Even as cities die they leave traces, remaining inscribed upon the landscape as patterns of streets long after the buildings have disappeared. Like diverted rivers that stubbornly return to their original courses, the streets of dead cities remain obdurate in their clinging to the earth. Many are only seen clearly from the air: for example Gainsthorpe medieval village in Lincolnshire – on the ground, merely a series of small humps and ridges; from the air, a legible network of streets and courts. Despite our capacity to remake urban street networks – think of Baron Haussman’s transformation of Paris’s tangle of medieval streets into wide straight boulevards in the 1860s – they remain as spectral presences that continue to haunt what has replaced them, even if only as lines on historical maps and in collective and individual memory. Streets are the foundational layer of every city, whether the haphazard medieval streets that evolved organically or the planned gridded networks of most American cities. As such, they gather and hold cities – still points in the turning world of urban change; yet, they are also spaces of ceaseless flows – of transit and commerce above ground; water, sewage, gas, electricity, and telecommunications below. But what happens when everything else is stripped away and only the streets remain?
Some streets become ghosts as cities are erased. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident today than in Detroit, where large areas of the city have been bulldozed as industry and residents have fled – the I-94 Industrial Park being one notable example. Formerly part of the St Cyril neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side bordering Hamtramck, the 189-acre I-94 Industrial Park was formed in 1999 by Detroit’s city authorities when they demolished the last remaining houses in the neighbourhood (one that had already seen most of its homes abandoned and gradually removed). The vaunted economic rebirth of the area never happened (only one factory was built) and, despite plans by its new owner to turn it into a storage facility for car parts, it remains empty, the only remnants of the neighbourhood being forlorn telegraph poles, piles of rubble and an assortment of fragmented objects: pieces of a vinyl disc, half an automobile registration plate; and small areas of plants that have seeded from the gardens of the former houses.
On a smaller scale, a network of streets in Openshaw in Manchester remain as a testament to a stalled development project. Despite a campaign by local residents to conserve the 500 brick terraces that lined Toxteth and surrounding streets, these were demolished in 2009 by Manchester City Council to make way for new houses. Yet, as the ghost streets now bear obvious witness to, the redevelopment never happened – the faded hoardings of the defunct development company overlooking a network of cobbled passages sinking beneath grass and wild flowers. Ghosts streets like these are testament to the injustices that produced them – a violence that subsumes lived memories to an ideology of progress. In this way, the streets that are left both reveal the illusory nature of that progress and also offer tantalizing possibilities for something new – and perhaps truly progressive – to emerge.
Ghost streets may also be formed when construction of a city stalls, that is, when they emerge as the only part of a city that is not yet built. After the 2008 financial crisis, such ghost streets littered the edges of many cities across the world: for example, around Madrid today are countless half-formed new suburbs, a few coming to fruition as habitable areas, many more frozen as landscapes of dirt and dust, the only built features being the streets and the characteristic furniture of modern infrastructure – concrete boxes where the cables are gathered waiting to be plugged into buildings yet to be built. In Valdeluz – a planned Madrid commuter city of 30,000 that is now only occupied by around 3000 – the ghost streets that surround the small citadel of inhabited buildings present a strange and unsettling vision of a suspended city – a place that occupies an indeterminate time zone that points neither to the past or future. These streets await occupation – even by ghosts – as they are already being overtaken by the nature that they sought to replace.
These liminal unfinished streets are at once disturbing and exhilarating (un)built environments. They disturb because of their temporal inscrutability: as ruins in reverse, they do not suggest a past state of completion that makes conventional ruins sites of serene contemplation; rather, they point forwards to a future that cannot be adequately imagined because it has not yet happened (and, more disturbingly, may never happen). Yet, these incomplete streets are also exhilarating in their very inscrutability: as open sites they have the potential to be remodelled in radically new ways. Valdeluz’s half-completed roads and walkways also seem to require entirely new forms of comprehension, ones that can only be provided by the imagination of those who choose to inhabit these unfinished architectures. As Simon Sellars as argued, we should, like the novellist J. G. Ballard, not be afraid to overlay the ‘real’ built environment with the fictions of our inner lives, because only then is the built ‘complete’ because it is fully inhabited, creating a ‘stereoscopic representation … that places the user at the centre with the power to inform, direct, stage and manage the terms of his or her movements through time and space’. It may be completely understandable that the current residents of Valdeluz wish to shut out the town’s ghost streets from their conception of the place they inhabit; but, in Ballard’s estimation, they then fail to emancipate and claim back those spaces as sites of positive meaning.