On the east side of the City of No Illusions, the effects of population loss and disinvestment are plain to see. With a US Census count of 23,00 vacant homes in 2000, and the local government’s recently implemented demolition plan to remove 5000 vacant buildings over the next 5 years, Buffalo’s urban prairie just keeps expanding.
Many inhabitants question whether Buffalo’s leadership has a legitimate plan for reviving the area, or is only interested in clearing it out. “I used to live here,” said one former resident, “It is much more beat-up than it was. It seems like emptiness now.”
In the Jewel of the Great Lakes, the Fast Track Abatement Program of 1993 set the demolition of thousands of Chicago’s buildings in motion, with 1,154 demolished in 2011 alone. Areas like Englewood on the South Side, have declined into prairie, with remaining residents there fighting off the Norfolk Southern Railway’s attempts to remove them in order to expand their operations. “I don’t believe it is the American way for someone to come and take your property at their price because they want to build a freight yard,” said one inhabitant. “They thought they were dealing with people nobody cared about.”
Cleveland experienced many of the same economic circumstances that befell other cities in the Midwest. After years of economic downturn, the razing of homes, businesses, and abandoned factories left about 3300 acres of empty lots in the city. Now, urban farmers have been busy developing some of the largest farms in the US from the unused land, raising hopes for a revival of the blighted areas. As one of the agriculturalists noted, “You don’t need a ton of infrastructure to produce food. You need access to land, water, sun and know-how.”
The poster child of urban blight in America, Detroit boasts 40 square miles of prairie, and has even become something of a tourist destination for urban decay enthusiasts. After decades of de-urbanization and neglect, the city decided to demolish derelict buildings, and stop providing most municipal services. Now the cleared spaces are overgrown and populated by wildlife. The city has wrangled for years with trying to figure out a feasible solution to the loss of its tax base and what to do with the open areas. Meanwhile, urban farmers, adventurous speculators, and residents who refuse to move try to make the best of the circumstances.
In this sprawling Texas city—the 4th largest in America—vacant lots of all dimensions have become something of a blight. In Houston’s 3rd Ward, they have come to define the area. There is also a the Texas-sized vacant lot that was formerly the site of the AstroWorld amusement park. Still held dear in the hearts of many Houstonians, it closed in 2005 and left a massive 104-acre plot of empty grassland. The city is still working to figure out how to make use of site.
The fallout from Hurricane Katrina left the Big Easy in a state of disrepair. Over 29% of the population has left the area and places like the Lower Ninth Ward were so decimated by the hurricane that they have been left a barren wasteland. The uncertainty of the situation, with revival of some of the most devastated areas unlikely, has led to a pessimistic outlook. As one city official put it, “It is highly probable that there would be many neighborhoods, with block after block of one or two houses restored, surrounded by vacant abandoned houses, no police stations, no services, low water pressure, an unsafe and unhealthy environment.”
Not all of the prairies are a product of counter-urbanization—in the case of the Love Canal neighborhood in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, it was a matter of contamination and corruption.
The area had been a massive toxic waste dumping ground for the Hooker Chemical (now Occidental) plant, and sits oddly juxtaposed beside one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Hooker had knowingly sold the polluted plot to the city school district, who built an elementary school over a portion of the landfill, and had the rest developed for low income housing.
After a cleanup of the toxic dumpsite was performed in the late 70’s, all the buildings were razed, and the uninhabited, fenced off 36-square block area now sits as an eerie reminder of one of America’s most ignominious environmental pollution cover-ups.
Even parts of a newer city can fall into dire straights. Phoenix can’t decide what to do with about 1500 acres of city owned, vacant land valued near $150 million. It sits unused, and is considered a blight by some in the community, especially business owners. With the open spaces becoming dusty dumping grounds, city officials try to appease the residents by making the occasional push to sell off the languishing lots. One local politician says, “Right now, there are many residents who have a bad neighbor, and it’s the city of Phoenix. I want to make sure that we fix that, and we become the kind of neighbor everyone wants to have.”
The California-Kirkbride neighborhood in the North Side of Pittsburgh is a Historic District, that has been thinning out since the Great Depression. With many of the buildings owned by absentee landlords, neglected properties have led to an acceleration of demolitions in the last two decades, and have edged some of the 130-year-old neighborhood into a prairie. Despite conflicts in interest between many of the residents and landowners, some are encouraged that the changes will motivate new residents to preserve what remains of the neighborhood.
Like many places in America, post-war era St. Louis had a rapid exodus from it’s inner city, which left large areas abandoned. At one time, there were two agencies devoted to clearing out the blighted spots, which left large tracts of urban prairie remaining. Failed ventures like the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project have stuck St. Louis with ownership of undesirable land.