The University Record, November 19, 2001

Culture bus tour cruises through ‘ruins of Detroit’

Editor’s Note: The Record’s Susan Farley accompanied the Culture Bus Nov. 11 to bring back this first-hand account.

By Susan Farley

The Culture Bus pulls up beside the abandoned Michigan Central Railroad Station. (Photo by Susan Farley)
On a brisk autumn Sunday, the Arts at Michigan Culture Bus geared up for yet another trek into Detroit, this time to view its “Fabulous Ruins.”

Our tour was led by artist and Web designer Lowell Boileau. Boileau is a former U-M graduate student who left school to join the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War and later returned to the Detroit area as a Sears delivery person. It was during several years as a delivery person that he familiarized himself with Detroit’s splendid and vanishing ruins, Boileau says.

The bus tour’s title, “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit,” which is the same title as one of Boileau’s Web sites, www.detroityes.com, “started as a tongue-in-cheek thing. Athens has ruins; Rome has ruins; Detroit has ruins—only bigger,” jokes Boileau.

Boileau’s artwork and Web site led Nancy Lautenbach, program specialist of Arts at Michigan, to contact him regarding doing an “alternative, very educational tour of Detroit.”

Detroit’s population peaked in the mid-1950s at nearly two million residents, but now has less than a million. “Subtract a million people, and that explains a lot of the empty space in Detroit,” Boileau reflects.

“Detroit has picked itself up over the last five years or so. Unlike the ruins of Athens or Rome, the ruins will probably not be here [in Detroit] much longer,” observes Boileau.

The tour passed seven major sites in Detroit and the enclave cities of Highland Park and Hamtramck, with stops at three locations. Other major sites were viewed by slow cruise by and standing stops.

Passengers disembarked at the abandoned Michigan Central Railroad Station and then walked by places, such as the Fort Shelby Hotel, Cadillac Hotel, Grand Circus Park Ruins and Park Avenue. Boileau says that the Michigan Central Railroad Station is the “crown jewel of Detroit ruins.” It was disheartening to see such a beautiful structure in utter disrepair.

Some gorgeous architecture is simply lying in ruins throughout Detroit. But we also saw places that have been recently restored.

When asked why he loves Detroit, Boileau responded, “Detroit is a real kind of edge city, a post-industrial society, gritty, honest and real kind of place.”

Arts at Michigan has been presenting bus tours this semester to selected events and locations in the Detroit metropolitan area for U-M students, faculty and staff. This year, LS&A is participating in Detroit 300, a celebration of Detroit’s 300th anniversary, and has designated the fall 2001 semester as a theme semester to honor Detroit’s tricentennial. In collaboration with these efforts, the Culture Bus has been offering an expanded schedule of arts-related trips, which center on the rich history of Detroit’s 300 years.

For information on the Culture Bus schedule of events, visit the Web at www.umich.edu/~arts/programs/culturebus.frames.html.