodi's "How Detroit Became My Sexy City" http://bit.ly/9zG13z - 4 years ago
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