I was in Michigan last weekend for a short visit and a knee docter appointment (which I’m happy to report that I passed with flying colors!). Driving through the barren, calming roads of Detroit was a stark contrast to the fast-paced congestion of Manhattan. Most of all, it reminded me that there are many blog posts and reflections that are long overdue, particularly the one below, which I promised back in April.

During the process of applying to graduate school, I wrote a lot about how Detroit and how this city has been a generous teacher to me, helping me get on the track to pursue a degree in landscape architecture. I was too paranoid to post any text from my personal statements, for fear of jeopardizing my application, whether or not I had any real evidence to support this fear. Now that I’ve been admitted to school, I feel better about posting a blog-appropriate version of my personal statement.

In the spirit of BFP’s Radical Michigan Blogging Carnival, I submit my entry (4 months late!) about why Detroit/Michigan holds a special place in my heart. And for ways to get further acquainted with the cool things that make up the Detroit/Michigan area, check out the Allied Media Conference 2007 (June 22-24) and Critical Bloggers community.

The last place I imagined working for social change was in the dirt, pulling weeds. I was in a community garden, on my hands and knees, alongside dozens of excited youth of color in their Detroit neighborhood. These students grew up in the shadows of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant, one of the oldest and dirtiest manufacturing complexes in the country. In the midst of an industrial landscape of factories, refineries, freight trucks and odd sulfuric smells, urban community gardening represents a new way of approaching urban design and community development. Detroit, my adopted home, is a post-industrial city that has become an incubator for community-driven development, where people are creating new approaches to revitalization, like urban agriculture, filling the void of ineffective traditional models. Witnessing these approaches for the past five years has shown me how urban gardens and agriculture have the potential to transform and restore our cities towards sustainability and social change.

My first exposure to the visionary activities taking place in Detroit was through my involvement in Detroit Summer, a youth-oriented organization founded on the principle that young people must be at the heart of rebuilding, redefining and re-spiriting the city from the ground up. We organized Detroit youth to reclaim abandoned land and implement community-building activities across the city, such as public art, community gardens, and combining hip hop and activism, and hosting monthly potluck dinners. These projects went beyond the act of simple community service; they stimulated the transformation of neglected neighborhoods into havens of greenspace, producing fresh vegetables, community murals and a place for people to break bread. Detroit Summer engenders the spirit and creativity of youth around the city, and I experienced an imaginative way of development that is rooted in ecological and community values.

Detroit was exciting, and I had wanted to be part of its rebirth while I was a student at the University of Michigan. While in college, I had specialized my academic studies on urban environmental justice issues, examining the impacts from disproportionate amounts of pollution and toxic exposures to people of color and low-income populations. Social factors, like race, gender and class, and political processes, contribute to environmental inequalities in our cities, and often communities have little institutional power or social capital to affect the outcome of development decisions and advocate for better conditions. As a proponent for social change, I believe landscape architecture can include championing the basic needs and rights of communities.

Detroit’s imaginative development strategies and community-building efforts also resonated with my identity as an Asian American woman. In college I was part of a student-run mentoring program for Asian American freshmen, where I discovered the value of community and its power for developing strong self-identity and fostering public service. I wanted to carry this sense of community into my life in Detroit, so I became involved with the Detroit Asian Youth Project, addressing the issues affecting Detroit’s underserved Hmong refugee population. Engaging Hmong youth in a Detroit Summer community garden, our garden became a rare forum for youth to talk about their experiences growing up in Detroit and impact of the Vietnam War upon their families. The youth discovered their capacity to create positive change and as a result, several youth changed their pessimistic outlooks about Detroit and wanted to take part in improving the city’s conditions. These youth demonstrated the transformative impacts that are possible when given the opportunity to have direct experiences with the land and environment.

As an environmental justice organizer, I traveled across Michigan to see how neighborhood after neighborhood in urban cities lacked “green” amenities that other communities had, often because these neighborhoods were usually the last for consideration, or written off due to the high costs of cleaning up pollution. There was a clear need for more expertise on how to use plants and natural processes to restore and reclaim degraded urban ecosystems, which could then increase the opportunities for sustainable growth and development. Using these techniques could turnaround and beautify the more than 2,000 brownfield sites in Detroit. Creative possibilities could flourish, such as transforming a contaminated lot into a public park that supports environmental education for city youth.

While campaigning for policy changes, I grew frustrated at a political process removed from local communities and filled with bureaucracy and vague commitments. I looked for other approaches to solving our urban environmental and social challenges, and I saw that there is a real need in Detroit for more initiatives that integrate the natural landscape into community development. Rebuilding Detroit requires a new trajectory that is grounded in principles of sustainability, economic affordability and community. This approach will challengie the conventional way of how we think about our relationships to the land and the way we define community. But I believe that the possibilities are endless; projects to reclaim heavily contaminated riverfront properties where old factories once stood, or designing landscapes for the Detroit Public Schools that would beautify school grounds that enhance the educational experiences for Detroit youth. Landscape design has the potential to transform urban areas in ways that are socially conscious, child-friendly, culturally affirming and environmentally sustainable.

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  1. Sabrina V

    Congrats on getting into a grad program? Which University? I’ll be in NYC this weekend. Let’s get together. I’ll be staying in Bed-Stuy with J’tang.

  2. I’ll be going to U-Penn in the Philly in the fall! 🙂 Give me a shout when you are in town! I’m at the same number. Maybe you guys would like to join us for this event we are going to on Sunday: http://www.renegadecraft.com/brooklyn/index.html. 🙂

  1. 1 Dead in the Midwest

    […] potential to transform and restore our cities towards sustainability and social change.” – Love Letter to Detroit This entry was written by Quinn and posted on June 27, 2007 at 1:22 pm and filed under […]

  2. 2 anthro.pophago.us snippets of media, anthropology, design, culture and politics.

    […] The last place I imagined working for social change was in the dirt, pulling weeds. I was in a community garden, on my hands and knees, alongside dozens of excited youth of color in their Detroit neighborhood. These students grew up in the shadows of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant, one of the oldest and dirtiest manufacturing complexes in the country. In the midst of an industrial landscape of factories, refineries, freight trucks and odd sulfuric smells, urban community gardening represents a new way of approaching urban design and community development. Detroit, my adopted home, is a post-industrial city that has become an incubator for community-driven development, where people are creating new approaches to revitalization, like urban agriculture, filling the void of ineffective traditional models. Witnessing these approaches for the past five years has shown me how urban gardens and agriculture have the potential to transform and restore our cities towards sustainability and social change. Love Letter to Detroit […]

  3. 3 Elsewhere « Visualingual

    […] Love Letter to Detroit: heartfelt words of affection for the Motor City. […]




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