Imaginary Post-Lecture Q&A


Q: Your work seems to borrow a lot from journalism. That project about those two black ladies from Detroit who made the “house for two sisters” or whatever – that sounded like something right out of the Detroit Free Press.

A: Actually it came from the Detroit News. It was such a great story, we had to steal it. Well, maybe not steal. There’s a better word: you know, like when you take inspiration from something, but then run with it in a way the original author never would have? Maybe there’s no word for that, but anyway there should be. Anyway, yes, we took this story and ran with it. The author, whose name I forget, did this really in-depth study of a block in Detroit, probably with the assumption that this one block – a pretty ordinary one on Detroit’s west side, from what I remember – tells the story of the city’s decline in microcosm. White flight, abandonment, confusing tax and property laws, absentee landlords, profit-hungry real-estate agents, criminals, drug addicts, lax bureaucracy and ineffective federal and local policies: this block had it all!

But what was really interesting was to see how this fairly conventional narrative of decline played out on this particular stage. The point that’s underlined in good studies of globalization – that places “bite back,” and that even the most aggressive trends don’t engender the same results everywhere – was evidenced here. There were all sorts of things happening on this block that might be thought of as “aberrations.” There were all sorts of things that you could never deduce from the conventional narrative. And these things are important, maybe even as important as those things that support the narrative.

Let’s look at this story about the two black ladies from Detroit: they’re a perfect example of something that could never have been deduced from the conventional narrative about Detroit’s decline.

We learn from “Death of a City Block” that Wanda Cowans and Helen McMurray are two entrepreneurial sisters from Detroit. Flash back to 1967: Wanda is renting a flat not far from Elmhurst, and Helen is renting a house at 2005 Elmhurst. Helen has been saving to buy on the street, but still doesn’t have enough money. Then the riots happen, the property values on Elmhurst plummet, and in April 1969, Helen is finally able to buy a house at 1987 Elmhurst, three houses away from the house she was renting. That summer, Wanda – similarly empowered by the declining property values – buys the house at 2005 Elmhurst (the one Helen has just vacated). The two houses between them (at 2001 and 1995 Elmhurst) are, like so many houses on the block, subsequently abandoned and torn down, and the sisters eventually acquire the vacant land from the city, on which they built the large garden that now connects their houses. The result? A pop version of Colin Rowe’s “House for Two Sisters.”

There’s a lot here. First, as we’ve suggested, this isn’t part of the story of Detroit’s decline. The whole debate around so-called “shrinking cities,” for example, conveniently ignores the fact that certain entrepreneurial individuals actually take advantage of shrinkage. So yes, our work borrows from journalism. Journalism forces you to be empirical, to pay attention to what you see in front of you, as opposed to what you think you see, or worse, simply assume you’ll see. Good journalism “keeps to the actors,” as Latour would say. Journalists are our best friends!

Keep to the actors: that’s what we tried to do in our Deadmalls project too. The debate around “deadmalls” is just like the one around shrinking cities: the nuances of each are often obscured by the big, sexy story. Interestingly, in each case, the big, sexy story is about sickness and then death. But if you’re journalistic about it, if you pay attention to what’s there, you see life! And it’s everywhere. Sure, Detroit’s population is a lot lower today than it was fifty years ago. But what’s more vital and alive than the house for two sisters? And that deadmall we looked at in Fishkill, NY: that place was so alive! True, there were a lot less stores there than there was when it opened in 1973, but look closely: microorganisms are transforming the carcass.

Death into life, that kind of thing . . .

Q: So urban planners should be journalists?

A: No, just journalistic! It’s just a way for urban planners to situate themselves. Let’s face it, urban planners and the like are often the people who come up with ridiculous concepts like “shrinking cities,” and “deadmalls,” and, still worse, “the geography of nowhere.” The problem with planners isn’t so much that they always think they know the answer, it’s that they always think they know the problem. This is really dangerous. I hate to sound like a broken record, but planners need to listen more and talk less. You know, like journalists do.

Q: OK, but then what do you do? What does a journalistic planner do? I mean, I can understand how it might lead you to look at the city differently, but then what?

A: Good question! Let’s consider some examples. Let’s start with the house for two sisters. I’d like to think that we did two things here that neither a journalist nor a conventional planner would ever have done. First, we took what Wanda and Helen did to be a very positive, entrepreneurial thing. We identified their unassuming attempt to “improve their lot” by accumulating, then combining parcels as an altogether promising tactic. What they were working towards, in their own way, was the suburbanization of their city, of at least a de-densification of it. But they were doing it in a totally bottom-up kind of way: it was wholly endogenous. It was beautiful. We called it “The New Suburbanism.”

Second, we thought about how we, as planners, could work with it. Not quite institutionalize it, but something like that. How could we encourage more people to do what Wanda and Helen did? How might we come up with some sort of intervention that mimics their logic?

And that’s what I mean when I say that being journalistic is a way of situating oneself. There are a lot of things happening out there, if you look closely enough. Listen closely enough, and you’ll find that the “solution” is already implied by the problem. Death into life, that kind of thing. . .

Q: Maybe a better way to describe what you do is to say that you are ghostwriters. You know, like when a famous person doesn’t have time, or isn’t so articulate or whatever, and so they hire some hack to make sense of their life. . .It’s what Koolhaas said he was doing when he wrote Delirious New York.

A: Yes you are very smart. Ghostwriter is a very appropriate word. But shit, is there anything that Koolhaas didn’t already say?