Abandoned cities: the slow death of Detroit

Abandoned and lost cities–from Petra in Jordan to Machu Picchu in Peru–have long captured the imagination of adventurers, writers, historians and scientists. The idea that once thriving places are just left to be reclaimed by nature is both romantic and mysterious. What adds to the mystery is that even within cultures that have recorded histories, the reasons for such abandonments are often lost.

Take the famed temple city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example.  After centuries of use, it was suddenly abandoned in the sixteenth century. It has been proposed recently that “Angkor’s demise may have been the result of environmental degradation: … deforestation and other overuse of the land increased flooding and siltation, which eventually undermined the region’s vital system of irrigation canals.”

In the same century—in 1585 to be precise—Fatehpur Sikri, a regional capital in India, was abandoned for no apparent reason a mere 15 years after it was built.

On the other side of the world, South and Central America are littered with such cities; there have been 172 “lost” cities rediscovered in Mexico alone. Scientists have been unable to come up with convincing answers for any of their depopulations. Reasons posited range from politics, shifts in power, changing trade routes, land no longer capable of supporting population, warfare, natural disasters, disease, water problems, religion.

This is why I am so fascinated with Detroit: it’s like we are watching history in action, a slow motion train wreck of a city that is gradually being abandoned. Built on a single industry, it seems unable to reinvent itself for a changed world. It reminds me of those small African nations that are reliant on a single natural resource; at the mercy of the market, their economies collapse when the price of that resource collapses.

This just-published report on Detroit might provide some insight into how a modern city dies. It describes Detroit as a “major food desert” brought about by the fact that “there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city.”

Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

We saw how quickly a major city can be abandoned when New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Detroit is looking more like a long, slow, economic strangulation.


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4 Responses

  1. […] Detroit — an update Just a quick follow up to an earlier post of the slow abandonment and (potential) death of Detroit. This information from Carpe Diem makes […]

  2. […] in time, I thought we would revisit Detroit (which we’ve looked at before a couple of times, here and here), the modern day equivalent of a disappearing […]

  3. […] 3, 2009 by DrThrottling Duffster’s posts on depression ravaged Detroit (which you can read here, here and here) and the pictures of abandoned houses got me scouring the web for […]

  4. […] While, if you’re interested in how cities become “lost” in the first place, here’s a modern example – Abandoned City – The Slow Death of Detroit […]

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