ryan pirog, photography
ryan pirog, photography

Detroit

Detroit was a photo essay that I came up with for an independent study I was doing senior year of college… I was short two credit hours right before graduation, but luckily my advisor also happened to be my favorite teacher and the foreign policy chair and agreed to host it for me once a week… The focus of the class was Combat Photography, War Journalism, as this is the path I’m working towards… One thing I never really experienced or could grasp in reading or even in my travels abroad was the real effects on a war torn city… I’ve seen countless images of burned out building, or areas decimated by mortar rounds and tank fire, but these images seem fake and abstract in domesticated life… Little did I know I had a blown out shell of a city only 45 minutes away, baring the scares of a crumbling auto industry, reminiscent of Grozny circa 2000… I don’t think Detroit’s plight is any secret in America today, though the scale of it isn’t truly understood… Up to that time I’d read that Detroit was dying, the jobs were gone and the people were on the way out, leaving abandoned houses lining the streets… It wasn’t’ until I began planning my trip did I realize how much there really was… I looked at locations with the highest concentration of foreclosure rates & crime… And that’s where I went… Normally you’d think white boy from the suburbs going to the worst parts of Detroit in a white 96’ Lincoln town car with a few thousand dollars in camera equipment hanging off him would draw some negative attention… Though surprisingly, I didn’t… They stayed away… “They” being all the guys sitting on front stoops or in doorways who’d turn into peering eyes through closed doors and windows when I came down the street… I went to condemned burned out houses to find slowly flooding basements, due to the copper thieves moving in to get pipes when the fire department left… After awhile the houses start to look the same, so I moved onto the famous Heidelberg Project… If you haven’t’ heard its basically another street of condemned houses, that one man over several years and repeated appeals to the city, turned into a giant “Art” installation… I say “Art” as some people wouldn’t find a house with teddy bears nailed all over it anything special, or a cut tree with shopping cars attached a piece of work, but I do, and if you can’t see that derelict beauty in it… I’m sorry?

 

I moved from there to the epicenter of the cities death, the old car factories… The Packard plant was apocalyptic, a shattered structures post bombing run… From the thousands of old shoes dumped in the basement, the trash covered third floor, gaping holes where ceiling & windows once where to the incredible amount of graffiti that decorated the walls... This was my war, 45min from home…

 

My last stop was the Michigan Central Station… The old once beautiful train station that bolstered Detroit in the early days, turned run down civic hazard used now by bums, gangs and Hollywood crews… I walked around outside the fences taking panoramas and the usual landscapes, but I wanted in… Now I’m fairly adventuress but not keen on getting arrested in neighboring states for disregarding condemned signs and fenced off buildings… As I’m about to get back into my car to leave I see a bum holding up a fence for two people to slide under… I recognized an opportunity and walked over to see if I could come… The couple was the trendy artsy type from the suburbs, we didn’t talk much, didn’t desire to... The bum though was named Chief… It was about 4pm and already he had the blood shot look of a bars last call… As we walked into the main room through a once window he told us about what goes on there normally… Gangs deal drugs and party at night, the homeless curl up where they can and on occasion the movie types show up, recalling the shooting of a Kid Rock video and some flop HBO show…He started taking us up the building, showing us each floor and where he sleeps from time to time... We stopped on the 7th as he said that’s as high as he goes, the floor begins to crumble under you at 8... He said I was welcome to go further, they’ll wait for me there… I declined… On 7 we walked around, Chief posed for a few pictures and took us down to the end of a hall... He showed us a room that housed all the old train records, and walked over and reached into the black of a dank corner and pulled out, a crowbar… The fight or flight began to kick in but stopped as soon as he walked up to the wall and broke off some pieces of the marble facade for us as keep sakes… He wanted to show us one thing before it was time to go, as a fairly nasty storm was rolling in over the city… At the other end of the hall was the elevator shaft… And as the story goes, some gang bangers were there one night partying on the 7th floor, and bet a guy $100 to slide down the elevator cables to the ground… Unbenounced to him your skin burns off after 10ft on old rusty cables… He’d fall the next 6 stories… On that note we descended the stairwell watching out for hidden soft spots… He stopped us as we were leaving the stairwell and pointed to another set of dark stairs leading further down… He said they go to the basement and tunnel system that connects the Station with the abandoned Book Depository next door (which I tried to get into earlier but couldn’t)… The tunnels are pitch black and supposedly filled with death trap sewer pipes that go down another 60ft to the cities sanitary system… Chief recalled some friends who went down and never came up… He again offered to wait if I wanted to explore some… Again I declined… Walking out and under the fence the couple pulls out their wallets, not as a hand out but more of payment to him for the tour, $30… In preparation for being in the hood I left all my cash and cards at home, and only had a single on me… As I handed it to him, his look burned into my memory… It wasn’t one of anger or greed over it only being a dollar, but a sort of sorrow… You give beggars a dollar, or guys playing saxophone on the street… Chief though, let me into his life, showed me his bedroom and where he eats, posed for some pictures and protected me (He held the flashlight and onto my camera bag strapped on my back as I leaned over the elevator shaft so I didn’t fall)… And looking out on the 7th floor, he showed me his world… Ever since then I wish I could see him again and explain what happened… Because what he gave me was worth $1,000… Now most people think big deal, he’s a bum who cares? He’ll go spend it getting drunk anyway (Which is what I spend it on anyway)… But like those who don’t see the beauty in the Heidelberg Project, they don’t see the beauty or humanity in someone like him, they don’t see past the blood shot eyes...