An interview with the creator of the 'Detroit Land Boats' Tumblr

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click to enlarge An interview with the creator of the 'Detroit Land Boats' Tumblr
Steve Neavling

Twenty-nine-year-old Detroit resident Alex Alsup has been documenting Detroit blight online for several years. In 2013, he launched GoobingDetroit, a site that offers side-by-side comparisons of Detroit streets on Google Street View through the years.

The comparisons show how blight has affected the city since the 2008 financial crisis. The site has been featured on the front pages of Yahoo and The Verge.

His newest project, a Tumblr blog called “Detroit Land Boats,” highlights one of the more peculiar byproducts of Detroit’s blight. We chatted with Alsup by phone to learn more.

Metro Times: What’s the backstory behind your Tumblr? How did you get interested in Detroit land boats? And when did you decide to start the blog?

Alex Alsup: I work with a company called Loveland Technologies, and we’re a mapping company. We do a lot of property surveying in Detroit. We did a project called Motor City Mapping. We went out and surveyed all 400,000 properties in the city with a team of like 200 people. Point being, I spent a lot of time looking at property in the city. I go out and survey property a lot to inform the condition and occupancy information that the city uses to understand how many vacant houses they have and how many blighted properties, vacant lots, all that stuff. So I’m out driving around the city a lot and we have a lot of discarded boats for some reason. I’d see these things all over town and I felt like they needed to be photographed, so I started just taking pictures of them whenever I saw them and started throwing them on a Tumblr to keep them all in one place.

MT: Are you trying to make any kind of statement through your blog? Any particular goal in mind?

Alsup: Not really, no. Not particularly. The work that I do surveying property is a little bit more serious in trying to collect information for people to use in planning for the city. Land boats are this kind of tragicomic side effect to being out surveying property a lot. They’re absurd. You see them and you’re like, “What is that doing there? Boats are not supposed to be in the middle of an urban forest, they’re not supposed to be in the front yard of a house.” They’re kind of these absurd artifacts, and there’s kind of a dark humor about them, because they are so out of place, and of course they are an indication of how some people view the city, which is as a dumping ground for worthless things that they are just trying to get rid of — which is unfortunate, of course.

Have you done any research, on your own or through your work, as to where some of these boats come from?

Alsup: No, and I mean, finding land boats are just kind of a side effect of what I do. They’re not related to my work at all. I’ve been curious. I’ve tried to work out serial numbers for some of the boats that I’ve seen in the past but usually the serial numbers or some portion of the serial numbers are stripped off so you can’t find the source of the boat. There was a WXYZ report where one of the reporters, Ronnie Dahl, did a big thing on land boats maybe six months ago or so where she went out and tracked down some of the owners of the boats.

MT: It’s funny that you mention that, because it was going to be my next question. What was your reaction to the report?

Alsup: I think its great to sort of investigate the source of some of those things and see where they come from and who’s dumping. Of course, there’s all kinds of illegal dumping all over the city. Boats are just one of the more noticeable and absurd forms of it, but with boats there’s a serial number and usually there’s some kind of identifying piece of information that can help you track down where they came from, but most forms of dumping in Detroit there’s no way of knowing where it came from. Everything from soil that gets dumped illegally on vacant lots, or — I know, there’s a part of Poletown on the east side of the city where people just dump big screen TVs. There’s just an alley littered with old televisions, so there’s all kinds of crazy illegal dumping around the city. It just so happens that with boats you can find the source of it a little more easily I guess.

MT: The first picture that I saw on your Tumblr is dated from January of this year. Is that officially when you started the blog?

Alsup: I think that photo is probably about a year older than that. I actually started the blog with a bunch of photos that I just had in my Instagram account, so I was putting up a bunch of my old photos that I had on Instagram but had not put up online. So I started the Tumblr probably in January and have been tossing up photos as I find new land boats and as I find old land boats in my Instagram feed.

MT: So you already had this interest when the WXYZ report came out?

Alsup: Yeah, I think I started taking photos, I started noticing land boats probably back in January of 2014. It was probably a year before I started the Tumblr. I’d been taking photos for a little while before that report came out.

MT: Dahl has her own collection of pictures of Detroit land boats which she published alongside her report. Have you ever met her or talked to her?

Alsup: I don’t think so. I think I sent her an email once when that story came out just to say that I liked the work that she had done, but I have not ever talked to her. Like I said, land boats are kind of just a side effect of the time I spent most of my time doing so I don’t have a lot of time exploring them as much as one could, but I’m glad that somebody is.

MT: So, how much time do you devote to the blog?

Alsup: Not that much. Every once in a while a find a photo or something and put it up there but, you can tell, it’s just every once in a while I have a photo and I toss it up there.

MT: In addition to your own pictures, do you ever get any submissions?

Alsup: There are a couple other people that have sent them to me, and I think they’re on the blog. I think I got one from Steve Neavling from Motor City Muckraker and I think there’s another one, I can’t recall. But there should be a description below the photo if it’s from somebody else. I think there are only a couple though.

MT: What’s your favorite picture?

Alsup: I think the first one that’s on there is still kind of the most striking to me, which I think is like a big red boat in front of a boarded up brick house. I think that was the first photo that I took and it’s the first one that I put on the blog as well, and it's just so ... it’s just the kind of thing that you see and are just like, “What is going on here? It’s just not supposed to work like that. That’s not how it’s supposed to look.” So, yeah, that one always kind of catches my eye.

What kind of reactions have you had, online or in person, to the project? What do people think?

Alsup: I don’t know. I don’t think there’s been a ton of reaction to it. I think there was something on Reddit Detroit about it a little while ago and the reactions seemed to be dismay at the number of boats being dumped in the city but I haven’t seen a lot of reaction. (GoobingDetroit) had much more powerful reactions.

MT: Tell me about the reactions you received for that blog.

Alsup: The reaction nationally to that was astonishment at what the city looked like in just the past six or seven years. I think what I’ve found through street view and through my work in the city is that there’s a perception outside of the city and outside of the region that Detroit has kind of looked like this, been in this kind of condition for a long time, since the '60s, '70s. And no one understood the extent to which the financial crisis which is something that affected employment and housing in San Diego and Florida and Arizona and sort of suburban middle-class homes, how much the foreclosure crisis had accelerated the decline of Detroit. I think no one had seen that, and street view is kind of this incredible time capsule of just how quickly a new wave of deterioration was triggered by the financial crisis. It just hadn’t been investigated, hadn’t been captured in a way that was quite as accessible and impactful as Google street view just happening to drive by every year since the financial crisis.

MT: Do you think the fact that there is now an online archive of these land boats will have any significant cultural impact? Will it affect the way people think about Detroit, or on how Detroit natives themselves react to this kind of blight?

Alsup: Any kind of cultural impact? I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so. If people decide that they are really interested in the dumping of land boats or boats in the city maybe it’ll encourage people to use the city’s new See, Click, Fix app to report the location of dumped land boats and stuff and have them picked up, which I think has happened in a couple of cases actually. But, it’s just another one of many problems that we have to figure out in Detroit.

MT: Anything else you want to add?

Alsup: I don’t think so. There are just weird things out there. That’s about it.

William Perkins is a summer intern at Metro Times.
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