A sociologist and an urban historian document the community activism reshaping some of the cities hardest hit by the great recession.

Over the next couple of weeks, The Atlantic Cities is exploring America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

A couple of sharp-eyed Midwestern academics spotted the first green shoots of a national urban rebuild three years ago.

In mid-2009, Chicago sociologist and photographer David Schalliol and Milwaukee-based urban historian Michael Carriere launched a collaborative study of creative revitalization efforts in urban areas across the country, particularly those hardest hit by decline. They've since visited more than 30 cities and turned up nearly 200 outfits and initiatives, creating a national map of grassroots renewal, from Albuquerque to Providence.

Amateur baseball teams face off on the site of the former Tigers Stadium in late summer 2010. After the demolition of the stadium, locals took it upon themselves to clean up the site and put it to use. (2010

"We're seeing this huge number of groups, this ubiquity of DIY development,” says Schalliol, who is working toward a sociology doctorate at the University of Chicago. “We seem to have reached a new moment, where this kind of community-based and community-directed activism is playing a larger role in shaping the possibilities and facilitating a variety of new opportunities, from play to work to food to housing."

Some are sustainable businesses looking to redevelop a fallen neighborhood, while others are slapdash, activist-bred pop-ups that quickly come and go. Many are small-scale, longer-lasting efforts – such as turning a demolition site into a park, or reclaiming unused or abandoned buildings for housing or recreation activities.

Detroit artist Catie Newell's "Salvaged Landscape" installation uses material from a charred house in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. The house is part of the local not-for-profit organization Imagination Station. (2011)

A handful of other observers have also picked up on this movement. The Street Plans Collaborative, a group of urban planners, designers and activists, recently published their second volume of Tactical Urbanism, detailing efforts like chairbombing, guerrilla gardening and Open Streets. And author and community revitalization analyst Storm Cunningham is writing a book documenting the global rise of citizen-led regeneration and developing a website to help support it.

To Schalliol, these community-led efforts mark an unprecedented shift in the way people respond to local problems. “Rather than going to city officials and asking for help,” says Schalliol, “there's an understanding that a) the funds may not be there, b) the response may be too slow, and that c) the community itself has the capacity to deal with it.”

Jim Godsil at his Sweet Water Organics, a former factory turned into a vegetable and fish farming operation in Milwaukee. 

One of Schalliol's favorite examples is Sweet Water Organics, a Milwaukee aquaponics outfit that transformed a derelict former factory into an innovative urban fish and vegetable farm. “It's dealing with de-industrialization, trying to re-envision commerce and community,” says Schalliol.

Unlike the nationally-known Milwaukee outfit Growing Power, Sweet Water hopes to sustain itself without grants or foundation funding. “It's trying to chart a new path, with a profitable business arm and a non-profit, community education element,” says Schalliol.

The Borg Ward, an all-ages music venue and arts space in the Milwaukee's Walkers Point neighborhood, has been providing space for up-and-coming artists in the former Borgwardt Funeral and Cremation Services building since 2007. (2010)

Some organizations think they're accomplishing more than they actually are, while others underestimate their impact. Whatever the case, these small-scale efforts are certainly no silver bullet for the problems facing former industrial cities today.

“We're not positing that this DIY work can or will make up for the lost revenues," says Schalliol. "But I do think they provide a variety of models for which we can see new ways of engaging larger systemic problems and in the meantime do quite a bit of local good. As a result of this national critical mass, I think there's more of an emphasis on these issues -- and that can lead to policy changes.”

In Chicago, urban gardeners helped alter municipal policy in favor of urban agriculture. And last year, the city of Milwaukee awarded Sweet Water Organics a $250,000 loan (although some are now questioning that decision).

Grain elevators at the former Fleischmann Kurth Malting Company are demolished in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. (2009)

Schalliol lives in Chicago and has spent a good deal of time in Detroit. Carriere lives and teaches in Milwaukee. Thus, the two have done a great deal of work in those three Midwest cities. Schalliol's photos, which accompany this piece, reveal a handful of the hopeful new initiatives and the devastation that preceded them, offering a glimpse of a region bottoming out and hitting the reset button.

After showing some of Schalliol's photos at a small Milwaukee museum early this year, the duo is looking to mount a major exhibition. They're also talking with publishers, planning to publish a book on the project next year. For now, we have this glimpse of what they've found.

Close to 15 years after the shuttering of the Pabst Brewery, the near North Side Milwaukee site is being restructured to preserve some of the former complex while making space for mixed-use development. (2010)
A derelict, foreclosed building in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood is a backdrop to those enjoying an unseasonably warm spring. (2012) "The concentration of foreclosed properties throughout troubled neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West Sides has exacerbated neighborhood problems. These buildings are regularly damaged by scrap metal seekers and others immediately after the former owners are evicted, further deteriorating building stock and driving down the value of nearby buildings," says Schalliol.
Three teenagers play basketball in front of the last remaining tower of the former Stateway Gardens public housing project, as it's being demolished. (2007) According to Schalliol, "While it's temping to think about either local or abstract causes of local changes, a complicated network of local, state and federal programs influence urban communities. All three play a clear role in the transformation of public housing in the city."
A clandestine late night party is held in the "Brownlands," a large swath of undeveloped land just south of Chicago's Loop. Formerly used by railroad companies, it has been derelict for years. (2007)
Parents and students of the Chicago Public School's Whittier Elementary celebrate the opening of a community library located in a field house slated for demolition. The parents staged an occupation of the structure to force negotiations with the school board. (2010)
Volunteers relax in the first site of the Op Shop, a group founded by artist Laura Shaeffer to turn vacant storefronts in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood into community spaces. (2009) 
Detroit's Downtown Development Authority voted to demolish the Lafayette Building in June 2009. Built in 1923, the building once housed the Michigan Supreme Court, as well as Rosa Parks' office. (2009)

Two signs of the balance between dereliction and neighborhood stability on a Detroit North Side residential street: a woman mows her lawn and illegally dumped materials are stacked for collection. (2009) Says Schalliol, "While there is something to be gained from engaging imagery that seemingly depicts only decline, it is important to illustrate that even those sites are the product of social forces and actions of individuals. Consequently, I try to complicate the presentation of derelict sites by balancing signs of decline with those of renewal or order. That tension not only provides a visual dynamism; it provides a more complete understanding of place."

Temporary housing for United States Social Forum attendees in Detroit in the summer of 2010. This site is in Spaulding Court, a distinctive pair of row house buildings being rehabilitated by concerned community members. (2010)
A ubiquitous “Your Company Name & Logo Here” sign invites potential tenants to move into a North Side Milwaukee building formerly leased by the industrial firm Rockwell Automation. (2011)
In 2010, the 30th Street Industrial Corridor Corporation and Business Improvement District #37 invited IN:SITE, a Milwaukee-based organization dedicated to bringing public art to the city, to install art projects in the region surrounding the former A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive site. Here, public art is meant to both beautify a derelict Tower Automotive facility and attract investor attention to the “Century City” redevelopment effort. (2011)
Located a few blocks from the Borg Ward in Milwaukee's Walkers Point neighborhood is Community Warehouse, a sort of do-it-yourself Home Depot. The not-for-profit sells donated new home improvement materials for approximately 75 percent off the regular retail value to city residents and other non-profits living and operating in neighborhoods zoned for economic redevelopment. (2010) "Organizations like Community Warehouse play an important mediating role in communities by facilitating resource access for those who otherwise could not afford to maintain their properties. In so doing, they help protect against physical decline," says Schalliol. 

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