Portraits of Decline

To overcome decades of neglect, Detroit needs all the help it can get.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley

Statler Hilton

Credit: NTHP

Detroit, birthplace of Motown Records and Henry Ford's Model T, has struggled for so long that its plight is now well known. During the 1970s and '80s, this once-thriving city reeled from the twin blows of a decline in the automobile industry and mass migration to the suburbs. As the population shrank and businesses departed, downtown's historic buildings began to crumble. Many were demolished.

Today, these architectural treasures—on the National Trust's 2005 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places—continue to be razed, written off by the city as unsuitable or too decrepit for reuse. The 1903 Madison-Lenox Hotel, on the Trust's 2004 list, came down in June to make room for a parking lot. At press time, the city was demolishing the Statler Hilton Hotel, a grand 1,000-room structure dating to 1914. Tiger Stadium, which hosted Detroit Tigers baseball games from 1912 until 1999, sits abandoned and deteriorating; without proper maintenance or a plan for reuse, it too may succumb to the wrecking ball. Downtown Detroit has more than 200 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places and dozens more that are eligible for inclusion. The following images, captured over the past 25 years by photographer Camilo Vergara, are a small sample.

As Detroit prepares to host the Super Bowl in February 2006, city officials are calling for the demolition of at least 100 more buildings. Revitalizing Detroit will be a challenge, but preservation groups hope to meet it by embracing rather than destroying the city's heritage.  

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