With an unemployment rate of 33 percent as of 2010, and with 36.4 percent of its population living below the U.S. established poverty line, Detroit is the poorest large city in the U.S. “It’s comparable to a third world city,”says Instructor, Jana Cephas, in the “Case Studies in Critical Conservation course.” earlier this semester. Currently a PhD candidate in History and Theory of Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism at Harvard University, Cephas comes to Harvard from the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit Mercy and is now well on her way to completing her dissertation this year. Her studies are focused on the urbanization of Detroit in the early twentieth-century through examining the metaphors associated with working (class) bodies, modern buildings, and efficient machines.
In a talk entitled “Critical Preservation By Elimination: Commemorating Detroit One Demolition At a Time,” Cephas overviews the historic and current role of conservation in shaping the discourse around the considerations for urban redevelopment in Detroit. She introduces the projections that are being considered in the coming years to address the issues of low occupancy rates and the debate between conserving neighborhoods and their structures versus demolition; a debate that she notes is often divided by race lines.
Cephas raised the example of the Woodward Avenue J.L. Hudson Store implosion in 1998. Hudsons was constructed as a piecemeal consolidation of independent structures between 1911 and 1946 and had become, disputably, the second largest department store in the U.S., behind Macy’s. By the time of its closing in 1983, Hudsons had been attributed to the closure of a number of small mom and pop businesses in the Downtown Detroit area and garnered a social memory of discrimination against blacks throughout its history.
Exclusively white hiring practices in the flagship location which catered, by and large, to middle class white patrons sets up a dynamic of exclusion that, by the time the Northland Center comes along in 1954 and starts hiring minority employees, has built a narrative of a city divided.
It is easy to see how the question of whether or not to preserve Hudsons would be a contentious issue given that 83 percent of the population in Detroit is African American. The memory of the undemocratic nature of the store might galvanize this majority population against the minority
conservationists that happen to be predominantly white.
Cephas also makes reference to the Michigan Central Station; another defunct landmark building loaded with social memory that brings its conservation into question. Opened in 1913 and closed in 1984, a week after Hudsons first closed, it was notoriously known to African Americans entering the city through this station for its routine strip checks. Looking for scars for TB vaccinations, the procedures were preformed in the basement of the building.
Instances like these really make the case for why multiple perspectives of history become important in conservation. Professor Michael Hays, who is also an instructor in this course, is always making reference to this concept of “counter heritage” an emergent term in which Andrew Herscher, associate professor at the University of Michigan, posits is a “despised history…traces of non-modernity that are not valued, but condemned.” My interpretation of that is that counter heritage is the action against historical entities that are not representative of the current cultural heritage of a group.
The planning department of Detroit is making strides in defining this counter heritage with the production of certain strategies they are undertaking to cap the problems of unabated housing vacancy and tax collection. Cephas showed this really provocative image of plans to “black out” certain neighborhoods with high vacancy rates, effectively demolishing vacant buildings and removing entire pockets of the city from services and utilities like bus routes, electricity and water.
She also elucidates the importance that urban agriculture—the product of a largely informal industry in Detroit as of late—will have on the development of a new paradigm for urbanization. Two very radical and equally plausible schemes, it really shows the extent to which the prevalence of extreme poverty and a lack of means introduces new landscapes for urban innovation.
I am reminded of my studies last semester in the Paris Studio abroad with Anne Lacaton. Detroit and Paris are very similar in that they both have large geographic footprints in which suburban sprawl has led to the destabilizing of the urban core. Much like the center of Detroit, Paris suffers from an outward flight; an evacuation from the urban center to the suburbs that surround the city. In stark contrast, however, the Parisian problem stems from the expensive housing market and incapacity to accommodate large families at low costs due to strict preservation and zoning laws that limit the cities ability to grow internally. Subsequently, this has led to a population replacement in which Parisians secede the metropolitan region, giving way to the influx of short-term leisurely travelers. The Paris studio was charged with the task of addressing these issues of conserving existing buildings and the densification of the Porte de La Chapelle site.
In Detroit, demolition is one of the tools being utilized as a primary means of mitigating the vacancy issue whereas in Paris, a coupled conservation and densification are being employed. Interestingly, the most successful projects from the Paris studio came about through the adaptive reuse and reclamation of negligible structures and space. As Cephas notes, Detroit has its struggles on the front of reuse of existing structures, calling to mind the Michigan Theater; a 1926 theater that has been adaptively—and agressively—transformed into a parking lot. As a methodology for addressing some of the major issues that face Detroit today, the Paris studio exercise is really crucial in framing the important social role of architecture and planning. It also helps to prepare a generation of designers for tackling some of the design needs of an increasingly stagnant western developed world.
The products of the studio are currently on exhibition in the Loeb Design Library in Gund Hall through to the end of the semester.