Lost Landscapes of Detroit from the Prelinger Archives

Film archivist Rick Prelinger sez,

For the past four years I've been putting together bits of archival footage (especially amateur and home movies) that show vanished places, people and events in San Francisco. The past two compilations, sponsored by Long Now Foundation, are free to view here.

Now I've been given the chance to do the show I've always wanted to do: Lost Landscapes of Detroit. It's happening February 10 at Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.

This isn't going to be a narrative of urban decline or the "ruins porn" that's become fashionable. Rather, it's a collection of amazing and almost-all-lost footage that celebrates a vibrant, busy and productive Detroit from 1917 through the 1970s. The idea is to bring these images back to Detroiters for their contemplation and use as they rebuild their city for the future.

In that spirit, at the screening I'm going to give out copies of the show so people in Detroit can reshow and remix it, and it'll be online at the Internet Archive after the screening.

Films from Prelinger Archives: Lost Landscapes of Detroit


  1. Fun stuff. I did a seminar on Detroitwhen I was doing my MA. in Urban Planning. I can’t describe how it is to wander through the downtown and feel the ‘ghosts’ of the city and imagine what it was like in the 20s. This is the next best thing to a time machine.

  2. I am looking forward to this. I have so much Detroit embedded in my psyche. I was born on Grand Boulevard, I lived at Joy and Grand River. My childhood home was destroyed in the riots in 67. I lived in the inner city during the riots and watched the flames when Martin Luther King was assasinated from a Victorian Roofton at Canfield and the Lodge Xway. I lived in an attic squat at the time so I had access to the victorian turret over the Xway.
    One of my earliest memories is being in a wooden seated streetcar in front of the Hudson store…that must have been ’52…
    I watched Detroit in its glory, it’s decay and now I hope to watch its inevitable Renaissance….

    1. I’ve been hoping for improvement ever since I moved to the area in the mid-90’s. It’s frustrating watching a city struggle to move forward with so much corruption rotting the core and effectively preventing any meaningful improvements. There have been some incremental steps toward a better tomorrow in the downtown, but still such an overwhelming amount of work to do in order to make it a city that lots of people want to live in again.

  3. @noah django,

    Yes, hats off indeed to Mr. Prelinger, and a big thanks to Cory to bringing this to my attention. (Grandriver and Halsted, here) Can’t wait to go check this out in February; I love the history of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs.

  4. Long gone but Crooks and Normandy for me.
    I’ll fwd this link to family remaining in the area. Best wishes!

  5. I lived in the Detroit area for 20 years before I retired in 2001 and moved south.

    The problem with Detroit is their folks want to relive the past glory days. In attempting to rebuild the structures, they hope that will bring back the prosperity of the tewnties and the post WWII years. It is like the cargo cults of New Guinea who built stick replicas of C-47s and control towers, along with mini airstrips carved out of the jungle, in the hope of luring the high flying aircraft and the good times to their impoverished communities.

    Neither has succeeded.

    I don’t know how many times and how much money has been spent in refurbishing the Book Cadillac Hotel. All have ended in failure. And it has recently reopened again. The Central Terminal (railroad station) stands as a broken down testament of wishful thinking. The abandoned downtown Hudson’s Building stood for years rotting away, until it was fianlly demolished. Finally Tiger Stadium, replaced by a fancy new facility a mile or so away, came down after 8 years of lawsuits.

    Downtown Detroit has been dying from a combination of white flight, a declining auto industry and the worst and most corrupt city government in the country. No business wants to move into surroundings filled with eyesores and urban decay. No business wants to deal with the intractible city government.

    There is no hope.

  6. Sorry to hear about your troubles. Maybe you should come to South Carolina and get a job at BMW or Drive Automotive. Bosch and Michelin are also still hiring here.

  7. Detroit is reinventing itself and moving forward. The river front is fantastic! What do you want? Malls took away business. I loved downtown when I used to go in the sixties and only had 10 cents for a cup of chicken soup (mostly boullion), at Cobo Hall. Ride your bike down Michigan Ave, turn right on Rosa Parks and follow the river to Belle Isle. Edgy, cool, and fun. Quit moaning about the train station and come ride your bike on the Corktown ride. 2,000 people did last year. Next week, Winter Blast will have live local bands. Campus Martius has free bands every first Friday in the summer. There’s rocking on the River with WCSX. Dally in the Alley had all kinds of bands ,again, free. MOCAD always has a lot of cool stuff including Lost Landscapes. I can’t wait!

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