MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Utopian visions--building in cornfields

Recently there has been this and this about the disappearing reality of the city. One of the more exquisite programs to come to television, only to die for its quality, was “EZ Streets.” (1996)

Among the most compelling images on the program was in its opening credits (as I remember them). A helicopter shot…circling over a city, one sees a closer and closer vision of devastation as the camera descends to the scene of the core action. At first you see a recognizable urban pattern, but then the camera reveals block after block of urban decay, focusing eventually on blocks of six, or three, or one standing house or building.

This place—the never-recovered city of Detroit after the 1967 riots—featured prominently in this very dark program about civic corruption. Among the most memorable scenes in the series took place in an abandoned (aren’t they all now) Albert Kahn designed factory. A newly-elected, young, first black mayor of the city, standing among the cadence of concrete-capitaled columns, has his family threatened unless he votes for the casino initiative in the city.

I remember, as then-president of Detroit’s AIA chapter, calling Dennis Archer, a new, but not the first, black mayor of the city, to offer the organization’s site-selection and zoning assistance after he threw his support behind a new casino initiative. This was about three years after this scene appeared on “EZ Streets.”

Now, more than ten years later, Detroit’s latest mayor is in jail, one of the three licensed casinos is in bankruptcy, Congress has denied funds for the sustainability of the city-sustaining automobile industry, and the city lacks the funds to demolish the abandoned and progressively collapsing houses I have seen on my drive to work every day for the past decade, that represent the move of more than a million—more than a million!—people from this city in the past generation.

When I was working on the design of the Chrysler Technical Center —the move of the auto maker from Detroit’s Highland Park neighborhood to the suburbs beginning a decade earlier in 1988—we often talked about planning for that which was left behind in the city. One of the more startling images was offered by a Chrysler exec, “We should turn Highland Park into a cornfield,” he said. “Everybody wants to build in a cornfield.”

I think I’ll start planting.