Zombieland: JB Jackson and the Abandonment of Detroit

Photo by Clement Lime

One of the favorite tropes of the American zombie movie is the spookily empty parking lot – where it should have been filled with bustling shoppers, it is instead populated only by loose shopping carts and rolling refuse. It evokes the classic ghost town of the West, a skeletal place passed by on the ever-expanding edge of American progress. Americans always push ahead, from the Appalachians to the Pacific, from Alaska to NASA to nanospace. Only a nuclear war or a brain-putrefying virus could lead to there being less, rather than more.

After 9/11, many New Yorkers were surprised to see that the threat of terrorism did little to dent the city’s go-go real estate market. A friend commented to me that only a collapse of the world financial system could deter the relentless rise of prices in Manhattan. That outcome seemed remote and unlikely in 2003; and while the crash of 2008 did its damnedest to test out this hypothesis, New York has certainly not turned it into a ghost town. It is a place with higher taxes, fewer social services, a more miserly attitude toward the poor and the sick – but it has not been laid to waste.

Detroit, on the other hand, has. As the auto industry teetered toward the conclusion of his decades-long, slow-motion collapse, and the housing market shriveled, people have fled the city. Once a metropolis of two million, it now has fewer than half as many residents. 33% lived in poverty in 2007, before the recession gripped the country as a whole and sent Detroit reeling even further. Today, it is estimated that 35% of the city’s area is unoccupied.

With abandoned homes dominating whole city blocks, local leaders have attempted to “downsize” this sprawling city of 140 miles. They want to move the few remaining households out of otherwise empty neighborhoods in order to reduce crime and the cost of city services. Homes in these swaths of territory will be razed to the ground, replaced with trees and open space – a network of greenways criss-crossing the city. Downsizing of workers has led to downsizing of people, of space itself.

Photo by Bob Jagendorf

The self-taught geographer J.B. Jackson would have looked on this situation with great curiosity. Fifty-four years ago he wrote of the abandonment of rural America and its small towns, under the pressure of agricultural mechanization. The farm population dwindled; young men and women left the family farms and country crossings of the Plains for college and never came back. “Americans have long been familiar with the sight of deserted farmsteads on country roads: barns and houses sagging, fields choked by a second growth of trees, lanes overgrown,” Jackson wrote in 1966. “These have become part of our rural picturesqueness.”

Jackson wondered what this process of abandonment would look like, once it moved on from the quaint “green acres” of American imagination:

It will undoubtedly take us time to get used to these and other indications of a population decline; we think of America as forever booming and expanding. It is true that we are no longer disturbed by the abandoned one-room school or the crossroads General Merchandise; but how will we take the abandoned, more or less modern high school with monster gymnasium? The abandoned drive-in movie theater with rows of empty stanchions emerging from the weeds? The abandoned shopping center?

Jackson’s concern for dilapidated drive-ins and big boxes seems dated now, as we have all grown accustomed to seeing hulking K-marts left for dead. There is even some evidence that drive-ins are making something of a comeback, in an ironic twist of history.

But Jackson foresaw that the urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes were no more immune to abandonment than the countryside. This is why the zombie movie has fascinated us so much since the 1950s – not just the specter of mindless, conformist consumers materialized as brain-hungry hordes, but the vision of emptiness in the land of plenty. In Detroit, we are getting to see what a gutted suburb or industrial district looks like – one that, so far, looks unlikely to be recolonized by artists and punks, as now-hip neighborhoods in Manhattan once were.

Detroit even lags other cities in attracting the immigrant families that revitalized huge areas of Brooklyn, Queens and other urban areas in recent years, owing, of course, to the relative dearth of economic opportunities. Plans have been floated to try to draw immigrants to the city as a sort of Special Migration Zone, to boost its population, capital, tax base and so on. “I can’t help but think that with 165 million people around the world telling Gallup they’d like to permanently relocate to the United States that it would be possible to find 1.3 million people who’d be interested in permanently relocating to Detroit and bringing the city back up to its peak population level,” Matt Yglesias speculated last month. “Economic and governance opportunities in Detroit are poor by American standards (or even by Italian standards) but they’re great compared to what you’ll find in Haiti, Gaza, Myanmar, Chad, or Nicaragua.”

Such plans have not been seriously considered by sober men and women, although it would be interesting to consider giving the Palestinians Detroit since they’re never going to get Jerusalem. Realistically, the best Detroit officials hope for is a controlled burn: a new American experiment with retraction instead of expansion. The farmers and small townsfolk of the South and the Midwest have already had a go at this, as Jackson, Jack Temple Kirby, and other scholars have shown.

What Detroit really makes one consider is what the next round of ruins will look like. We are long used to hollowed-out barns, factories and warehouses. What will the landscape of the Information Age look like in its decrepit years? The modernist honeycombs of office parks and laboratories, the glass cubes of Apple stores – they will be discarded some day too.

Will they endure any better than the agricultural and industrial worlds that came before? Will they lie derelict, as monuments to the passing enthusiasms of a bygone era? Will the Glaxos and Wal-Marts be leveled and erased? Or will they be retrofitted for new uses unforeseen today, like the stones of a Roman village reused for the wall of a medieval town, or the mills and warehouses now being converted to apartment housing today? And how will Americans come to grips with a population and an economy that might stabilize or even shrink in the decades to come?

Further Reading

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America
Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960
Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo
Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit