The Packard Automotive Plant
After reading a bunch of spook stories about the plant on the internet Amaryah and I got up in the wee hours of the morning to peddle out through the blighted suburbs on the other side of the city to reach the plant. The route took us through miles of run down and burnt-out houses, heavily fortified discount liquor stores and pawn shops selling lotto tickets. There was never a danger of not being able to find the plant. It sits on 40 acres of concrete and rubble in the midst of a suburban neighbourhood. We stopped in at a fried chicken restaurant on the way to get a drink and take stock of the broken glass in the tyres. The shop had one of those bullet-proof lazy-susan devices at the cashier. I’d only ever seen one of those on The Wire and I later realised that most gas stations and retail businesses in the city use them to discourage robbery.
Coming across the complex around dawn was eerie. A road runs through the ruins with a pedestrian overpass from one devastated building to the other and on each side the ruins stretch out for hundreds of meters. The effect is like stepping into a picture of the dark days of Stalingrad or Grozny. Once you’re in the ruins the stillness is absolute. But sounds echo out from amongst the empty window frames and doorways- metal creaking in the breeze, snow dripping and cracking occasionally and birds taking flight from their roosts in the pipes and cavities.
We picked our way over the rubble at ground level and made our way to the multi-story parking lot at the west end of the plant to survey the surrounding area. To the north you see a somewhat beaten down American city and to the south you see that same civilisation as if everyone just up and left.
Some facts about the place. It was opened in 1903 as a state-of-art construction and assembly plant for Packard Automotive. It was one of the first plants to be constructed with re-enforced concrete. Prior to finding out about this place I never really considered that there was a time when the US produced top-of-the-line luxury cars in the vein of Mercedes and Rolls Royce. But that’s what Packard did for the first half of the 20th century. During the war they converted their facilities for the production of engines and airframes for P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft (among other things) and following the war they shifted gears and tried unsuccessfully to compete with other american auto manufacturers in the mid-range car market. Their sales tanked and by 1958 they were out of business and had closed the doors on their Detroit plant.
They closed them but they didn’t do much else. Since the 1960s the complex has been ransacked by looters and vandals and covered with graffiti. At this stage it’s not at all clear who legally owns the site and various parties have spent the last decade or so fighting to distance themselves from the property in the courts in order to avoid incurring the cost of demolition and cleanup of the site. This created a strange situation in 2010 when a wall within the ruins were used as a canvas for British street artist Banksy and a local gallery sidled in to take ownership of at least that tiny section of the plant. Artwork by Banksy has sold for almost 230 thousand dollars in the past but he’d need to do a lot more spraying at the site to cover the 20 million dollars that it’s estimated it could cost to demolish and clean the site of asbestos and other contaminants.
We visited on a very chilly overcast day but there are some beautiful pictures and more information abut the plant on the Detroit Free Press site.
I’ve also uploaded a panorama of the title shot.