I attended the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual meeting in Washington DC in January and presented in the excellent, day-long session, “Contemporary and Historical Archaeologies of the City,” chaired by Krysta Ryzewski and Laura McAtackney. Presentations in this session featured research from all over the globe, from a jazz club in Detroit to a company town in Kentucky to contested memorial landscapes in Belfast. This post is a version of my paper, “The Archaeology of Urban Blight,” which I edited after getting feedback on the project and completing a bit more research.
The excellent Telling the Stories of Detroit’s Parks blog recently posted a piece about a Modernist adventure playground in Highland Park, a city within the city of Detroit. It inspired me to visit the park myself the other day and check it out.
It was constructed in 1970 as part of the Model Cities program and was designed by New York architect Richard Dattner, who built similar adventure playgrounds all over the US (most notably in Central Park). It has two stepped ‘Maya temples’ that you can climb up, around, and through, and it used to have water features (you can still see the remains of what appears to be a splashing pool).
Here’s an excerpt from the blog post that discusses Dattner’s philosophy on play and design:
“Dattner designed playscapes for ‘the child, not for tradition’ and his Modernist take was meant to invoke the 5 senses. He shunned slides and swings, indicating they didn’t inspire curiosity, nor did they allow the child to change his/her mind…Further he remarked, ‘I try to provide a rich environment with things to feel, touch and wallow in…give the kids as much control as possible.'”
We ran into two neighbors while we were there, and neither had previously recognized it as a playground…and it doesn’t look like contemporary playgrounds. There’s a lot of concrete and stone, there are no swings, and the slides have been stripped of their aluminum, making them unusable. One neighbor likened it to a fallout shelter. My impression is that while it appears to be mowed and semi-maintained, it isn’t used by neighborhood children very often.
I highly recommend checking out the entire post over at Telling the Stories of Detroit’s Parks, which discusses the park’s history more in-depth and outlines some of the reasons why this kind of playground worked well in some places (Central Park) and not in others (Highland Park).
In other news, I’ll be presenting on the archaeology of urban blight at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual meeting in Washington DC this Friday, January 8th, at 2:30 in Congressional B. Feel free to come by and say hello! The session is “Historical and Contemporary Archaeologies of the City: Opportunities and Challenges,” chaired by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski, and it’s going to be a diverse, interesting group of presentations.