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The Detroit phenomenon is happening at smaller scales in dozens of cities across the Rustbelt as a result of industrial decline, suburban growth, and increased poverty levels. This disjuncture in the urban fabric is manifested as a rich figure-ground of two opposing forces: city and “un-city”. The “un-city” is a complex and dynamic collection of foreclosed homes, vacant lots, unoccupied property, condemned buildings, and unused infrastructure that pervades the viable urban systems of the city. The presence of scattered emptiness takes observable socio-economic tolls in the form of increased crime, decreased property values, loss of community, and perceived isolation.
This scenario may be found in the Northside neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A manufacturing zone on the east side of the neighborhood contains the city’s roots in industry and provided a means of growth until 1970, populating a 2 mi2 area to the west until industrial decline set in.03 The “un-city” of the Northside has grown over the past forty years into 70+ acres of emptiness, beginning in the industrial zone with huge tracts of abandoned factories and spreading westward in a scattered patchwork of foreclosed homes and vacant parcels. The result is an astonishing level of physical emptiness in the industrial zone and severe socio-economic problems in the residential zone.
Presented with these consequences of disurbanism, the Rustbelt Rhizome is a proposal that embraces the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari04 in order to redefine emptiness. If the understanding of dis-urbanism is shifted from the idea of “holes in the urban fabric” to that of increase in smooth positive space,05 what are the proactive opportunities for intervention across the changing urban landscape? In this regard, emptiness, instead of being an intruder, could become a shared possession of the neighborhood.
Also utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s principles of multiplicity and cartography,06 the Rhizome capitalizes on the density and locations of singular instances of foreclosure, abandonment, and vacancy. Instead of treating unoccupied parcels as a series of unconnected tragedies littering the neighborhood, the Rhizome takes advantage of their unique and dynamic cartographies, connecting them to create a purposeful and advantageous move across a changing landscape. Flowing through multiplicities of emptiness, it shapes disparate parcels and isolated structures into smooth connective tissue,08 creating opportunities for movement laterally through city blocks and toward gathering nodes at street intersections. Opportunities for new programmatic space is strategically placed into foreclosed historic homes and abandoned warehouses, providing the Northside residents with spatial nodes that respond to specific issues, thereby providing relief from some pressing social problems and re-forming community ownership.
The Rustbelt Rhizome exists in the dynamic complexity of the “un-city” and thrives on its ebbs and flows. Although the emptiness of the Northside neighborhood will continue to change in size, configuration, and density, the Rhizome will adapt by constantly linking new vacant lots and buildings. Disparate voids that no one wants to claim will be reestablished as smooth space owned by all.