horizon city

October 25th, 2010

Detroit is a sci-fi city, always at odds with itself. A city of stunning polarities and strange ironies. A place where technology, innovation, wealth and modernization clash with poverty, history, and the archaic. It’s a place that constantly surprises me, because it seems to exist on multiple planes. Its broad landscapes can be deceivingly empty, but on closer inspection the city is full of a presence. A presence of life, of history, of the past and future colliding. A presence of nature, wilderness, wildlife. A presence of its people, sometimes hidden away, all of them real people with stories & experience.

I’ve been exploring some of these beautiful areas of the city, where nature has been reclaiming neighborhoods on a large scale. One area, along the Hamtramck-Detroit border, has concrete barriers blocking the streets, allowing the weeds & trees to take over the sidewalks and roads as well as the homes & lots.


detroit prairie

Nearby, a desolate playground is all that remains of Cooper Elementary School.

urban prairie playground

Other areas are still sparsely inhabited, bucolic horizontal landscapes colored with the saturated hues of fall. This is where the resilient have stayed and where the new pioneers have planted their flags in the form of urban gardens & farms. Don’t mistake these areas as being empty or abandoned, because often they hold the most surprising evidence of Detroit’s pulsing life.

urban prairie eden

Other areas are abandoned, but also inhabited. On a quiet abandoned railway viaduct in a forgotten warehouse district, high above the Detroit River, Tom has built himself a little home. This home is tucked away in a teeming pocket of wilderness, isolated on a concrete pedestal 20 feet in the air and no larger than 25 feet wide by 75 feet long. Trees grow through the rail ties and tall grasses and bushes fill the grounds.

tom's viaduct

its a state of mind

His home is impressive. Built over a several-year period, Tom has constructed an insulated and shingled weatherproof capsule. Big enough to lay down in, Tom surrounds himself with what he needs. On small shelves in the shelter… Deoderant, a little radio, a flashlight, bandaids, a little Jack Daniels, barely nipped on, some oatmeal. His home is surrounded by handmade birdhouses, gardens, and pathways. Tom is resilient in so many ways. He weathers the elements without complaint. He wears only smiles & confidence. He lives in an “optimistic state of mind”, and will tell you that this is a “northern district, you know, norther-en. And its a state first, and then a state of mind.” In the winter, he uses a few candles to warm his home, and it can get quite warm with just a few candles. He patches his clothes, keeps clean & will shave every once-in-a-while. He never goes to a shelter or soup kitchen. He never asks for handouts, though many people in the community bring him what they think might make him comfortable. But he could easily live without it. He is totally at ease with his situation, and he embraces it. He is also uniquely urban. He usually buys his food from the store, purchasing cheap, long-lasting items. He fills up milk cartons with water from a nearby business; a gallon lasts him a week or more.

tom's domain

tom's shelter

tom's garden

Tom is perplexing in a way that is uniquely Detroit. Here we have an area of the city that was largely abandoned because industry left, jobs left, rail traffic dropped, rail lines were abandoned, the warehouses were demolished, etc. In many ways, this part of the city died. And we also have a man who has taken advantage of that emptiness, claimed it for himself, and is able to survive off it because it is abandoned. Tom has said he wouldn’t live in a ‘normal’ house if you gave it to him. He can really only live here. This is his comfort zone. This is where thing are simple, quiet, right. He can work on odd projects, keep himself busy.

This scenario seems a bit like something out of a sci-fi apocalypse film. But look closer. Detroit’s glittering art deco skyline looms behind Tom’s shelter. Just through the woods, thousand-foot lake freighters swim by on the blue waters of the strait. And on the streets just behind the alley, the glow of a party store, the noise of the bar. It’s a city, after all, with people and life.

Detroit is a horizon city, existing on the edge of light and dark. But this is not sunset. It’s dawn, and the light is about to shine very bright.

october update

October 25th, 2010

Just a little update for family and friends out there.

Big news lately is I recently moved from Corktown to Downtown, to a quiet, tucked-away district I call the backlot, because its often used in film shoots as a substitute for New York City or Paris. Honestly it’s like experiencing a whole new city. Don’t get me wrong here, I’ve spent a lot of time in the core, but living here, learning its rhythms of activity and silence, using its amenities and eateries, navigating its grand radiating grid on foot or bike… its totally reigniting my excitement with Detroit’s vibrancy, variety, and character.

a big city

metropolitan alley

I moved in on the first of this month, and right away I began work as a local advisor& 1st AC on a film called This Is A Test. The film was an Irish production, directed by Oscar-nominated Ruairi Robinson and produced by Nick Ryan’s Dublin-based production company Image Now Films. These guys were great, they were funny, warm, gracious, talented, fun. They really loved shooting in downtown Detroit, and all of the exteriors were shot along towering Griswold Street in the central business district. This was great for me, because it pretty much meant that I just rolled my AC cart & equipment right out of my building, two blocks to set, and right into basecamp without ever loading or unloading a car. Amazing. There were also some awesome folks on the crew from Toronto & Australia, very warm, devoted, talented people all around. It also resulted in a lot of different accents being thrown around. I was fascinated by the varying pronunciations of the word “garage”. Detroiters say “graje” in one syllable. Irish say “gair-idge”. Australians say “gair-ahjz”. And the Canadians say “guh-rahhdge”. Anyway throw a room full of these people together and you have some pretty hilarious banter going on.


mighty griswold

In the near future, I am lined up to DP a short film by Jasmine Rivera, a Columbia University film school thesis student. I’ve worked with Jasmine before and I am really excited to begin working with her again! The film is called Nain Rouge and it will definitely be one to keep an eye out for this winter.

I also want to take a minute to talk about a new documentary about Detroit by French filmmaker Florent Tillon called Detroit, Wild City. Florent, his girlfriend and sound artist Hélène Magne, and Assistant Director François Jacob shot the film in parts during the summers of 2008 and 2009, and during that time we all became really good friends. I visited him in France last year, and we had a great time exploring Terres Rouges, an abandoned industrial complex on the Luxembourg-France border.

Florent is fascinated by Detroit’s stunning landscape, people, and characteristics. His film is a meditation on the city’s polarities and ironies. Urban wilderness, impromptu blues concerts, bucolic farms, and exotic wildlife are all framed by the city’s large-scale abandonment, stunning architecture, and vibrant Summer days.

The film was recently selected for its North American premiere at Montreal World Film Festival, and its European debut at the respected & exclusive Copenhagen Docs 2010.

They were recently back in Detroit and we screened his film at the Burton Theatre on October 7-13. I was initially wondering how Florent’s film would be received in Detroit. Being geared for an international audience, the film lingers on the blight more than the locals here are totally comfortable with. But despite that, the film had a really positive response. I was really happy for Florent & his team. Florent said he was happy to give back to the city that helped him film here, and to show that he graciously donated the profits from the screenings to Peacemaker Farm, a grassroots urban farm that is featured in the film.

The trailer can be viewed here:

A special Burton Theatre trailer:

And here is a short film called “The Sanctuary” that was shot concurrently with Detroit, Wild City. Follow myself and local journalist Joel Thurtell on a journey up the Rouge River, where we learn about pollution, Henry Ford, and Detroit’s incredible industrial history.

Ever want to know why urban exploration, or urban archaeology, is such an intriguing, almost addicting activity for me and my friends? What compels us to enter vacant, forgotten, and possibly dangerous structures with a camera in hand? It’s not just to take a bunch of photos and brag about your badassness all day, even though that can be fun. Alan Rapp, a former senior editor at Chronicle Books, asked me and several other photographers that same question a while back. He was writing a thesis on urban archaeology photography in pursuit of an MFA at the School of Visual Arts. And just last week his final presentation, titled “The Shadow City: Urban Exploration and the Reclamation of Architectural Space” was posted online, and can be watched on Vimeo in its entirety.

Crossing the Line: The 2010 D-Crit Conference: Alan Rapp from D-Crit on Vimeo.

I really thought Alan got to the bottom of why urban archaeology is such a compelling subject for both the viewer and the explorer. For starters, he quotes my good friend Jeremy Blakeslee, maybe the best industrial archaeology photographer around today. Jeremy says, “These places become like a drug for some reason. Places of this magnitude get you high. A combination of the history, the architecture, the light moving through, the smell of 100 years of motor oil from internal combustion engines flowing all over the floor like blood. And you’re just another layer in the history of this place.”

Wow. I knew Jeremy was pretty good at photography & design, but I never took him for a writer. Jeremy’s imagery may be beautiful, and it gives us a good idea of the feel of urban archaeology. But Alan looks further still. He remarks that because all architecture decays over time, ruined spaces hold more emotional weight than new buildings. For centuries, artists have found inspiration from ruined architecture, where every crack & layer of dust speaks about an environment’s history. This fascination of the decayed can be seen in countless 18th and 19th century paintings, some of which depicted fantasy visions of ruined modern cities.

He also hits upon something really key, at least for me. Alan says that urban explorers find a thrill in ruined or massive infrastructural spaces because the spaces “feel out of joint, not just due to their weird physical condition, but their position in time is uncertain. This seeming dislocation can alter the perception that time is not, as we would suppose, a one-way-road.” So urban archaeology can displace the explorer from time. It can give the impression that time is standing still, or that time has run wildly backward or forward. So urban archaeology is like time travel, in a way.

But there’s more. Alan asserts that, “[urban archaeology] serves a critical function as well: that people who do this express a dissatisfaction with the status quo… Whether the motivations are unconsciously romantic or consciously political, they express the same thing: that the regulations of property and social manners enforce a kind of spacial normalcy.” Breaking this normalcy, really, is a form of protest. Exploration protest. I have always kind of felt this protest bubbling under the surface of urban archaeology. For me, it is protesting the way history is so easily forgotten. It protests new sprawling developments, farther from the city, farther from our collective cultural heart. It protests the suburban trend of isolation versus community. It protests a lot of things, really.

Alan also wrote about the subject on his blog, CriticalTerrain… Alan’s blog is also worth browsing for those interested in art, architecture, space, photography… Great stuff.

Thanks Alan for a really intelligent and comprehensive analysis of urban archaeology. Your efforts are helping introduce urban archaeology as the legitimate and original practice it is, not the bold and reckless game some make it out to be.

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