"Feral houses" and other indigenous species of the rust belt
I live in the rust belt and have always found beauty in urban decay. So it will not surprise you that I am transfixed by Detroit photographer James Griffioen's shots of "feral houses". Nature is up to bat in Detroit as it is in my home, Cleveland.For those of us trying to figure out how to understand these places in which we live, metaphors are important. Griffioen chooses "feral" wisely. Feral houses are no longer domesticated, having reverted to a different state, like horses in the west who roam free of any rider, stable, or whip. They have transmuted into a different state of being, yes-but they do be. They are not, nor are their neighborhoods, as many like to call them, "dead." (When Forbes published a list of the cities that have lost the most people this decade, they called them the "fastest-dying cities"-Cleveland and Detroit are on the list.) These cities, as Griffoen shows us, are teeming. Growth is everywhere.And whither that growth? What happens next? What promise do these newly feral houses have? What might be next for these neighborhoods that no longer need to fulfill their original purposes?Civic leaders and artists are coming up with some interesting ideas, and often the line between the two groups is blurred. The perfectly-named Unreal Estate Agency in Detroit is aimed at showcasing "new types of urban practices (architecturally, artistically, institutionally, everyday life, etc) that came into existence, creating a new value system in Detroit," including helping people purchase and rehab a home for under $5,000. In Cleveland, the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture is working on an initiative called "From Rust Belt to Arts Belt" (the second symposium is September 17 and 18). Cleveland artist Don Harvey leads a tour of the "Natural Flats" that shows the "evolving natural environment" of a warehouse district downtown.Julia Christensen, the author of Big Box Reuse and a colleague of mine at Oberlin College, is exploring these themes in mixed-media. One project, "Rust Belt/Bayou" is about the similarities she finds between Cleveland and New Orleans. Christensen was struck, after moving to the Cleveland area soon after visiting post-Katrina New Orleans, by "the same feeling of exhaustion seeing the devastation" of both cities. "What happened in New Orleans overnight has been happening in Cleveland for fifty years," Christensen notes.Given my nagging scholarly bent, I asked Christensen which readings have helped her think through these issues, and what she teaches to students in her courses such as "Land Arts in An Electronic Age." She cited the work of both pioneering theorist Robert Smithson, singling out his A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ, and a more recent book, Atlas of Radical Cartography which is as fun as it is smart (fold out maps!)Just this week, Time magazine bought a house in Detroit to house reporters working on stories about the city. Now this sounds like a small boon to Detroit's housing market, but I find the decision unfortunate. There are plenty of writers and artists making their home right here in the Rust Belt. We can tell you all about it. Come find us.Photos from James Griffioen's project Feral Houses.