Why is Everyone Dumping Boats in the Middle of Detroit?


Photos by Sal Rodriguez

There’s something about the image of a shiny red speedboat dumped in front of a dilapidated house that just seems… strange.

Not for Detroit locals, though—dumped boats like these are a dime a dozen in a city that’s gone through its fair share of financial hardship over the years, with sea vessels turning up in vacant lots and rundown streets everywhere, as people flock to the city to illegally dump their refuse. Detroit born and bred photographer Sal Rodriguez has spent the past three years documenting this unique phenomenon in the city, digging deeper into the reasons behind these discarded playthings; like the trickle-down financial effects from the city’s 2013 bankruptcy, to the soaring prices for boat storage that have left many dumping their once-toys in other people’s backyards. I caught up with Sal to find out more about the city he knows and loves, and see how many abandoned boat sightings have been chugging into his DMs lately.

You’re born and raised in Detroit. How would you describe your city to someone who’s never been?

First, I would start by telling them, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to get murdered.’ Detroit was and is a hard place to grow up, and being the murder capital off and on does add a little spice to life. Despite that, Detroit was like the Wild West with its grittiness, filth, sense of danger… it was a kind of wasteland for a while and it was awesome! Here we are now, with outside money coming in and gentrifying the city—a rebirth if you will. Detroit has a ton of opportunities for people young and old, believe it or not. They are moving to Detroit to capitalize. At the end of the day, I tell people new to Detroit that it’s a wonderful place with amazing and historical things to see, and living in the city now is exciting and inspiring. But Detroit is still pretty raw and if you are not careful the city will literally eat you alive… and that is why I still love it!

What was one of the first things you were drawn to photographing when you first started documenting the city?

When I was in high school, I would hit Detroit for photo assignments and take shots of places like Tiger Stadium and other pieces of old architecture. I don’t think I was ever truly drawn to anything because I was living it. Later on for work, I would be asked to cover most of the ‘ruins’ of Detroit, I would say right at the height of the ‘Urbexing’ craze. (For those that don’t know, ‘Urbexing’ is short for urban exploring, which spawned the term ‘ruin porn’). I started what ended up being almost a year of shooting abandonment, redevelopment, and new buildings for the local NBC affiliate in Detroit.

As someone who’s pretty unfamiliar with Detroit, the idea of people just dumping boats in the middle of an urban city is pretty wild. Why is this happening?

Well, there’s not one specific answer as to why it’s happening but one reason is that since the city’s 2013 bankruptcy, people fell on hard times and couldn’t afford to keep their toys anymore. So situations like discarding a boat and then reporting it stolen is one reason. Another reason is some folks can’t afford to store their boats so they just get rid of it, which is also a byproduct of the vessel being too old to even deal with, so they just say
screw it and get rid of it. We are surrounded by the Great Lakes, so most of Michigan is made up of boating communities. Because there are so many boaters there is an overabundance of boats, and as we know, boats carry only decrease in value as they get older.

I mean, this has been going on for at least 30 or more years and to me, there is no reason to discard a boat on a city street like this. So, I believe it’s mainly for insurance purposes. All that being said, abandoned boats are just a portion of the huge issue of dumping refuse in the empty streets of Detroit. People will straight up drive trailers of garbage to a rough street or empty lot and literally dump it where they stand. Illegal dumping has been an issue for quite some time, but seeing boats discarded on the streets just makes it even more unique. Just yesterday, I found a newly discarded boat in a location where there hasn’t been anything in years. Mind you, this boat is not new and looks like it probably sat in someone’s yard for a while, so whoever dumped it probably just wanted to get rid of it quick. Economic hardship and overabundance of boats, an existing issue with tons of garbage dumped on the streets weekly, and a city with the reputation for being a toilet bowl for the suburbs sets the stage for this Detroit phenomenon of abandoned boats.

Do you have friends and family hitting you up with new boat sightings now?

All the time! It’s to the point now where I will get messages on Instagram from friends and a few random people who say, ‘Hey, I saw this boat in Detroit and instantly thought of you.’ Some people will text me shots of Google maps or just street corners in the area of the boat they see. Some of these boats I already found, but sometimes there will be a new one in there.

What’s your preferred gear to shoot with?

For this project, I wanted to make it unique to me, so I decided to shoot only on medium format film. I originally was only shooting on my Hasselblad 500cm in 6×6 format, but later decided to use my Pentax 67II which is 6×7 format and faster to shoot with. I also wanted to use film because I feel it renders a different feeling than digital and has a specific look you can only get with film.

What’s another Detroit story you want to tell?

One story I’m asked about every so often is one about my documenting artists in Detroit. Around 2011 to 2012, I started documenting artists coming to Detroit from around the world, and even local artists as well. I’ve shot with Detroit artists like Glenn Barr and Ellen Rutt, all the way to Shepard Fairey and Futura. So I think the narrative would be about this Detroit-based photographer shooting these artists in his hometown… I don’t know, but I do get asked about doing a show or book.

When you’re not photographing Shipwreck Detroit, what else do you do?

Well, besides being a working photographer, I’m a husband and father of two. I find myself—more so now because of the pandemic—a collector of things. I like to buy art whenever I can, I started getting into the shoe game, always on the hunt for more film cameras, and am constantly buying vinyl records.

See more from Sal on his website or Instagram @eljefe313

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