Joseph Stanhope Cialdella, author of Motor City Green: A Century of Landscapes and Environmentalism in Detroit (University of Pittsburgh Press), is a program manager at the University of Michigan, where he oversees the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship. He is a former Enid A. Haupt Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. As a program officer at the Michigan Humanities Council, he co-led the nationally award-winning Heritage Grants Program.
Joseph is the prize recipient of the 2020 Jon Gjerde Prize in Midwest History for his book, Motor City Green. Cialdella offers readers a new view of Detroit’s social and physical landscape by uncovering the histories of the city’s green spaces as they were made and remade from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first. The book offers a fresh perspective on the well-trod story of Detroit while offering insights that apply to similarly situated cities across the Rustbelt and Midwest. Motor City Green reminds readers that the Midwest is more than a vast rural swath connected to a few urban centers along the Great Lakes. As Ciadella points out, cities have been long-standing sites of greenspace agriculture and grassroots environmentalism. With careful attention to the multi-ethnic and racial diversity of Detroit, Cialdella marks out a long history of today’s gentrifying trend in urban agriculture, revealing how poor ethnic and Black communities both made use of and created greenspace a century before Detroit became known for vacant lots and municipal bankruptcy. Through examples such as programs intended to establish inner-city and suburban parks, urban farming initiatives during the Depression, individual backyard garden efforts, and summer nature camps for Black children, Motor City Green weaves together the strands of urban, political, and environmental histories. In the process, the author reveals a longer perspective behind today’s urban pioneers in greenspace and subsistence agriculture. This book is beautifully illustrated, well-researched, and a joy to read, and we are delighted to award this year’s Gjerde Prize to this deserving work.