Detroit wants to save itself by shrinking
BY David Runk / Mar 8, 2010
Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile. Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.
Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green. Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month. “Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”
The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city. “People are afraid,” said Deborah L. Younger, past executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. “When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear.” Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems. Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly. “I like the way things are right here,” said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.
For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse – the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed. Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.
Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown. Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Bing argues that the city can’t continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas. The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.
The mayor has begun lobbying Washington for support, and in January Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan. “It takes a true partnership, because we don’t want to invest in a neighborhood that the city is not going to invest in,” said Eugene E. Jones, executive director of the commission. It is not known who might get the cleared land, but with prospects for recruiting industry slim, planners are considering agricultural uses. The city might offer larger tracts for sale or lease, or turn over smaller pieces to community organizations to use.
Maggie DeSantis, a board member of Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she worries that shutting down neighborhoods without having new uses ready is a “recipe for disaster” that will invite crime and illegal dumping. The group recently proposed such things as the creation of suburban-style neighborhoods and nature parks. Residents like Hardin want to keep their neighborhoods and eliminate the blight. “We just try to keep it up,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I got it, so I don’t look at nobody trying to help me do anything.” For others, Bing’s plans could represent a way out. Willie Mae Pickens has lived in her near east-side home since the 1960s and has watched as friends and neighbors left. Her house is the only one standing on her side of the street. “They can buy it today. Any day,” said Pickens, 87, referring to city officials. “I’ll get whatever they’ll give me for it, because I want to leave.”
MORE MODEST VIEW
Mayor Uses Census Tally Showing Decline as Benchmark in Overhaul
BY Alex P. Kellogg / February 27, 2010
This city is shrinking, and Mayor Dave Bing can live with that. The nation’s once-a-decade census, which gets under way next month, usually prompts expensive tally-building efforts by cities eager to maximize federal funding tied to the count. Detroit, which faces a population decline of as much as 150,000, has used that tactic in the past and once fought a successful court challenge to boost its count. But this time, Mr. Bing is pushing the city to embrace the bad news. The mayor is looking to the diminished tally, down from 951,270 in 2000, as a benchmark in his bid to reshape Detroit’s government, finances and perhaps even its geography to reflect its smaller population and tax base. That means, in part, cutting city services and laying off workers.
His approach to the census is a product of not only budget constraints but also a new, more modest view of the city’s prospects. “We’ve got to pick those core communities, those core neighborhoods” to sustain and preserve, he said at a recent public appearance, adding: “That’s something that’s possible here in Detroit.” Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bing, a Democrat first elected last year to finish the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hasn’t touted big development plans or talked of a “renaissance.” Instead, he is trying to prepare residents for a new reality: that Detroit—like the auto industry that propelled it for a century—will have to get smaller before it gets bigger again.
With no high-profile census push, the city risks an undercount that would mean forgoing millions of dollars in federal funding. Nationwide, each person counted translates into about $1,000 to $1,200 in federal funding to municipal governments. But some community leaders see the hands-off approach as a sign the city’s leadership under Mr. Bing, a 66-year-old businessman and former basketball star, is prepared to face up to the depopulation problem and rethink Detroit’s future. “This is going to be hard to wrestle to the ground,” said Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Mich., a national philanthropy that has invested heavily in development projects aimed at salvaging the nicest remnants of the city. “He deserves enormous credit for leading the community into this.”
Soon after being elected to a full term in November, Mr. Bing began cutting back on city services such as buses and laying off hundreds of municipal workers. The mayor is now making plans to shutter or consolidate city departments and tear down 10,000 vacant buildings. And Mr. Bing is supporting efforts to shrink the capacity of the city’s school system by half. Along with the mayor, a number of academics and philanthropic groups are sketching visions of a different Detroit. One such vision has urban farms and park spaces filling the acres of barren patches where people once lived and worked. In a city of roughly 140 square miles, vacant residential and commercial property accounts for an estimated 40 square miles, an area larger than the city of Miami. “The potential of this open space is enormous,” said Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy who has done land-use studies on the city.
Thirty years ago, Mayor Coleman Young fought the census count in federal court, setting a precedent by arguing successfully that it missed tens of thousands of residents and cost Detroit millions in federal dollars. In 2000, Mayor Dennis Archer worked with schools, health clinics, neighborhood associations, charities and the like to pump up the numbers. The city even paid for census registration to be done at special block parties it helped throw. But that last count was ultimately a blow to Detroit’s pride, pinning its population below one million for the first time since the 1920s. At its peak in the 1950s, the city had been home to nearly two million people. Some experts believe the population will eventually settle just below 700,000, about the current size of Charlotte, N.C.
Long-term declines triggered by suburban sprawl, home-loan bias and racial strife have accelerated in recent years as home foreclosures and auto-industry cutbacks tear through even more stable, wealthy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, declining home values in Detroit’s better-off suburbs have made them more accessible to the city’s poorer residents, fueling the flight. The city is counting on nonprofit partners to take the lead on the census this year, rather than funding efforts itself. But with a population that is widely dispersed and largely poor and minority—two segments traditionally disinclined to fill out government paperwork—Detroit is already difficult to count. In the last census, just 62% of Detroiters responded, compared with an average of 71% statewide. “That’s why I keep telling the city, ‘you are in trouble,’ ” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, an organization founded by large local philanthropies that want to help the city collect accurate demographic, housing, economic and other information. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources.” Erica Hill, the mayor’s census coordinator, says Detroit is in a bind. It knows an undercount would be costly, but it is too broke to promote the census the way it used to. “We need to make sure the city gets its due,” she said. But “we have to be creative and build a lot of partnerships to make this happen.”
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
Can farming save Detroit?
BY David Whitford / December 29, 2009
John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management. Twice divorced, Hantz, 48, lives alone in clubby, paneled splendor, surrounded by early-American landscapes on the walls, an autograph collection that veers from Detroit icons such as Ty Cobb and Henry Ford to Baron von Richthofen and Mussolini, and a set of Ayn Rand first editions. With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.
Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit. Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.” Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”
Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”
This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities. Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”
Whatever the answer is, whenever it comes, it won’t be predicated on a return to past glory. “We have to be realistic,” says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC). “This is not about trying to re-create something. We’re not a world-class city.” If not world class, then what? A regional financial center? That’s already Chicago, and to a lesser extent Minneapolis. A biotech hub? Boston and San Diego are way out in front. Some think Detroit has a future in TV and movies, but Hollywood is skeptical. (“Best incentives in the country,” one producer says. “Worst crew.”) How about high tech and green manufacturing? Possibly, given the engineering and manufacturing talent that remains. But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.
Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.” In that sense, Detroit might actually be ahead of the curve. When Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, imagines what the settled world might look like half a century from now, he sees “a checkerboard pattern” with “more densely urbanized areas, and areas preserved for various purposes such as farming.
The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea.” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.” This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial. But Detroit is nothing if not desperate for new ideas, and Hantz has had no trouble getting his heard. “It all sounds very exciting,” says the DEGC’s Jackson, whose agency is working on assembling a package of incentives for Hantz, including free city land. “We hope it works.”
Detroit’s civic history is notable for repeated failed attempts to revitalize its core. Over the past three decades leaders have embraced a series of downtown redevelopment plans that promised to save the city. The massive Renaissance Center office and retail complex, built in the 1970s, mostly served to suck tenants out of other downtown buildings. (Today 48 of those buildings stand empty.) Three new casinos (one already bankrupt) and two new sports arenas (one for the NFL’s dreadful Lions, the other for MLB’s Tigers) have restored, on some nights, a little spark to downtown Detroit but have inspired little in the way of peripheral development. Downtown is still eerily underpopulated, the tax base is still crumbling, and people are still leaving. The jobless rate in the city is 27%. Nothing yet tried in Detroit even begins to address the fundamental issue of emptiness — empty factories, empty office buildings, empty houses, and above all, empty lots. Rampant arson, culminating in the annual frenzy of Devil’s Night, is partly to blame. But there has also been a lot of officially sanctioned demolition in Detroit. As white residents fled to the suburbs over the decades, houses in the decaying neighborhoods they left behind were often bulldozed.
Abandonment is an infrastructure problem, when you consider the cost of maintaining far-flung roads and sewer systems; it’s a city services problem, when you think about the inefficiencies of collecting trash and fighting crime in sparsely populated neighborhoods; and it’s a real estate problem. Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000. That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor. The smart money sees no point in buying as long as fresh inventory keeps flooding the market. “In the target sites we have,” says Hantz, “we [reevaluate] every two weeks.”
As Hantz began thinking about ways to absorb some of that inventory, what he imagined, he says, was a glacier: one broad, continuous swath of farmland, growing acre by acre, year by year, until it had overrun enough territory to raise the scarcity alarm and impel other investors to act. Rick Foster, an executive at the Kellogg Foundation whom Hantz sought out for advice, nudged him gently in a different direction. “I think you should make pods,” Foster said, meaning not one farm but many. Hantz was taken right away with the concept of creating several pods — or lakes, as he came to think of them — each as large as 300 acres, and each surrounded by its own valuable frontage. “What if we had seven lakes in the city?” he wondered. “Would people develop around those lakes?”
To increase the odds that they will, Hantz plans on making his farms both visually stunning and technologically cutting edge. Where there are row crops, Hantz says, they’ll be neatly organized, planted in “dead-straight lines — they may even be in a design.” But the plan isn’t to make Detroit look like Iowa. “Don’t think a farm with tractors,” says Hantz. “That’s old.” In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.
He’s really excited about apples. Hantz Farms will use a trellised system that’s compact, highly efficient, and tourist-friendly. It won’t be like apple picking in Massachusetts, and that’s the point. Score wants visitors to Hantz Farms to see that agriculture is not just something that takes place in the countryside. They will be able to “walk down the row pushing a baby stroller,” he promises. Crop selection will depend on the soil conditions of the plots that Hantz acquires. Experts insist that most of the land is not irretrievably toxic. The majority of the lots now vacant in Detroit were residential, not industrial; the biggest problem is how compacted the soil is. For the most part the farms will focus on high-margin edibles: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and exotic greens. Score says that the first crops are likely to be lettuce and heirloom tomatoes.
Hantz says he’s willing to put up the entire $30 million investment himself — all cash, no debt — and immediately begin hiring locally for full-time positions. But he wants two things first from Jackson at the DEGC: free tax-delinquent land, which he’ll combine with his own purchases, he says (he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, in line with rural farmland in southern Michigan), and a zoning adjustment that would create a new, lower tax rate for agriculture. There’s no deal yet, but neither request strikes Jackson as unattainable. “If we have reasonable due diligence,” he says, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”
Detroit mayor Dave Bing is watching closely. The Pistons Hall of Fame guard turned entrepreneur has had what his spokesman describes as “productive discussions” with Hantz. In a statement to Fortune, Bing says he’s “encouraged by the proposals to bring commercial farming back to Detroit. As we look to diversify our economy, commercial farming has some real potential for job growth and rebuilding our tax base.” Hantz, for his part, says he’s got three or four locations all picked out (“one of them will pop”) and is confident he’ll have seeds in the ground “in some sort of demonstration capacity” this spring. “Some things you’ve got to see in order to believe,” he says, waving his cigar. “This is a thing you’ve got to believe in order to see.”
Many have a hard time making that leap. When news of Hantz’s ambitious plan broke in the Detroit papers last spring, few people even knew who he was. A little digging turned up a less-than-spotless record at Hantz Financial Services. The firm has paid fines totaling more than $1 million in the past five years, including $675,000 in 2005, without admitting or denying guilt, “for fraud and misrepresentations relating to undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangements, as well as other violations,” according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Hantz responds, “If we find something that isn’t in compliance, we take immediate steps to correct the problem.”)
Hantz Farms’ first hire, VP Matt Allen, did have an established reputation in Detroit, but it wasn’t a good one. Two years ago, while he was press secretary for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Allen pleaded guilty to domestic violence and obstructing police after his wife called 911. He was sentenced to a year’s probation. Hantz says he has known Allen for many years and values his deep knowledge of the city. “He has earned a second chance, and I’m willing to give it to him,” he says. Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.
None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves. That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”
Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says. And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.” That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little. Twenty years from now, when people come to the city and have a drink at the bar at the top of the Renaissance Center, what will they see? Maybe that’s not the right vantage point. Maybe they’ll actually be on the farm, picking apples, looking up at the RenCen. “That’s the beauty of being down and out,” says Hantz. “You can actually open your mind to ideas that you would never otherwise embrace.” At this point, Detroit doesn’t have much left to lose.
Pedal-Power in Detroit: Green Gym for the Homeless
BY Roberta Cruger / 01.27.10
Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost 500,000 trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition, according to Paul Bairley, director of Urban Forestry for The Greening of Detroit. Among the city’s various environmental initiatives, it’s looking to slash residential land use by 30 percent, letting areas grow into natural greenways. There are green job initiatives, and for the homeless, a community center provides training for eco-conscious work and just opened a human-generated workout room. With green gyms popping up in Seattle and Hong Kong, why aren’t we tapping into sweat equity everywhere?
Gives new meaning to upcyling
Converting otherwise wasted energy, from the kinetic motion of treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes, into renewable energy is cost-effective and energy-efficient. That’s what a community organization in Detroit did this week with its new green gym, for people living in its transitional housing and other shelter programs, staff and volunteers. “Not only is this gym a good idea for the environment, but it will help build the general health of our clients who often struggle with diabetes or heart disease,” states Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director.
The Cass Green Gym’s facility offers weight machines, boxing bags, a treadmill, and stationary bikes featuring Green Revolution technology that generates electricity. Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), located on Detroit’s Cass Avenue, projects that full classes with ten people, is enough power to light three homes for an entire year. It will redirect it back to the building’s electrical grid, reducing operating costs.
The company, Green Revolution, taps into pedal power, providing exercise machines and consulting to facilities, harnessing the energy of gym rats into green power. Its technology can be installed on most brands of indoor cycling equipment. At its retrofit gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a typical cycling class with 20 bikes has the potential to produce up to 3.6 Megawatts (3,600,000 watts) of renewable energy a year. This is equivalent to lighting 72 homes for a month, and reduces carbon emissions by over 5,000 pounds.
CCSS also links job training and permanent employment with ways to reduce the footprint. One venture, modeled after a Native American enterprise in Oklahoma, recycles old illegally dumped tires from vacant lots and converts them into mud mats. So far, formerly homeless men have collected more than 5,000 tires and sold over 2,000 mats. Another of its programs involves x-ray recycling, removing patient information from films and packaging the remains for recycling. And its document shredding effort will reuse the paper for insulation in seniors and low-income homes. As a native Detroiter, who worked a block from this center, renewal efforts are personally meaningful to me — and it should be for all of us. It was heartening to read a Time article on addressing urban post-industrial problems: “we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”
Streets With No Name
BY James Griffioen / June 23, 2009
This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed. In the heart of summer, too, it becomes clear that the grid laid down by the ancient planners is now irrelevant. In vacant lots between neighborhoods and the attractions of thoroughfares, bus stops and liquor stores, well-worn paths stretch across hundreds of vacant lots. Gaston Bachelard called these les chemins du désir: pathways of desire. Paths that weren’t designed but eroded casually away by individuals finding the shortest distance between where they are coming from and where they intend to go.
photo by James Griffioen
It is an urban legend on many college campuses that many sidewalks and pathways were not planned at all, but paved by the university after students created their own paths from building to building, straying from those originally prescribed. The Motor City, like a college campus, has a large population that cannot afford cars, relying instead on bikes and feet to meet its needs. With enormous swaths of the city returning to prairie, where sidewalks are irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous, desire lines have become an integral yet entirely unintended part of the city’s infrastructure. There are hundreds of these prescriptive easements across neglected lots throughout the city. Desire lines are considered by many landscape architects to be proof of a flaw in the design of a physical space, or more gently, a sign that concrete cannot always impose its will on the human mind. But what about a physical space that no longer resembles its intended design, a city where tens of thousands of homes have been abandoned, burned, and buried in their own basements? While actual roads and sidewalks crumble with each season of freezing and thawing, Detroiters have taken it upon themselves to create new paths, in their own small way working to create a city that better suits their needs.
photo by James Griffioen
Academics around the world argue about whether the first paths were created by hunters following game trails. There are scientists who study ants to better understand highways. They have created mathematical models for trail formation. When the great cities were built, sometimes roads were built along ancient paths. The Romans imposed grids on every city but their own. In Detroit many of the streets are named for the Frenchmen whose ribbon farms stretching north from the river were covered in asphalt: Beaubien, Dequindre, Campau, Livernois, Chene. In many cities, there are streets named for dead men once revered throughout the land but now mostly forgotten (Fulton, Lafayette, Irving) and others named for men no one remembers. In Detroit, there are streets no one has named. And they belong to anyone.
photo by James Griffioen
Detroit is a city in terminal decline. When film director Julien Temple arrived in town, he was shocked by what he found – but he also uncovered reasons for hope
BY Julien Temple / 10 March 2010
When the film- maker Roger Graef approached me last year to make a film about the rise and fall of Detroit I had very few preconceptions about the place. Like everyone else, I knew it as the Motor City, one of the great epicentres of 20th-century music, and home of the American automobile. Only when I arrived in the city itself did the full-frontal cultural car crash that is 21st-century Detroit became blindingly apparent. Leaving behind the gift shops of the “Big Three” car manufacturers, the Motown merchandise and the bizarre ejaculating fountains of the now-notorious international airport, things become stranger and stranger. The drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future. Passing the giant rubber tyre that dwarfs the nonexistent traffic in ironic testament to the busted hubris of Motown’s auto-makers, the city’s ripped backside begins to glide past outside the windows.
Like The Passenger, it’s hard to believe what we’re seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, (some of the largest structures ever built and far too expensive to pull down), beached amid a shining sea of grass. The blackened corpses of hundreds of burned-out houses, pulled back to earth by the green tentacles of nature. Only the drunken rows of telegraph poles marching away across acres of wildflowers and prairie give any clue as to where teeming city streets might once have been. Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.
One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone. But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. “Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot.”
Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets. All the national supermarket chains have pulled out of the inner city. People have virtually nowhere to buy fresh produce. Starbucks? Forget it. What makes all this so hard to understand is that Detroit was the frontier city of the American Dream – not just the automobile, but pretty much everything we associate with 20th-century western civilisation came from there. Mass production; assembly lines; stop lights; freeways; shopping malls; suburbs and an emerging middle-class workforce: all these things were pioneered in Detroit.
But the seeds of the Motor City’s downfall were sown a long time ago. The blind belief of the Big Three in the automobile as an inexhaustible golden goose, guaranteeing endless streams of cash, resulted in the city becoming reliant on a single industry. Its destiny fatally entwined with that of the car. The greed-fuelled willingness of the auto barons to siphon up black workers from the American south to man their Metropolis-like assembly lines and then treat them as subhuman citizens, running the city along virtually apartheid lines, created a racial tinderbox. The black riots of 1943 and 1967 gave Detroit the dubious distinction of being the only American city to twice call in the might of the US army to suppress insurrection on its own streets and led directly to the disastrous so-called white flight of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens. The rest of the US is in denial about the economic catastrophe that has engulfed Detroit, terrified that this man-made contagion may yet spread to other US cities. But somehow one cannot imagine the same fate befalling a city with a predominantly white population. On many levels Detroit seems to be an insoluble disaster with urgent warnings for the rest of the industrialised world. But as George and I made our film we discovered, to our surprise, an irrepressible positivity in the city. Unable to buy fresh food for their children, people are now growing their own, turning the demolished neighbourhood blocks into urban farms and kick-starting what is now the fastest-growing movement across the US. Although the city is still haemorrhaging population, young people from all over the country are also flooding into Detroit – artists, musicians and social pioneers, all keen to make use of the abandoned urban spaces and create new ways of living together.
With the breakdown of 20th-century civilisation, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first “post-American” city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all. So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest. That is why George and I decided to call our film Requiem for Detroit? – with a big question mark at the end.
ICE HOUSE DETROIT
“It should be noted that The Michigan State land bank’s executive director Carrie Lewand-Monroe, And Development Specialist Khalilah Burt both extended themselves for a community based project in a manner that is not so commonly seen in other States. It is because of their continued interest in community stabilization, and their goal of fostering the development of the blighted, tax reverted properties that they got behind our project from the very beginning. Michigan State Land Bank- thank you for keeping Michigan a productive State.”
Michigan State Land Bank
THE NON-MYTHOLOGICAL $1 DOLLAR HOUSE
Detroit homes sell for $1 amid mortgage and car industry crisis
BY Chris McGreal / 2 March 2010
One in five houses left empty as foreclosures mount and property prices drop by 80%
Some might say Jon Brumit overpaid when he stumped up $100 (£65) for a whole house. Drive through Detroit neighbourhoods once clogged with the cars that made the city the envy of America and there are homes to be had for a single dollar. You find these houses among boarded-up, burnt-out and rotting buildings lining deserted streets, places where the population is shrinking so fast entire blocks are being demolished to make way for urban farms. “I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500,” said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. “I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that’s just crazy. Why not? It’s a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we’re not working to pay the rent.”
Houses on sale for a few dollars are something of an urban legend in the US on the back of the mortgage crisis that drove millions of people from their homes. But in Detroit it is no myth. One in five houses now stand empty in the city that launched the automobile age, forged America’s middle-class and blessed the world with Motown. Detroit has been in decline for decades; its falling population is now well below a million – half of its 1950 peak. But the recent mortgage crisis and the fall of the big car makers into bankruptcy has pushed the town into a realm unique among big cities in America.
A third of the population are unemployed. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in large parts of Detroit over the last three years. The average price of a home sold in the city last year has been put at $7,500 (£4,900). The recent financial crash forced wholesale foreclosures among people unable to pay their mortgages or who walked away from houses that fell to a fraction of the value of the loans they had taken out on them. Banks are selling off properties in the worst neighbourhoods, which are usually surrounded by empty and wrecked housing, for a few dollars each. But even better houses can be had at a fraction of their former value.
Technically, Brumit paid $95 for the land and $5 for the house on Lawley Street – which fitted what estate agents euphemistically call an opportunity. Brumit said: “It had a big hole in the roof from the fire department putting out the last of two arson attempts. Both previous owners tried to set it on fire to get out of the mortgages. So there’s a big hole about 24ft long and the plumbing had almost entirely been ripped out and most of the electrics too. It was basically a smoke damaged, structurally intact shell with a snowdrift in the attic.” Setting fire to houses to claim the insurance and kill off the mortgage is not uncommon in Detroit; a blackened, wooden corpse of a house sits at the bottom of Brumit’s street. But it is more common for owners to just walk away from their homes and mortgages.
On the opposite side of Lawley Street Jim Feltner and his workers were clearing out a property seized by a bank. “I used to be a building contractor. I was buying up places and doing them up. Now I empty out foreclosures. I do one or two of these a day all over the city,” he said. “I’ve been in Detroit 40 years and I’ve watched the peak up to $100,000 for houses that right now aren’t worth more than $20,000 tops. I own a bunch of properties. I have 10 rentals and I can’t get nothing for them, and they’re beautiful homes.”
Feltner’s workers are dragging clothes, boots and furniture out of the bedrooms and living room, and dumping them in the front yard until a skip arrives. Kicked to one side is a box of 1970s Motown records. A teddy bear lies spreadeagled on the floor. “You could get about five grand for this place,” said Feltner. “Nice house once you clean it out. All the plumbing and electricals are in it. Roof don’t leak.” Brumit said a man called Jesse lived there. “Jesse had mentioned that he was probably going to get out of there because he knew he could buy a place for so much less than he owed. That’s a drag. You don’t want to see people leaving,” he said.
The house next door is abandoned. On the next street, one third of the properties are boarded up. It’s a story replicated across Detroit. Joan Wilson, an estate agent in the north-west of the city, whose firm is offering a three-bedroom house on Albany street for $1, says that more than half of the houses she sells are foreclosures in the tens of thousands of dollars. “The vast majority of people that call to enquire, almost the first thing out of their mouth is that they want to buy a foreclosure. I have had telephone calls from people looking online that live, for example, in England or California, who’ve never set foot in the area. They’re calling about one specific house they see online. I tell them they need to look at the neighbourhood. Is it the only house standing within a mile?”
But what is blight to some is proving an opportunity to remake parts of the city for others living there. The Old Redford part of Detroit has suffered its share of desolation. The police station, high school and community centre are closed. Yet the area is being revitalised, led by John George, a resident who began by boarding up an abandoned house used by drug dealers 21 years ago and who now heads the community group Blight Busters. They are pulling down housing that cannot be saved and creating community gardens with fresh vegetables free for anyone to pick. “There’s longstanding nuisance houses, been around seven, eight, nine years. We will go in without a permit and demolish them without permission,” said George. “If you, as an owner, are going to leave something like that to fester in my neighbourhood, obviously you either don’t care or aren’t in a position to take responsibility for your property, so we’re going to take care of it for you.” Blight Busters has torn down more than 200 houses, including recently an entire block of abandoned housing in Old Redford. “We need to right-size this community, which means removing whole blocks, and building farms, larger gardens, putting in windmills. We want to downsize – right-size – Detroit,” George said.
Houses that can be rescued are done up with grants from foundations. “Detroit has some of the nicest housing stock in the country. Brick, marble, hardwood floors, leaded glass. These houses were built for kings,” George added. “We gave a $90,000 house to a lady who was living in a car. She had four children. It didn’t cost her a dime. We had over a thousand people apply for it. It’s probably worth $35,000 now.” Old Redford is seeing piecemeal renewal. One abandoned block of shops has been converted to an arts centre and music venue with cafes. One of the few remaining cinemas in Detroit – and one that’s among the last in the US with an original pipe organ – has been revived and is showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Brumit calculates that he has spent $1,500 to buy and do up his house, principally by scavenging demolition sites. He will move in with his wife and four-month-old child once it is complete, probably in the summer. He said: “The Americans we know got ripped off by the American dream. But [the renovation] is the most like moving out of the country that we can actually do. We’re the minority in terms of ethnicity and this is a rich environment … there’s 30% open space in the city and that doesn’t include the buildings that should be torn down. You’re in a city riding your bike around and you hear birds and stuff. It’s incredible.”
(Editor’s note: This statement arrived anonymously in our inbox recently and we felt it would be of interest to our readers.)
In the “D”, “D” doesn’t really stand for “Detroit”, but “Demolition.” Take a look around and you’ll notice a great number of buildings marked on the front with a circled “D” in faint chalk. Off to the side, many of these same buildings will also have a noticeable dot, courtesy of our own native son, Tyree Guyton. These dotted buildings have stood for so long that they have become, arguably, the most memorable landmarks of our fair city. In addition to Tyree Guyton, Detroit has had more than its fair share of artists who have taken notice of this situation and done something about it. Recently, however, we have taken up a particular project that has actually netted results – faster than anyone, especially us, could have anticipated.
The artistic move is simple, cover the front in Tiggeriffic Orange – a color from the Mickey Mouse series, easily purchased from Home Depot. Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange. We paint the facades of abandoned houses whose most striking feature are their derelict appearance. A simple drive would show you some of our most visible targets. Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange. In that same area, where the Davison Highway and John C Lodge M-10 Highway intersect, sit a series of two houses painted orange, most visible from the Lodge side. In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.
Two of four locations have already been demolished. Of the four, the building on Dequindre, by the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, remains, as does the site that intersects the Lodge and Davison. There was no “D” on any of the façades, only burnt boards, broken glass, and peeling paint. Rallying around these elements of decay, we seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape. So the destruction of two of these four houses raises a number of interesting points. From one perspective, our actions have created a direct cause and effect relationship with the city. As in, if we paint a house orange, the city will demolish it. In this relationship, where do the city’s motivations lie? Do they want to stop drawing attention to these houses? Are the workers simply confused and think this is the city’s new mark for demolition? Or is this a genuine response to beautify the city?
From another perspective, we have coincidently chosen buildings that were set to be demolished within the month. However, with so many circled “D”s on buildings, it seems near impossible that chance would strike twice. In any case, what will be the social ramifications of these actions? Each of these houses serves within the greater visual and social landscape of the city. If the city doesn’t rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house? In addition, each of these houses served as a shelter for the homeless at some point in time. Now there are, at least, two less houses for them. Why didn’t the city simply choose to renovate? Everything affects not only our experience now, but also that of the next generation. So before they are all gone, look for these houses. Look at ALL the houses in Detroit. If you stumble upon one of these houses colored with Tiggeriffic Orange, stop and really look. In addition to being highlights within a context of depression, every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture. These are artworks in themselves.
If you see a house that you would like to see painted orange, paint it. Afterwards, email the good people at thedetroiter.com at ws [at] thedetroiter [dot] com. These buildings aren’t scenery. Don’t look through or around them. Take action. Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange.
The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.
the DDD project
Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty
BY Sarah Hulett / March 4, 2010
For $1, you can own a piece of Detroit. It will be a small piece: 1 square inch, to be exact. But your deed to that microplot of land will also buy you passage into an online community that could yield big ideas for the city. Jerry Paffendorf is not your typical real estate developer. But then, the people lining up to buy into his project are not your typical investors. He calls them “inchvestors.” Paffendorf’s project is called Loveland. And it’s a hybrid: part virtual and part physical. “What we want to do is we want to build this wild social network of people that’s literally built out of the dirt and the ground,” Paffendorf says. The physical part is a vacant lot on Vernor Highway in east Detroit. Paffendorf bought the property at auction for $500. Then he put 10,000 square inches up for sale, and people from all over the planet began snapping them up. They’ve now all been sold to nearly 600 people. The “deeds” Paffendorf mails out are not legally valid, so the people who buy inches won’t get to vote in Detroit, or have to pay taxes.
A Real-Life SimCity
Some inchvestors have sentimental ties to the city, and they just liked the idea of having a physical stake in the place where they — or their parents or grandparents — grew up. But a lot of them are attracted by the project’s virtual possibilities and say Loveland is sort of like the SimCity computer game, but with real land. Rita King is the biggest “landholder” in Loveland, with 1,000 square inches. She works for IBM, and she’s an entrepreneur with a firm that helps companies use social media and virtual worlds. King is excited about the project’s potential to help the real city in which Loveland sits. “Because Loveland is physically located in Detroit, it takes those 500 inchvestors, and it ties us to Detroit, which means that the development of Detroit is now of critical importance to hundreds of people who don’t live or work in Detroit,” King says. “And now I, for one, am starting to look very closely at Detroit, and how can I help Detroit level up along with Loveland in our small way.” “Leveling up” is a phrase from the world of video games. It’s what happens when the character you’re playing makes it to the next level in the game. And for many, it’s an apt description of what Detroit needs to do. King says she expects the online component of Loveland to include interactive maps and stories. And proceeds from the project’s next phase are expected to be used to fund grants for nonprofit groups around Detroit.
Feedback From Locals Not Always Positive
But for all the excitement about the possibilities Loveland holds among high-minded techno-futurists, the project is also fodder for derision and mockery in some quarters. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments posted to an online discussion board called Detroit YES: “Sounds like a pyramid scheme … without the pyramid.” – “A virtual art project? That sounds to me like a project that’s almost an art project.” – “This guy’s laughing all the way to the bank.” Bill Johnson, who goes by the pseudonym “Gnome” on Detroit YES, thinks the project is just exploitation. “You know in places outside Detroit, we’ve got a bad reputation as sort of a pitiful, worthless place,” Johnson says. “And this guy’s preying on that. That’s what he’s really peddling.”
Paffendorf says Detroit is a place of opportunity and creativity. He shares an optimism about the city and his project with Ricki Collins. She’s 9 years old and lives next door to the empty lot Paffendorf bought. Hers is the only house left on the block. “I want people to remember this place. Remember it. And I want people to come over so we can get to know each other, learn new things about each other,” Ricki says. It’s not clear how many of the people who have bought into the project will actually visit their square-inch plots in person. But King says she intends to make the trek from New York City. She also plans to install a mailbox so people can send things to and from the site.
ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE
For Sale: The $100 House
BY Toby Barlow / March 8, 2009
Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here? Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world. Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.
Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing? A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.
So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances. Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah. Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.
Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee. But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends. In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.
RIOTS of 1943
BY Vivian M. Baulch + Patricia Zacharias / Detroit News / 2.11.99
“Recruiters toured the South convincing whites and blacks to head north with promises of high wages in the new war factories. They arrived in such numbers that it was impossible to house them all. Blacks who believed they were heading to a promised land found a northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as what they thought they had left behind in the deep south. And southern whites brought their own traditional prejudices with them as both races migrated northward. The influx of newcomers strained not only housing, but transportation, education and recreational facilities as well. Wartime residents of Detroit endured long lines everywhere, at bus stops, grocery stores, and even at newsstands where they hoped for the chance to be first answering classified ads offering rooms for rent. Even though the city enjoyed full employment, it suffered the many discomforts of wartime rationing. Child-care programs were nonexistent, with grandma the only hope — provided she wasn’t already working at a defense plant. Times were tough for all, but for the Negro community, times were even tougher. Blacks were excluded from all public housing except the Brewster projects. Many lived in homes without indoor plumbing, yet they paid rent two to three times higher than families in white districts. Blacks were also confronted with a segregated military, discrimination in public accommodations, and unfair treatment by police.
Woodward was the dividing line between the roving black and white gangs. Whites took over Woodward up to Vernor and overturned and burned 20 cars belonging to blacks, looting stores as they went. The virtual guerrilla warfare overwhelmed the 2,000 city police officers and 150 state police troopers. A crowd of 100,000 spectators gathered near Grand Circus Park looking for something to watch. Despite Detroit’s history of problems, the Seal of the City of Detroit offers hopeful and timeless mottoes: “Speramus meliora” (We hope for better things) and “Resurget Cineribus” (It will rise from the ashes.)”
RIOTS of 1967
“Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, was a fundamental concern for black Detroiters. When polled by the Detroit Free Press regarding the problems that contributed most to the rioting in the previous year, respondents listed “poor housing” as one of the most important issues, second only to police brutality. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Thomas 1997:130-131). In Detroit, the shortage of housing available to black residents was further exacerbated by “urban renewal” projects. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for freeways that linked city and suburbs. Neighborhoods that met their fate in such manner were predominantly black in their composition. To build Interstate 75, Paradise Valley or “Black Bottom”, the neighborhood that black migrants and white ethnics had struggled over during the 1940s, was buried beneath several layers of concrete. As the oldest established black enclave in Detroit, “Black Bottom” was not merely a point on the map, but the heart of Detroit’s black community, commercially and culturally. The loss for many black residents of Detroit was devastating, and the anger burned for years thereafter.”
photo by James Griffioen
CITIES GONE FALLOW
US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive
BY Tom Leonard / 12 Jun 2009
The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature. Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes. Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.
In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside. “The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.” Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective programme at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was “both a cultural and political taboo” about admitting decline in America. “Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They’re at the point where it’s better to start knocking a lot of buildings down,” she said.
Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000. Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000. The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned. In the city centre, the once grand Durant Hotel – named after William Durant, GM’s founder – is a symbol of the city’s decline, said Mr Kildee. The large building has been empty since 1973, roughly when Flint’s decline began.
Regarded as a model city in the motor industry’s boom years, Flint may once again be emulated, though for very different reasons.
But Mr Kildee, who has lived there nearly all his life, said he had first to overcome a deeply ingrained American cultural mindset that “big is good” and that cities should sprawl – Flint covers 34 square miles. He said: “The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”
photo by James Griffioen
But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said. If the city didn’t downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added. Flint’s recovery efforts have been helped by a new state law passed a few years ago which allowed local governments to buy up empty properties very cheaply. They could then knock them down or sell them on to owners who will occupy them. The city wants to specialise in health and education services, both areas which cannot easily be relocated abroad.
The local authority has restored the city’s attractive but formerly deserted centre but has pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas. Mr Kildee estimated another 3,000 needed to be demolished, although the city boundaries will remain the same. Already, some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there. Choosing which areas to knock down will be delicate but many of them were already obvious, he said. The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee. “Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow,” he said. Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution “defeatist” but he insisted it was “no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again”.
email : dkildee [at] sbcglobal [dot] net
Food Among the Ruins
BY Mark Dowie / August 2009
Detroit, the country’s most depressed metropolis, has zero produce-carrying grocery chains. It also has open land, fertile soil, ample water, and the ingredients to reinvent itself from Motor City to urban farm. Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.
Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.
photo by James Griffioen
Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.
One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.
photo by James Griffioen
There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.
There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.
There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.
First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.
photo by James Griffioen
As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.
Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.
Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.
Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.
Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.
About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.
Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.
Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.
The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.
photo by James Griffioen
I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.
I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.
That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential. “The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community. I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”
All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.
Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.
And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?
Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.
Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teaming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.
Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.
DETROIT AS ENGLISH GARDEN
Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape
BY Rebecca Solnit / July 2007
Until recently there was a frieze around the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain in downtown Detroit, a naively charming painting of a forested lakefront landscape with Indians peeping out from behind the trees. The hotel was built on the site of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the old French garrison that three hundred years ago held a hundred or so pioneer families inside its walls while several thousand Ottawas and Hurons and Potawatomis went about their business outside, but the frieze evoked an era before even that rude structure was built in the lush woodlands of the place that was not yet Michigan or the United States. Scraped clear by glaciers during the last ice age, the landscape the French invaded was young, soggy, and densely forested. The river frontage that would become Detroit was probably mostly sugar maple and beech forest, with black ash or mixed hardwood swamps, a few patches of conifers, and the occasional expanse of what naturalists like to call wet prairie—grasslands you might not want to walk on. The Indians killed the trees by girdling them and planted corn in the clearings, but the wild rice they gathered and the fish and game they hunted were also important parts of their diet. One pioneer counted badger, bear, fisher, fox, mink, muskrat, porcupine, rabbit, raccoon, weasel, wildcat, wolf, and woodchuck among the local species, and cougar and deer could have been added to the list. The French would later recruit the Indians to trap beaver, which were plentiful in those once-riverine territories—détroit means “strait” or “narrows,” but in its thirty-two-mile journey from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, the Detroit River also had several tributaries, including Parent’s Creek, which was later named Bloody Run after some newly arrived English soldiers managed to lose a fight they picked with the local Ottawas.
Fort Pontchartrain was never meant to be the center of a broad European settlement. It was a trading post, a garrison, and a strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior. Cadillac, the ambitious Frenchman who established the fort in 1701, invited members of several Indian nations to surround the fort in order to facilitate more frequent trading, but this led to clashes not just between nations but between races. Unknown Indians set fire to Fort Pontchartrain in 1703, and the Fox skirmished there in 1712. After the English took over in 1760, deteriorating relations with the local tribes culminated in the three-year-long, nearly successful Ottawa uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.
This is all ancient history, but it does foreshadow the racial conflicts that never went away in Detroit, though now white people constitute the majority who surround and resent the 83 percent black city. It’s as if the fort had been turned inside out—and, in fact, in the 1940s a six-foot-tall concrete wall was built along Eight Mile Road, which traces Detroit’s northern limits, to contain the growing African-American population. And this inversion exposes another paradox. North of Eight Mile, the mostly white suburbs seem conventional, and they may face the same doom as much of conventional suburban America if sprawl and auto-based civilization die off with oil shortages and economic decline. South of Eight Mile, though, Detroit is racing to a far less predictable future.
It is a remarkable city now, one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline. The second time I visited Detroit I tried to stay at the Pontchartrain, but the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests. I was sad to see the frieze on its way out, but—still—as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely—and sometime even beautifully—post-American.
This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild. Downtown still looks like a downtown, and all of those high-rise buildings still make an impressive skyline, but when you look closely at some of them, you can see trees growing out of the ledges and crevices, an invasive species from China known variously as the ghetto palm and the tree of heaven. Local wisdom has it that whenever a new building goes up, an older one will simply be abandoned, and the same rule applies to the blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why they were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.
The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.
It was tales of these ruins that originally drew me to the city a few years ago. My first visit began somberly enough, as I contemplated the great neoclassical edifice of the train station, designed by the same architects and completed the same year as Grand Central station in Manhattan. Grand Central thrives; this broken building stands alone just beyond the grim silence of Michigan Avenue and only half a mile from the abandoned Tiger Stadium. Rings of cyclone fence forbid exploration. The last train left on January 5, 1988— the day before Epiphany. The building has been so thoroughly gutted that on sunny days the light seems to come through the upper stories as though through a cheese grater; there is little left but concrete and stone. All the windows are smashed out. The copper pipes and wires, I was told, were torn out by the scavengers who harvest material from abandoned buildings around the city and hasten their decay.
On another visit, I took a long walk down a sunken railroad spur that, in more prosperous times, had been used to move goods from one factory to another. A lot of effort had gone into making the long channel of brick and concrete about twenty feet below the gently undulating surface of Detroit, and it had been abandoned a long time. Lush greenery grew along the tracks and up the walls, which were like a museum of spray-can art from the 1980s and 1990s. The weeds and beer cans and strangely apposite graffiti decrying the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement seemed to go on forever.
I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future.
photo by James Griffioen
To say that much of Detroit is ruins is, of course, to say that some of it isn’t. There are stretches of Detroit that look like anywhere in the U.S.A.—blocks of town houses and new condos, a flush of gentility spreading around the Detroit Institute of Arts, a few older neighborhoods where everything is fine. If Detroit has become a fortress of urban poverty surrounded by suburban affluence, the city’s waterfront downtown has become something of a fortress within a fortress, with a convention center, a new ballpark, a new headquarters for General Motors, and a handful of casinos that were supposed to be the city’s economic salvation when they were built a decade ago. But that garrison will likely fend off time no better than Fort Detroit or the Hotel Pontchartrain.
Detroit is wildly outdated, but it is not very old. It was a medium-size city that boomed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the second, spent the third in increasingly less gentle decline, and by the last quarter was a byword for urban decay, having made a complete arc in a single century. In 1900, Detroit had a quarter of a million people. By midcentury the population had reached nearly 2 million. In recent years, though, it has fallen below 900,000. Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever.
Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, reigned from 1974 to 1993, the years that the change became irreversible and impossible to ignore, and in his autobiography he sounds like he is still in shock: “It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures—1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly eighty percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce—even in basketball, for God’s sake.”
The Detroit Pistons are now based in Auburn Hills. According to the 2000 census, another 112,357 whites left the city in the 1990s, and 10,000 more people a year continue to leave. Even three hundred bodies a year are exhumed from the cemeteries and moved because some of the people who were once Detroiters or the children of Detroiters don’t think the city is good enough for their dead. Ford and General Motors, or what remains of them—most of the jobs were dispatched to other towns and nations long agoin trouble, too. Interestingly, in this city whose name is synonymous with the auto industry, more than a fifth of households have no cars.
“Detroit’s Future Is Looking Brighter,” said a headline in the Detroit Free Press, not long after another article outlined the catastrophes afflicting the whole state. In recent years, Michigan’s household income has dropped more than that of any other state, and more and more of its citizens are slipping below the poverty line. David Littmann, a senior economist for the Michigan think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the paper, “As the economy slows nationally, we’re going to sink much farther relative to the other states. We’ve only just begun. We’re going to see Michigan sink to levels that no one has ever seen.”
In another sense, the worst is over in Detroit. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was falling apart, spectacularly and violently. Back then the annual pre-Halloween arson festival known as Devil’s Night finished off a lot of the abandoned buildings; it peaked in 1984 with 810 fires in the last three days of October. Some of the arson, a daughter of Detroit’s black bourgeoisie told me, was constructive—crackhouses being burned down by the neighbors; her own respectable aunt had torched one. Between 1978 and 1998, the city issued 9,000 building permits for new homes and 108,000 demolition permits, and quite a lot of structures were annihilated without official sanction.
Even Ford’s old Highland Park headquarters, where the Model T was born, is now just a shuttered series of dusty warehouses with tape on the windows and cyclone fences around the cracked pavement. Once upon a time, the plant was one of the wonders of the world—on a single day in 1925 it cranked out 9,000 cars, according to a sign I saw under a tree next to the empty buildings. Detroit once made most of the cars on earth; now the entire United States makes not even one in ten. The new Model T Ford Plaza next door struck my traveling companion—who, like so many white people born in Detroit after the war, had mostly been raised elsewhere—as auspicious. But the mall was fronted by a mostly empty parking lot and anchored by a Payless ShoeSource, which to my mind did not portend an especially bright future.
When I came back, a year after my first tour, I stopped at the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Diego Rivera mural commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. The museum is a vast Beaux-Arts warehouse—“the fifth-largest fine arts museum in the United States,” according to its promotional literature—and the fresco covered all four walls of the museum’s central courtyard. Rivera is said to have considered it his finest work.
It’s an odd masterpiece, a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, which had succeeded the Highland Park factory as Ford’s industrial headquarters, painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world. The north and south walls are devoted to nearly life-size scenes in which the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.
Rivera created this vision when the city was reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories, but Detroit had already reached its apex. Indeed, the River Rouge plant—then the largest factory complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 workers on a site two and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park—was itself built in suburban Dearborn. In 1932, though, capitalists and Communists alike shared a belief that the most desirable form of human organization—indeed, the inevitable form—was not just industrial but this kind of industrial: a Fordist system of “rational” labor, of centralized production in blue-collar cities, of eternal prosperity in a stern gray land. Even the young Soviet Union looked up to Henry Ford.
But Detroit was building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent. Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel in the lower right corner of the south wall, a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part-time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.
Detroit was always a rough town. When Rivera painted his fresco, the Depression had hit Detroit as hard as or harder than anywhere, and the unemployed were famished and desperate, desperate enough to march on the Ford Motor Company in the spring of 1932. It’s hard to say whether ferocity or desperation made the marchers fight their way through police with tear-gas guns and firemen with hoses going full bore the last stretch of the way to the River Rouge plant. Harry Bennett, the thug who ran Ford more or less the way Stalin was running the Soviet Union, arrived, and though he was immediately knocked out by a flying rock, the police began firing on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing five. The battle of the Hunger March or the huge public funeral afterward would’ve made a good mural.
No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post–World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways—the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway—could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.
All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.
Then came the renaissance, but only for those cities reborn into more dematerialized economies. Vacant lots were filled in, old warehouses were turned into lofts or offices or replaced, downtowns became upscale chain outlets, janitors and cops became people who commuted in from downscale suburbs, and the children of that white flight came back to cities that were not exactly cities in the old sense. The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. Even the souvenirs in these new economies often come from a sweatshop in China. The United States can be mapped as two zones now, a high-pressure zone of economic boom times and escalating real estate prices, and a low- pressure zone, where housing might be the only thing that’s easy to come by.
This pattern will change, though. The forces that produced Detroit—the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure—are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces—San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan—but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced to become altogether something else.
The Detroit Institute of Arts is in one of those flourishing parts of Detroit; it is expanding its 1927 building, and when I said goodbye to the Rivera mural and stepped outside into the autumn sunshine, workmen were installing slabs of marble on the building’s new facade. I noticed an apparently homeless dog sleeping below the scaffolding, and as I walked past, three plump white women teetered up to me hastily, all attention focused on the dog. “Do you have a cell phone?” the one topped by a froth of yellow hair shrilled. “Call the Humane Society!” I suggested that the dog was breathing fine and therefore was probably okay, and she looked at me as though I were a total idiot. “This is downtown Detroit,” she said, in a tone that made it clear the dog was in imminent peril from unspeakable forces, and that perhaps she was, I was, we all were.
I had been exploring an architectural-salvage shop near Rosa Parks Boulevard earlier that day, and when I asked the potbellied and weathered white man working there for his thoughts on the city, the tirade that followed was similarly vehement: Detroit, he insisted, had been wonderful—people used to dress up to go downtown, it had been the Paris of the Midwest!—and then it all went to hell. Those people destroyed it. My traveling companion suggested that maybe larger forces of deindustrialization might have had something to do with what happened to the city, but the man blankly rejected this analysis and continued on a tirade about “them” that wasn’t very careful about not being racist.
On the Web you can find a site, Stormfront White Nationalist Community, that is even more comfortable with this version of what happened to the city, and even less interested in macroeconomic forces like deindustrialization and globalization: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime, and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center— into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations—with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” It could have been different. “In more civilized environs, these facilities might have easily been transformed into a manufacturing and assembly center for any number of industrial enterprises,” writes the anonymous author.
A few months before the diatribe in the salvage yard, I’d met a long-haired counterculture guy who also told me he was from Detroit, by which he, like so many others I’ve met, meant the suburbs of Detroit. When I asked him about the actual city, though, his face clenched like a fist. He recited the terrible things they would do to you if you ventured into the city, that they would tear you apart on the streets. He spoke not with the voice of a witness but with the authority of tradition handed down from an unknown and irrefutable source. The city was the infernal realm, the burning lands, the dragon’s lair at the center of a vast and protective suburban sprawl.
The most prominent piece of public art in Detroit is the giant blackened bronze arm and fist that serve as a monument to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who grew up there. If it were vertical it would look like a Black Power fist, but it’s slung from cables like some medieval battering ram waiting to be dragged up to the city walls.
Deindustrialization dealt Detroit a sucker punch, but the knockout may have been white flight—at least economically. Socially, it was a little more complex. One African-American woman who grew up there told me that white people seemed to think they were a great loss to the city they abandoned, “but we were glad to see them go and waved bye-bye.” She lived in Ann Arbor—the departure of the black middle class being yet another wrinkle in the racial narrative—but she was thinking of moving back, she said. If she had kids, raising them in a city where they wouldn’t be a minority had real appeal.
The fall of the paradise that was Detroit is often pinned on the riots of July 1967, what some there still refer to as the Detroit Uprising. But Detroit had a long history of race riots—there were vicious white-on-black riots in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1943. And the idyll itself was unraveling long before 1967. Local 600 of the United Auto Workers broke with the union mainstream in 1951, sixteen years before the riots, to sue Ford over decentralization efforts already under way. They realized that their jobs were literally going south, to states and nations where labor wasn’t so organized and wages weren’t so high, back in the prehistoric era of “globalization.”
The popular story wasn’t about the caprices of capital, though; it was about the barbarism of blacks. In 1900, Detroit had an African-American population of 4,111. Then came the great migration, when masses of southern blacks traded Jim Crow for the industrialized promised land of the North. Conditions might have been better here than in the South, but Detroit was still a segregated city with a violently racist police department and a lot of white people ready to work hard to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. They failed in this attempt at segregation, and then they left. This is what created the blackest city in the United States, and figures from Joe Louis and Malcolm X to Rosa Parks and the bold left-wing Congressman John Conyers—who has represented much of the city since 1964—have made Detroit a center of activism and independent leadership for African Americans. It’s a black city, but it’s surrounded.
Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green. Grace Lee Boggs, at ninety-one, has been politically active in the city for more than half a century. Born in Providence to Chinese immigrant parents, she got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and was a classical Marxist when she married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, in 1953. That an Asian woman married to a black man could become a powerful force was just another wrinkle in the racial politics of Detroit. (They were together until Jimmy’s death, in 1993.) Indeed, her thinking evolved along with the radical politics of the city itself. During the 1960s, the Boggses were dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. and ardent about Black Power, but as Grace acknowledged when we sat down together in her big shady house in the central city, “The Black Power movement, which was very powerful here, concentrated only on power and had no concept of the challenges that would face a black-powered administration.” When Coleman Young took over city hall, she said, he could start fixing racism in the police department and the fire department, “but when it came time to do something about Henry Ford and General Motors, he was helpless. We thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”
As the years went by, the Boggses began to focus less on putting new people into existing power structures and more on redefining or dismantling the structures altogether. When she and Jimmy crusaded against Young’s plans to rebuild the city around casinos, they realized they had to come up with real alternatives, and they began to think about what a local, sustainable economy would look like. They had already begun to realize that Detroit’s lack of participation in the mainstream offered an opportunity to do everything differently—that instead of retreating back to a better relationship to capitalism, to industry, to the mainstream, the city could move forward, turn its liabilities into assets, and create an economy entirely apart from the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum. Jimmy Boggs described his alternative vision in a 1988 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. “We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market,” he said. “We have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city. . . . In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the natural resources of our area and the existing and potential skills and talents of Detroiters.”
That was the vision, and it is only just starting to become a reality. “Now a lot of what you see is vacant lots,” Grace told me. “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.” After all, the city is rich in open space and—with an official unemployment rate in the mid-teens—people with time on their hands. The land is fertile, too, and the visionaries are there.
photo by James Griffioen
In traversing Detroit, I saw a lot of signs that a greening was well under way, a sort of urban husbandry of the city’s already occurring return to nature. I heard the story of one old woman who had been the first African-American person on her block and is now, with her grandson, very nearly the last person of any race on that block. Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one. She made the best of it, though. The city sold her the surrounding lots for next to nothing, and she now raises much of her own food on them.
I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. “Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,” she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy.
Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.
After the Panic of 1893, Detroit’s left-wing Republican mayor encouraged his hungry citizens to plant vegetables in the city’s vacant lots and went down in history as Potato Patch Pingree. Something similar happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed and the island lost its subsidized oil and thereby its mechanized agriculture; through garden-scale semi-organic agriculture, Cubans clawed their way back to food security and got better food in the bargain. Nobody wants to live through a depression, and it is unfair, or at least deeply ironic, that black people in Detroit are being forced to undertake an experiment in utopian post-urbanism that appears to be uncomfortably similar to the sharecropping past their parents and grandparents sought to escape. There is no moral reason why they should do and be better than the rest of us—but there is a practical one. They have to. Detroit is where change is most urgent and therefore most viable. The rest of us will get there later, when necessity drives us too, and by that time Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.
Detroit is still beautiful, both in its stately decay and in its growing natural abundance. Indeed, one of the finest sights I saw on my walks around the city combined the two. It was a sudden flash on an already bright autumn day—a pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street. It was an improbable flight in many ways. Those pheasants, after all, were no more native to Detroit than are the trees of heaven growing in the skyscrapers downtown. And yet it is here, where European settlement began in the region, that we may be seeing the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion, an unsettling that may bring a complex new human and natural ecology into being.
This is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is also a stronghold of possibility.
That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.