Friday, December 19, 2008
Some modern abandoned cities are actually parts of functioning cities. Perhaps the best example of an abandoned district is found within Detroit. The Motor City gets its name from its former role as the world’s seat of the automotive industry. Henry Ford’s refinement of the assembly line led to cheaper, mass-produced cars and trucks in the 1920s, and the city expanded quickly. By the 1950s, Detroit, with its two million residents, was America’s third-largest city [source: University of Michigan].
With employment rates and income high in the area, opulent buildings began to dot downtown Detroit’s skyline. Ornately detailed architecture adorned the city’s theaters and office buildings. It was a bustling city, and its buildings reflected the power and the wealth the automobile industry accumulated.
By the 1970s and '80s, however, the American auto industry entered a decline. Detroit, inextricably attached to car manufacturing, reflected this downturn. In 1979, Detroit’s Big Three carmakers (Chevrolet, Ford and General Motors) produced 90 percent of all of the vehicles sold in the U.S.; by 2005, that figure was down to 40 percent [source: The Guardian]. Since Detroit was something of a boomtown -- based on cars, not gold -- it couldn’t help but suffer when car manufacturers faced competition from overseas automakers.
But it wasn’t only competition from foreign car manufacturers that led to the demise of downtown Detroit. Suburbanization played a role as well; as people began moving out of the city, their money went with them. The same holds true for the carmakers. Automotive factories became bigger as the car boom went on. With land in the city at a premium, car companies built newer, bigger facilities in the suburbs. Whole sections of Detroit were left abandoned, while in other cases, slumping buildings sat empty alongside struggling buildings that remained open.
Detroit began to crumble. Building owners simply left their investments to decay once they found they couldn’t lease or sell them. Others tried to revitalize or redevelop buildings into new businesses; for example, some stage theaters found new lives as movie theaters. Ultimately, a lack of customers caused many buildings to simply be abandoned. For years, office buildings, hotels, churches, theaters, homes, factories and stores were boarded up and left to rot. Vandals broke windows, spray painted messages and picked mementos from the architecture. Within these buildings, sunlight streams through cracks. Old furniture is overturned in unused hotel rooms. Desks still stand in empty offices. Even the city’s old train depot -- a massive, 18-story transportation hub -- has been abandoned, its intricate shell a reminder of its past importance.
Revitalization efforts are reforming these districts of Detroit. Many of the abandoned areas are being leveled, with new buildings or parking lots built over their former foundations. And an unusual tradition has had an effect on the urban blight. In the 1970s, vandals adopted the custom of burning empty (and sometimes occupied) buildings downtown on Halloween Eve, a custom that came to be known as Devil’s Night. The ritual continued into the 1990s, but peaked in 1984, when more than 800 fires were set from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1