Recently, I've been out talking to a lot of people about environmental justice. As someone with a career that depends on reading and writing, I always pay particular attention to the words used to describe the more-than-human environment.
During a driving tour of downtown Detroit recently, a friend pointed out some bits of urban prairie. I was under the impression that "urban prairie" was a bit of a metaphor-- you know, the tall grasses maybe replaced by tall fences, small prairie creatures by rats and pigeons, but I was wrong.
There are actually very small sections of prairie in and near downtown Detroit, including tall grasses and weeds, and such inhabitants as turkeys and foxes. Some of them are quite extensive.
This ecologist-blogger writes about her encounters with Detroit's urban prairie on birding expeditions, and mentions the extensive presence of pheasants in the area. And journalist Marti Bennedetti writes about the reclaiming of urban prairie for local community gardening.
I guess this is nice in some ways. Somehow, in the decay of human-occupied cityscapes, animals have moved back in, and humans are finding new ways to use the land.
Then again, the words people use to describe places and people tell you a lot about what they think is--and isn't--there. The same friends who showed me some of Detroit's urban prairie mentioned hearing an interview on the radio of an "urban explorer" in Detroit.
The word "explorer" to me has some firsts associated with it-- the first person to see something, or the first to look at an object in a new way, perhaps. But as we have learned from history, some explorers were hardly mapping uncharted territory. Sometimes their "exploring" was bad news for those who were already inhabiting the area. Does that mixed meaning carry over in this situation?
Is there any value to urban blight, or should it be replaced as soon as possibe? What about urban prairie? Is there a place for it in revitalization efforts? I think the Michigan Central Train Station is beautiful, but it is clearly beyond hope of repair for any traditional building uses (other than, perhaps, filming movies about robots in disguise). So should it be torn down for more urban gardening space, or maybe yet another casino? I don't know--but I'd love to know what you think.