I just stumbled across a five-year-old Metro Times article about ghetto palms in Detroit, here: Ghetto palm. The term ghetto palm generally refers to the ailanthus altissima tree, but I’ve heard it used to apply to other urban weed trees as well.
Ghetto palms are trees that can grow and thrive in even the harshest conditions, and one sees them around low income neighborhoods where infrastructure and public spaces are neglected. They grow from facades and roofs of long-abandoned buildings, and even sometimes grow inside of these buildings. Growing on and in buildings, they’re a potent symbol of decay. I read about the recent rehab of a long-vacant Detroit skyscraper in which the cutting down of the skyscraper’s lone rooftop tree was a big, symbolic event that garnered its own news article.
But ghetto palms are more numerous along edges where lawnmowers can’t quite reach, like along chain link fences or growing pressed up against the foundations of buildings. In a place where people feel ownership and agency towards the landscape and tend to look after their property, these plants get weeded or cut down long before they can grow into anything more than a seedling. But in disenfranchised low income communities (you know, the ghetto), they can become shrubs and even mature trees, sometimes getting large and numerous enough to actually damage the foundation of a building.
Bill Keaggy has photos of local ghetto palms and other volunteer trees.
And this has nothing to do with ghetto palms, but I loved this quote from the Metro Times article:
“We thought it was depressing to stay in the suburbs, because the people were not nice, but hostile,” he says, laughing. “In Detroit, it was the complete opposite. If we needed to know something, we would go into a bar, and then we’d have an appointment the next afternoon. It was amazing. If the people didn’t know, they would say, ‘I know someone who knows.’ …I didn’t have a single bad experience in Detroit.”
I had a similar experience in Detroit earlier this year–the people in the city were so, so, so nice and helpful, and often very interested in talking about their city and comparing experiences. Folks who didn’t know the answer to a question would point us toward someone who did, or even take a moment out of their work day to get out their phone, call some friends, and ask. I can’t wait to get back to Detroit.