Geography Thursdays #1: The Rise and Decline of Detroit

Posted by @ 7:59 am on October 7th, 2010

Rotting building in Detroit, photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, from their Time Magazine series (click on the picture to see all the photos)

This is the first installment of a regular feature. Every Thursday, Lily Hoang and I will be bringing the news from the world of geography. First up is the most beautiful piece of writing about a city I have ever read — Rebecca Solnit’s “Detroit Arcadia,” which first appeared in Harper’s, but which now seems to be available through a link from the James & Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. The thesis, or one of them, is that Detroit has completed the usually epochal life cycle of a major city, from rise to decline, in a hundred years:

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. (Click here for PDF Full Text of Solnit Article.)

More Detroit photos here (urban prairies, etc.), from James D. Griffioen: http://www.jamesgriffioen.net/index.php?/prairies/new-work/ (or click the photo below)

photo by James Griffioen

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