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.
"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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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."