News / USA

Blight Tourism in Detroit Grows in Popularity

The city of Detroit is known more for its iconic blight than the vehicles that once rolled off the floors of the now-abandoned factories that gave it the nickname “Motor City.”  But, Detroit’s decline has given rise to a new phenomenon that is growing in demand - blight tourism.

The throngs of rock music fans are now a distant memory at Detroit’s Eastown Theater.

On this cold morning, the sidewalk in front serves as a bed for the homeless.

Step inside, and the once iconic stage that hosted rock singers Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper is filled with holes.   

It now more closely resembles the aftermath of a bombing, but it's not war torn. It's the byproduct of neglect, an example of economic decline.

Photographer Jesse Welter sees beyond the decay.  He sees art.

“I can see the beauty in it, and the architecture," said Welter.

The former beauty of St. Agnes Catholic Church is pierced by crumbling columns, broken windows, and graffiti.  There hasn’t been a service here since 2006.

Inside the school next to the church are forgotten shoes, open books on abandoned desks, and hallways once filled with students now full of debris.

This is Jesse Welter’s canvas.  His camera is his paintbrush, and his artwork tells a story.

“I think they kind of tell you the history.  The past.  What it is, what it’s become," he said.

What it’s become for Welter is not just a hobby, but a part-time job as a guide through Detroit’s misery.

“I was kind of doing this on my own, and I thought why not take people with me," he said.

In 2011, Welter began inviting other photographers on his adventures through Detroit’s evaporating architectural history.   Now, he charges between $40 and $100 per person for tours of Detroit's blight.  He says much of the money goes for expenses transporting his customers.

“My van, I can take up to ten people, and it's usually full.  I’ve been to about 180 different buildings, and the tours. I’ve probably done over 300 tours," said Welter.

The popularity of Welter’s tours has increased as the number of abandoned structures has grown. Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr estimates there are 78,000 blighted structures, which are targets of vandalism and fire.  

“Right now our public safety is stressed," said Glenda Price.

Glenda Price is co-chair of the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. It's developing a roadmap to eliminate Detroit’s blight over the next three years.

“We’re looking at all structures in the city, and all vacant land," she said.

One of the largest is the former Packard Automobile plant, which covers about 16 hectares. It's one of the most popular, and surreal, destinations on Welter’s tour.

“Once you start to see a lot of this, it doesn’t have as much of an impact anymore," said Welter.

Welter's trek through this wasteland is bittersweet, as it might be one of the last tours he offers here.  The plant has a new owner who is interested in developing the facility. Instead of an abandoned ruin, it could become, among other things, someone’s home.

Kane Farabaugh

Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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