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Detroit's abandoned buildings draw tourists instead of developers

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DETROIT — He'd heard stories of ruin and blight, but that didn't prepare Oliver Kearney for what he saw:

Prostitutes roaming the streets at 8 a.m., rubble-strewn parking lots overrun with weeds, buildings taken over by bright pink graffiti, the message scrawled on blackboards in deserted schools: "I will not write in vacant buildings."

He took 2,000 photographs his first day.

"No other American city has seen decline on this scale," Kearney said. "It's really a once-in-a-lifetime thing you're going to see."

And he saw it all on a tour.

Kearney, an 18-year-old aspiring architect, persuaded his father to travel with him from Britain to Detroit to participate in one of the city's few burgeoning industries: tours of abandoned factories, churches and schools.

Led by tour guide Jesse Welter, they crawled on their hands and knees to peek inside a train station closed long ago; they squeezed through a gap in a fence to climb the stairs of what was once a luxury high-rise; they ducked under crumbling doorways to see a forgotten ballroom where the Who held its first U.S. concert.

"In Detroit, you can relate, you can see traces of what's happened, you can really feel the history of a city," Kearney said. "In Europe, when things become derelict, they'll demolish them."

That's not possible here. The city estimates it has 78,000 vacant structures, and demolishing each derelict residential building costs $8,000 — money the bankrupt city can't afford.

The city says that 85% of its 142.9 square miles had "experienced population decline" over the last decade, and efforts to persuade investors to buy commercial buildings and rehabilitate them have been mixed, at best. For example, plans to turn the Michigan Central Depot, a once-grand train station, into a casino and then into police headquarters have gone nowhere, and it's stood empty since 1988.

Photographers have flocked to the city to capture the decline; two French photographers even produced a book, "The Ruins of Detroit." But since the city declared bankruptcy in July, hotels say they've seen an uptick in visitors inquiring about the ruins. So have restaurants in the up-and-coming district of Corktown, near the abandoned train station.

Welter says he had to buy a 12-seat van to accommodate the growing interest.

Welter once worked as an aircraft mechanic and then an ATM repairman. He dabbled in photography and began venturing into the city from his home in the suburb of Royal Oak, taking pictures of derelict buildings and selling the shots at an artists market.

The photos, though grim, brought back sweet memories: Viewers would remember passing through the train station in its glory, or recall photographs of their grandparents honeymooning at a posh hotel, depicted in Welter's photos as a decaying tower.

Welter, 42, figured that if other people were interested in seeing the buildings, he could guide them around and, perhaps more important, keep them safe. In October, two tourists were carjacked while visiting an abandoned factory; others have been assaulted there.

Welter guided his first tour in late 2011, but the business has really picked up this year. His clients pay $45 for a three-hour tour and explore some of Detroit's most famously blighted structures: the Packard Automotive Plant, the train station and the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church, which features peeling paint and vast balconies.

Welter, who is bearded and slim, knows how to sneak into buildings closed to the public. He knows which neighborhoods are plagued by packs of feral dogs, and which ramshackle building contains a recording studio with equipment still set up as if its occupants just left for lunch. He knows the churches so well that he helped a young couple find an abandoned one in which to conduct their wedding.

It's not legal, per se, to enter these buildings. Police will give $225 tickets for trespassing if people enter schools, Welter says, but have otherwise told him they don't mind him going into other buildings.

On a recent weekday morning, he brought a visitor to one of his favorite spots, St. Agnes Catholic Church, a rotting structure where graffiti vandals have made their mark. A beam of sunlight shone through the windows, falling on the one remaining pew in the church, a haunting image that illuminated the church's destruction. Then Welter heard a motor idling outside and quickly ushered his guest toward the exit.

"Someone's pulling up out there; let's start walking this way," he said, moving toward the crumbling staircase that leads to the church's courtyard, which was littered with soda cans and food wrappers.

He's not afraid of the authorities — they're in short supply in this cash-strapped city — but of scavengers, vagrants and others who might take advantage of someone with an expensive camera. That's why he usually begins his tours at 7 a.m., the best time to avoid other humans, he says.

Next, he headed into a girls' school attached to the church, climbing the stairs to a hall of classrooms where rubble was everywhere, as if a bomb had gone off. Some books and magazines dated to 1962 and told outdated stories of boys living on the prairie. A bird's nest sat in one of the large windows where a pane used to be.

Locals use a derogatory term, "ruin porn," to describe the phenomenon of people gawking at the decay. They want visitors to see the positive parts of Detroit, such as the vacant fields that enterprising farmers have turned into urban gardens. If tourists are going to look at the ruins, they should then volunteer in the community, many Detroiters say.

"The decay is not cool, not arty-farty," Jean Vortkamp, a community activist and onetime mayoral candidate, said in an email. "I see the lady with bags and three layers of clothes on, and then I see a group of white young people climb out of their dad's cars with cameras that are worth so much."

Some Detroiters, including a group of urban explorers, have a beef with Welter in particular. They scrawled a message on the walls of the St. Agnes Church, "Go Home Jesse … We HATE you and your tour bus."

Welter says he's opening visitors' eyes to the problems of Detroit, which could potentially drum up political will to help the city.

"People are going to do this anyway. Why not do it in a way that's going to be safer, easier for everyone?" he said.

Jason Schlosberg went on a tour with Welter when he was visiting Detroit on a business trip. Schlosberg, a lawyer and photographer from Washington, D.C., said he had long looked forward to exploring the "mecca" of run-down buildings that is Detroit.

But his experience touring crumbling ballrooms and onetime high-end residences caused him to think long and hard about what lessons Detroit can teach the rest of the country.

"It makes you question your mortality as a species. We try to make our mark on the planet by building these concrete and brick structures, but Rome obviously fell," he said. "What is Manhattan going to look like in 300 years? Is it still going to be a bustling metropolis?"

Whether Detroit will seek to capitalize on the tourists, or stop them, is unclear. The office of Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager of the city, declined to comment for this story. Another city full of ruins, Gary, Ind., has taken advantage of the photographers flocking to its abandoned buildings. It charges $50 for a photography permit.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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