Urbex Mecca – Detroit

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Today’s guest post on Urbex Mecca - Detroit is by Brook Ward (Website|Facebook|Google+|500px|Flickr):

About me: Let me start by introducing myself.  I am photographer based out of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and enjoy underwater, sports and HDR photography.  Since I don’t get to scuba diving as often as I’d like, most of my photography is focused on landscape and architecture HDR work.  I know, I know….you don’t like HDR.  I get it and I understand it isn’t for everyone.  I practice HDR on the “softer side”, which I think gives it great color but isn’t over saturated.   You can see more of my work at http://brook-ward.com

Thanks: I’d like to thank Nikonrumors.com for featuring me a second time.  The last time my post was about Shark Photography -  you can see it here.  Anyway, I truly appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts, my experience and some pictures with you again.

Before I get into the main article, I have a few additional housekeeping items around location sensitivity and safety/danger:

Location Sensitivity: There is a very real sensitivity in the Urbex community about keeping abandoned facility locations a secret so that individuals don’t go to these spots to destroy the properties.  Everyone I know who participates in this kind of photography, loves and respects the sites.  They see the real beauty in the buildings, enjoy the history, and don’t want to see anyone destroy the site any faster than Mother Nature’s progress.  Basically the old phrase of…”take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but foot prints” fits Urbex photographers.   So normally, I wouldn’t give details on an abandoned building location unless it is already well know.  In this article, every spot I am talking about is very well know and a quick Internet search will provide anyone the location within seconds.  So I am okay with providing you some details here.  If you go, just respect the site and be safe.

Safety/Danger: Abandoned buildings, structures, facilities and campus’ can be very dangerous places.  Here is a incomplete list of concerns that everyone should know about, be prepared to deal with, and avoid:

Unsavory elements of society who also hang out at these locations.  These can range from homeless individuals with mental illnesses to gangs using these locations as a base of illegal activity.

Police who sometimes monitor these locations for the community’s safety, protect the land owner and to watch the individuals in the first bullet point

Wild animals…enough said.

The buildings themselves can be very dangerous as they are falling apart and may have substances that are dangerous to your health such as asbestos and hazardous chemicals.  So use common sense to avoid falling through a rotted floor, into an empty elevator shaft, or getting a substance on you or in you that could cause harm.

This list isn’t even close to a complete list of the dangers, but it gives you the big items to watch out for while at an abandoned facility.

Detroit Urbex: One element of architecture photography that I really enjoy is abandoned structures.  I just love exploring sites that haven’t been used in years, checking out the old architecture and construction styles, and discovering their current state as Mother Nature works toward restoring the land.  So I’ve want to hit Detroit for a few years.  Due to the economic crash in 2008, Detroit was devastated with massive unemployment, population decline, infrastructure issues, bankrupt city, and thousands of abandoned homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings, factories, etc…  Before Detroit started to make a come back (which I hope will happen), I wanted to get there and experience what has become the worldwide mecca for urbex photographers.  Below you’ll find what I hope is entertaining and a summary of our experience photographing this once great city (and maybe great again some day).

Last summer I had a few vacation days to burn, so I contacted a fellow photographer friend and urbex admirer to see if he wanted to join me on this trip for safety reasons.  I didn’t think it would hurt that he is a former football player.  He was willing, able, and excited about it, but I warned him that I wanted to do some serious shooting.  I wanted to use every possible moment we had to capture as much as possible.  His response was perfect; he stated he was “prepared to work”.  And we did!

In advance of the trip, we did some scouting via the Internet and I contacted some local Detroit photographers to get some tips.  Armed with a photography shot/location list, some history on the sites, and local advice we hit the road.  We arrived in Detroit around noon on the first day and quickly checked into our hotel.  We left within minutes to hit the first and our highest priority location…the abandoned Packard Automotive Plan, which is a huge (3.5 million square feet on 40 acres) site.  This is the former automobile-manufacturing factory where luxury Packard cars were made and later Studebakers’.  It opened in 1903 and closed in 1958, although a few other businesses used parts of it until the late 1990s.

We started at the southern end of this site and waited for an opportunity to enter the massive campus when the coast was clear.  While in the buildings, we ran into a homeless guy who wanted to give us a tour, a few other photographers and a small group of college kids who looked scared of us….  We didn’t end up leaving this site until after sunset at around 830pm and saw less then 10% of the complex.  We had an amazing time exploring the multi-level buildings (most at around 7 stories tall) that go on and on for about 10 large city blocks.  The campus is probably a mile long and quarter mile wide.  Most of the campus was originally used for manufacturing of automobiles, but it also had administrative office space.  This history of this facility is outstanding and as an Urbex photographer, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Packard Automotive Plant:

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Following that experience we ran back to our hotel to clean up and get something to eat quick.  I was careful not to track elements of the abandoned facilities back into my hotel room and bagged my dirty clothes so that nothing evil got on my clean items.  Then it was back out into the city for some night photography.  We went straight to the General Motors World Headquarters on the Detroit River facing Windsor Canada on the other side.  We explored the main level of this massive building, taking photos as we went.  Until…we were stopped by security that informed us it is okay to photography the artwork and cars, but not the building interior.   I guess they thought we looked like terrorists or something……  So we did what any photographer would do, we went outside to photograph the exterior of building.

General Motors Headquarters:

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It was at this point, around 1am that disaster struck.  My urbex partner dropped his camera and destroyed his D610 DLSR body and Nikon 14-24mm 2.8f lens.  Double ouch!!  So we called it a night and went back to the hotel.

Early the next morning, we hit the streets to visit the legendary Michigan Central Train Station.  My buddy was using his backup camera and lens at this point for obvious reasons.  The Michigan Central Train Station was fenced off and we couldn’t get access (if a place is locked up, we don’t break in), because they were filming portions of the new Batman movie inside the building.  To bad, it looked cool from the outside and I’d love to see the inside.  Who knows, maybe the owner will see this article and contact me to provide access.  Call me!!

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Immediately behind this building there is a neighborhood that’s in rough shape.  We explored it primarily to photography some of the wonderful graffiti on the buildings and walls.

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At just before lunch, we went to St. Agnes church on the west side of Detroit.  At this site another friend, local Detroit photographer, joined us.  This site had a number of explorers already inside when we arrived.  We all did our own thing and had a great time photographing the inside of the cathedral, rectory and the abandoned catholic school behind the church.  Again, Detroit didn’t let me down.  These structures were beautiful in their own way and I enjoyed every minute we spent here.  We finished here mid afternoon and we were starving.  So we made a quick run to Mexicantown for lunch.  Along the way, we spotted several abandoned buildings that we wanted to go explore.  And we did after lunch.  That’s the beauty of Detroit, you can’t go anywhere without finding some abandoned structure worth exploring.  At least, I think that’s a cool thing.

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Following lunch, we went back to the locations we spotted on the way to lunch.  We started with another abandoned church called King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church.  This church had a school attached to it and we explored both portions of the building.  At one time this church must have had massive expansion needs, because we discovery that it was a church within a church.  On the outside it was a church like you’d expect to see with the school attached.  But once you got inside, we discovered that it was once a smaller church.  The original church was built and then later they expanded the facility by just building a larger structure around the outside of the original church.  So on the inside you could see the walls and architecture of the original church.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Cool find.

King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church:

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Once we were finished at that church, we stopped at a 15 story abandoned Lee Plaza Hotel and spent about 4 hours here exploring every floor except for the last four floors.  That’s my only regret with this trip, we should have gone to the top.  This hotel has an awesome ballroom.

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We wrapped up here at dusk and went back to the hotel for another quick stop to clean up and get some food.  Then it was right back out into Detroit to photograph Comerica Park, while the Detroit Tigers were playing.  We wandered around the outside of the stadium and went to the top of numerous parking garages to photograph Detroit from higher angles.

It was another late night of capturing as much as possible with our limited time.  The next and last morning, we got up early again and went straight to an abandoned meat packing plant.  We spent a few hours here and captured some photos, but it wasn’t my favorite spot.  Basically, it didn’t have much character left after it was cleaned out.

Following that spot, we went directly to the Eastern Market.  This area has a huge farmers market and lots of cool businesses of all types in the surrounding area.  The really cool thing about this location, is that they actually invite the best graffiti artist from around the world to come here and do their magic.  So you can walk around for hours looking at one huge, outstanding graffiti spot after another.  They were just one right after another and I doubt you’ll find many places in the world with this many high quality graffiti paintings.  They were unbelievable.

Graffiti in the Eastern Market area:

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That took us to around lunch and we had to hit the road to get back to Pittsburgh.  We had a great time, saw some wonderful sites and captured a ton of photos.  I hope you enjoyed reading about this trip, as much as I did sharing it with you.  Even better, I hope (if you like Urbex) you get a chance to visit Detroit yourself.  Stay safe.

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