Michigan Central Depot, photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Of the 189 photos I took in Detroit last week, 17 were of the exterior of Michigan Central Depot, the city’s abandoned train station.

I’m not the only one to lavish attention on this Beaux Arts building – the question of what to do with the station, erected in 1913, and designed by the same architects that created New York’s Grand Central Station, has been the subject of local controversy and national attention.

In September, someone non-official installed an official-looking “photo opportunity” sign in front of the station – an acknowledgment that the Depot is, at the least, visually compelling. I found it breathtaking: the combination of Corinthian columns and grand arched windows with shattered glass hanging like lace, behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire — even the scrawling graffiti seemed not out of place with the building’s stone scrolls, swags and medallions.

Michigan Central Depot, Detail. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

I only read about the “photo opportunity” sign later, I didn’t see it myself, so perhaps it was removed – along with chandeliers, marble and anything else of value that was left when the station went out of use in 1988.

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Michigan Central Depot has become an icon for Detroit’s extraordinary blight – it’s one of its 45,000 abandoned structures.

In 2009, the city council voted to tear the station down, although it is on the National Historic Register. Both major local papers issued editorials essentially in support of demolition, and a lively preservation movement emerged to save it; it now appears demolition is off the table.

I’ve been reading about the controversy, and it keeps getting more interesting – for instance, the city councilwoman who introduced the bill to demolish the Depot, and was quoted as saying she wanted it “down now”,  also apparently liked to wear a tiara.

I’m not going to pretend I understand all the issues at play here.

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What I’m attempting to understand, though, is why I can’t stop thinking about the building. Musing on why the train station has become a tourist magnet, Jeff Gerrit, an editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press, wonders whether the appeal is “poverty porn”.  I don’t think that’s quite it, since poverty, it seems to me, requires people. There are no people evident in the Depot.

The comparisons I’ve seen to Roman ruins seem to be more apt. “Why couldn’t we have a ruin to celebrate like the Coliseum in Rome?” asked Timothy McKay, executive director of the Greater Corktown Development Corp, in a Fox Detroit story.  (Corktown is the neighborhood around the train station.) “It’s an iconic piece of architecture that needs to be regarded in a very good way…” He envisions it as a “fabulous ruin”.

Ephesus Ruins, Turkey. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Ephesus Ruins, Turkey

It’s hard to imagine rundown areas in other American cities being preserved as ruins, but it seems to me that Detroit stands apart, simply because it is so empty.

I roamed some of New York’s more distressed areas during the 1980s and saw plenty of lovely old buildings, burnt out and boarded up, but always, and not always to the benefit of my sense of safety, there were people around.

It’s unpalatable to turn a living part of a neighborhood, no matter how troubled, into a monument and memorial to failure – that’s what ruins are, after all. But there are wide swaths of Detroit that are echoingly empty – the city’s population is 910,000,  half what it was in 1950.

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In December, Steidl will publish Ruins of Detroit, by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. On their website, the photographers write:”ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes … the volatile result of the change of eras and the fall of empires. This fragility leads us to watch them one very last time: to be dismayed, or to admire, it makes us wonder about the permanence of things.” (See a Time magazine slideshow of their photographs.)

The antiquarian John Aubrey goes further: he valued the ruin as much as he did the intact structure, writes Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage. “Ruins inspire the feelings of melancholy and wonder associated with the sublime,” she writes. “They stimulate the viewer to imagine the building in its former pristine state. They offer the pleasure of longing for the irretrievable object of one’s fantasy.”

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I returned home to New York the next day. I always enjoy the ride in from the airport, since time away allows me to see a place I know well with new eyes. What I notice depends on where I’ve been — the city’s struck me as incredibly drab (after a trip to Hawaii), fuddy duddy (after Shanghai), lavishly wealthy (post-Honduras).

After Detroit, New York seemed absurdly shiny, even sparkly. After a while, I realized that the effect came from all the windows in the buildings I passed: the glass was present, intact, unboarded. Unruined.

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Alison J. Stein

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