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urban prairie

Early Sunday morning, husband and I set out to once again see what breeding birds we could find by driving routes through Detroit’s withering east side.  We were aiming, ultimately, for cemeteries, but it turns out that even old cemeteries, being well-groomed, had nothing on what is known in aging Rust Belt cities as the urban prairie.

After cruising through Mt. Olivet cemetery (where several years ago I discovered my great-grandparents, victims of the ~1920 smallpox outbreak, were buried in unmarked graves), we headed to nearby City Airport, hoping for Killdeer and perhaps grassland birds along the runways.  We stumbled upon one of the largest areas of urban prairie in Detroit.  The photo below shows many city blocks where only one or a few houses are still standing; probably half of those that still stand are abandoned.  Some streets are blocked by piles of trash or tires, or burnt-out vehicles.

The photo below shows the same area in 1961.  I’ve put a red mark on both shots at the same location for reference.  The missing trees are mostly victims of Dutch elm disease which wiped out Detroit’s 4000,000 elms by the 1970s.

In place of the trees and homes are vacant lots with 3-foot-tall grass and weeds, which does indeed resemble a prairie.  We found Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds in these lots.  This is an area known for its large population of Ring-necked Pheasants, which are common throughout vacant lots in the city — more common than they are even in the outlying suburban and agricultural areas (they are kept in check mostly by feral dogs).

Seeing destroyed neighborhoods like this one is sad and disturbing.  White flight after the 1967 riots and the crack epidemic of the 1980s (which reportedly was the main cause of the depopulation of another Detroit neighborhood, shown graphically on this web page — mouse over the image) ignited the abandonment, and crumbling city finances have perpetuated the decay.  That birds and wildlife are using these areas is perhaps the only bright spot in this story.  Detroit can be revitalized, but it will have to be done block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and first in line will be those areas that still have infastructure and life.

Nobody else is really willing to venture to these areas to do bird survey work, so we’ll be returning again this summer, and I’ll bring you more photos and stories of what we find in these re-greening urban expanses.

Filed in Field work, Urban issues

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  • sciencewoman June 19, 2006, 1:51 pm

    Wow! That is incredibly interesting. If and when these urban areas are revitalized I hope some of these urban prairies can be maintained as natural areas.

  • John June 19, 2006, 2:26 pm

    If the neighborhood is revitalized, those lots are not likely to last as grasslands. City planners tend to see such things as squalor to be improved. And if the land is bought by a private developer rather than seized through eminent domain, there will not be much the city could do to preserve parcels, anyway.

  • Nuthatch June 19, 2006, 2:54 pm

    This particular neighborhood, if anything happens to it at all, would be most likely to be used for airport expansion. This airport no longer has passenger service because of its size and poor facilities. I've read there are plans to upgrade and expand but given the way things are going for the city (who owns it), nothing is likely to happen unless they sell it. The neighborhoods that are being renewed are generally those closer to downtown, or where there is some unique architecture and more hope of thriving businesses. I think it will be many years before some of these places are vital again. Driving around the east side, it's just completely disheartening to think about how it will ever get done — and clearly these were once lovely places to live. It will take both a lot of money, and thousands of people with great will and determination.

    I'm curious to see how the wildlife habitat will evolve. Eventually, I think, the city gets around to mowing the lots at least once a year. The tremendous amount of trash, tires, and rotting cars (Detroit no longer has money for bulk trash pickup) means that these lots won't ever be great habitat, or even suitable for urban farming. But hey, I don't have Indigo Buntings nesting in my neighborhood!

  • Pamela June 19, 2006, 4:50 pm

    An incredible pair of images! And thanks for the link to Detroit Blog–a glimpse of what the world will be like for the first while after we shuffle off…

  • Roger B. June 20, 2006, 2:16 pm

    Fascinating. Over here in the UK we have "urban commons" but, due to the current building boom, they're becoming pretty scarce.

  • Rob June 22, 2006, 4:42 pm

    Amazing…wish I would have known about this when I was driving through Detroit last year.

  • bob June 24, 2006, 9:41 am

    Very interesting. I'd love to tag along with you guys sometime. Not just to find birds, but also to document this a bit more. I've always wanted to venture into the area, but like most things – we're afraid of things we just don't know. I had no idea until I read this — I mean, I had an idea that a lot of the east side of the city was desolate – but the image in my head was much different than the way you describe it here. Also – I'm really shocked (and intrigued) as to why RN Pheasants choose to live here – I'm amazed. This I just have to see.

  • Nuthatch June 24, 2006, 9:48 am

    Looks like I'll have to do a little field trip for visitors one of these days! I'll be out again this weekend, and bring my camera along. Watch for another post…

  • Suzanne June 25, 2006, 8:24 am

    I can't believe this. I knew nothing about the 'urban prairie' phenomenom. Thanks for educating me about it. And the link to the Detroit blog. Wow. I'm in shock. It's almost like ghost towns, but within bigger cities. And it is quite sad to see that. Specially on the Detroit blog, you just can't believe those abandonned houses. I guess it is hard to fully grasp that situation specially when you live in an urban area where everysquare inch of land is bought and built on, and fetchs a high price. Maybe all city planners should take a long and hard look at Detroit, it could be our faith in the future too… Hmm. Your post is triggering a lot of reflections here. / As for the Elm disease, anyone interesting in finding more about it, I read this absolutely fascinating book called 'Republic of Shade' by Tomas J.Campanella. Reads like a novel, tons of great archive pictures. And it really really explains how such a disaster could only have happened because of the very popularity of the elm trees, almost a man made disaster in a way.(ISBN 0300097395)

  • doulicia June 26, 2006, 12:55 pm

    I told my husband, a Detroit urban history scholar and amateur birder, about this. We both would go on an expedition if you offered one.

    It is a very cool thing that you're doing, documenting bird presence in "blighted" areas. It's all a matter of perspective, eh?