The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit [www.detroitYes.com]
A study of collections and social systems on the World Wide Web

Tom Vollaro - Email / Website

   
The razing of the Hudson's department store - Source: Lowell Boileau

 

We will probably be judged not be the monuments we build
but by those we have destroyed.

-          New York Times Editorial, Oct. 30, 1963

Introduction

Since the end of World War II, the social fabric of Americaís cities has been undergoing significant changes.  A multitude of factors, such as the national dependence on the automobile and social strife in the inner cities, has led to a monumental exodus from the typical American city to the suburbs.  Over time, this mass departure has left many city centers with a significant number of abandoned monuments, some of them architectural and historic treasures.  There is perhaps no better poster-child for this late twentieth-century American urban exodus than Detroit.  The city that introduced America to the automobile and mass production has become a victim of its own successes.  Many of the factories, mansions, theaters, and other extravagant community projects signifying Detroitís bygone golden era lie in ruin.  The Web photo collection entitled The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit has become not only a striking anthology of these decrepit monuments, but also a vibrant social forum in which many actors vent their frustrations, exultations, and hopes about the future of their city.  This paper tells the story of how one artistís hobby evolved into a virtual soapbox where hundreds of visitors debate the future of Detroitís fabulous ruins.

Methods and Intent

This paper will explore The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website from various angles.  First, I examined the larger historic context that led to the creation of the collection, as well as the smaller social microcosm that formed after its inception.  For the former, I researched various facets of Detroitís urban history; including the effects of Henry Fordís revolution in mass production, the riots of 1967, and the recent attempts to revitalize the city.  I then analyze the actual collection in terms of its provenance, structure, and genre.  Finally, I will explore the social system that has grown around the website including the audience, purpose, and actual use.  To better understand the social system, I immersed myself in the forum section, read hundreds of posts, and posted a survey on the forum and received fifteen responses.  I also conducted an email interview with the siteís creator, Lowell Boileau. 

Social and Historical Context

This collection of over 700 photos exists within the historical context of Detroitís rise and fall as an industrial metropolis.   Detroitís manufacturing history dates back to well before the introduction of the assembly line in 1908.  The city produced munitions for the Civil War as well as hundreds of metal and chemical products during Reconstruction.  During the early twentieth century, Henry Ford, and other automobile innovators, put Detroit well ahead of other industrial cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  While demand for auto workers rose rapidly,  restrictive immigration laws brought on a mass migration of workers from the rural South, many of them African Americans.  (Farley, Danziger & Holzer, 2000) 

The war efforts of World War I and II centered on Detroitís manufacturing firmsí ability to rapidly produce vehicles and airplanes.  The soaring demand for automobiles in postwar America further bolstered the cities reputation and wealth.  This wealth was not only evident in the enormous factories, but in the development of the cultural center as well.  The money from the auto industry paid for the Detroit Public Library, Institute of Art, and many opulent theaters such as the Fox, Michigan, and National.  The city also experienced a booming commercial sector to serve the tastes of the upper class.  The city boasts over 40 pre-Depression skyscrapers, the nationís third largest after New York and Chicago. (Gratz, 1999)  Many of them are abandoned and are facing the inevitable wrecking ball.  The implosion of one particularly significant structure, the  J.L. Hudson department store, graces the front page of the Fabulous Ruins website.

Throughout its history, Detroit has suffered from a significant split between the wealthy and poor, a split which also follows strict racial lines. Although the public schools were integrated legally in 1869, the school districts were highly segregated by residential demographics well into the twentieth century.  (Farley, et al.)  There was also a long history of animosity between the police and the African American community of inner-city Detroit.  Years of tensions exploded in late July of 1967 when Detroit police raided a ìblind pig,î an establishment that served alcohol after hours, in a black neighborhood.  A crowd gathered and the police lost control of the situation.  The crisis spiraled as looters took to the streets and fires broke out around the city and the National Guard was called in and the city was shut down.  Three days later forty-three had died, thirty-three blacks and ten whites. (Farley, et al.)   What followed was a relatively rapid migration of whites to the suburbs around the city. 

These events solidified an outward migration that began before the turn of the century.  Henry Ford himself started this concentric migration by locating his factories further and further from the city center.  The factory workers, many of whom already lived in ethnic enclaves outside of the city, now did not even have to commute into Detroit for work.  The automobile, the engine of Detroitís wealth, began to dictate its infrastructure.  In the 1930ís many avenues in the inner city were broadened to a pedestrian-unfriendly ten lanes.  Later, during the postwar interstate building boom, two major highways crisscrossed Detroit in the name of ìbad building and slum clearance.î (Gratz) 

The exodus of whites to the suburbs, combined with Detroitís dependence on the automobile, left a void in the center of the city.  Many of the buildings that epitomized the golden age of Detroit had already been abandoned due to age and had fallen into disrepair.  Many African Americans saw these buildings as a painful reminder of discrimination and hard times. (Gratz) As businesses fled the inner city there seemed to be no hope of saving many of them.  To make matters worse, the city government, desperate to revitalize the inner-city, has been demolishing many of these architecturally significant monuments to create real estate to attract new development.  To date, Detroit has 10,000 to 12,000 abandoned buildings, more than any other major city in America. (McWhirter, 2001)  Many of these buildings must be demolished to make room for valid redevelopment.  Over the years the city has maintained an ìeverything must goî attitude.  Although it is too late for the Hudsonís department store, many people in Detroit and the suburbs are fighting to save some of these buildings by making a case for historic preservation.

The buildings that remain have become the subject of Lowell Boileauís fascination with modern ruins.  Through the unique communal nature of the World Wide Web, the artistís collection of photographs has been viewed by thousands of visitors since its inception.  It has since evolved into a lively forum where casual visitors and community activists debate the future of Detroitís architectural heritage.

Provenance

Lowell Boileau is an artist, photographer and a native Detroiter.  Born in 1945, He grew up in the suburbs around Detroit and performed post-graduate studies at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University in the late 1960s.  In the early 1970s he visited and photographed ruins in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East (Betzod, 1998).  After returning to Detroit in 1971, he was struck by the majesty of his hometownís own ruins, some of which are the largest in the world.  Boileau (as cited in van Bergeijk, 1998) commented on his reaction: ìWhere the ruins of the classic world became legends and are worshipped, our ruins are despised and taunted. The classic ruins define the values of the cultures which produced them, our ruins are looked at as the definition of failure and lack of culture.î  He was inspired to begin painting and photographing the decaying landscape of Detroit. 

Fast-forward to 1997 and Boileau, fascinated by the potential of the World Wide Web as an artistic medium, began posting his photographs on his website under the title The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.  The title was originally intended to be tongue-and-cheek, since most casual visitors would think the ruins were anything but.  Boileau (personal communication, December 1, 2001)  explains: ìI wanted to turn the image of Detroit in on itself and use the web to paint a complex portrait of the city that few seemed to love, but one that I loved.î  By late 1998 the site had attracted over  400,000 visitors for the entire year.  This was enough to put the site on Yahooís radar and it was rated their ìPick of the Yearî for 1998. 

Structure

The Fabulous Ruins website is separated into two distinct zones, the actual photographs and the discussion forum.  The collectionís 700 plus photographs have all been taken by Boileau using a digital camera.  A visitor to the site is greeted with a single photograph, a link entitled ìFull Guided Tourî and a list of links with labels such as ìThe Rape of Detroitî, ìHudson Implosionî, and ìDetroit in Beautiful Lightî.  These links, as well as the main photo, take the visitor on a virtual tour, or webisode,  which highlights a particular building, neighborhood, or theme.  The Full Guided Tour is a sequential trip through the entire collection, beginning with a dramatic photo of the Hudonís department store being imploded.  As of the writing of this paper, the homepage image was that of the Book-Cadillac, a hotel from the 1920ís that was once the tallest building in Detroit (more on the effort to save the Book-Cadillac under Social System below).

The webisodes range from one or two photos to full-blown web guides with scores of photos and a hyperlinked index.  One of the more complete tours is a profile of thirty-nine synagogues and other Jewish institutions.  The basic structure of each page is a single photo, a caption, a brief narrative, and a navigation bar which allows the visitor to skip to the table of contents, search page, visual map, or email the author.  The tour through the implosion of the Hudsonís department store generated so much interest, the siteís creator provided an ìacquire imageî link allowing visitors to purchase prints of the photos. 

The site can be difficult to navigate at times.  Although the site is solidly built, with very few broken links, the webisodes lack a consistent navigation tool.  Some pages do not have the search button, and some have no navigation links at all, forcing visitors to find their way back to the front page.  Although sometimes frustrating, this lends to the labyrinthine feel of the narratives.  A visitor can take a different path through the site every time they visit.

This serendipitous style of storytelling is the most interesting aspect of the webisodes.  The narrative provides a glue which humanizes the collection, unifies it, and carries the visitor along as they click each photo.  While the story may change depending on the path one takes through the webisodes, the author has presented the collection with a unified voice.  The mood of narratives range from a sense of wonder:

There is something special about the yellow sun on a clear day in late autumn that illuminates the ruins of Detroit and once again elevates them to their former glory Ö Join me as I wander the streets of Detroit on this magnificent day. (Boileau)

To personal nostalgia:

Gateway to exercise and fun for generations of Detroiters, this writer included, the front door of the Downtown YMCA stands pathetically agape prior to its 1998 destruction. (Boileau)

To that of hopeful optimism:

Long a gathering point for artists, students, professors, and counter-culture types, North Cassís allure as a happening neighborhood for those wishing to live in the city is fueling the boom. (Boileau)

While traveling through the site, I happened upon a series of images that struck me as a summary of the Fabulous Ruinís message.  The Michigan Theater was a 4000 seat movie house built in 1926 on the site where Henry Ford had his first workshop.  The Michiganís design was typical of movie houses of the era, combining many styles including French Baroque and Italian Renaissance.  After the events of 1967 the theater was closed and remained empty until 1977, when the office building it was attached to was purchased.  The new owners wanted to demolish the theater to make room for a parking deck, but they found that the two structures were interdependent.  Desperate, the owners instead built a parking structure inside the shell of the theater. (Kleinman & van Duzer, 1997) 

               David Coates / The Detroit News

            Lowell Boileau


The lobby of the Michigan Theater ‚ 1927 and Today

The irony of the image of cars parked under the ornate roof makes this image an icon for post-automotive Detroit.   Boileau explains in his narrative:

It is the most ironic ruin of Detroit. Nowhere is the automobile more triumphant than here. Yet this site contains a double irony for it here that Henry Ford created his first car in a tiny shop that once stood on this site.

Genre

While the Fabulous Ruins collection is unique to Detroit (except for the scores of similar sites the collection has inspired), it is part of a larger context of similar Web collections.  The site actually fits into a few different genres.  First and foremost, it is a photographic gallery of photographs by an artist.  While this may seem like a unique endeavor, there are quite a few industrial ruins enthusiasts on the Web.  One which shares a similar narrative structure with the Fabulous Ruins is the Modern Ruins Photographic Essay (www.oboylephoto.com/ruins) by Shaun OíBoyle. 

The Fabulous Ruins can also be considered a travelogue, in that one of its purposes is to inspire visitors to venture beyond the virtual and visit the actual ruins.  A similar site that encourages visitors to explore real ruin sites is Weird NJ (www.weirdNJ.com).  The homepage beckons visitors with such enticing tours such as ìRoadside, Weirdsideî and ìUnderground Jersey UFOsî, similar in narrative structure to the webisodes on the Fabulous Ruins site.

 Although far from comprehensive,  Boileauís collection could also be considered an architectural history of Detroit.  Also incomplete, and much more formal, is the United States governmentís Historic American Building and Engineering Survey (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/hhhtml/hhindex.html).  Another website in this genre is the Virtual Heritage Network (http://www.virtualheritage.net).  This site presents news stories and forums promoting the use of three-dimensional virtual reality to preserve endangered historical monuments.  While they may be incomplete, the existence of these collections gives hope for future generations to study and understand the buildings in their cultural and historical context, even if they have long since been destroyed.

Lifecycle

Since the Web was introduced, it has become an increasingly visual medium.  It has the power to completely transform existing genres, even one as simple as a photo gallery.  The Web also has an incredible reach; there is the potential for literally millions of people to view the collection every day.  This is quite a jump from the dusty photo album in the collectorís hallway closet.  With the power of the web medium comes some inherent difficulties. 

First,  the lifecycle of web collections is notoriously short.  Websites have a tendency to vanish without a trace.  This can be due to lack of funds, lack of interest, or technical problems.  The simple act of moving the site or changing some file names can inadvertently invalidate hundreds of links to the site.  The ephemeral nature of digital media, which makes them so easy to display and distribute, also puts them at risk of vanishing forever. 

Additionally, since computer storage is relatively cheap and transparent, Web collections have a tendency to grow well beyond the original expectations of the creator.  While this may seem to be an advantage, this growth can make the collection unwieldy to manage and difficult to navigate.  The Fabulous Ruins photo collection has avoided this by employing one photographer, as opposed to allowing anyone to post their photos.  The discussion forum, however, does not benefit from this since hundreds of visitors post threads each week.  The author has solved this problem by grouping and categorizing the forum threads.  The main forum page has the last monthís worth of discussion threads.  A menu allows visitors to view them by the last day, last week, archives, or ìHot Topicsî.  The archives consist of threads older than a month or dormant threads which have not had recent responses.  Hot Topics are threads with over twenty responses.  Of course, as with the photo collection, all discussions are available via a keyword search.

Social System

The Discuss Detroit Forum is the second primary section of the website.  It is here that this collection of photos has morphed into an entity well beyond the expectations of the creator.   Boileau added the forum to the site a year-and-a-half ago and it took off rapidly.  It shows no signs of slowing down, with over 100 regular visitors, 400 infrequent visitors, and what he calls ìseveral thousand lurkersî. (personal communication)  There were seventy-two threads either created or replied to during the first week of December.  This accounts for approximately 100 messages.   The active forum regulars are made up primarily of local Detroiters (including  Boileau, a frequent contributor) and homesick ÈmigrÈs who have newfound respect for the city they have left behind.  In a testament to the global reach of the web, I was able to find posts from  users in Scotland and Sweden.

After reading hundreds of posts, I was amazed at the eloquence and passion expressed by the writers.  The site appears to have touched a nerve and generated a lot of activity, virtually and in real life.  To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, I made my first post and asked some questions of the visitors.  I first asked how they had found the site.  Most of the respondents found it through a Web search, while a few were referred by friends.  When asked what brought them back, eleven of the fifteen answered: the people.  It became clear while reading through posts that a sense of camaraderie and common purpose drives people to contribute to the forum.  One of the respondents, who goes only by Andrew, explained this feeling:

I feel like the forum is a group of my friends. Some days I'll post nothing, and other days I'll post a lot. I enjoy the friendly (and un-friendly) conversations and debates. I also enjoy the fact that you can always learn something here.

Only six of the fifteen said they had met their fellow forum-mates in real life.  However, most of the remainder expressed a strong desire to meet other forum participants in the future.  When asked if the site has changed their views on Detroit, I received an overwhelming sense of hope from the writers.  I also realized that this was much more than just a collection of photographs.  The siteís visitors, whether from Detroit or not, connect with these buildings and the rich history that they represent.  Bryan, who writes under his first name only, elaborated:

I realized that every beautiful building has a great story to go along with it. The buildings are more then brick and mortar, they have withstood so much physically and socially and have a spirit within them that just calls out. These buildings are what make the Great City of Detroit so great.

It is rare to find a website that actually initiates change in the real world;  The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit is certainly one of them.  Many forum members have obtained useful information on tour routes, learning how to safely navigate the actual ruins and city in general.  Some have even organized impromptu walking tours using the forum.  Boileau went further and organized a ìFabulous Ruins Nightî in February at the Cass CafÈ in downtown Detroit.  Hundreds of people showed up for what he called ìa mass blind dateî for many of the forum participants.  During the event images from the site were projected onto the wall of the cafÈ while authentic Detroit techno played in the background. 

Recently, the forum has been taking on a more activist tone.  In July, Boileau posted photos of a badly vandalized Lee Plaza Hotel, another abandoned 1920ís treasure.  Over a short period of time scavengers had ripped the terra-cotta lions and eagles from the faÁade of the building.  The forum participants immediately voiced their outrage.  A few even started to investigate the vandalism.  It turned out that a developer in Chicago had purchased some of the lions and was incorporating the lions into the faÁade of a new condo complex.  One forum visitor, who goes only by the name ëhistericí, found and posted the following information: the Lee Plaza is owned by the Detroit Housing Commission, and there was no salvage permit granted.  Therefore, the lions were stolen property.  One participant sent a letter to the FBI, another got the story published in the Metro Times, and others began planning a demonstration.  No demonstration took place and the Lee Plaza lions still reside in Chicago.  However, the forum participants publicly raised the question of the ownership of the artifacts and demonstrated the forumís potential as an engine for activism.

 Lowell Boileau

David Kohrman

The Lee Plaza lionsí original home (left) and their less-than-appropriate new setting

More recently, members of the forum have banded together in a true grassroots effort to save another of Detroitís most prominent landmarks, the Book Cadillac Hotel.  The hotel was designed by renowned Detroit architect Louis Kampfer and built in 1924.  In its heyday the 28 story landmark boasted five American Presidents as guests.  In 1984 it was abandoned, and now remains Detroitís largest abandoned building.  (Dixon, 2001)  There are some who think a renovated Book Cadillac could help promote the revitalization of downtown.  However, questions of ownership, extensive physical damage, and high costs have made the hotelís future look doubtful. 


Lowell Boileau

 An October 17 article in the Detroit Free Press entitled ìLandmark Book Cadillac may be razedî seemed to prompt a flurry of activity on the Fabulous Ruins discussion forum.  There was so much activity, that Boileau created an entire forum section dedicated to the Book Cadillac.  By the following Sunday David Kohrman, a forum participant, had created and posted the Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel website (www.book-cadillac.org).  On November 10 the Friends held their first meeting at American Coney Island in downtown Detroit.  The members agreed on a mission statement, began developing a strategy, and heard from an expert on the economic and political viability of redeveloping the hotel.  The next day the attitude on the forum was positive and the consensus was that the meeting was a success.  Participants immediately began make plans to distribute flyers at the upcoming Thanksgiving Parade, and one user created a flyer and posted a link for everyone to download.  Of course, immediately following the parade, there were detailed field reports of how the flyer campaign fared.

The future of the Book Cadillac Hotel is still in question.  In early December individuals from thirty-five engineering and architectural firms met to discuss bids to survey the building.  It is expected that a few of the firms will submit bids by the end of  December. (Carr, 2001)  As city agencies and private firms proceed to decide itís future, the Book Cadillac Hotelís 77th birthday will be celebrated under the guise of the Friendsí second meeting on December 12. 

I wonder if this group would have ever been formed if it had not been for the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.  In the end, Lowell Boileau sticks by his original concept for the site:  ìIn some ways, I feel that what I am doing is creating an art work.  Good art doesnít do, it exists and creates response.î  He does not get directly involved with the efforts to save many of the ruins.  But he is more than happy to maintain his collection of photos and moderate the vibrant activity on the forum.  However, the closet preservationist shows through as he adds: ìMy priority is to capture the ruins before they vanish.î   

As Detroit enters the twenty-first century and celebrates its tri-centennial, there are hopeful signs that the city can rise above its troubled history.  However, with revitalization comes the risk that many of its landmarks will vanish.  Through his gritty, but beautiful photographs and personal narratives, Lowell Boileau is attempting to capture the stories of these buildings.  However, his creation has evolved and is showing sings of becoming much more.  Before the inception of the World Wide Web the idea of a collection of photos saving a building from being demolished would have been considered absurd.  The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit might do just that.

 

 

 

References

Betzod, M.  (1998, May).  Soul of the City: An artist finds beauty in crumbling treasures.  Detroit Sunday Journal.   Retrieved November 30, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://detroityes.com/interact/accolade/dsj.htm

Carr, R. (2001, December 7).  Bids Will Determine Fate of Historic Book-Cadillac Hotel.  GlobeSt.Com.  Retrieved December 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://globest.com/RMI0GWL23UC.html

Dixon, J. (2001, October 17).  Landmark Book Cadillac may be razed.  Detroit Free Press.   Retrieved December 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.freep.com/news/locway/booka17_20011017.htm

Farley, M., Danziger, S., & Holzer, H.J. (2000). Detroit Divided. New York, NY:  Russel Sage Foundation.

Gratz, Roberta B. (1999).  Notown.  Preservation: the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 51, 38-45.

Kleinman, K. & L. van Duzer.  (1997).  Detroitís Michigan.  Arkkitehti, 94,  28-31.

McWhirter, C. (2001, December 9).  Broken Detroit: Building Blocks.  Detroit News. 12A.

van Bergeijk, J.  (1998, June).  Het Grootse Verval van Detroit ["The Grand Decay of Detroit"].  DE VPRO GIDS.  Retrieved November 30, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://detroityes.com/interact/accolade/vpro.htm