At the Packard Plant in Detroit, Mich., two blended photographs show the plant as it stood in 1926 and 2012. The Albert Kahn-designed factory was the first industrial use of reinforced concrete in the world and is shown here in 1926 as Packard Six Sedans near the end of the assembly line. Years of emptiness, decay, fire and scrapping have dramatically altered the appearance of the plant, though its structure remains intact. Historic photograph courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library. / Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT -- It's a place that has inspired world-class poets, blockbuster filmmakers, pioneering techno musicians, wildly inventive graffiti artists and, yes, chroniclers of ruin porn.
The old Packard Plant isn't just Detroit's largest decaying structure. It's a muse to thinkers around the world, who find anger, grief, astonishment and beauty in its decaying space.
The crumbling Motor City icon is explored in Packard: The Last Shift, which opened the newly launched Freep Film Festival on Thursday night.
Directed, produced, written and filmed by Detroit Free Press videographer Brian Kaufman, the documentary is the latest creative endeavor connected to the 40-acre swath of land that's both a monument to industry and an elegy to the declining fortunes of the city that forged America's middle class.
A southern California native, Kaufman wanted to "find the details" of what happened to the automotive plant that was designed by Albert Kahn in the early 1900s as a reinforced concrete marvel of construction.
"Most people who visit Packard probably have no idea why it looks the way it does today," says Kaufman. "I think there is the assumption that folks just left, but the site was used and viable until the late 1990s when a legal battle over ownership brought demolition and evictions, which resulted in scrapping, fire and weather-related destruction."
Along with exploring the Packard's past and potential future, the movie also looks at the plant's hold on high culture and the popular kind, too. Near the opening, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine reads his "The Last Shift," which begins with a glimpse of Packard and is dotted with apocalyptic symbols of death and loss.
Levine, a former autoworker, never was employed at the Packard, but he passed it often as a boy on Sunday trips to Belle Isle in the summer. "It looked so magnificent to me and powerful," he recalls.
That mix of grandeur and arrogance felt something like an attempt to put ordinary people in their place, according to Levine, who's renowned for his poetry about urban working people.
"I think I chose that factory for that poem because I was so impressed by its looks. It's not only part of industry, it's part of the way Detroit looks, the definition of the city. ... If I'm going to end the world, and I'm kind of ending everything in that poem, let's do it there. Let it happen in a place that can last forever but won't outlive us," he says.
As the Packard has declined and emptied, it has been repopulated, in a sense, by both artists and curiosity seekers.
The documentary shows how graffiti artists continue to use the structure as their blank canvas. Tourists and professional photographers are still flocking there to take the bleak images of urban dereliction known as ruin porn.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Packard Plant was home to late-night rave parties that transformed the site into a grassroots magnet for electronic music. As techno artifact collector Logan Siegel says in the film, "It's the stuff of myth and legend. These parties are still talked about as the pinnacle of Detroit's techno legacy."
The movie features the music of Windsor native Richie Hawtin, a world-renowned electronic music artist known for staging underground dance music parties at Packard in the mid-'90s. There also are snippets of music videos, from Eminem's Beautiful to a video by a Korean boy band called B.A.P.
Browse the web and you'll find Packard is the backdrop for the 2010 video The Drug by Royksopp, a Norwegian electronic music duo. You're also likely to bump into videos of skiers performing jumps and tricks at the plant and more recent footage of a dirt bike ride.
Artists have been exploring the dilapidated complex for decades. Social media have helped fuel the influx of casual visitors. The economic downturn has brought the rise in scrappers seeking metal to sell.
The thread that holds them together is opportunity, according to artist Scott Hocking, whose 2009-11 installation on the Packard rooftop, Garden of the Gods, used concrete columns and wooden television consoles to represent the gods of the classical Greek pantheon.
"Scrappers see it as an opportunity to strip metal and salvage waste. Photographers might see it as an opportunity to capture history and monumental decay. Musicians might see it as a gritty, tough background. 'Urban explorers' see it as the most sprawling and massive complex, where you can roam freely and have a sense of adventure or discovery. It's a gigantic place, and it can be a lot of different things for different people," said Hocking via e-mail.
The Packard's lure for artists drew globally famous graffiti artist Banksy and led to the current controversy over the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios' plan to put one of his pieces up for sale. The piece, excavated from the plant four years ago and weighing in at 1,500 pounds, could sell for several hundred thousand dollars.
Visits to the Packard Plant are a jaw-dropping experience for out-of-town journalists trying to grasp its scale and history. Professor Thomas Klug, director of Marygrove College's Institute for Detroit Studies, experienced that reaction when he helped guide a woman from Austrian public radio and her crew to Detroit landmarks.
"The Packard was clearly one of the top items on her list. She was just fascinated and enthralled with it," says Klug.
Art and commerce intersect at the site, in ways small and huge. You can buy a $20 bracelet on Etsy supposedly made with materials recovered from the plant. Or you can watch 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the third installment of director Michael Bay's hit action film series, which used the Packard Plant for a derailed train scene.
The Michigan location manager for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, David Rumble, says the plant is a constant draw for Hollywood visitors.
"Even if we're not going to film there, people always want me to take them there," he says. "It's mind-boggling for people from out of state that there's a building this size that's just decaying and in such shape."
While the "Transformers" train scene took just a few days to film, it required two months of preparation for safety and privacy concerns, according to Rumble. Even with the crew's best efforts to seal off access to the spot that would be used for filming, "there were always people popping out of weird nooks and crannies."
What's next for the plant site? Packard: The Last Shift has footage of new owner Fernando Palazuelo touring the place and vowing that he'll live there one day.
The future is uncertain, but for now, artists continue to find life at Packard, a defiance to the decay that fits with Eminem's lines from Beautiful: "Nobody asked for life to deal us/With these (profanity) hands we're dealt/We gotta take these cards ourselves/And flip 'em, don't expect no help."
Says Hocking, "I think artists and musicians know they'll never find another place or opportunity quite like the Packard complex - for whatever their interests are - good intentions or bad. And it won't last forever. Let's talk again in 2029."
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