The Urbex Zorro

Posted: November 18, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

By: Amy Cooper, Detroit Ginger

Within the City of Detroit, Urban Exploration has become a large part of the culture. As most of the mainstream media likes to show, there is an abundant amount of abandoned properties around the city, especially in the forms of old factories such as The Packard Plant and Fisher Body 21. Many specialize in specific infiltration like abandoned Detroit schools or intense climbing endeavors to reach the heights such as Book Tower. The Detroit Police Department does not sanction such artistic endeavors, and like the recent blight busting and graffiti crackdowns, Urban Explorers have become a stealthy but vocal breed that want to save the architecture and history behind it, while the DPD believes “urbex” photographers are nothing but trouble and out to destroy, just like scrapers.

One photographer has sought to bring some exposure to the deteriorating response that the city lacks on these vacant properties. Just like a modern day Zorro, Dan Sommers holds the same standards that the masked avenger stood for with a Detroit twist, defending against tyrannical officials and neglected buildings that should be properly maintained.

Some of Dan’s recent battles have been toward protecting closed schools that are being neglected by Detroit Public School districts, which will eventually be in the hands of Mayor Mike Duggan and the City of Detroit.  “My best friend and I were actually on our way somewhere else driving down the Davison when we noticed this school and decided to stop and check it out.

Photo By: KZYPhotography

Photo By: KZYPhotography

“We always do a full perimeter drive by of the building we’re about to go in before we go inside. We didn’t even make it down the first street before a scrapper popped a door open and tossed a couple pipes out into the snow, so we knew the motion cameras were probably disabled. It wasn’t long once we got inside that we started to hear the sound of running water. As we made our way closer to the sound, we started to be able to smell the water. When we went downstairs to the ground level we found 6-7 cracked pipes in the ceiling all gushing out water at incredible rates. It didn’t look like scrappers were to blame,” said Sommers.

“It was -10 degrees outside. Sometimes pipes burst. We tossed around the idea of making a report for a couple days, weighing out the potential risks and all that involved with trespassing in a building that only closed in 2012. Eventually we decided to call it in. Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) told me they were aware of the issue and would get to work on it right away. Well, they didn’t. After a few days of waiting for them to do something and getting no results, we decided to flood the local news Facebook pages with our photos and videos. Steve Neavling with Motor City Muckraker was the first one to pick up our story and write about it. Shortly after he posted his story, I got a call from Channel 7’s Ronnie Dahl. I talked to her for a while giving my description of what we found and all that. Later that day DWSD was on the scene with a crew and a spokesman doing damage control.” 

Water Flooding a Detroit Basement, 9 days after a report was filed, and still no results.  Photo: Images by DSomms

Water Flooding a Detroit Basement, 9 days after a report was filed, and still no results.  Photo: Images by DSomms

Schools aren’t the only problem, but the biggest challenge is getting the City of Detroit to get this lack of control back into a regime that won’t cost taxpayers money, especially when there’s been a crisis so intense like Detroit’s recent water scandal. The incident was so high profile that even National Geographic was on the scene, like Detroit was a third world country, photographing a woman filling up a construction bucket with water from a spigot.  

Sommers said in total he has made 5 reports on vacant buildings that have been flooded that he’s come across, two of which have had no results in rectifying the situation. Once again, Neavling of Motor City Muckraker helped break the news, but no movement has been made from the city or by other forms of news media, and the count is at day 9 of the report being issued.

Inside a vacant church. Photo By:  Images by DSomms

Inside a vacant church. Photo By:  Images by DSomms

Another heartbreak that Detroit architecture enthusiasts find to be nauseating is the desecration of the old churches that still hold amazing beauty. Sommers once again alerted who he could find as he stumbled upon another site that was damaged, The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. “This was a church we had been going to for a few months. We kept the details of this building very private because of the incredible condition it was in.

“The last few times we went, things were changing. Things moved around without cause. The chandelier lights were on. Then the last time I was there we came in to find that the neighborhood kids had gotten into the spray paint that was in one of the basement storage rooms and painted all over the walls. All over the marble alter. All over everything. They even broke many of the pieces of the beautiful stained glass,” said Sommers. “I didn’t know who exactly to call, so I sent a message to the Archdiocese of Detroit Facebook page with photos of the vandalism and the address of the building. They messaged me back the next day informing me that the building had actually been sold, but they have sent the photos to the new owner. Just a couple days later the new owners cut down the tall evergreen that was hiding the broken window and put up fresh boards.”

A  heartfelt thank you for a job well done.  Photo: Facebook Screen capture from Dan Sommers

A  heartfelt thank you for a job well done.  Photo: Facebook Screen capture from Dan Sommers

The bottom line is as photographers, they take an unspoken oath to capturing beauty, even in something that has been left behind, and they hope to protect what is left, not to watch the history fall apart and be bashed in by a wrecking ball. “I’m mostly interested in old buildings,” said Sommers. “I love history. The buildings from the 20’s and 30’s are on a whole other level of grandeur with the details in the architecture. From the time when Detroit was on top of the world, that time lives on in the historic old buildings. Also a big thing for me is the intrigue of what might be left behind inside. There is nothing better than discovering a building where it’s like they just up and left and never came back. It’s very compelling to me to rummage through all the stuff that was left behind and piece together what the people who lived or worked at the building were all about and create the mental image of what it was like when it was still open.”

The future of Detroit is uncertain with the finalized bankruptcy, and the word on the street is that we are having a Battle of the Blight. At the helm of this sinking ship is Detroit’s lead tycoon, Dan Gilbert. Cited in a Detroit Free Press Article on October 1, 2014, a quote from Gilbert states “’Blight is like a cancer,” Gilbert said. ‘This is one of those all-or-nothing things.’”  It is up in the air as of right now what Gilbert considers “blight” and what is worth saving, though the odds are bleak. Publications like The New York Times that have glorified Gilbert’s Detroit crusade have even gone as far as calling the famed Michigan Central Station located in Corktown “a perversely popular tour of ruins,” which doesn’t leave the highest of hopes involved for the path ahead. Let’s hope there is more people out there like Dan Sommers who will stand up for the memories of the city, and not seeing them as haunting reminders of the past.  

Photo By: KZYPhotography

Photo By: KZYPhotography


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