July 14, 2007

I don't read Harper's regularly, but the current issue is really worth picking up. There's a very lucid essay by Scott Horton on the Bush administration's assault on the rule of law. There's a piece in which Ken Silverstein poses as an agent for the government of Turkmenistan and asks some DC lobbyists what they can do for his corrupt regime (the answer: quite a bit). But my favorite is an essay by Rebecca Solnit on Detroit (unfortunately none of the content is online unless you subscribe.) Solnit's subject is the manner in which Detroit, long the victim of debilitating urban blight, is being reclaimed by nature, in the process becoming an entirely new and perhaps unprecedented kind of American city. Here are some snippets:

"... as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely--and sometimes even beautifully--post-American.
...The city, once the fourth-largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.... Some areas have been stripped altogether, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie--an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco... Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one."

I've long been fascinated by the way in which urban or industrial landscapes, taken to an extreme, eventually produce their own strange kind of beauty. (One of my favorite examples is the early stretches of the New Jersey turnpike coming out of New York, the best features of which are in the opening credits of The Sopranos.) Solnit documents that process in reverse--grass erasing the foundations of houses, trees sprouting from the ledges of vacant high-rises. (The photo above is of a small Texas town I once visited that is undergoing a similar conversion on a much smaller scale.)

What I like about this essay is that although Solnit walks the reader through the causes of Detroit's depopulation--"bitter racism and industrial failure"--she moves beyond this familiar story to find potential cause for optimism. She discovers community groups and churches taking advantage of the desolation to make thousands of food gardens and organic markets in Detroit's fertile soil. A school for teenage mothers boasts a working farm and an apple orchard. Solnit doesn't ignore the deprivation that has driven Detroiters to their "experiment in post-urban utopianism," but she sees rich possibilities in it all the same. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: Caleb Crain notes that the Columbia Journalism Review has a Q&A with Solnit this month. It's not online, but if they make it available I'll post a link.