“The Eternal Drabness of DeHoCo”: Documenting and Memorializing Built Heritage Through Urban Exploration in Detroit

  • Kaeleigh Herstad
Part of the One World Archaeology book series (WORLDARCH)


There are over 40,000 vacant and blighted structures in Detroit, Michigan, and the city now demolishes an average of 150 of them each week. In the rush to clear the landscape and make way for new development, local histories and the physical sites associated with them are often lost or marginalized, and in the de facto absence of official city preservation efforts, local and nonlocal urban explorers step in to document structures before they are demolished or otherwise removed from the landscape. This process often involves extensive archival research into the life-history of a site and making the information they find publicly available online.

This chapter examines the valuable and controversial roles that urban explorers play in recognizing and memorializing Detroit’s built heritage. I draw on data from participant-observation with urban explorers and local heritage activists, as well as an analysis of online websites and forums dedicated to documenting Detroit’s vacant historic structures, to argue for urban exploration as a bottom-up process of heritage creation and management in the Metro Detroit region.


Urban blight Urban exploration Dark heritage Preservation 


  1. Abandoned Buildings in Michigan. (n.d.). Facebook public group. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from
  2. Arboleda, P. (2016). Heritage views through urban exploration: The case of ‘abandoned Berlin’. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(5), 368–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. ArchiveGrid. (2016). Detroit House of Correction Records, 1859-1985. Detroit Public Library, the Burton Historical Collection. “Detroit House of Correction.” Retrieved November 29, 2016, from
  4. Clem, D. (2017, August 30). Push is on to sell, develop former DeHoCo prison site in Plymouth. HometownLife. Retrieved from
  5. DeSilvey, C. (2005, December 5). Rot in peace. Slate. Retrieved from
  6. Dickson, J. D. (2017, October 1). Tough. Fire Wrecks Auditorium at Defunct Cooley High. Detroit News. Retrieved from
  7. Dixon, J. (2017, June 17). Detroiter Sues, says his lifelong home demolished in Ambush-Style Eviction. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved May 28, 2018, from
  8. Droit, R.-P. (1975, August 5). Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons. New York Times.Google Scholar
  9. Feighan, M. (2016, August 18). Showdown over Detroit home bonds neighbors. Detroit News. Retrieved from
  10. Garrett, B. (2010). Urban explorers: Quests for myth, mystery and meaning. Geography Compass, 4(10), 1448–1461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Garrett, B. (2014). Undertaking recreational trespass: Urban exploration and infiltration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1), 1–13. Scholar
  12. Guillen, J. (2017). Michigan finds $7M wrongly reimbursed demolition costs. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from
  13. Hackworth, J. (2016). Demolition as urban policy in the American Rust Belt. Environment and Planning A, 48(11), 2201–2222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hay, J. A. (2014). Restoring Cultural Capital through Preservation in the Holy Cross Historic District. Ph.D. dissertation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University.Google Scholar
  15. Jachman, M. (2016a, April 29). DeHoCo demolition money on the way. Hometown Life. Retrieved from
  16. Jachman, M. (2016b, May 8). Plymouth Twp. Loses Court Battle over DeHoCo Site. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from
  17. Langton, C. (2017). Shuttered historic Cooley high school suffers from vandals, disrepair. WJBK. Retrieved from
  18. Marchand Yves & Romain Meffre. (2010). Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre: The Ruins of Detroit. Göttingen: Steidl.Google Scholar
  19. McGowan, H. (1964). Motor City Madam. New York: Pageant Press.Google Scholar
  20. Merrill, S. (2014). Keeping it real? Subcultural graffiti, street art, heritage and authenticity. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21(4), 369–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nailhed. (2016). I want love and affection, not the house of correction. Cooley 350/350. Retrieved November, 2016, from
  22. Ninjalicious. (2017). Infiltration: No disclaimer. Infiltration: The zine about going places you’re not supposed to go. Retrieved February 19, from
  23. Olsen, B & Pétursdóttir, P (Eds). (2014). Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past. New York: Routledge. Scholar
  24. Runyan, R. (2016, November 23). Update: The CPA building is safe from demolition. Curbed Detroit. Retrieved from
  25. School Is Split Along Color Lines: Inside Story of Strife at Cooley. (1969, October 5). Detroit Free Press, 8A, 2B.Google Scholar
  26. Shubert, A. (2017, April 11). Rosa Parks’ Detroit home rebuilt in Berlin. CNN. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from
  27. Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Smith, L., Shackel, P. A., & Campbell, G. (2011). Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Theoharis, J. (2017, September 7). The story of Rosa Parks’ Detroit home reveals hard truths about her life in the ‘Northern promised land that Wasn’t.’ The Root. Retrieved from
  30. Vergara, C. J. (2017). Detroit Is No Dry Bones. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press.

Further Reading

  1. For a much more thorough treatment of some of the issues mentioned here, I recommend reviewing Laura McAtackney’s extensive work on Long Kesh/Maze prison in Northern Ireland, specifically An Archaeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze prison (2014); Eleanor Conlin Casella’s The Archaeology of Institutional Confinement (2007); and Suzanne Spencer-Wood and Sherene Baugher’s introductory article to a relevant special issue of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, “Introduction and Historical Context for the Archaeology of Institutions of Reform. Part One: Asylums” (2001). I would also recommend “Prisoners of War, Archaeology, Memory, and Heritage of 19th- and 20th-Century Mass Internment,” Mytum, Harold, Carr, Gilly (eds) (Springer 2013) and “Archaeologies of Internment,” Editors: Myers, Adrian, Moshenska, Gabriel (eds) (Springer 2011).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kaeleigh Herstad
    • 1
  1. 1.Indiana University Department of AnthropologyBloomingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations