Empty lots, 'shrinking city,' bring opportunities to Detroit

Capital News Service
LANSING — The vision of Detroit that Andrew Herscher presents isn’t the glitz of the Renaissance Center, the renovation of the Cobo Center or new townhouses with Detroit River views. Nor is it the proliferation of burned-out crack houses, abandoned cars or graffiti-marred overpasses. Instead, the University of Michigan architecture professor offers community gardens flourishing in empty lots, artists using fire-damaged buildings as palettes for creative projects and neighborhood fairs in the city’s alleys. Herscher recasts what’s often characterized as a “shrinking city” – shrinking population, shrinking places to shop, shrinking jobs, shrinking economic prospects – and portrays Detroit as a venue for “new understandings of the city’s spatial and cultural possibilities.”

Opportunities come from what he labels “unreal estate,” meaning “urban territory that has fallen out of the literal economy, the economy of the market, and thereby become available to different systems of value, whether cultural, social, political or otherwise.”
One such endeavor on the Eastside, the 27-year-old Heidelberg Project, is well-known as a self-described “outdoor community art environment” that relies on recycled and found materials. But there is far more grassroots, future-looking activity going on across the city, according to Herscher’s new book, the “Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit” (University of Michigan Press, $29.95),
Thus a community group harvesting wild blackberries and mulberries on public and abandoned property, then trading the fruit for products or services.