The Edmond Sun

February 6, 2013

Urban wasteland grows out of home of U.S. auto industry

William F. O'Brien
Against the Grain

OKLAHOMA CITY — “Feral houses” is a term used to describe houses in abandoned areas of Detroit that are now covered by the shrubs and trees that were planted adjacent to them decades ago. Those houses are the subject of websites and photography exhibits and are what is described in the book “Detroit City Is the Place to Be, The Afterlife of an American Metropolis” as “ruin porn.”

The author of that book, Detroit native Mark Binelli, details how that term grew out of the interest that people from throughout the world have developed in the more than 70,000 abandoned and moribund buildings that are now located there. Tourists now flock to Detroit to see those structures and photograph them and occasionally hold events and parties in them.

In addition to abandoned homes, those buildings, Binelli details, include an eight-story train station with a crumbling façade, sports stadiums, auditoriums, stores and schools. Packs of wild dogs now roam the sparsely populated areas of Detroit, and the author reports that some residents now carry mace to protect themselves from those hounds.

Wild pheasants are found there as well. The author recalls with nostalgia the Detroit of his youth, the motor city that prospered as the home of the American automobile industry and to thousands of affluent workers who built the vehicles that rolled off the assembly lines there. Binelli also reminds us that in the early decades of the 20th century, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of that era, and home to leaders such as Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, Ransom Olds, the Dodge Brothers and other visionaries who built the American automobile industry.

The Detroit of that time became a world-wide symbol of America’s industrial might. In English author Aldous Huxley’s classic futuristic novel “Brave New World,” published in 1932, year one is the year that the first model T was constructed by Henry Ford in Detroit and that time from that date forward is designated as “A.F” for “After Ford.”

But by the 1980s, the big three of the American automobile industry, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, had moved many of their automotive assembly lines overseas to cut their labor costs, and the plants that remained in the Detroit area employed fewer workers due to increased automation of the production process. Unemployment in Detroit grew exponentially as a result, and thousands of residents left the city.

Whole neighborhoods in the city became ghost towns, and some Detroiters known as “scrappers” and “brick farmers” now eke out a living selling the metal and bricks that they take out of abandoned structures. The erosion of the city’s tax base has resulted in a reduction in government services, and Binelli reports that some Detroit firemen now live in tents because the city cannot afford to maintain firehouses for them.

While some visitors may see beauty in the ruins of Detroit, Binelli details how some residents fear that the children growing up in that city are being psychologically traumatized by the urban decay they see all around them. But in recent years artists and entrepreneurs have been drawn to Detroit due to the availability of property at low prices, and Binelli hopes that their presence indicates that the city will in time experience a rebirth. And residents of the Oklahoma City area should realize that they are fortunate to live in a city that is dynamic and growing.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.