Saturday, September 26, 2009

Decivilization in Detroit

The twenty-first century has not been kind to Detroit. A hundred years ago it was a powerhouse at the top of its game, the center of the automotive industry and a magnet for millionaires on par with Buffalo, New York. Today, despite all efforts, it just keeps on rolling downhill. Its population is fleeing, it's buckling under unemployment unprecedented since the Great Depression, and its shadow of a mass-transit system, the Detroit People Mover, moves less than ten thousand people per day. Nearly half of its population is illiterate. Even Flint, which I wrote about back in April, has it better off - Flint doesn't have Detroit's reputation as a decaying wreck of a city to contend with.

This may be set to change. In the article "From Motown to Hoetown," the Toronto Star's environment reporter Catherine Porter wrote about how Detroit may be on the cusp of becoming a model of a 21st century city - Porter calls it "a model for deindustrialization," but I think a more appropriate term would be "decivilization." This term, coined in 2002's Transhuman Space, refers to the intentional demolition of portions of cities to allow nature to return there. What some entrepreneurs are paying attention to now is the prospect of working with Detroit as it is - taking the vast tracts of vacant land that comprise half that sprawling once-metropolis and vastly expanding its current network of urban gardens and farms. Detroit isn't hurting for space; the article focuses on thirty-five acres of land in central Detroit where only five structures remain standing. Everywhere else, nature has returned. The entrepreneurs' plan is to create multiple good-sized farms throughout the city, working the good land that urban decay has finally brought to light again.

The article focuses on incipient conflict between the agribusiness entrepreneurs currently sizing Detroit up and the local activists who got its existing farm system off the ground, but there are more interesting things hinted at in the text. Detroit, I think, is going to be North America's first real, familiar lesson that growth cannot last forever. All of American and Canadian history has been predicated on the concept that there is always another frontier, that there are always new riches to exploit, new mountains to climb, and that every step takes you a little bit higher. I see that still today, when the York Region countryside just north of Toronto, some of the best agricultural land in Canada, is broken up and plowed under for endless sprawling fields of box communities where every house is built to one of six blueprints. In Detroit, I'm seeing hope for the future - hope that we'll recognize that some things can't last forever, and that we'll choose to moderate our civilization before cold events make that choice for us.

Personally, considering that Detroit was where the automobile was born, was where the conspiracy that tore the streetcars out of all but a handful of city streets was conceived, and where the suburban impulse was given means to go, I see this as a sort of redemption.

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