The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature
Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown. Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city. Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing. Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city.
One of the most distinctive things about the contemporary Brush Park landscape is perhaps its curiously well-manicured and even charming open space seemingly reclaimed by nature. Much of the fascination with ruins revolves around their capacity to evoke lost historical moments, forgotten experiences, and long-dead people; ruination delivers a sober testimony to the inevitable failures and collapses that seem to await nearly all complex societies. Nevertheless, much of the enchantment with ruination is perhaps with their oddly comforting testimony to nature’s power to reclaim nearly anything. Much of Brush Park today is simply open space, a field of flowers and high grass mutely drawing our attention to the buildings that have now disappeared. As modernity and its landscapes collapse around us, honeysuckle, erosion, weeds, and a host of resourceful animals deliver a fascinating reminder of human ephemerality, if not insignificance. Much of the appeal of ruined cityscapes is a comforting (if slightly self-deceiving) 21st century gaze that imagines nearly any material collapse will be inevitably reclaimed by nature and perhaps eventually provide us a blank slate.
Much of urban American ruination discussion has turned its attention to the ways nature has reclaimed the city and the ways residents can accelerate nature’s foothold in the declining city. Ruin art has long focused on the aesthetics of erosion in built space, drawing our gaze to nature’s reclamation of architecture; however, the oeuvre has generally most closely examined buildings themselves as they fall before weeds, not the open lots that are the remainders of decaying cities. Bruce Sterling coined the term “involuntary park” to refer to built landscapes that have become unusable if not repugnant and are turned over to the advance of nature: this would describe places like Chernobyl, for instance, but we might extend it to include many of the ruins and brownfields dotting the planet as well (and it certainly could reach beyond cities as well). Mass demolitions in many cities accelerated this process by leaving open spaces into which unchecked environmental advance transformed existing urban econiches: exposed swaths of earth introduce radically new erosion patterns, a variety of wind-borne plants secure a new foothold, and opportunistic if not always welcome wildlife migrate into these new spaces.
Detroit is routinely pointed to as a simplistic archetype of the failings of American cities, though in various moralistic tellings its collapse may signal industrial hubris, racism, or municipal mismanagement (and of course some observers argue that the motor city’s death rites have been read prematurely). The ruin art of Detroit has focused on its grandest architectural shells, which are aesthetically and materially alluring reminders of genuine affluence and over-reaching American ambition, and these include compelling houses in Brush Park. As in many other landscapes, though, few observers have spent much energy documenting the prosaic green spaces that checkerboard the city. When they do, those voids are often painted as their own distinctive confirmation of the city’s death: in contrast, many urbanites, municipal planners, and urban farmers seem to see such openings as opportunities. Much of that space is not lapsing into the capable hands of nature at all, because neighbors often are cutting the grass and cities sometimes attempt to preserve the landscape for redevelopment; indeed, the grass and flower field in Brush Park betrays its maintenance as the surrounding neighborhood in reach of Comerica Park is being resettled. Perhaps part of the allure of the urban prairies surrounding places like Brush Park revolves around their simultaneous demonstration of built heritage and the display of the power of nature. It is a simplification to reduce all this growth of open urban fields and weeds covering eroding structures simply to Nature, but fixating on structures themselves clearly hazards ignoring all the concrete social and historical factors for decline in any city.
These thoughts occurred to me on a field trip to Brush Park with the Wenner-Gren Foundation-supported Archaeologies of the Present workshop at Wayne State University; nobody in the workshop bears any blame for my own reading of Brush Park and ruins.