Reading Detroit in a Season of Mourning

The grassy mounds that dot Detroit might be scrap heaps, or dumping grounds, or piles of ash and brick. But they are also unintentional artifacts in a tradition of monumentality and commemoration.

Mound at corner of urban street, with One Way and Do Not Enter signs at corner.
Islandview, mound no. 2. [Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by Julio Alberto Cedano, 2021]

I began to read Detroit in a season of mourning. I landed here in the early spring of 2020, just as the forsythias exploded in bloom and the first wave of COVID-19 submerged the nation. As it became painfully clear that this was not an equal-opportunity virus, the weight of the pandemic in Detroit — one of the poorest and Blackest American cities — felt remarkably physical, with daily news of coronavirus cases and deaths among friends and neighbors. 1 The community organizer who felt compelled to worship one Sunday and succumbed not long after; the young journalist who hovered on the brink for weeks; the bus driver who died doing his job. More than 2,800 Detroiters have lost their lives in this pandemic because they could no longer breathe.

Approximately 20,000 vacant structures have been bulldozed as part of the nation’s largest demolition program in recent memory.

In the haze of early lockdown, long weekend bike rides across this unfathomably expansive city became a ritual of sorts for me, a way of being present when our known channels for presence, for community, had shrunk dramatically. Cruising through the stillness, nodding to people on their porches and their corners, became a way of taking in and processing the emptiness in 20- or 30-mile portions. Indeed, the scale of Detroit’s 139 square miles is difficult to grasp — not because this city is the largest or most sprawling, far from it, but due to the particular characteristics of its landscape and the rhythms of its history.

Two views of grassy mounds.
Left: Poletown East mound no. 1; right: Poletown East mound no. 2.

Two views of grassy mounds with houses and other buildings in the background.
Left: Islandview, mound no. 2; right: Poletown East mound no. 1.

In 1950, Detroit was one of the country’s fastest-growing urban centers, dubbed the “arsenal of democracy” for its role in generating the American car industry and a multiracial middle class. 2 Yet, due to patterns of racist labor and housing policies, White residential flight, and economic restructuring and subsequent divestment, the Motor City has since hemorrhaged 1.2 million people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Although the depopulation rate has slowed in the last decade, recent census results (contested by current Mayor Mike Duggan) demonstrate that the trend has not yet turned around. 3 Granted, the city’s cultural expressions — from homegrown Bike Clubs to the weekend fishing scene at A.B. Ford Park, from countless local DJs expanding on Detroit’s musical traditions to the many entrepreneurs running small businesses on the Avenue of Fashion — remain vibrant, and more or less impervious to recent demographic trends.

Detroit today is marked by the unlikely coexistence of Black cultural resilience and land vacancy as high as 75 percent.

Nevertheless, the displacement of people has been rendered visible through the removal of buildings. Over the past six years, approximately 20,000 vacant structures in Detroit — mostly houses — have been bulldozed as part of the nation’s largest demolition program in recent memory. 4  In neighborhood after neighborhood, once-sturdy brick homes have been emptied and razed, leaving only their footprints in the place we know today — a city of muscular flatness, an exuberant horizontal spread, marked now by the unlikely coexistence of Black cultural resilience and a pattern of land vacancy that rises as high as 75 percent in some areas. 5 Much of present-day Detroit can thus be read as a continuous landscape tapestry, its approximately 23 square miles (14,800 acres) of vacant land suggesting an impression of urban prairie threading through and around the buildings and blocks that would traditionally comprise a city. 6 In this inversion of the typical figure-ground relation, the lines and forms that have accreted on the land call to mind a time when we left only softer marks on the earth.

Landscape is eloquent. It speaks by way of constant change, as well as through the imaginations and narratives of all who walk in it, inhabit it, touch it. It’s peculiar in that, as Emerson noted, “its self-registration is incessant.” 7 This agency on the part of nonhuman forces requires careful attention to  processes and evolutions — the marks of water along a shoreline, the accumulation of falling leaves, a forest floor in spring.

It was during the lockdown bike rides that I started to register this language of landscape as expressed in Detroit. There is a power in these markers of non-instrumental processes, which metabolize what was, and give it new life and new form. It is all beautiful, yes, and the forsythias in April were everywhere and bright as bells. But as much as these ungoverned landscapes drew my attention, their vitality also served as a reminder of lived histories, an intimate marker of absence. When a stand of black locust and cherry and walnut materialized suddenly on a residential street, I knew the contours of its story. I came to understand that, in Detroit, sidewalks come and go, sometimes diving into grass and sometimes crumbling more slowly — but that the brightest, unbroken concrete segments often mark a demolition site, since contractors are mandated to repair the sidewalk before they leave a newly bulldozed lot.

Two shots of broken sidewalks disappearing into grass.
Sidewalks in Poletown East, 2020. [Azzurra Cox]

Grassy mound with telephone pole and broken sidewalk.
Poletown East, mound no. 2.

Grassy mound and trees, with broken concrete paving in foreground.
Core City.

And then there are the mounds: grassy, rolling forms that mark some vacancies, introducing at micro-scale an almost pastoral undulation across otherwise flat terrain. Some mounds gather in clusters; others are singular. They range from slight extrusions to masses ten to fifteen feet tall, uncanny in their abstraction, almost monumental. These might be scrap heaps; or illegal dumping grounds; or piles of bricks and wood and ash: all vestiges of a demolition-and-digestion process seemingly naturalized into tender groves. During those tentative spring days in the early pandemic, the mounds’ profiles remained traceable through the screens of brush, their layers of topsoil dark and waterlogged from snowmelt. As summer neared, they grew halos of pale grasses that seemed to vibrate in the insistent buzz of helicopters overhead. By the height of summer 2020, prolonged collective grief over the loss of George Floyd and countless other Black lives had sparked a fiery national reckoning. Detroit’s mounds announced themselves as living entities, cloaked in immodest sumac green or ablaze with goldenrod. In the context of all that loss, I felt thankful for the vibrancy of the plant life around me. I began to understand what I was seeing as a landscape code of remembrance — a series of signifiers for the human memory of this place.

And then there are the mounds: grassy, rolling forms introducing at micro-scale an almost pastoral undulation.

Yet the sheer vitality of the spontaneous landscape in Detroit also enables a narrative about invisibility, one rooted in a long history of intentional erasures. Over decades of shrinkage, Detroit has been defined in both scholarly and popular media as a sort of post-urban wilderness. “Ring-necked pheasants are back in Detroit,” one article begins. 8 “Nature is reclaiming the Motor City,” announces another. 9 Comparisons to a Mad Max set abound; especially in the decade prior to Detroit’s 2014 bankruptcy, the city became synonymous with “ruin porn.” 10 Although the “comeback” under Mayor Duggan has attracted gushing coverage in national news, a certain storyline has continued that brands the city as a ruin in and of itself  — “just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished.” 11 In a recent essay, “Detroit: Locating the Un-City,” Jerry Herron resorts to discussion of Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 post-apocalyptic film Only Lovers Left Alive to posit the city as “not so much a physical site as an existential location. … the ‘wilderness’ where post-urban pioneering takes place.” 12

Among the many memorable visual accounts of early 21st-century Detroit, James Griffioen’s series Feral Houses (2009) is notable for its portrayal of dynamic interactions between landscape and built environment. The sites depicted in Griffioen’s photographs — almost exclusively single-family houses, in contrast with the city’s oft-photographed monumental industrial relics — are indisputably alive. A cluster of Ailanthus altissima explodes from what is left of a bay window. A climbing vine creates the last web of support for a porch on its way to collapse. An open door in a wooden one-story frame is barely discernible within a tangle of green. “Feral, used in this sense,” writes Griffioen, “means they have reverted to a wild state, as from domestication” (his emphasis). 13

Through accounts such as these, the idea persists that today’s Detroit is absorbed in an organic progression — nature reclaiming anti-nature, a post-apocalyptic paradise regained. This narrative speaks poignantly to what Denis Cosgrove identifies as the “duplicity” of landscape, “its capacity to veil historically specific social relations behind the smooth and often aesthetic appearance of ‘nature.’” 14 Detroit’s swaths of urban “wilderness” run the risk of cloaking, in the collective imagination, the very human, very structural forces that have transformed it into a locus classicus of the failed city.

Small mound with tall saplings growing from it; houses in background.
Islandview, mound no. 1.

Indeed, in the naturalizing visual rhetoric with which Detroit’s unique landscapes are frequently depicted, there is a pull toward tabula rasa, toward a shedding of history. But the city’s decay is anything but inevitable, its wilderness anything but natural. In The Origins of the Urban Crisis (2005), historian Thomas Sugrue traces the city’s current condition to three forces that have acted in concert since the 1960s, with a massive intensification in the 1970s and ’80s: post-Fordist economic restructuring and the flight of jobs; racist housing policy and related inequities; and workplace discrimination. 15 One might argue that these policies, deliberate and designed, have so completely and efficiently consumed Detroit that some now look at a city maimed by history and see only groves and prairie. This popular post-urban narrative, moreover, leaves no space for the stories, memories, and resilience of the approximately 639,000 people — 77 percent of them Black, 30 percent of them living below the poverty line — who still call the city their home. 16 Visions of entrepreneurial pioneering further fail to acknowledge the fact that Detroit still ranks among the most segregated cities and metro regions in the nation. 17

If leftover landscapes are so heavily implicated in the overwriting of Detroit’s history and the reality of its present, how should we understand the mounds dotting the residential landscape? Do these landforms simply present another medium through which to naturalize political and cultural harm? I would argue that they offer something different: an everyday topography possessed of an inherent visual power, which invites us to push back against a long history of structural violence. A critical reading of these everyday topographies frames these landforms in regard to both a regional lineage of Indigenous burial mounds and a narrative of Black erasure. Such a parsing of the mounds’ code positions these urban features as more than markers of recent history; the piles and hillocks become, in this reading, unintended artifacts in a tradition of monumentality and commemoration. Detroit’s mounds confront us with eloquent form — with “moundness,” as it were. They remind us of cycles of change and underlying constancy. And in calling us to challenge our assumptions about what really is “natural,” they open up possibilities for a new landscape ethic — an ethic of visibility, of memory, of attention to the sacred everyday.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), James Baldwin’s character John climbs a hill in Central Park. What he sees and feels amounts to a rhapsody:

Before him, then, the slope stretched upward, and above it the brilliant sky, and beyond it, cloudy, and far away, he saw the skyline of New York. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him. … Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble the city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush the city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror. … he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far away. 18

John’s journey upwards — instinctive, even involuntary — leads not only to an enhanced view, but to a new way of seeing; Baldwin imbues a walk in the park with the Biblical power of prophecy. John’s prospect on his surroundings, and his own agency in them, is afforded physically by the topography, and metaphorically by his movement toward a higher vantage point. In the vastness of Central Park, this mound represents a mark, a disruption in the order of the landscape, and a portal through which the novelist offers the reader an omniscient vision of John’s lived reality.

The mound represents a mark, a disruption in the order of the landscape, leading not only to an enhanced view but to a new way of seeing.

Considering mound-building practices in the context of contemporary land art, the feminist critic Lucy Lippard observes that “all over the world the natural cone-shaped hill … and its human-made imitations are seen as mediators between earth and sky, entrances to the underworld, sites of visionary aspiration.” 19 Indeed, the notion of elevated awareness, of a novel prospect on the landscape, is a recurring touchpoint in the discourse around earthworks. In Maya Lin’s Storm King Wavefield (2007-08), repeating grass-covered wave-forms constantly shift the viewer’s relationship to earth and sky. Lin emphasizes the importance of this experiential dynamism, noting, “I am interested in perception — psychological perception — in creating an experiential psychological space for the viewers.” 20 The ability to truly pay attention to landscape is also linked, for Lin, to a heightened environmental ethic, a sense of both empowerment and responsibility, not unlike what Baldwin’s John feels at the top of the hill. 21

Field of regularly geometric grassy mounds, with tree-covered hills and small mountains in the distance.
Maya Lin, Storm King Wavefield at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, 2009. [Marius Watz via Flickr, under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Grassy hill with old-fashioned metal industrial silos and catwalks. Boats in marina and urban buildings in background.
Gas Works Park in Seattle, 2009. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-SA 2.0]

While designed mounds enable a certain geometric purity to embody their makers’ conceptual intentions, the majority of contemporary mounds — including Detroit’s — are far more spontaneous. In the ongoing web-based mapping project Significant and Insignificant Mounds of the American Bottom, an exhaustive exploration of contemporary mounds in the St. Louis region, photographer Jennifer Colten and landscape architect Jesse Vogler document landforms that are themselves records of rabid capitalist processes of liquidation, accumulation, and appropriation. Colten and Vogler examine postindustrial realities, cataloguing the past and present lives of these spaces, as well as their materialities: “slag heap, salt dome, aggregate piles, landfill, mulch mound — these are the forms of our cosmologies.” 22 Their guide to the American Bottom — the flood plain defined by the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Kaskaskia Rivers — is a star chart for our times.

Detroit’s mounds can certainly be received as lasting evidence of post-Fordist creative destruction. Compared to the mounds of St. Louis, however, they occupy a far more intimate scale, most often that of the residential lot. It is not uncommon for a Detroit mound to enjoy the company of a mature tree, another vestige of human habitation. Unlike the slag heap or salt dome, moreover, the Detroit mound is generally not evidence of planned construction and material transfer. These landforms are made by dissolution and transformation — and, at least temporarily, they are sites of rest. Colten and Vogler’s research takes the mound as a transitional form, as “the becoming-city.” 23 Detroit’s mounds, conversely, seem to me to belong to the realm of memory; their formal particularity lends to the past they represent a special kind of presence. They rise up rather than sinking down, yet they are kin to the pits and removals observed by the artist Robert Smithson in his prescient analysis of postindustrial Passaic, New Jersey, in 1967: “Those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” 24

Mounds tend to draw our eyes and imaginations to their heights. But a mound is just as much (perhaps more) about the stuff buried within.

Hills and piles and domes and mounds tend to draw our eyes and imaginations to their heights. But a mound is just as much (perhaps more) about the stuff buried within — what is sometimes referred to as the “deep section.” In her 1998 essay “Seized by Sublime Sentiments,” landscape theorist Elizabeth Meyer situates a relatively contemporary mound — the Great Mound at Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park, in Seattle — in the discourse of the sublime by foregrounding its deep section. As an early example of postindustrial landscape remediation, Haag’s 1975 design capped the contaminated ground of a decommissioned coal gasification plant and turned it into a now-beloved public space. Any summer afternoon will find the park’s imposing Great Mound, made of concrete rubble from contaminated building foundations, to be a scene of revelry, with Seattleites absorbing late sun that sets the skyline aglow. Yet, for Meyer, the Great Mound stirs still deeper sentiments, due to complex processes, dynamic and evolving, still unfolding below the surface: plumes leaching into the lake, tar occasionally oozing through the grass, “the invisible within the visible.” 25 It is this connection to the beyond-visible, the collapsing of “discordant temporal scales” in Gas Works Park, that Meyer reads as related to the postmodern sublime.

This fold in the earth, this proscenium between park and city, land and water, is a channel for toxins seeping downhill, through the ground, into the lake, the sound, the ocean. Is it terra firma, solid ground, a place to stand, with a clear delineation of impacts? Or is it an unbounded, unlimited, indeterminate continuum of flux and flow — terra incognita26

Mound in grassy field, overgrown with trees in autumn leaf.
New Goldberg.

Grassy mound with house in background.
North End.

Grassy mound covered with trees, in grassy field with houses in background.
North Corktown.

Perhaps it is a similar sense of collapsing timescales, of multitudes embodied — of what Meyer identifies as a “longue durée — that lends Detroit’s mounds their power. 27 Certainly, they blur the distinction between beautiful and sublime. Their forms, no matter their domestic scale, recall the language of the Picturesque, while their moundness hints at something beyond that. Detroit’s mounds belong to a sublime that figures the terror and intensity of 20th-century urban devastation, executed house by house, block by block. By asking us to notice them, the mounds challenge us with an everyday memorialization predicated on a sublimity of absence.

By asking us to notice them, the mounds challenge us with an everyday memorialization predicated on a sublimity of absence.

This reach into the realm of the sublime adds a fundamental dimension to the deep history of mounds. More than a century ago, Adolph Loos suggested that that a mound’s eloquence resides not only in its evidencing of human agency, but in its synecdochical relation to remembrance: “When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised in a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here. This is architecture.” 28 This conception of a simple landform as architecture — and of such architecture as the human attempt to transcend timescales and materialize our connections to our ancestors — is particularly poignant in the case of Detroit’s mounds, because the region’s Indigenous landscape is rooted in the tradition of mound-building as an act of commemoration. The city’s contemporary mounds are obviously distinct from the region’s Native American cultural landscapes. Nevertheless, situating Detroit’s mounds in reference to this larger legacy opens new channels to understanding their power and potential as objects of memorial, a kind of ofrenda at city scale.

Until the early 1800s, a portion of the Detroit River shoreline, just north of the confluence with the River Rouge, was an active cultural landscape for the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot people, among others. The area included several significant burial mounds, collectively named by British settlers the Springwells Mound Group, or SMG. The oldest Springwells burials date from circa 800 to 1400, during the Late Woodland Period. But settlers’ early accounts describe a location of continued importance to a cross-section of regional tribes. 29 Three of the SMG landforms, each approximately ten feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, once sat on a sandy promontory rising 25 feet above the water’s edge; the only one visible today is located now within the grounds of Fort Wayne, established in 1854. Three additional mounds, including the monumental Great Mound of the River Rouge (an estimated 300 feet long by 200 feet wide, and 40 feet high), were within a mile’s distance. Archeologists estimate that, while the total number of mounds remains unknown, the SMG is certainly the largest documented group in southeast Michigan, and notable for its evidence of close proximity between residential settlements and ceremonial grounds. 30

Grassy mound behind chainlink fence.
Reconstruction of the Great Mound at Fort Wayne in Detroit, 2021. [Azzurra Cox]

Grassy mound behind chainlink fence, with explanatory signage in foreground.
Reconstruction of the Great Mound with National Park Service sign at Fort Wayne in Detroit, 2021. [Azzurra Cox]

Written descriptions of the Springwells Mounds paint a landscape of mystery. In 1808, the Michigan jurist Benjamin Witherell described seeing “the children of the wilderness deposit the remains of their departed friends in [the hill’s] bosom.” 31 He describes some mounds cloaked with grasses and others studded with mature oaks, noting the growth of vegetation on these earthworks as a register of time. By 1817, when the pillaging of these sacred landscapes was already underway, the traveler Samuel R. Brown called them the “tumuli of Belle Fontaine,” alluding to ancient Etruscan tombs. 32 Brown also described bones, axes, and other artifacts that had been unearthed, sometimes breaking through the ground spontaneously as the mounds eroded.

Indeed, the Springwells Mounds contained both everyday and ceremonial objects, including pottery, ground stone, knives, and even conch shells and columella-shell beads — unlike other Woodland-period mounds in the Great Lakes region, which were generally constructed from clean fill. 33 These installations thus made material an intimate relationship between the living and the dead. In 1944 and ’45, archaeological excavations at the Fort Wayne Mound revealed strata marked by domestic uses, suggesting that it had in fact been raised over a settlement. This “progressive sacralization of everyday space” speaks to an exceptional closeness between earthly and metaphysical realms — to the construction of memorials shaped by the quotidian.34

The Detroit River shoreline was an active cultural landscape for the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot people.

Most of the Springwells Mounds were excavated, pillaged, and razed in the 19th century. Bones and artifacts were distributed to the University of Michigan and other archives; sold and collected as souvenirs; or discarded. As developers and land speculators leveled the Great Mound of the River Rouge, they sold its sands for two-and-a-half cents per barrel. The 1,300 skeletons uncovered in the process were dumped in the Detroit River. 35 Before the Mound was fully leveled for the 1894 Detroit International Exposition, visitors were encouraged to dig up their own relics. 36 The Fort Wayne Mound survived longer than others in the SMG, due to its location on government land, alongside the Fort’s officers’ quarters. After a partial excavation in 1875, it was fully excavated in 1945, when all objects and human remains removed from the site were given to the University of Michigan. Oddly enough, for reasons that seem to have gone unrecorded, the Mound was restored shortly thereafter. Still later, it was seeded to prevent erosion, 37

Today, this reconstruction of the Fort Wayne Mound is the only visible form left at the Springwells site. 38 It sits, surrounded by chain-link fencing, within the Fort grounds, alongside soccer fields bordering the river. It is carefully mowed, with a couple of short, stout trees growing from the turf. Among the outdoor spaces and built structures of the Fort complex, it is unremarkable, and might well be missed entirely were it not for an explanatory marker in National Park Service green: “Indian Mound: One of the oldest Indian burial sites in southeast Michigan, the Fort Wayne or Springwells Mound reflects the burial practices of the Mound Builders culture that inhabited this area over nine hundred years ago.” This text occupies less than half the sign. The rest has been left blank.

Black-and-white print of mounds surrounded by wall, with outlying fields, hills, and trees.
Etching depicting the Hopewell Mound Group, from Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising the Results of Extensive Original Surveys and Explorations, 1848. [Via National Park Service]

Photograph of cross-section of tall earthen mound, showing alcoves and ceremonial chambers.
Photograph by H.C. Shetrone showing a cross-section of Seip Mound, now part of Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. Published by D. Appleton and Company, 1936. [Via, in the public domain]

Gray and white map schematic with dots for mounds.
Hopewell Mound Group site map. [National Park Service]

Extraordinary though it must have been, the Springwells Mound Group belonged to a constellation of mound-building cultures, with settlements extending throughout the Mississippi Valley. The Cahokia Mounds, across the river from present-day St. Louis, are collectively considered the largest and most important pre-Columbian urban settlement north of Mexico; at its peak around the year 1200, it included more than 100 large mounds and was home to as many as 40,000 people. 39 The Hopewell Mounds, outside Columbus, Ohio, were also created by a Mississippian mound-building culture. Scattered across six sites that now comprise Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, these landforms are stewarded by the National Park Service. I was lucky enough to visit in March 2021, and only afterward did I realize the poignant precedent that these sites establish for a critical reading of Detroit’s contemporary mounds.

These landforms comprehend the regional topography in a way that the logics of private property cannot possibly capture.

The transition from urban to rural that I witnessed on the 45-minute drive from Columbus to Hopewell Culture National Historical Park was startling — I had barely left the city when my eyes landed on a fox, red in a field of pale grasses. Soon the shift was complete: a patchwork of farm fields, wind stands, the occasional homestead on a shallow horizon. The Hopewell complex spreads across this landscape, the mounds’ collective scale more expansive than the algorithm for rural production dictates today. Indeed, these landforms comprehend the regional topography in a way that the logics of private property cannot possibly capture.

The Mound City Group lies at the core of the park, on thirteen acres buffered from the surrounding farmland by forest and a shallow river. The entrance to the site proper pierces a low earthen berm, opening onto a field that, so early in the season, was already bright green. From this point, the mounds appeared to me as the organs of a single creature, a visual score of 23 overlapping parts, rather than as objects standing alone. 40 The darkness of the forest band established a datum on the horizon, a line that the mounds could interrupt and prod; from certain angles, some overtook the horizon completely. Their heights and shapes vary — some oblong and berm-like, others rounder and more compact — but I sensed both dynamism and solidity in how they address the viewer, both as a whole and as parts. Then, once I was in among them, the array seemed to dissolve into more immediate interactions — my eyes drawn up, my attention more minutely calibrated. Smooth green lifts in the earth against a white sky.

Large grassy mounds in grassy field surrounded by trees.
Mound City Group and surrounding berm, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 2021. [Azzurra Cox]

Large grassy mounds in grassy field surrounded by trees.
Mound City Group, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 2021. [Allen Penniman]

Large grassy mounds in grassy field surrounded by trees.
Mound City Group, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 2021. [Azzurra Cox]

Rudimentary signage at the site explains basic facts about the mounds’ sectional layers of clay, gravel, and sand, and reproduces plans that depict them from above. However, Adena-Hopewell burial practices entailed complex phases of construction and deconstruction before the final phase of covering over with layers of earth. In the first phase, community members built a large paired-post ritual structure, with a plastered clay floor, to house the dead and delineate a space for cremation and other burial practices; among the artifacts found at the cores of these mounds, where such structures once stood, is a mica-lined mirror chamber. 41 After a ritual cremation, ashes were buried in a small mound within the ritual structure.

In the subsequent phase, this structure itself was dismantled or burned, and the mound-building started in earnest. In other words, a building once stood where each mound rises today. 42 These rituals, which required organized labor, nourished communal bonds and ties to a common past; they constituted what archeologist Edward R. Henry calls “kinship maintenance and memory work.” 43 For the Adena-Hopewell people, burial was just as much about the social life of a building, of architecture — its everyday scale, its prescribed uses, its craft and construction — as it was about a metaphysical transition into oneness with the earth.

The Hopewell Mounds are presented to the public as manifestations of piety and cultural care. Detroit’s mounds are the detritus of capitalism.

Understanding all this, I can’t help but imagine the structures whose wreckage lies at the hearts of Detroit’s urban mounds. Granted, the differences are striking: the Hopewell Mounds represent a historical landscape now managed, protected, and celebrated — some might say co-opted — by the National Park Service. It’s worth noting that Hopewell Culture National Historical Park has its own problematic history as an Indigenous landscape desecrated and expropriated by White settlers, farmers, and the federal government. During World War I, Camp Sherman was built on the grounds of the Mound City Group; the landforms were reconstructed between 1920 and 1922, and finally designated a National Monument in 1923. 44 Even the names Adena and Hopewell derive not from the Indigenous tribes who first settled this land, but from the farmers who eventually obtained it. Still, the Mounds are today presented to the public as manifestations ritual, piety, and cultural care. Detroit’s mounds, in contrast, are the detritus of capitalism, the results of a system that does not care.

Black woman in white dress striding down street in front of brick houses.
View of two-story brick house with flat roof located at 963 E. Lafayette, parcel 353, in the area bounded by Hastings/Dequindre/Lafayette/Monroe. Woman walks in front of house. Handwritten on front: “Par. 353, 963 E. Lafayette, 7-22-49.” [Courtesy the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library]

Three Black men talking outside brick corner drugstore; woman in white dress down the block.
View of two-story brick commercial building located at 2103-2111-2119 Mullett and 1508 St. Aubin, parcel 21, in the area bounded by Dequindre/Chene/Mullett/Madison, site 2-S-8. S & L Cut Rate Drug Co. on corner; three men stand on sidewalk. Handwritten on front: “Par. 21, 2103-11-19 Mullett, 1508 St. Aubin, 5-8-50.” [Courtesy the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library]

Colored map of Black Bottom, Detroit ca. 1951
Black Bottom, Detroit, 1951. Compiled by Emily Kutil in 2018, using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps sourced from the Library of Congress, Sanborn Map Company, vol. 4, 1922 – Nov 1951. [Courtesy Black Bottom Street View / Black Bottom Archives]

Yet, physically and metaphysically, Detroit’s mounds also stand in place of something else — in place of houses that were homes, homes that housed families, families who treasured histories, who nurtured and gave life to neighborhoods. While many Detroiters welcomed the recent rounds of demolitions as long-awaited blight-removal, these most recent tear-downs do exist in the broader context of Black displacement, most notably the destruction of Black Bottom in the early 1950s. This majority-Black neighborhood, established in the early 1900s near the city’s downtown core — and shaped, like many Black neighborhoods nationwide, by redlining and other racist housing policies — grew into a vibrant cultural node, flanked by the Paradise Valley business district. Commercial corridors along Hastings and Saint Antoine Streets housed more than 300 thriving Black-owned businesses, and its nightclubs became popular tour stops for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Black Bottom — named for the rich soils that once characterized this low-lying area — became a major destination during the Great Migration.

Despite its importance as a home created for and by Black Detroiters, however, in 1954 the segregationist Mayor Albert Cobo instructed his urban planners to designate it a “slum” and prepare the area for clearance. 45 In the name of urban renewal, Black Bottom was razed to make way for the I-375 highway. Notably, the land sat vacant for some six years after demolition, due to lack of development interest; its spontaneous greening inspired critics to dub it “Ragweed Acres.” 46 It was only in the early 1960s that Lafayette Park, the celebrated modernist housing development designed by Mies van der Rohe, was built on a portion of the 78 bulldozed acres. 47

The mounds could become stages, once again, for everyday life, inviting us to rise and be seen among the green.

Official commemoration is a tricky business in Detroit. Walking around Lafayette Park today, in the shade of a mature honey-locust canopy and the sheer beauty of Alfred Caldwell’s landscape design, it’s all too easy to forget that this was once scorched earth; that the scorched earth replaced a nationally important Black cultural hub; that this place was also simply a “neighborhood first, with many wonderful neighborhood things.” 48 This seizure, moreover, was only one chapter in the destruction of 1,600 majority-Black neighborhoods nationwide during the urban-renewal era — what psychologist Mindy Thompson Fullilove has described as community “root shock,” the loss of “a massive web of connections — a way of being.” 49 An official state historical marker recently went up in the neighborhood, and the Detroit Historical Society has launched an interactive walking tour at Lafayette Plaisance, the public park at the center of the development. But the physical obliteration of Black Bottom is essentially complete. 50

Even so, for now, all around Detroit, we are left with the mounds. We are graced with this presence of memory embodied. We don’t know the future of these landforms, the ways in which they will be metabolized by erosion, by the real-estate market, by successional growth. For now, however, they offer us a chance to pause — to remember, and to project. In The Black Shoals (2019), Tiffany Lethabo King uses the metaphor of shoals — neither land nor water, embodying “a mobile, always changing and shifting state of flux” — to figure a theoretical space of resistance, of rupture, of searching. 51 Detroit’s mounds, read as an archipelago of emergent formations, could present a chance for such rupture in the ongoing “duplicity” of readings applied to the city’s postindustrial landscape. A related notion is Dan Pitera’s description, in an article in this journal, of Detroit as a “syncopated urban landscape” — that is, “not a vision of Detroit as a large park. … [but one that] acknowledges that the city consists of a series of systems that interact and inspire each other.” 52 In music, syncopation places beats counterintuitively; it can be achieved by mentally inserting rests where they are not notated, by taking a barely perceptible pause. Perhaps Detroit’s mounds can be such pauses, barely noticed, but transformative.

If mounds, read in these ways, hint at an ethic of memory and visibility, what role can design play in amplifying or facilitating that ethic? A 2017 proposal by Field Operations for the West Riverfront is one recent design featuring a set of mounds along the Detroit River. In plan, these forms read as abstractions, precise circles in a composition of lines and rectangles. The firm made a cursory reference to the Great Mound of the River Rouge, attempting to add their proposed mounds into the long lineage of such forms in the region. Such mounds at the water’s edge would likely do their job as social attractors in an active public space. Yet it’s also important to assert that this lineage asks us to consider how Detroit’s mounds, past and present, are anything but mere abstractions. They are, and have always been, not only about the shapes but about the stuff within them: the holy and the everyday, the artifact and the debris. Their moundness is produced by inexorable metabolisms, from the return of bodies into the earth to the decomposition of houses to the dissolution of bricks and rebar.

Mound covered with saplings, with woman in blue jacket standing on mound.
Poletown East no. 4, with the author included for scale.

Given this physical reality, work with existing mounds, rather than the design of new ones, might be a better way to meaningfully engage with this archipelago of living, evolving, material memory. Such a project might ease access to Detroit’s domestic mounds, allowing for something like the elevated prospect that so moves Baldwin’s John. It might offer a view of the stuff inside, the accidental artifacts of buried communities. It might be as simple as recognizing these landforms as a special kind of public space, a space for reverence — the establishment of which would be a temporary gesture of recognition and repair in a city that has far to go to reach justice. What histories do Detroit’s mounds tell? What future stories might they foster? When this time of mourning, of interiority, finally ends, I imagine that these mounds could become stages, once again, for everyday life on these sites, inviting us all to rise and be seen among the green.


  1. Lee DeVito, “Report: Detroit’s coronavirus infection rate is among the nation’s highest,” The Detroit Metro-Times, March 26, 2020.
  2. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3.
  3. Mitch Smith, “The Census Said Detroit Kept Shrinking. The Mayor Begs to Differ,” The New York Times, August 28. 2021.
  4. Detroit Demolition Department,”
  5. Toni Griffin and Chris Reed, “Detroit Future City,” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 37 (Winter 2014), 104.
  6. Associated Press, “Vacant Land Becomes Asset in Detroit,” CBS Detroit, April 29, 2019.
  7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 4 (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), 262.
  8. James Risen, “Detroit Exodus: An Urban Desert in the Motor City,” The Los Angeles Times. October 27, 1988.
  9. Steven Malanga, “Feral Detroit,” City Journal, Autumn 2009, vol. 19, no. 4.
  10. Mark Binelli, “How Detroit Became the World Capital of Staring at Abandoned Old Buildings,” The New York Times, November 9, 2012.
  11. Jennifer Conlin, “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015.; Toby Barlow, “For Sale: The $100 House,” The New York Times. March 7, 2009.
  12. Jerry Herron, “Detroit: Locating the Un-City,” in The Third Coast Atlas, ed. Daniel Ibanez, Clare Lyster, Charles Waldheim, Mason White (New York, NY: Actar, 2017), 238.
  13. James Griffioen, “Feral Houses,” Sweet Juniper, July 23, 2009.
  14. Denis Cosgrove, “Landscape and Landschaft,” GHI Bulletin, No. 35, Fall 2004, 68.
  15. Sugrue, xviii.
  16. Dana Afana, “Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to Challenge 2020 Census Results Showing Population Decline,” Detroit Free Press, August 12, 2021.
  17. Most to Least Segregated Cities,” Othering and Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley.
  18. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013), 30-31.
  19. Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York, NY: The New Press, 1983), 214.
  20. Dina Deitsch, “Maya Lin’s Perpetual Landscapes and Storm King Wavefield,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2009, 4.
  21. Deitsch, 7.
  22. Jennifer Colten and Jesse Vogler, Significant and Insignificant Mounds.
  23. Colten and Vogler, Significant and Insignificant Mounds.
  24. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” ArtForum, December 1967, 4.
  25. Elizabeth Meyer, “Seized by Sublime Sentiments,” in Richard Haag: Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park, ed. William S. Saunders (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 18.
  26. Meyer, 15, 19.
  27. Meyer, 15.
  28. David Heymann, “A Mound in the Wood,” Places Journal, December 2011,
  29. Paul Sewick, “The Mound Builders,” Detroit Urbanism Blog, December 21, 2015.
  30. Thomas W. Killion, Thomas M. Urban, and James Conway, “Mounds, Towns, and their Surrounds: An Archaeological, Historical, and Geophysical Approach to Burial Mounds, Residential Space, and Cultural Landscapes of the Late Woodland Springwells Site (AD 800-1400) at Historic Fort Wayne, Detroit,” Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 6 (2019), 386,
  31. Sewick, “The Mound Builders.”
  32. Samuel R. Brown, The Western Gazetteer; or, Emigrants’ Directory (New York, NY: H.C. Southwick, 1817).
  33. Killion, et al., 386.
  34. Killion, et al., 387.
  35. Paul Sewick, “The Origins and Demise of Delray,” Curbed Detroit, May 3, 2018.
  36. Sewick, “The Mound Builders.”
  37. Sewick, “The Mound Builders.”
  38. To see what has become of some of the other historical mound sites, see Scott Hocking’s The Mound Project.
  39. Sarah Fenske, “New Study Challenges ‘Myth’ of Cahokia’s Lost Civilization,” St. Louis Public Radio, January 28, 2020.
  40. The seemingly random arrangement of the Mound City Group has led researchers to believe that the whole was designed as a microcosm of the surrounding hilly landscape. See Lippard, 214.
  41. Edward R. Henry, “Building Bundles, Building Memories: Processes of Remembering in Adena-Hopewell Societies of Eastern North America,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 24, No, 1, March 2017,; Lippard, 214.
  42. National Park Service/Tom Engberg, “Mound City Group.”
  43. Henry, 218.
  44. National Park Service/Tom Engberg, “Mound City Group.”
  45. Slum Clearance Ordered by Cobo,” Detroit Free Press, January 27, 1950.
  46. Kenny Stahl, “Urban Renewal: one step forward … two steps back,” The Great Rebellion website.
  47. Ujijji Davis, “The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes,” The Avery Review, Issue 34, October 2018, 4.
  48. Davis, 7.
  49. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It (New York, NY: New Village Press, 2016), 4.
  50. In 1949 and ’50, prior to the seizure of neighborhood properties by eminent domain, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were photographically documented by the city. The architect Emily Kutil is now assembling an exhibition, Black Bottom Street View, which will use this archive (now in the Burton Historic Collection at the Detroit Public Library) to map the demolished neighborhoods.
  51. Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 3.
  52. Dan Pitera, “Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape,” Places Journal, July 2010, Emphasis is Pitera’s.
Azzurra Cox, “Reading Detroit in a Season of Mourning,” Places Journal, January 2022. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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