Local Knowledge: Detroit's Ruins

The derelict buildings that represent Detroit in the popular imagination aren't as prevalent as they once were – at least, not in downtown, where many architectural gems have been lovingly restored and buffed to a shine, thanks to dedicated locals and private investors. National chains have also jumped on the bandwagon as the city's fortunes show a decided turn for the better, with retailers like Lululemon and hotel chains like Aloft and Westin moving in to formerly vacant commercial buildings.

Even a few of the most iconic ruins are showing signs of life. Top of the list is Michigan Central Station, the once-grand beaux-arts rail terminal. After closing in 1988, it spent decades crumbling into oblivion within eyeshot of Corktown's main drag. Decline has been stopped – and windows installed – but full redevelopment is far from certain. The Packard Auto Plant is another. Renowned architect Albert Kahn designed the 3.5-million-sq-ft factory, and it was a thing of beauty when it opened in 1905. After decades of abandonment, however, it has become a graffiti-ridden ruin. Its fortunes have risen with the city, however: an Italian developer bought three quarters of the site and has plans to turn it into an office and entertainment complex over the next decade. In the meantime, Pure Detroit is offering tours on Saturdays.

Still, with 139 sq miles of city, there are plenty of vacant buildings that remain, especially outside the downtown core. Note that viewing the buildings has become a hot topic: some call it 'ruin porn', as in people getting excited by urban decay. Others see it as a way to examine and take in the complex history of the city. It is illegal to enter any abandoned building.