Skyscraper Graveyard

apartment-buildingBook TowerOn a trip to Detroit a few days ago, my family and I stayed downtown in one of the city’s newly renovated grande dame hotels. The 1920s-era Fort Shelby Hotel, now part of the Doubletree chain, reopened last December after being closed for more than 25 years. It’s a jewel of a property stuck in the middle of one of the most depressed cities in America. Reportedly, a whopping $80 million was spent on its renovation.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just up the street is the even more palatial Westin Book-Cadillac, which was the world’s largest hotel when it first opened in 1924. It, too, stood vacant starting in the early 1980s, miraculously avoiding the wrecking ball before being rescued in a $200 million+ renovation and reopening this past October.

So what will help fill the rooms of these showcase hotel properties? If a flood of reservations actually materializes, it will be for the myriad lawyers, accountants and government officials descending on the city to pick apart General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.

The city of Detroit can’t seem to catch a break. First, there’s the real estate crisis that has seen property values plunge even faster than the national average. Today, the city’s median home sales price is below $10,000, which has to be the record low for a major U.S. city.

Next up, the spectacle of dilapidated infrastructure, a dysfunctional school system plus governmental corruption, nepotism and favoritism run amok – all culminating in Detroit’s mayor being sent to prison.

Now comes the implosion of Detroit’s auto industry that has sparked the nation’s renewed attention on the crumbling city, including human-interest television reporting and lurid photo essays like the one just published in Time magazine.

Sadly, this is Detroit. Riding the People Mover, the 2.5-mile monorail system that loops the perimeter of downtown, one can peer into the second-story levels of building after vacant building. It’s truly a metaphor for the entire city … and a peepshow for the rest of the nation.

Is there a natural bottom? The investors in Detroit’s old hotels seem to think so. But you have to wonder, would those investors have moved forward with these initiatives knowing what they know today?

It was photographer and social commentator Camilo Jose Vergara who suggested more than ten years ago that the empty skyscrapers of downtown Detroit be preserved in their current state as a memorial and monument to a vanishing industrial age. Of course, the city government leaders were horrified at the idea and objected loudly. But really, what other use could they possibly come up with for these relics – silent and stark reminders that a city once the nation’s fifth largest has shrunk in under 50 years to less than half its former size.

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