|Tag(s):||Environmental History, Ribbon Farm, Map, Detroit, New France|
|Course:||“Environmental History in Detroit,” University of Michigan|
This is a story that spans centuries of history, beginning in the 1700s with the French settlement of Detroit. The Detroit of the mid-18th century would have looked very different from the sprawling metropolis of today. Where the imposing skyscrapers of Detroit's downtown now dominate the riverfront, there would have been a sparsely populated settlement consisting of humble farms built along the river and extending a few miles inland. These narrow, elongated, side-by-side farm plots with riverfront access known as "ribbon farms" may seem to be relegated to the historical imaginary as the complexity and denisty of land use in modern Detroit does not seem to betray any remnant of this pastoral history. However, the ordering logic of the ribbon farms can be seen through the modern infrastructure and development that has buried it. Like a palimpsest, the farms of the French settlers can be traced out beneath the streets of the city.
In a 1915 real estate atlas of Detroit, long after the ribbon farms had disappeared beneath an urban, industrialized landscape, the original boundaries of the plots are still marked on the margins of the map. While this may at first seem counterintuitive given that these plots do not correspond with the land use of 1915 Detroit, a closer look reveals that many of Detroit's streets roughly traced the boundary lines of the French ribbon farms. For instance, Dequindre Street extended from the river in a line that almost perfectly traced the eastern edge of the former Dequindre farm plot. Detroit grew up piecemeal from the ribbon farm plots as they were sold off through the 18th and early 19th centuries and thus, even after Detroit had long forgotten its agricultural beginnings, one could and still can trace the ribbon farms in the design of the urban fabric.
This story of the layering of human land use makes an important point about the study of history, especially in an urban area in which the intense pressure for development leads to a high turnover in land use. Human history, in the absence of iconic landmarks such as pyramids or the like, is often discussed in abstract terms that, while certainly a proper workout for one's imaginative capabilities, do not always resonate with an understanding of ecological or geological history which attest to an immense, temporal depth to natural and man-made events. This abstraction of historical reality becomes especially problematic when it does not take the trained eye of an archaeologist to trace out the patterns of former events and practices, such as in the streets of Detroit. By recognizing how historical land use can still order our present reality we can likewise gain a better perspective on how human interactions with an environment have a profound and lasting impact on said environment.