Alex Roy Likes Detroit
Note to Alex’s Producers: That’s A Model T Museum, Not “Ruin Porn”

I’m ambivalent about the Live And Let Drive video that Alex Roy has done for Drive. Alex came to Detroit a few days early for the NAIAS back in January so he could test his theory that the Motor City is America’s Berlin, a city filled with great architecture, creative people, a vibrant underground scene, and potential. He clearly likes the city and as a native Detroiter I’m happy when people say nice things about my hometown. I agree with much of what Alex says about Detroit’s potential. I just wish Live And Let Drive’s producers would have made an effort to learn a few more things about the place while they were here so they could get it completely right. They started out saying that they didn’t want to show ruin porn, like so many journalists and filmmakers do, and ended up misleading viewers by calling one of the city’s treasures, Henry Ford’s original Model T factory, “ruin porn”.

In the final scene of what is part one of a two part video on Detroit as Berlin, the Buick Regal GS that Roy drives (and praises) in the video is parked next to an old mill style factory whose brick walls are covered with graffiti. Roy walks up to the car and says

I know I said that we were not going to visit any ruin porn, but having bought this amazing urban safari jacket at the Russell Mall from Mr. J’s haberdasher, there was no way we could avoid coming to at least one location that is really a ruin porn. So given that it is Motor City I thought that we should come to this, the Ford Model T factory location on Piquette Avenue.

The problem is that Piquette Avenue factory where Henry Ford’s team built the first Model T and where they developed the concept of the assembly line, is not in fact a ruin. It’s not even abandoned or empty. Part of the building is still occupied by an industrial linen business. More importantly, the rest of the building is devoted to the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. A non-profit group saved the structure from destruction about a decade ago, is restoring the building and has been developing a museum there. Many exhibits are already complete, though a few are still under construction, like the recreation of the “secret room” in the back where Farkas and Galamb built the first T, but it’s definitely worth a visit. In addition to the exhibits, the building houses a great collection of Model Ts, early Fords and other historically significant cars including those of Ford’s competitors. Most of the cars are loaned to the museum by collectors thrilled to store and display their vehicles in such a historic place. There’s just about every year and type of Model T that you could hope to find. Almost all the cars are, as you would expect, vintage, though the museum’s collection does include the fastest production Ford ever, a 205 mph Ford GT. That validation prototype was donated to the museum by Ford Motor Company to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Henry Ford’s record speed run in the 999 racer. Photos of the factory, that Ford GT, and the other cars on display there can be seen here. The Piquette Ford plant is open to visitors 5 days a week from April into November. The facility rents its space for special events (with secure parking), as do other car museums in the region. If any building in Detroit isn’t “really a ruin porn” it’s the Piquette Ave. Ford plant. The Piquette factory could have become ruin porn but didn’t because some Detroiters decided to make a stand out on the urban prairie and preserve some history.

What Alex showed us and called “ruin porn”

Live And Let Drive’s producers had to have known that the building is occupied. There’s a historical marker in front of the building and a sign painted on the front door with information about museum hours. However, they shot the scene on the Beaubien Street side of the building. Unlike the building’s front, which has been restored, that side of the building is still graffiti covered and if you didn’t know better, it could pass for one of Detroit’s empty factories.

Live And Let Drive didn’t show you that the Model T factory is occupied by a museum, with a historical marker in front and hours of operation on the door. Part of the building is also still used industrially, by a linen supply company, which occupies the former Studebaker plant next door

So while implicitly decrying the exploitation of Detroit’s ruin porn, Live And Let Drive portrayed a still occupied building that’s an important historical site and an operating museum as a ruin. The Model T Complex is run almost entirely by volunteers and it’s a genuine labor of love. Museum volunteers graciously let me in on a day when the museum was closed to the public to give me unfettered access to photograph the cars. When I arrived, one of the volunteers, a retired Detroit cop, was on his hands and knees fixing a floor cleaning machine. He told me that since they restored the brick on the building’s facing, the local graffiti ‘artists’ have respected what they’re doing and not tagged the front of the factory. Perhaps on such small building blocks are civil societies rebuilt. Like I said, Alex Roy clearly likes Detroit and the people here. I’m sure that he’d understand that those volunteers who saved the Model T factory, who are restoring the building for posterity and have turned it into an attraction that would delight just about any car enthusiast, might be upset that he called it “really a ruin porn”.

Inside the Piquette Ave Model T factory. Yes, that’s a VW Beetle in the background. There’s also a 1915 Dodge, representing the Dodge brothers’ important role supplying Ford. It’s a well curated museum.

Besides doing a disservice to the folks who saved the Piquette plant, a sense of history is where Is Detroit America’s Berlin? is most lacking, at least from an automotive standpoint, but then, Roy comes out and says that he’s really not interested in automotive history or ruin porn. If that’s the case, though, why pick the Model T factory as a backdrop, saying it’s where the assembly line, something important to civilization, was invented, and then call it ruin porn?

There is no shortage of real ruin porn in that neighborhood. Roy’s crew was shooting that video where the American auto industry exploded into a force that changed the world, and then moved on. In Ford’s case, it was to the much larger Highland Park factory. The Milwaukee Junction area of Detroit, where the Piquette plant sits, was where the American car industry grew up, where companies like Ford and Studebaker built their first real factories, not just workshops. Next door to the Piquette plant is a (still occupied) building where Studebakers were built. Just down Piquette, though, are some truly decrepit industrial hulks, like the Fisher Body plant identified just by number, Fisher Body #21, so the video’s producers didn’t really have to go far for a real ruin. As a matter of fact, I think you can see #21 flash by briefly without mention in the video. On the other hand, isn’t it more dramatic if the supposedly ruined factory is Henry Ford’s Model T plant?

Ray Dietrich started LeBaron in the blue building on the left. Detroit Electric cars were built in the building on the right.

For all the talk of “ruin porn” in the video, and there indeed are shots of decayed buildings, much of the video takes place around buildings that, like the Piquette Ford plant, have avoided ruin by being repurposed.The Russell Industrial Center, where Alex bought his “urban safari” jacket in the bazaar located in the complex, was once the location of the Anderson Carriage company, which built Detroit Electric cars there a century ago. As he drove down Clay street past the Industrial Center to meet up with the photographer shooting the Aston Martin One 77, on his left was a blue building that currently houses a packaging business. In that same building at 1601 Clay, in the 1920s pioneering car designer Ray Dietrich started the LeBaron company to make custom bodies for America’s finest motorcars.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of my time taking photos and shooting video for Cars In Depth in and around the Motor City. Nobody has to tell me about Detroit’s ruins and urban prairie. I’m no urban sherpa but I’ve made my way around the D, and driven from the Packard plant on East Grand Blvd to the intersection way over on West Grand where Billy Durant and Louis Chevrolet started that brand’s first factory in 1911. The Packard plant continues to decay. The Chevrolet factory is long gone. Detroit has more than its share of ruins, but the city and the region also have an abundance of places of great interest, and not just to auto enthusiasts. I genuinely appreciate it when non-Detroiters like Alex Roy try to boost the city. I just wish that when they did so that they’d try to get it right. Yes Detroit has some magnificent and depressing ruins, but it also has some treasures, and I’m sure that Alex Roy would agree with me on that point. One of Detroit’s many problems is that not enough people know about genuine treasures like the “T-Plex”. When you call one of those treasures a “ruin” it doesn’t help the city’s renewal.

I’m sure that Alex’s heart is in the right place and I’m not asking him to be an expert about 100 year old Detroit buildings. In a comment thread at Jalopnik site Alex apologized for the error and said that the producer liked how Ford’s Piquette Ave building looked as a backdrop. I think I understand what his producer means. The Piquette Ford plant is an old fashioned mill style building with narrow arched windows. It does make a great visual backdrop, with just enough graffiti to look ruined. On the other hand, with just a little bit of research the producers could have found any one of a number of similarly old fashioned buildings that actually are abandoned or ruins, just minutes away.

People will watch Live And Let Drive and come away thinking that the Piquette factory is a ruin, not a very place filled with memorable cars and automotive history. They’ll think there is one less reason to visit Detroit. If the producers of Live And Let Drive really like Detroit and think that it could be, as the video says, the best city in America, perhaps they should come back for another visit and shoot a segment on the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex.

Here’s part 2 of The American Berlin:

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