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Exploring Detroit's Abandoned Buildings

When thinking about a trip to the U.S., Detroit is doubtfully at the top of must-visit cities list for most people. Besides being the historical heart of the American automotive industry and the birthplace of Motown Records, Detroit is also a city that has gone through a major economic and demographic decline in the recent decades. It's become notorious for its high crime rates and abandoned and decaying buildings. But, in the past few years, Motor City has been slowly emerging from the darkness it has found itself in when the auto industry collapsed. Crime rates are falling, average income is rising, and city is working on either getting rid of its abandoned houses or rehabilitating those that are still salvageable.

We live only a 4-hour drive away from Detroit and yet we've never visited. It just never was one of the destinations on our must-see list. But a couple of things lined up recently that led to us finally finding ourselves in the Motor City: Movement Music Festival and our long-time dream of exploring Detroit's abandoned buildings.

A roadtrip to Detroit! #fistbump (The Monument to Joe Louis, known also as The Fist)

We haven't talked about it in our blog yet, but Jason, besides being a software developer and a digital nomad in training, is also a DJ and a music producer. He's been writing music and playing at local venues long before we met. In the past 9 years I've watched him experiment with different music genres and styles until he landed on techno a few months ago. Being the birthplace of techno, Detroit has been hosting an annual Movement Music Festival on Memorial Day weekend since 2006. This year Jason was invited to play at the annual pre-Movement party and he just couldn't say no to that.

Another thing that made us excited about going to Detroit was that we've been long interested in urban exploration and been toying around with the idea of one day doing it ourselves. And what better place for the very first urban exploration experience than Detroit with all of its abandoned houses, churches, schools and factories?

And so it has been decided - we were finally going to Motor City!

It was an easy 4 hour drive from Toronto to Detroit and upon arriving we spent about an hours walking around downtown before we had to get to the hotel to get ready fo Jason's set later that evening. The city was getting ready for the Movement Festival the next day. The festival's stage was being set up at Hart Plaza and buses with DJ's on board were slowly cruising the streets blaring EDM music out of the speakers. We walked around for some time admiring Detroit's architecture that is recognized to be one of the finest in the U.S., with many of its buildings being listed as some of America's most endangered landmarks.

Later that day, after checking into the hotel, we headed over to Bookie's where Jason was scheduled to play. All three floors including the rooftop patio were packed with people enjoying the EDM vibes in techno's birthplace city.

Exploring Detroit's Abandoned Buildings

To visit Detroit's abandoned buildings, we have booked Detroit Urban Exploration and Photography Tour a week or so ahead of time. We were initially toying around with the idea of checking out some abandoned houses on our own but after doing some research we decided to go with an organized tour instead (and we're glad we did!). First of all, we lack any experience with urban exploration so it was nice to have someone guide us through our very first time. Secondly, some of the abandoned buildings has been purchased for redevelopment and are now private property (some even have security guards) and there would be no way for us to know which ones are truly abandoned (unless there's an obvious "no trespassing" sign, of course). Third, some of Detroit's homeless people use abandoned buildings for shelter and the last thing we would want to do is to barge into someone's home unintentionally. And, finally, buildings that have been abandoned for extended periods of time can be unsafe to walk around in, and for us, being complete novices at the whole urban exploration thing, it was helpful (potentially even life-saving) to have someone with us who's been to these buildings multiple times before and who knows where you can walk safely and which areas to avoid.

One of the many abandoned building we drove by in Detroit

Our tour guide Jesse was amazing. Besides knowing Detroit's abandoned buildings like the back of his hand, he is also passionate about his city and gives you some background information on the neighbourhoods you drive through, safety tips on travelling around the city, and Detroit's history.

A beautiful mural we passed by on our tour (the name and background of which we have to admit we don't know)

The tour was by no means cheap (we're talking $100 CAD per person) BUT it was 4 hours long. In our case it actually ended up lasting 5 hours because we and another girl in our group wanted to stay a bit longer to explore the last building and Jesse was in no rush to drive us back (a few other people had to head back, however, and Jesse called them an Uber). Now that's true passion for one's work in our books!

Altogether, we visited 4 buildings, with St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church being the first.

Abandoned St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church

It was founded in 1920 and later bought by the Hill of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in 1984. After someone broke into the church in 2012, the damage was so bad that the building hasn't been used and sits abandoned since then.

Tip: If you are into photography, make sure to pack a wide-angle lens and don't make the same mistake we did - forgetting to bring a tripod for the camera #facepalm

Inside the abandoned St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church

Adjacent to St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, is the abandoned St. Margaret Mary School that was originally built in 1923 and later rebuilt in 1930 to accommodate for the growing parish.

Abandoned St. Margaret Mary School

The school, along with the church, has been abandoned since 2012, after someone tried to burn the church down and the damage caused has been deemed irreparable.

Inside the abandoned St. Margaret Mary School

On the roof of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church

Third building we explored, was the abandoned Detroit Water and Sewage plant on the corner of Erskine and Orleans in the Eastern Market district. What made this place stand out from the other 3 buildings was the amount of graffiti which literally covered every square inch of wall space. And the building is huge! Some of the graffiti were unremarkable tags serving no purpose other than someone marking their territory, but others were true pieces of art.

Tip: Make sure to wear closed toe shoes. You'll be treading through mounds of broken glass and litter. Some areas are wet and muddy, so wear something that you don't mind getting a little dirty.

The abandoned Detroit Water and Sewage plant

Graffiti inside the old Detroit Water and Sewage plant

Just look at all those discarded spray paint cans on the floor!

I swear, this one still haunts me...

Finally, the last destination on our list was the old American Motors Corporation headquarters (or the AMC complex) building at 14250 Plymouth Road on Detroit's west side. It dates back to 1927 and had once sprawled over 1.4 million square feet.

Old American Motors Corporation headquarters

Walking through the AMC's old corporate offices, it was easy to envision the building's previous grandeur - ornate plaster ceilings, dark wood paneling on the walls, and marble-adorned washrooms. Now, most of the windows are gone, parts of walls are missing, marble slabs are shattered, and the plaster is crumbling. All of the metal and anything else of value has been long scrapped.

Tip: If you have a drone you might want to bring it with you. You can get some really awesome video footage by flying it in larger rooms and along the hallways of some of the buildings (we are kicking ourselves for not bringing ours).

At one point, we went down into the basement where the floors were literally covered in old blueprints, layoff slips, and dozens (if not hundreds) of access card applications, most of them fully filled out in the 90's by AMC's old employees.

If you've always been fascinated by urban exploration and wanted to give it a try then Detroit is definitely the place to do it. With the abundance of buildings to explore and tours available to guide you through them, Motor City is the urban explorers' paradise. Just don't wait too long to do it. Who knows how long these abandoned buildings have before they get bought, repurposed or altogether razed.

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We are a couple of aspiring nomads currently living in Toronto, Canada. Our dream is to one day travel the world and make money while doing it. 

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