Thursday, November 17, 2005

DETROIT: Skyscrapers of Weeds and Trees

Image of an abandoned Packard factory from

over my junior year summer at the University of Michigan, I was assigned to cover the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Every week, I had the pleasure of taking the People Mover to 211 W. Fort St. (a tall Carter- or Reagan-era skyscraper on the edge of the downtown core) where I would go up to the 21st floor to rifle through thousands of recently filed bankruptcy filings. Among all the many, many, many personal bankruptcy filings ... (I can only imagine the space the office had to create in the file cabinets for the influx of filings with the bankruptcy reform measure implemented in October) ... I would examine the commerical bankruptcy filings for possible articles, especially if the filing had liabilities that were more than $1 million.

BUT SCOURING THE FILINGS COULD BE TEDIOUS as you might imagine. So there was always the window overlooking the northwest quadrant of downtown Detroit. Looking out across the landscape, it was filled mile after mile with Motor City bungalows. You could also gaze out at some of the absolutley amazing 1920s Art Deco skyscrapers, some which stood abandoned and vandalized, vacant or partially vacant like the Book-Cadillac Hotel (which had some impressively placed graffiti way up on the tower's peaked roof) and the Book Tower (the Italian Renaissance/Art Deco tower with a lot of cell phone antennae on its roof), where "form meets function," according to its website. (It does have quite a few tenants.)

And among some of the towering abandoned buildings that line Washington Boulevard and Woodward Avenue, you could see vegetation. After years of neglect, mother nature took over and decided to let bushes and trees take root in the sky. Seriously! There was a tree growing out of the roof of the abandoned Book-Cadillac Hotel. Now it wasn't a giant redwood or a maple, but a tree nonetheless.

From the 2001 Detroit Free Press article "Rooted in the Air: Nature Restakes Its Claim on Downtown as Trees Crown Detroit's Abandoned Gems" (subsc.):
High above the streets of downtown Detroit, spring is bustin' out all over. From Grand Circus Park to the Detroit River, real trees are budding and growing -- with no human help -- from the rooftops of abandoned skyscrapers, warehouses and hotels. The Greening of Detroit, 2001-style, means that some of the biggest, oldest and most interesting buildings in the nation's 10th largest city are succumbing to nature. Literally.
(Last week Tuesday following the Super Furry Animals show at the 9:30 Club, I mentioned this fact to the band's drummer Dafydd Ieuean in our conversation about Detroit and he was very much surprised by that.)

REMEMBER THE MOVIE '28 DAYS LATER' where a super virus is unleashed by environmentalists who were trying to free laboratory monkeys that just happened to be infected with a rage virus? (That's where the population of London and the rest of the United Kingdom either flees, gets killed or is infected.) In the movie, London is for the most part intact while hoolagins or some rage-induced accident burns Manchester to the ground. So what ever would happen if London would lay abandoned? How long would it take for nature to gradually reclaim the abandoned and ancient metropolis?

According to this article, the process would get fully underway within a decade, if not immediately.
The initial changes are familiar to every city dweller who goes into battle against invading weeds and shrubs. Within the first year, dandelions and other weeds begin growing in the gutters and emerge from the cracks caused by frost and flooding in concrete, paving slabs and walls.

But they only exploit existing weaknesses. Shrubs like buddleia are far more aggressive. Its roots are powerful enough to penetrate bricks and mortar to find moisture, says botanist Anthony Bradshaw, formerly of the University of Liverpool. Buddleia grows fast, and its light seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. Brought to Britain from the Himalayas to adorn Victorian gardens, buddleia is already everywhere in London, poised to rid the city of its concrete and brick.
Hmmm. That doesn't sound too good. Let's hope Detroit can save its historic skyscrapers, because who knows what biological stuff is blowing across the river from Ontario ...

In the meantime, check out The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, one of my favorite websites. Also, this book ("Natural History of Vacant Lots") looks quite interesting, especially if you consider all the vacant land in the city of Detroit.

Also, be sure to look at's photostream on Flickr, especially the photos of the abandoned Michigan Central Station. No, those are not the ruins of Rome ...

>> U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan
>> Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel
>> Book Tower
>> "Return to Paradise" [Eco Action: Do or Die]
>> The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit
>> photos [Flickr]
>> "History of Vacant Lots" [via Urban Cartography]

-- Second image from this photo tour of the abandoned Book-Cadillac hotel.


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