Gwendolyn Warren, Detroit and the Geography

#Gwendolyn_Warren #DGEI #Detroit #geography #women #William_Bunge

27 September 2021


The name of the legendary Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI) is usually associated with its director, geographer William Bunge (1928-2013), rarely with its co-director, Gwendolyn C. Warren. The books of the former, Fitzgerald. Geography of a Revolution (1971) and Nuclear War Atlas (1988), however, include some of the information — and, in the case of the latter, the graphics — found in the Field Notes, the proceedings of the small institute, published from 1969 to 1971. Gwendolyn Warren and geographer Cindi Katz have re-contextualised the genesis of the DGEI project, showing how “myths about radical praxis can play tricks with history and geography, wherein some people and places acquire cultish status while others are eclipsed” [1].

by Nepthys Zwer

The institute in its history

Along with David Harvey, the historiography of geography has made Bunge, a charismatic white man and rebellious academic (to the point of being elevated to “academic martyrdom”), one of the two fathers of activist — radical or critical — geography. In his shadow, Gwendolin Warren’s role easily goes unnoticed. It is true that she is not a geographer, that she is a woman and, moreover, that she is black. All her life she has been a community organizer, an administrator in the public health, education and social services sectors in California, Florida and Georgia.

She was 18 when she co-founded the DGEI with Bunge. She was a leading black rights activist in her hometown of Detroit, leading a group of young people, the “Infernos”, who organised picketing and, among other things, a boycott of the high school to protest against the poor conditions of education. The life of the black population in Detroit is made up of misery, insalubrity and a blocked future.

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Gwendolyn Warren’s 21 houses. These are the houses, some rat-infested, that she lived in as a child in Detroit.
Field Notes No. 3, between pp. 29-30.

In the 1960s, Detroit was in trouble, its urban fabric decaying. As automobile production fled the city, white people fled its centre. This was the era of Black Power and the civil rights struggle.

To the nice white male geographers [2], which wanted to help the poor community of the centre, the young woman explained where the problem lay: due to a lack of resources and infrastructure, young people from the black community had no access to education.

This led to the creation of a collaborative project between research and civil society — an absolutely exemplary participatory action research approach — which enabled more than 500 young women and men to be trained in applied geography with the collaboration of the University and the State of Michigan. These individuals, while not able to turn this skill into a professional and social asset, were, according to Warren, deeply and positively transformed by the experience.

The DGEI’s “folk geographers” [3] went on field “expeditions” and sought to understand, document and map the spatial logics at work in a major US city. Their approach was neither idiographic nor quantitative, but well and truly oriented towards a field geography.

The Second Gaze

Gwendolyn Warren’s take on this cross-community success-story is, however, full of nuance and less smooth. There is his-story, the one that came to pass, and his-story.

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The Detroit Expeditions.
Field Notes No. 3, between pp. 10-11.

When William Bunge asked the young black activist to act as an interface between his research group and the black population he was investigating, she was initially dubious. She recalls that “the words Bunge used were exciting ; change was possible, but the thing that stood out the most was the disapproval he expressed towards whites. It was ugly and much worse than the statements made by blacks about other blacks” (p. 67). According to her, Bunge, the communist, imagined himself as street smart, declaring himself to be a “nigger” (he claimed to be harassed for his negrophilia by the academic system), which proved that he had no idea what the word meant.

Without realising it, racial, sexist and homophobic prejudices permeated his words [4]. The geographer’s focus on his place of residence, Fitzgerald — importance of place further reinforced by the publication of his book — also skewed his approaches.

The story, as told by Warren and Katz, is more accurate. In the 1960s, after Bunge’s intercession with the authorities, a collaborative dynamic had been set up in the black neighbourhoods (organisation of dances, creation of a collaborative restaurant) thanks to the initiatives and organisation of the “Infernos”, but the five days of rioting in the summer of 1967, when the black population of Detroit revolted against police harassment, reshuffled the cards [5].

Warren then agrees to cooperate with geographers within the DGE, which becomes the DGEI, with the addition of the word “Institute” emphasising the educational dimension of the project. It is by focusing research on the situation of children and promoting education that this work will proove so powerful. Warren and Bunge have found common ground: she runs the institute, he does the research, while they train someone to replace him. He eventually realised that it was difficult for a white man to get involved in “community research”. The institute thus became a real tool for the emancipation of the black community. It accepted anyone who was effectively and successfully involved in research projects and studies, which then allowed them to enter a public university course.

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The famous Field Notes front page.
Field Notes No. 2.

Despite its success, the project was in the hot seat. In 1970, the fatal blow to the DGEI was delivered by black administrators who intended to eliminate from the university, now headed by a black man, those poor Detroiters (exempt from tuition) whose education seemed unorthodox. Warren, accused of being a puppet of white leftists, went to law school in Washington D.C.

Critical and radical cartography as a tool to denounce and fight spatial injustice has now been proven. The principle of Bunge’s explorations has been successfully repeated in other places, and its founding role in this field of geography should not be minimised. But this other view of a lived experience of its main actress, that of a black woman who has not known the graces of history, shows the springs of any mythologising construction. The stakes of power are definitely everywhere.


Gwendolyn C. Warren, Cindi Katz and Nik Heynen, “Myths, Cults, Memories, and Revisions in Radical Geographic History Revisiting the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute” in Trevor J. Barnes and Eric Sheppard, Spatial Histories of Radical Geography. North America and Beyond, John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2019, pp. 59-85.

Discussion between Gwendolyn Warren and Cindi Katz:

The Field Notes can be found on the Antipode website: :
 Field Notes No. 1: The Detroit Geographical Expedition (1969)
 Field Notes No. 2: School Decentralization (1970)
 Field Notes No. 3: The Geography of the Children of Detroit (1971)

Gwendolyn Warren, “No Rat Walls on Bewick” in Field Notes No. 3, p. 25-35 (Bewick was a poor Detroit street at the time).

William Bunge, Fitzgerald. Geography of a Revolution [1971], Athens/Georgia, University of Georgia Press, 2011.

William Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988.

On radical cartography, see:
Nepthys Zwer and Philippe Rekacewiz, Cartographie radicale. Explorations, Paris, La Découverte, 2021.

↬ Nepthys Zwer

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