Detroit to Asilah, Bankruptcy to Vibrancy

TALIM Urbiel 7
Fresh Bread and Vibrancy of Urban Neighborhoods

This guest post is by Andrea Urbiel Goldner, a 2012-2013 US State Department Fulbright researcher in Morocco.  She is a landscape architect, occasional lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, writer, and 2013 Kresge Fellow in the Literary Arts.  With Gary Urbiel Goldner as part of Peregrine Workshop, she is also working on a children’s book that grew out of stories they collected while conducting the Fulbright research in Morocco.  Photos and illustrations by the couple.

– – – – – – – – – – –

TALIM Urbiel 1Again we have no fresh bread in the house.  This would not have happened in Morocco.  Or if it did, it would have been solved in minutes—24 steps to the neighborhood oven, a quick chat with the baker, 24 steps home, and then our hands would have been negotiating with hot bread in order to get butter on it.  And Gary’s daily peanut butter sandwich would have been made.  Here, home, we have no reasonable walk to fresh bread.

We returned home from Morocco on July 7.  Eleven days later our city declared bankruptcy.  I should say that it asked for bankruptcy protection and restructuring.  We—our city—have been declaring bankruptcy for my entire life.  On my returns from college and graduate school and work in other places, I have been declaring an inability to consistently walk to fresh bread, a particularly painful form of social and constitutional bankruptcy.

TALIM Urbiel 3We went to Morocco to study “community appliances”—I use this word to describe spaces, facilities, and rituals that serve as neighborhood venues to accomplish domestic tasks such as baking, washing, heating, cooling, communication, and entertainment—and the neighborhood vibrancy they create.

In Morocco think neighborhood oven and everywhere snack cart (baking); hammam (washing, communication, entertainment); teleboutique (communication, entertainment); paseo in the north and corniche elsewhere (communication, entertainment, cooling, heating); and every bakery, man café, or hanout where a shared television shows tonight’s football game.  In America think coin laundry (washing, communication, entertainment), bar showing tonight’s game, and public library.  In both places think wi-fi hot spot.  To contrast think mobile phone, private washing machine (or in the case of Morocco, mom on the roof), and home television. 

TALIM Urbiel 2Thanks to a US Department of State Fulbright research grant and logistical support from TALIM, my family and I lived in Fes for 3 months and then Asilah for 7 more months in order to experience first-hand the community appliances and particular approaches to urban vibrancy in those cities.

One night, out for a stroll in Asilah, we found ourselves walking behind the baker and the man we affectionately called “moul tourist trinkets.”  (Moul al-hanout—مول الحانوت—is the shopkeeper in Morocco.  Moul fawakih—مول فواكه—is the fruit vendor.  And so on.)  Both had just closed up their respective shops across the street from each other and were conducting an easy-paced cool evening conversation.  They turned in at the neighborhood mosque whose lamp lit a circle of the street in front of it.  As we continued our stroll to the ocean, I tried to quiet my out-of-nowhere inconsolable sob.  It took Gary a few minutes to notice; by then I had figured it out.

Click on the link below to continue reading.

I remembered one of my professors of landscape architecture and environmental planning predicting that we would spend our entire careers attempting to recreate the special places of our childhood.  I was crying for one of the lost places of my childhood and for the self-chastising reality that it took me so long to understand that I had traveled so far—across much land and more water and more than 4000 miles—to find it.  My lost neighborhood existed decades before this year’s loud cry of bankruptcy within the same political boundary that we know as Detroit.  There we ran one and a half blocks for bread early in the morning before school if there was no fresh bread in the house for sandwiches.  One of my earliest remembered solo responsibilities—before being old enough for school—was walking around the corner, buying milk at the store, and getting it home along with the correct change.  We walked to church.  In that Detroit neighborhood, Wally pumped gas, washed car windows, and sold newspapers to my grandpa at his gas station—where they both drank coffee, I think.  Next door in Estelle’s “beauty shop,” Estelle, his wife, cut and styled my grandma’s hair.


In Asilah, Lamia sells hands of Fatima, jewelry, and embroidered fabrics repurposed as pillow covers in a small shop down the street from where Ahmed, her husband, cuts Gary’s hair while they talk about becoming fathers and their relatives on the east coast of the US.  Little kids learn responsibility, how to interact with neighbors, and other social skills by carrying bread to and from the neighborhood oven.

TALIM Urbiel 6

We tried to explain this small Moroccan city—30,000 residents or so and the convenience of Manhattan—to our midwest and east coast families in the US.  Now that we’ve arrived home, we’re still trying to explain it to ourselves.  We’ve brought good urban design data to analyze and communicate:  walking radii, density of interactions in time, density of interactions in space, other measures of urban vibrancy, and more and more data to add to the pile of arguments for walkable communities.  And we’ve brought stories and the beginnings of new projects.  Detroit, for as long as I have known it, has had a surplus of urban planners and urban plans.  One of them needs to add a new measure of urban vibrancy:  distance on foot to freshly baked bread.  Or, better, just open a bakery instead.

Andrea Urbiel Goldner

1 thought on “Detroit to Asilah, Bankruptcy to Vibrancy”

  1. very nicely put, putting forth transcultural ideas, putting the memory forward, putting out food for thought.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.