Text and photographs by Lisa Hirmer
During the first drive down Indian Road, the houses there appear simply to be derelict, casualties within a greater narrative of industrial decline in the former automotive city of Windsor, the smaller Canadian sibling to Detroit across the river. Yet a closer inspection reveals that the houses aren’t exactly derelict. It is instead apparent that they haven’t degenerated slowly over an extended period of disrepair and subsequent disuse, but the characteristics of decay, or lack thereof, suggest that something quite different has happened here: though boarded up and showing a few blemishes from the lack of maintenance, many of the houses stand in relatively good repair with the careful details of attentive homeowners still visible amongst the first signs of deterioration. Shingles are starting to peel on a few roofs, but newly painted trim colors, awnings, and custom address plaques are still visible. A couple houses even seem to have been abandoned mid-renovation. It is the vegetation, however, that is the most telling. While the overgrown plants suggest the passage of some time since occupation, the encroaching greens are not the ubiquitous scrub of abandoned lots; they are flowering trees, carefully placed shrubs and ornamental vines. Clearly, these are not houses that suffered from slow degeneration due to neglect. These were well-tended, some of them probably quite loved, homes until one day their occupants just picked up and left, leaving things to succumb to the forces of weather and time.
As I photograph the houses, I piece together the story of Indian Road from the few residents still living on the street, who stop their cars to talk to me, and from a long stream of related international news articles. The story centers around an eccentric businessman named Matty Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, a massive bright blue steel structure that connects Windsor to Detroit across the Detroit River. It’s the only privately owned border crossing in North America and also the busiest. Moroun had planned to build a second bridge next to the existing one, which would allow repairs to the aging structure without halting traffic and eventually double its capacity. However, the municipal and federal powers on both sides of the border fiercely opposed his scheme for a variety of reasons, and developed plans to build a government-owned bridge further down the river. The result has been an atypically zealous, and often bizarre-sounding, battle between the two sides involving everything from a myriad of lawsuits and fervent public relations campaigns to false eviction notices and an attempt at a constitutional amendment.
In the case of Indian Road, the bridge scheme led to the purchase of nearly every property on the street by Moroun’s bridge company, presumably to both secure the land needed for his bridge and remove potential friction from nearby inhabitants, and also on the city’s part, to classify the neighborhood in question as a heritage zone, which introduced a moratorium on demolition for the empty houses. This means that, as this conflict plays out at an international scale, the houses on Indian Road remain in a suspended state; they can neither be occupied nor torn down.
Surely, this has not been a good thing for the neighborhood, which is eerily silent most of the time. Private security guards hired by the bridge company patrol the streets regularly, presumably on the lookout for trespassers. Only a few houses remain occupied and the occasional pedestrians hurry along, usually students seeking the quickest route to the nearby university. It is becoming increasingly clear that Moroun’s bridge will probably never get the approval it needs to be built. However, the irreversibility of his takeover of the Indian Road houses (after such a long stretch of not being occupied, it is unlikely the homes are livable) has left a definite mark on the fabric of the neighborhood. It is a brazen edit to the city’s plans, like marginalia from an individual who has encroached upon the printed text, obscuring the narrative, misbehavior which, though motivated by a vision of another bridge, brings with it the means of entry for other possibilities that might otherwise have been unlikely.
The improbable situation of a street left to succumb to the lush vegetation that once decorated its modest homes has created an uncannily beautiful landscape, half suburban garden, and half feral wilderness. It is a sort of contemporary landscape garden, both picturesque and banal, the houses follies hinting at the inevitability of urban decline. There is a strong sense of temporality here, of urban construction as a moment in material processes that will eventually be subsumed by the exploitative forces of ecology. It is picturesque in the Smithson sense of a deformity softened by the effects of time and the entropic forces of nature, a temporary but amazing landscape offering a double-sided view, both of the thing it once was and a preview of the fate that awaits this place and at some point all construction.
Lisa Hirmer is an artist, writer and designer based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Her work can be divided amongst two main practices, though the thematic overlap is significant: She is an emerging photographer and writer producing work that reflects her background in architecture and is primarily concerned with examining material traces found in complex or hybrid landscapes, especially those that act as evidence of unseen forces. She is also a co-founder and principal of DodoLab, an experimental arts-based practice that has been producing innovative public research and socially engaged projects since 2009.
www.dodolab.ca | @dodolab