Fabulous Ruins of Detroit [www.detroitYes.com]
A study of collections and social systems on the World Wide Web
|The razing of the Hudson's department store - Source: Lowell Boileau|
We will probably be judged
not be the monuments we build
The lobby of the Michigan Theater ‚ 1927 and Today
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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