Are Urban Explorers Heritage Activists?: The ‘Eternal Drabness’ of DeHoCo

“[Urban exploration] is a community of people who by their inherent nature break rules and expectations. Expecting them to then follow the rules of a community is patently absurd” (Garret 2013: 33).

Pablo Arboleda,  a Ph.D. student at Bauhaus-University Weimar, recently published an interesting article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies that argues for urban exploration as a type of bottom-up heritage activism.

In this post, I’ll discuss Arboleda’s argument and apply it to my own varied experiences as an urban explorer, anthropologist/archaeologist, and instructor of college courses about the politics of exploring and representing neglected spaces. I’ll also discuss recent visits I’ve made to the abandoned Detroit House of Correction (DeHoCo) and the role that urban exploration plays (or has the potential to play) in memorializing this soon-to-be-demolished site.

Two Types of Urban Explorers

Arboleda breaks urban explorers down into two camps: performative and communicative. The main difference between the two types is the preference for secrecy.

Performative explorers, which Arboleda recognizes as the majority, “opt for keeping locations a secret as an exclusionary way to protect the places from eventual vandalism and touristification” (369). Arboleda argues that performative explorers often assume a stewardship role over sites and have a desire to protect their perceived authenticity by keeping their locations secret from the general public or institutions. Citing DeSilvey (2005) and Merrill (2004), Arboleda argues that performative exploration can be a form of ‘entropic’ or ‘alternative’ heritage that assumes a site’s progressive decay and doesn’t promise or even advocate for its preservation or rehabilitation.

Communicative explorers, on the other hand, share details about their experiences at and knowledge of abandoned or neglected sites with different communities, acting as mediators between official institutions and the general public. By documenting and sharing information about neglected or forgotten places, communicative explorers increase a site’s visibility, potentially creating dialogue about issues of preservation and accountability.

In my experience, most explorers fall somwhere along the spectrum between the two camps; it depends on the site. As a contemporary archaeologist and instructor of anthropology courses about urban exploration, I research and document the sites I visit and share the information I find with my students, colleagues, and friends (in class and via social media). One of my primary goals in doing this (i.e. documenting in order to share) is to challenge the way my students think about the use of (public) space, what counts as ‘heritage’ (and who decides this), and the complexities of property ownership (a concept that’s rarely challenged in US law). How we represent neglected places matters, and doing research on the life histories of the sites I visit, and then sharing these histories along with my photographs and descriptions, could encourage people to resist simply labeling something as ‘ruin porn’ and dismissing it. I use my documentation of abandoned and neglected spaces to consider issues like housing policy reform, preservation, and whether or not someone can/should exclusively ‘own’ and decide the fate of certain historic structures.

Sometimes, however, if a site is still largely intact and viable (a rare occurrence these days in Detroit), I will try to protect it from vandalism and scrapping by not disclosing its location or other identifying details. Unlike performative explorers, for whom the thrill of trespassing and the exclusivity of a site are primary motivators, I do not omit information out of a desire to keep the experience of visiting it to myself (nor do I enjoy the ‘thrill’ of trespassing or expect to get a ‘free pass’ for breaking the law because I’m a researcher/teacher).


The abandoned Detroit House of Correction (locally known as ‘DeHoCo’) is an example of a site with a well-known location and many visitors. It has been vacant for 12 years, is largely open and visible from a busy road, and has been at the center of a well-publicized court battle between Plymouth Township and the City of Detroit. The entire site is very large, comprised of about 15 structures and the remains of the prison farm and penal cottages. The only parcel with historic structures still standing on it is currently owned by the Michigan Land Bank, and the state has already allocated funds ($4 million) to demolish the structures most visible from the road.

This is DeHoCo’s second incarnation, however. The first DeHoCo opened in 1861 on Alfred Street between Russell and Riopelle Streets in Detroit:

“The prison contained 640 cells, but had no toilet facilities, interlocking devices for the cells, or other modern conveniences. In 1920, a farm project was developed in Plymouth Township, west of Detroit, and in 1926 the first women prisoners were transferred there. By the summer of 1931, the entire prison had been transferred to the Plymouth farm location, with accommodations for about 1,200 men and over 200 women. The farm covered over 1,000 acres of land, several hundred of which were used for cultivation. All of the fruits and vegetables used by the institution were grown on the farm (ArchiveGrid, The Burton Historical Collection).

A rendering of the original DeHoCo in Detroit’s Eastern Market

Penal cottages were added to the site, and the large cell block that stands across the road from part of the prison farm today was designed in 1927 by Albert Kahn and opened in 1931. The land that the cell block sits on was previously used as a dump for the City of Detroit (more on this later).

I want to add at this point that the original DeHoCo structure in Eastern Market appears to have become somewhat of a tourist attraction after it was vacated, as well–I’ve found a souvenir from “the abandoned Detroit House of Correction” dating from 1931, right after the new facility had just opened (see photos).

The Kahn cellblock served as the administrative center and a maximum security prison. Across the road was a smaller facility for women, and to the west “were barns and additional housing used as part of the prison farm. Other facilities included classroom buildings, a barn used for vocational training, athletic fields, a greenhouse, and a large power plant at the rear of the property. The entire complex was surrounded by multiple layers of fence and guard towers” (Detroit Urbex).

The new DeHoCo facility housed many notable inmates over the next 54 years, including members of the infamous Purple Gang, poet and political activist John Sinclair, and Detroit madam Helen McGowan, who writes about the time she spent in DeHoCo (from December 1956 to March 1959) in her memoir:

“The food ran fair to bad. Beans were favored by the menu-maker…The blue shapeless uniform was not a dancing outfit and I disliked putting it on and literally tore it off at night. The eternal drabness of the House of Correction was fully reflected in the faces of my fellow prisoners” (McGowan 1964: 167-68).

McGowan’s chapters on her experience at DeHoCo describe the jobs she had in the prison’s laundry, dining room, and cannery, as well as the general treatment of inmates by staff. She was transferred from the cell block to a penal cottage (which she much preferred) shortly after her arrival, and during the almost 2.5 years she spent there, a new warden replaced the women’s blue uniforms with print dresses (lipstick was also allowed, and there was a beauty salon on site), permitted inmates to have personal items in their possession, improved the quality and nutritional value of meals, spruced up the penal cottages with new mattresses and furniture, and allowed family members to visit the cottage grounds for dinners and picnics (McGowan 1964: 166-169).

In addition to rare firsthand accounts like McGowan’s, DeHoCo has been represented in music, literature, and popular culture. Rhythm and blues singer Nathaniel Mayer, who (possibly) served time DeHoCo in the early 60s for armed robbery, released a popular song about his experience, “I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction),” in 1966. Author Joyce Carol Oates, inspired by the women inmates of DeHoCo, wrote a short story, How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again (1969) about life in DeHoCo.

In 1979, part of DeHoCo was sold to the Michigan Department of Corrections, and in 1985 DeHoCo ceased to exist as an institution, serving at first as a state intake facility for men, and later as a minimum security prison for women. The state closed the DeHoCo facilities (at that time known as Western Wayne Correctional Facility) for good in 2004, transferring all inmates to a facility in Ypsilanti.

Since then, many explorers have visited and documented the site through photography, video, blog posts, and posts to social media accounts. One of the first explorers to visit the site after its abandonment was Nailhed, and his photos of the newly abandoned facility from 2005 contrast greatly with what I see there 12 years later.

The fact that DeHoCo is accessible does not mean that it’s past the point of needing protection, or that damage to the structures doesn’t concern me. As seen in this recent video, visitors do vandalize the property (and other explorers try to discourage them from doing so–just check out the comments on the video). People treat neglected sites as if they don’t matter for a variety of reasons that transcend individual choices (more on this below). One function of communicative exploration, however, is to open up a discussion about the way we think about and behave towards vacant and neglected spaces, potentially mitigating some of this damage.

Inmates canning peaches at DeHoCo

Urbex and Heritage at DeHoCo

Returning to Arboleda’s argument that urban exploration can act as a bottom-up approach to heritage activism (11), I want to consider how DeHoCo functions as a heritage site. I have visited the site three times over the course of the last year, running into fellow explorers there twice. We encountered a father and son working on a school photography project and a group that was using the site as a set for an independent film.

The Kahn cell block is the most-documented area of the site for several reasons. It’s the most accessible structure on the site, for one. It’s also visually stunning, with peeling paint on the walls and ceiling, an intricate, heavily-rusted casement window and interlocking cell systems, and clean lines, open space, and architectural symmetry. Kahn pioneered the use of reinforced concrete to create large, unobstructed spaces and employed this technique with great success in many of Detroit’s massive factory complexes. DeHoCo very much resembles Fisher Body 21, for example, or Highland Park’s Ford Plant.

It’s not a coincidence that factories, prisons, hospitals, and schools share a lot in common architecturally and ideologically; as theorist Michel Foucault argues, despite the fact that we frequently build prisons outside of urban centers to separate those convicted of crimes from society: “Prison is not unique. It is positioned within the disciplined society, the society of generalized surveillance in which we live” (Droit 1975). The ruin of DeHoCo subverts this ‘generalized surveillance’ simply by existing; seeing this shell of a prison calls into question the permanence and stability of civic institutions and systems that we take for granted.

Thus, the cell block is also striking on a social or psychological level. What was once a space of confinement and highly regulated activity housing hundreds of prisoners at a time is now completely open and empty, its many strictly-enforced boundaries now permeable. The ease with which the site can be accessed now highlights the ways in which we give power to (and remove power from) physical spaces.

The site has always been stigmatized, which, paradoxically, is another part of its appeal to present-day visitors. While it most recently served as a space of confinement for people that society (through the legal and judicial systems) had deemed “delinquent” or criminal, before that, it served as a city dump for Detroit:

“For years inmates had complained of respiratory problems and rashes. Much of DeHoCo had been built on a former landfill of industrial coal waste and refuse. In 2002, as workers begin excavating for a new gun range, they found landfill waste from the 1920’s to the 1950’s close to the surface. Environmental tests carried out by the state showed high levels of lead” (DetroitUrbex).

In both incarnations, the land that DeHoCo sits on served as a place to keep certain materials and people separate from society at large. The site’s negative associations with a literal and figurative (social) ‘dump’ have transferred onto the physical remains of the site.

Penal Cottages at DeHoCo

For these reasons and many others, sites like DeHoCo create discomfort, making it difficult to argue for the preservation and interpretation of prisons as heritage sites. While some prisons have become World Heritage Sites (eg. the network of Australian Convict Sites and Robben Island), or national heritage sites or landmarks (Alcatraz Island, Eastern State Penitentiary), the vast majority of defunct prisons are considered to be the opposite of heritage sites: “unattractive eyesores” on the edge of a city, associated with criminality and penality, and therefore viewed as negative space themselves.

The current representation of the DeHoCo site falls into this latter category, with various local and state entities all trying to figure out how to manage and remediate the site. So far, none of the proposed plans include a preservation component. The history of the site appeals to many, but the physicality of it, especially in its advanced decay, is harder to come to terms with. Many would prefer the cellblock be bulldozed to make way for a new technology corridor.

Because DeHoCo isn’t recognized as an ‘official’ historical site, there has been no attempt on the part of the City of Detroit, Plymouth Township, the State of Michigan, or the National Park Service to document it, interpret it, or stabilize it and open it to visitors. While the Burton Historical Collection (mentioned above) keeps records of the institution’s office files, city, state, county and federal material, and prisoners’ records from 1861-1983, the material remains of the site are not considered historically significant enough to preserve.

How does urban exploration, then, contribute to the ongoing dialogue about what to do with the site? As Arboleda notes, communicative explorers play a part in opening up a dialogue about a site just by making people more aware of it. The vast majority of people are not urban explorers for various reasons; they don’t like breaking the law (or the prospect of being caught), they don’t enjoy being in abandoned places, or they are physically unable to visit certain sites. Communicative explorers document and share information about a site in public venues–on pages like the Abandoned Buildings in Michigan group on Facebook, for instance, which has over 4,000 members. Sharing this information raises awareness about a site’s past and its present physical state. These sites also serve as places to pool information and ask questions.

Communicative explorers witness and document changes in the urban environment, and the information they gather can be valuable to  various ‘official’ institutions. Arboleda gives examples of an explorer in London who documented an abandoned asylum and was later contacted by the British Library to archive the information he’d gathered. Another explorer in Germany was contacted by the German Embassy in France to share his documentation of various sites in Berlin (Arboleda 2016: 3).

Rather than being simply a transgressive, individual practice undertaken for the “thrill” of trespassing, communicative exploration “engages with the society, spreading a critical voice about the way the city is witnessing its dereliction, and anticipating or denouncing potential threats to its heritage” (Arboleda 2016: 11). In places like Detroit that are undergoing unprecedented changes to the built environment, urban explorers are often the only people to document sites before they are demolished, providing a visual and ethnographic record of a site and sparking discussion about future preservation needs.

When structures are demolished, and in the absence of official commemoration or acknowledgment, urban explorers can also step in to memorialize a site. In Detroit, several individuals and groups document abandoned structures and make information about them available to the general public. Nailhed and Detroit Urbex are excellent examples of these online repositories of information about the past, present, and future of the city’s built environment. They document the entire life cycle of a structure–construction, primary use, secondary use (if there was one), abandonment, and demolition–rather than focusing on just one specific time period. These sites are important for taking stock of and acknowledging loss when city officials would rather focus on ‘progress’ and redevelopment.

For communicative explorers, understanding history through urban exploration is not just a byproduct of the practice, but a primary motivator behind it; urbex is viewed as another way of seeing and understanding the geography and history of the world around you:

“…this site is designed to serve at most as a primer for deeper inquiry on historical topics, and at the least as novel entertainment to inspire an audience to be less lazy and seek more out of life.

“In other words, this is armchair history–I’m not some sainted doctoral historian. But at the same time, pains have been taken to ensure–and cite–the most accurate original information possible. I list the sources I reference in my work, so you can see (and fact-check) where I got my information from. I welcome criticisms on my material, and am open to corrections from readers…

“Similarly, I am under no delusions that trespassing in abandoned places somehow gives me a better ability to understand their history than other people; nor do I fool myself into thinking that being some crusader ‘for history’ earns me diplomatic immunity or justification for whatever I do. I know and accept the rules of the game” (Nailhed).

Urban exploration alone is not enough to save DeHoCo from demolition, but the practice could (and has) had an impact on current preservation efforts in the city, which are strengthening in the wake of recent losses. When a demo permit for the historic CPA building in the city’s Corktown neighborhood was issued, local preservationists and residents immediately rallied to save it. The building was given historic designation for a year, during which time it will be evaluated for historical relevance and safety. Residents were willing and able to mobilize quickly, and the city council was willing to act quickly to examine the issue and act, which bodes well for future preservation battles in this part of the city.

Sometimes, though, communicative exploration leads to a site being sealed off or even demolished. The more public attention is drawn to a neglected space, the more pressure officials and institutions feel to do something about it. For example, and old factory and a church in Detroit that I visited earlier this year, which were both completely open and visited by large groups of explorers every day, have since been completely sealed up. Communicative explorers can thus endanger or at least limit the accessibility of a site just by sharing information about it. This is precisely the rift that Arboleda discusses between performative and communicative explorers: for performative explorers, the right to visit an off-limits site has to be earned, and sharing a place’s location publicly grants access to people that haven’t yet earned that privilege. Both types of explorers claim rights to the city, but they claim it for different reasons and in different ways.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Arboleda’s categorization of explorers (I think most people fall somewhere in the middle of the performative-communicative spectrum), I agree that the practice of urban exploration has a wide range of applications for and contributions to make to the field of heritage studies. DeHoCo has always fascinated people, with explorers in the 1930s visiting the first abandoned facility, and explorers 80 years later visiting the second (this time with vastly improved capabilities to document and share what they see). Popular interest in the site isn’t going away, and while it likely won’t be enough to force officials to reconsider future plans for DeHoCo, it can create discussion around the social and architectural significance of these stigmatized structures and why they should be preserved, or at the very least thoroughly documented before they’re demolished.

Below is a gallery of my photos from various visits to DeHoCo in 2016.


Works Referenced

Many scholars specialize in the archaeology of prisons and institutional confinement, and I am not among them. For those interested in a 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).

Thanks to Paul Mullins for sharing Pablo Arboleda’s piece.

  1. Arboleda, Pablo. “Heritage Views through Urban Exploration: The Case of ‘Abandoned Berlin.’” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22, no. 5 (May 27, 2016): 368–81.
  2. ArchiveGrid. “Detroit House of Correction Records, 1859-1985.” Detroit Public Library, the Burton Historical Collection.
  3. “Detroit House of Correction.” Accessed November 29, 2016.
  4. “Detroit House of Correction.” Peeling Walls, August 22, 2016.
  5. Droit, Roger-Pol. “Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons.” New York Times, August 5, 1975.
  6. Garrett, Bradley. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. New York: Verso, 2013.
  7. McGowan, Helen. Motor City Madam. New York: Pageant Press, 1964.
  8. Nailhed. “I Want Love and Affection, Not the House of Correction.” Accessed November  2016.
  9. “Photos: DeHoCo.” Detroit Free Press. Accessed October 8, 2016.

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