(by Justine Mary Smith) A drive through the streets of Detroit reveals great expanses of open land peppered with occasional houses, abandoned industry, and crumbling storefronts. Artifacts from different periods present themselves in a disorderly way in Detroit. Meadows not seen since the pre-agricultural period and remnants of century-old brick streets poking up through the rotting asphalt from the 1960’s appear alongside towering glass skyscrapers built in the 1970’s.
As Detroit lost industry and people, the grassland returned. With a declining tax base, the city lacked the money and efficiency to cut the grasses or pave the empty lots. On my lunchtime walks, I sometimes rove through “rivertown,” a former warehouse area that once held promise of a revitalized night life district along the Detroit River’s edge. Sadly, that effort failed. Some of the street in this area is the original brick from over one hundred years ago. Weeds in adjacent fields tower over the occasional pedestrian. As I strolled by one day, a pheasant fluttered its wings and took flight above the tall grasses.
Without the money to tear down buildings, from the grandest to the most humble, Detroit’s past and present collide in a startling portrait of decaying buildings with mature trees growing inside and extending branches out the windows and through the roofs. The “Tree of Paradise,” a fast-growing native of China, was introduced to the Detroit area in the mid 1880’s. Since then it has spread quickly throughout the area. Mansions built for the industrial barons have sat abandoned for so long that vegetation has dwarfed them.
The train station, once a graceful architectural gem, sits in a state of decay with occasional homeless people and “urban explorer’s” venturing inside. Armed with flashlights, these modern day adventurers risk rat bites and falling walls to view the once grand interior.
Much of Detroit looks like a graceful old lady. There’s a certain vulnerability amid the rawness. It’s as if the bones of the deceased are exposed in the graveyard. One wants to cover them up gently.
A glimpse of what the area looked like before the European settlers came can still be found at the Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn. Gurgling streams, meadows, and woods surround the large house where the first Ford lived. Henry Ford was from Ireland, a country known for its love of small villages and disdain for large built urban environments. Henry Ford I was often visited at his estate by a naturalist. He envisioned an area with lots of green space and forest.
It has taken several generations, but it looks like some of the original ideas of the first Ford may come to fruition. Henry Clay Ford, now at the helm of the powerful automaker, talks of turning the Detroit Ford Plant into a green campus. Still the belching industrial giant, its heaviest pollution has been tamed somewhat by stricter controls placed on industry after the Clean Air Act passed in the 1970’s. Mauve and scarlet sunsets, once a common sight thanks to the strong pollutants in the air, are now scarce in the Detroit area.
Detroit is a French word for the place simply meaning “the strait” and referring to the narrow passage of water connecting the lakes. When Cadillac arrived in Detroit in 1701 he found pristine streams running into rivers full of fish, wild meadows, and walnut and pear trees leaning heavily from the fruits and nuts. The native people traveled by canoe along the several rivers that once crisscrossed what is now called Detroit. They had various names for the area, including one which referred to the sharp bend the Detroit River takes just south of what is now the downtown area.
Now with the decaying mansions and skyscrapers left to rot, one gets the feeling that everything here is expendable. The wealth of the auto barons and many of their managers has allowed an abandonment of good land and beautifully handcrafted buildings as seen no where else. They simply set up elsewhere just twenty miles away, building new mansions and skyscrapers.
Detroit, with all its empty space, is now poised like no other city to become a planned garden city, or perhaps to be a city of many cottage industries that can utilize open land. Perhaps most of Detroit will revert back to the its preagricultural state of meadows and streams around small clusters of housing and retail.
Well-maintained bike paths would connect these small village-like neighborhoods and beautiful forested areas. The buried rivers–Conner Creek and Overtown River to name just two–still run underground in the sewer system and could be engineered to the surface again. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Detroit has undergone other transformations–from a bountiful wilderness, to strip farms, to a commercial center, and finally to industrial giant. It can continue to evolve and become again a vision of the future instead of a dim reflection of the past.