Friday, May 6, 2011

To more sustainable neighbourhoods in Detroit

Some of you know that I have been involved in teaching and coordinating a class on Detroit this semester. It all started last year when Laura Sherman and Krista, two other wonderful graduate students that are in the same fellowship cohort as I, decided that it would be fun to put together a place-based class on sustainability together. There are a couple of such classes that already exist, but the places are foreign - one teaches and takes students to Kenya, the other Chile. We decided to focus on some place close to home, a place to me that is home - southeast Michigan. What better place than Detroit? An awesomely fascinating place with a huge cultural history and an increasingly vibrant collection of individuals wanting to turn the corner on a not-so-pleasant past.

We got a bunch of extremely talented undergraduates to sign up for the class, which began in January. After teaching in Ann Arbor for eight weeks, and taking three trips to Detroit, the whole class is now fully prepared to spend two entire weeks in Detroit. We will be living at Wayne State University, and focusing our studies and energy on southwest Detroit, particularly the neighbourhood of Delray and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Hubbar-Richard, Springwells, Mexicantown, and Boynton. We are fortunate enough to be working with Professor Larissa Larsen, who has long-standing connections to Delray and its residents. She has been actively involved in helping the residents face the challenges of living in Delray. In this place live people much less fortunate than most, particularly because of discrimination, segregation and zoning laws.

Fortunately enough, the residents of Delray want us there (nothing is worse than going to a place and telling people what they should do, especially if they don't want you there. This has been a struggle facing many places like Detroit.), and want us to help them re-envision their neighbourhood in the light of the New International Trade Crossing, a publicly-owned bridge that is being planned in competition to the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge, which spans the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada. The landing for the new bridge is proposed to be in Delray. What this means though, is that there will now be several thousand trucks passing through Delray now, worsening an already degraded environment. It will be the supreme responsibility of our students and us to come up with culturally- and historically-sensitive plans, based on neighbourhood input, that will hopefully serve as templates for a new Delray.

Over the next couple of weeks, from 8 to 21 May, I will be writing about our experiences in Delray. This will be one of the most challenging things I have participated in, particularly because of the present tensions between culture, race, history and environment. The challenges of sustainability will be front and centre.

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