This story starts how many of my most reflective pieces do — with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation trapped us inside, and for many of us, deep into our own heads. Here’s my deal, though: I’ve been struggling with a digestive autoimmune disorder for the past four years, one that intensified the need for me to be isolated. The class of 2020’s virtual graduation story doesn’t need to be repeated here — you’ve either lived a version of it, are close to someone who has or have read about it countless times. What I need you to understand is that for me and many immunocompromised people like me, this constant decay we feel in our bodies and minds, the one we try to cover up and return to regularity from, was drummed up in full force during the pandemic. We all slowly found our own ways to deal with it, though I took a less-than-conventional approach.
At first, I was content with forests. The woods surrounding my neighborhood’s houses had always been intriguing to me, but I never had enough time to explore them like I wanted in high school. It was something I was used to doing in my old neighborhood in elementary school, stomping through shrubbery that the real estate company in charge of our subdivision hadn’t accrued enough money to develop.
I spent the months of spring wandering these woods, hoping that they wouldn’t be cleared for a while, checking in each day as bare trees sprouted buds and restored themselves. Maybe I envied them. It’s an odd contradiction to be a human in nature, returning to the spaces that our species separated itself from. Walking through, I could tell I wasn’t the first to return as I stepped through the litter of explorers past. However, there was only so much green that I could explore before I had to move on. I couldn’t count it as exploring if I’d already mentally mapped every part. As summer approached, I tossed my bike in my car and drove off to see what else I could find.
I remember the first bike ride I embarked on during the summer of 2020; it flipped a switch in me. As it became warmer, people began to be more lax with COVID-19 restrictions so as to “save their summers.” I biked through a neighborhood near my own because that was what I was used to — before school swallowed my schedule, my childhood bike rides were all confined to the old neighborhood, ending at the main road and the undeveloped plots. As I took in the suburban scenery, I was hit by a sense of multiplying and senseless sonder — the conscious awareness that every life is as complex as one’s own. Every house had a family of some kind, all living out individual existences dictated by their own choices and personal chaos, and each of these layered over each other in a tapestry so dense with narrative weight that it began to slow my pedaling.
But I pushed myself and my pedals, searching for scenery that wouldn’t inflict this sonder on me, and didn’t stop until I reached a local salon, presumably closed for months due to the pandemic. It was a lovely, slightly yellow building with withered plants hanging from its balconies and dense weeds growing through the unmaintained cracks of its concrete drive. It was a place where the narrative had ended, if only for a moment, before it would hopefully reopen its doors. It was a place I could breathe — like in the woods, left alone by the vast majority of humanity.
I’d keep scouting out places like this as the year rolled on, which were everywhere due to the state of the pandemic. Thankfully, these businesses eventually returned, but I lost my selfish, solitary spots. I began to look for places that had been left behind for good — where the narrative was finished. Throughout my discoveries, I found places that prodded me to answer how they reached their states of degradation. Googling for information on a five-story abandoned factory near my hometown led me to nailhed.com: A blog documenting the site’s eponymous owner’s adventures and research into the abandoned sites of Michigan.
In 2014, a self-identified “asbestos junkie” known only to the internet as “nailhed” (a reference to history’s first hot rod engine) began publishing blog posts on his urban exploration exploits and detailed historical research on every site he visited. His posts were interspersed with snippets of his own sardonic wit. He would share hundreds of stories over the next eight years, painstakingly painting pictures of visits he’d been conducting for decades. From his hometown of Detroit to every other spot he could find in the state of Michigan, he provided context for both the day’s adventure and the spot’s history.
His FAQ lists the larger purpose of documenting these expeditions “to increase a wider, better-informed interest in my home state through sharing what I have seen and learned… The great empire that once was Michigan is written — and largely still visible — in its many ruins, although that is changing day by day, and remembrance of its part in world history becomes fainter and fainter.”
The fallen empire of Michigan is a cogent point. As a Saginaw native, I know all the tales that surround our state as one large, abandoned automotive factory. Issues both past and present — like industry abandonment or the Flint Water Crisis — have left what used to be America’s shining cities as the most vacant in the country. Venturing into these vacancies for content on the Internet might at first seem exploitative; these sites are abandoned due to economic, interpersonal and corporate crises, and there are a lot of painful stories embedded in their walls.
However, nailhed wants you to be sure that’s not the point, especially in Detroit, stating that “I realize that much has improved here with the recent ‘rebirth’ (if you choose to call it that) of Detroit and that many of my photos show it back when it looked crappy and rundown, but that’s actually the angle I’m going for; in the future when Detroit is fully gentrified and spruced up, I don’t want people to forget just how far we had to come in order to get there.”
When we talk about abandonment, we need to discuss what some would consider its polar opposite and possible solution: gentrification — the corporate and government-sponsored processes of heightening property value in areas that were before considered low-value. Gentrification and abandonment don’t exist as simple solutions to simple problems — they exist in a well-documented vicious cycle. While abandonment and its implications drive high-income sources away from certain areas, it also brings gentrification upon itself as low-value land whose value can be increased.
Gentrification invites high-income individuals from other cities while driving out low-income groups originating within the area, leaving it less in demand and more prone to abandonment. Therefore, the solution cannot be to continually tear down storied sites and prop up pathetic replacements but, instead, to actually invest in what we’ve abandoned. However, if you’re not convinced of a 20-year-old college student’s take, nailhed has an immense body of work intricately illustrating the value of sites like this across the entire state of Michigan. I can’t really tell it any better than him — which is why I had to make sure to get an interview straight from his ProtonMail inbox.
So who is nailhed? If the screen name didn’t give it away, he’s someone that would like to stay anonymous, but he still gave me plenty of stories to share that are not found on his site. His childhood was characterized by playing in giant backyard spruce trees and exploring storm drain tunnels under airports as a kid in the ’80s, so it’s no surprise that nailhed seems like he was born for this kind of work. This is further evidenced by a story of his parents on similar adventures.
“For what it’s worth, my mother once told me a yarn about how when she was pregnant with me back in the ’70s, she went with my dad and a friend and explored the former Gar Wood Mansion that used to stand on the Detroit River, after the motorcycle gang abandoned it,” nailhed wrote. “How’s that for O.G.?”
For nailhed, writing was a craft that he began sharpening some decades before the site ever existed. He began immersing himself in the third grade.
“Writing was my only escape,” nailhed wrote. “Writing was a world that I could control, and that gave me a feeling of power and solace.” However, he would still seek adventure well throughout his childhood, fixating on abandoned sites in the late ’90s after exploring Detroit’s “Northville Tunnels.”
“That place left a permanent imprint on me and is what eventually led me to want to check out abandoned buildings in Detroit,” nailhed wrote. “It also began my obsession with historical research and Detroit history, since it was the first time I did a deep dive into the background of a place I had explored.”
As stated previously, nailhed isn’t fixated on just the past of these buildings but on their present existence, to which he detailed his beliefs on what should be done with them.
“Well, if I had any authority … there would be a lot less … ruins … but I think we need only look to what *normal* countries do with their old buildings, which is to maintain them instead of always letting them rot so that some mayor’s cousin’s construction firm can get paid to build something new every couple years, or not allowing corporations to just leave massive crumbling/contaminated factories littered all over the landscape and counting on the taxpayer to foot the bill for cleanup,” nailhed wrote.
However, nailhed believes the underlying issue is societal.
“Anyway, each ruin is a unique case, and there is always a way to preserve, restore, or renovate anything — if there is a will to do so. Problem is, America is largely populated by philistines and short-sighted people who are never satisfied with what they already have, who are too lazy and cheap to do routine maintenance or historic restoration, and we let developers tell us what’s best for our communities. So that’s why everything always gets torn down and replaced with flimsy crap,” nailhed wrote.
When asked if he saw a way to remedy this societal issue, nailhed’s response wasn’t too optimistic.
“It’s just a problem with our national psychology … it’s a part of the American condition, and I’m afraid much too big for me to address here. America is wrestling with a multitude of old, baked-in problems right now as you may have noticed, many of which are related,” nailhed wrote.
I have noticed. The idiosyncrasies of the American healthcare system, my daily life as an American and American society at large left me in disarray after my diagnosis, leading me to sit in abandoned spot after abandoned spot in my isolation, taking in the emptiness of discarded history. I’ve tried to find a semblance of peace from all of the chaotic cracks in our culture exposed by COVID-19. They’re all markers of disease: my ulcerated intestines, these abandoned areas, our civilization seemingly bent on self-destruction. It seemed better to empty out all of this chaos, for me and us as a society to keep disguising these diseased organs as anything but existential obstacles.
There’s something funny that always happens in the hollowness, when you feel completely emptied — abandoned. Nature returns to you, exposing your weak spots and sprouting new roots, breaking through and binding your other cracks with its vines. The vacancy is noticed and your hollow halls are filled with trails of both creation and destruction. Over time, you find that the story has never ended, it’s just been transformed. The journey of exploring abandoned sites can begin with a single click — open your mind to its possibilities.
So when I asked what the biggest takeaway readers should have from his website, nailhed’s response was simple, if not cynical.
“I hope people get philosophical value and life-changing wisdom from my website and from their experiences with the sites and ruins around them, but sadly, that is only usually the case with people already predisposed to be thoughtful,” nailhed wrote.
So, dear reader, I challenge you to take on this thoughtfulness — will you forgo your previous dispositions? Will you take your own forays into the forsaken? Most importantly, will you fight for their stories?
Statement Correspondent Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.