From the "Feral Houses" series
Last week, Flavorpill's Flavorwire newsletter introduced me to James Griffioen's photography. "Feral Houses," the series featured by Flavorpill, focuses on abandoned houses in Detroit, Michigan. Griffioen writes,
"For a few beautiful months every summer, some of the tens of thousands of abandoned houses become feral in every sense: they disappear behind ivy or the untended shrubs and trees planted generations ago to decorate their yards. As the city of Detroit disappears, nature is flourishing."Considered as a whole, the "Feral Houses" series is a record of our complicated relationship with the land upon which we live and depend, as well as of our ailing community roots.
From the "Feral Houses" series
Detroit's Rust Belt era history is generally bleak. Today, much of the city is classified as a food desert. Sitting down for a hearty meal with friends and family this Thanksgiving evening, I recalled Rebecca Solnit's inspiring Harper's Magazine article, "Detroit Arcadia" (July 2007). Solnit writes,
"Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever. [...] I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future."Yet the central focus of Solnit's essay are the heroic, local reclamations of Detroit's abandoned lots for community gardens or small-scale farming enterprises.
"I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. 'Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,' she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy."Similar projects are gaining momentum in American cities that aren't suffering as acutely as Detroit. Community garden and farmer's market movements are thriving in many urban centers, and urbanite hunters are no longer unheard of. Last week, the New York Times reported on the growing number of locavores taking up hunting, but, unlike Charlottesville, Virginia's "Deer Hunting for Locavores" class and San Francisco's Bull Moose Hunting Society, ventures made possible by relative privilege and foresight, Detroit's repurposing and enterprise is born of pressing need.
From the "Feral Houses" series
Contemplating Griffioen's handsome photographs, it's impossible not to think of Detroit's economic and health struggles. Still, his subjects, the "feral houses" themselves, don't strike this Eastern Shore boy as that unusual. All regions marked by poverty offer up monuments to the ceaseless action of Nature and time. Recent studies show that Accomack, the Virginia county that I was raised in and that my parents call home, is "the fattest" county in the state. It is also one of the poorest. Abandoned houses and overgrown automobiles figure as prominently in my mental portrait of the Shore as do salt marshes and the rich smell of freshly turned earth.
Unlike the citizens of Detroit's urban environment, Eastern Shore folks are not strangers to hunting, fishing, or farming. One might therefore assume that food desertification and obesity are unlikely. Unfortunately, access to fresh, healthy foods doesn't mean that locals won't instead opt for fast food! Furthermore, community ties might be even weaker on the Shore than they are in Detroit, eroded in part by an epidemic reliance on the automobile and big-box stores.
What does the future portend for Detroit and Virginia's Eastern Shore? Taking the long view, I'm optimistic. A decade hence, Detroit might well provide a more sustainable model for beleaguered urban communities. The Eastern Shore, however, is a different type of community, and one still on the decline; recovery will come more slowly.
House on White's Neck Road; Parksley, Virginia
Like Griffioen's pictures, Don Amadeo's photographs of the Eastern Shore remind us of the slow creep of geologic time, the long long view. Human communities may rise and fall and rise again, but all eventually succumb. So, too, with species. There is an ambivalent beauty in overgrown ruins; they celebrate the wonder of life's eternal striving even as they proclaim mortality.
Ole Rusty; Parksley, Virginia
Photo credit: "Feral Houses" photographs, courtesy James Griffioen; ShoreRebel photographs, courtesy Don Amadeo