Friday, September 07, 2007

Post-American Landscape

In the July 2007 issue of Harpers, Rebecca Solnit (whom I once quoted here) has a wonderful article about the rise, then fall, and then perhaps second rising of one of America's most despised and feared cities: Detroit. At some point you maybe begin wondering what all the ink is about: she traces its beginnings from the soggy, post-ice age wetlands settled by the French, who utilized local natives to help set up a trading post that became a "strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior." She follows its rise in the early 20th century due to the automobile industry: in 1900, about 250,000 people lived there, but by mid-century, it was home to almost 2 million, but has now fallen back below 900,000 again, with an average 10,000 people leaving the city every year. It was a victim of its own success, however, as the industry it created ate its own urban core (along with all of America's), giving rise to sprawl and suburbia, effectively killing off the industry itself (particularly in a town where one-fifth of the population doesn't even own a car). Of course, Detroit wasn't the only one-industry city destroyed by decentralization and creeping globalization. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York City, and San Francisco were also all basically dried up by the loss of blue-collar jobs and factories.

All of those cities, though, in one way or another, managed to recover, some of them spectacularly (San Fran and NYC, particularly), but not Detroit. As Solnit says, "The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract...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 regions of the global north in the next century or two." Our way of life is over; the sprawling suburbs and automobile culture are no longer sustainable, but Detroit, by sheer necessity, may be the first of the cities "forced to become altogether something else."

What is that something else? Agriculture.

So many homes have fallen down and been destroyed, and there is now so much blank and unused urban space (even some of the downtown skyscrapers apparently have trees and plants growing up through them) that people are taking it over and creating urban gardens. Activist and long-time Detroit resident Jimmy Boggs and his wife Grace began to realize that instead of trying to regain a severed tie to capitalism, Detroit should embrace an economy entirely apart from "transnational webs of corporations and petroleum." In other words, turn Detroit's liabilities (urban ruin and unused space) into assets. In their words, that included "small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and our cities."

One woman, who had been the first black woman on her block and is now nearly the last person on that block, period, bought three lots that surrounded her home and now raises almost all of her own food on them. The three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks, grows organic produce for a local soup kitchen. The local 4-H organizations have begun planting and tending small gardens on the ravaged east side. And on the west side, the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women recently opened. It's 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." The Greening of Detroit sponsors thousands of community gardens. "Urban farming," says Ashley Atkinson, project manager, "dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community."

It's an inspiring message, and one that more cities (I'm looking at you, New Orleans) should take to heart.

Solnit closes with this insightful passage:

"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 all 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."

A young gardener at the Earth Works Garden.

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