Vol. 3 | Critical Bunge | Alex B. Hill

Critical Bunge: Reviewing history of a radical geographer’s legacy in Detroit
Alex B. Hill

Why is William Bunge so little known
in the city that made his legacy?

A map maker and geography researcher, known to be radical in his beliefs, spent roughly a decade in Detroit creating what would become his now mythical legacy. Dr. William Bunge, known as “Wild Bill” as a result of his temperament, took a job as a professor in the now non-existent Geography Department at Wayne State University in 1962. He was awarded the title of “radical” by the House Un-American Committee as part of a published list of radical speakers. His early claim to fame was a treatise on Theoretical Geography (1962) which was his dissertation work and aligned with the growing preference towards quantification in the field of geography.[drfn]Cf. William Bunge, Theoretical Geography (Lund, Sweden: Gleerup,1962).[/drfn] Yet, coming to Detroit, Bunge’s focus was not quantification of geography, but rather “human geography.” His creative and unique applications of cartography to human conditions have captivated students, scholars, and those interested in the nuances and conflict of space and place.

So much mystery, conjecture, and mythology has followed William Bunge up until his passing in 2013 and still today. In 2010, it was rumored he still drove a taxi cab around Toronto or was living in a nursing home in a small village outside of Montreal, Canada. There are countless mentions of Bunge’s colorful character and often imposing demeanor, but I will leave those for whomever wants to find them. The question at hand is: “what was William Bunge’s impact on Detroit?” His work is known and lauded by many in numerous fields of study adjacent to geography; however, his name holds little sway in the city. I and other local geographers know his work and have been inspired, but that is a miniscule subset of Detroit.[drfn]Cf. Kat Hartman, “The New Geographers: How Detroiters are mapping a better future for the city,” Model D Media, 2015. https://www.modeldmedia.com/features/newgeographers031015.aspx. Accessed 03-08-22[/drfn]

Detroit was Bunge’s second act as described by a longtime colleague Clark Akatiff.[drfn]Cf. Clark Akatiff, “Roots of Radical Geography,” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 78 (2016): 258-278.[/drfn] Today in Detroit, “Fitzgerald Detroit” means two very distinctly different things to those in the academic field of geography and to those who live and work in Detroit.

Image from @DETROITography instagram, 2017.
Fitzgerald, Detroit

For most Detroiters the neighborhood name means little, if anything. Even residents living nearby would not have known it was called that until more recent planning efforts. The Fitzgerald Community Council (FCC) was formed in 1962 and was active up until the last FCC president gave media interviews in 2018, noting that she was one of the few remaining residents. The earliest attempted “neighborhood” map made of Detroit in 2003[drfn]Cf. Arthur Mullen, “Historic Detroit Neighborhoods,” Cityscape Detroit (reposted on DETROITography.com) 2003 (2018). https://detroitography.com/2018/11/07/map-cityscapes-historic-detroit-neighborhoods-2003/. Accessed, 03-08-22[/drfn] lists the Fitzgerald neighborhood, but has no historical information included like many of the other neighborhoods named and outlined on the map. The absence of information on Fitzgerald highlighted the fact that before the neighborhood carried little significance to Detroiters and specifically the City’s Planning Department.

Gwendolyn Warren, a teenager in the 1960s in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, remembers the formation of the FCC and how the drawing of the boundary lines got her involved in community activism in the first place. She recalled significant debate about including the area South of the Lodge Freeway. Fitzgerald in the 1960s was an integrated middle-class neighborhood where you met Black parents who were doctors and lawyers, but the area South of the Lodge was poorer and notably not middle class. Warren delineated Fitzgerald in the 1960s as three distinct communities within one neighborhood, including a large student population that attended Marygrove College.

In 2016, a $4 million effort was launched by the Kresge Foundation and the City of Detroit to “revitalize” Fitzgerald. The neighborhood name was relaunched into the spotlight, including bright new neighborhood signage circa 2017, yet the “Fitzgerald Project Area” was merely a quarter of the size of the neighborhood as historically defined by the FCC and focused on reusing vacant land and empty housing to foster creative connections between the Marygrove College and University of Detroit Mercy campuses (both with tall fences and gates manned by security guards). The Kresge Foundation emphasized recreating the “Midtown model” in another area of Detroit with anchor institutions like colleges, universities, and health systems.

Fitzgerald: A Revolution?

Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (1971, 2011) was the seminal book written by Bunge after he moved his family into the then changing, Black middle-class neighborhood of the same name in 1962. He had just been hired as a professor at Wayne State University’s Geography Department after being fired from his first teaching job at the University of Iowa after less than one year. Stories abound of Bunge’s abrasive personality, flaring temper, and often racist and misogynistic talking points[drfn]Cf. Akatiff, “Roots of Radical Geography,” Nick Heynen, “Forward,” in William Bunge, Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011); and 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 Spatial Histories of Radical Geography: North America and Beyond, ed. Trevor T. Barnes and Eric Sheppard (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2019), 59-85.[/drfn] and he would go on to be fired or let go from four different universities before all but disappearing in Canada.

Bunge came to the Fitzgerald neighborhood out of interest in writing a book. He specifically picked Fitzgerald because it existed on the edge of poverty and affluence which was critical to his focus on cities of survival.[drfn]Cf. Alex B. Hill, ““Nothing Changes”: Community Mapping Practice in Detroit,” Antipode Online, 2017.[/drfn] While attempting to become “street-smart” and accepted in the community, Bunge met Warren who was organizing students who walked out of Northern High School in protest of their sub-par education. Warren got involved with the Detroit Geographical Expedition by refusing to have her neighborhood “explored” by white students and professors. She demanded the addition of “Institute” so that the young people in the community could get training and learn skills rather than be used for information and access by white academics.[drfn]This is more fully discussed in Warren, Katz, and Heynen, “Myths, Cults, Memories, and Revisions in Radical Geographic History.”[/drfn]

The book based on Bunge’s research with Warren and local citizens was published in 1971, after Bunge had already been fired from Wayne State University and had limited engagement in the Fitzgerald area. Bob Colenutt and his visiting students from Syracuse University who were working on Field Notes 4 – the journal of the Detroit Geographical Expedition – noted that Bunge was hardly involved in the last “expedition” of the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute.[drfn]Cf. Hill, ““Nothing Changes”: Community Mapping Practice in Detroit.” Bob Colenutt and I exchanged emails about DGEI and Field Notes 4 while preparing for the Antipode Symposium where he shared his insights and experience in Detroit and with Bunge. [/drfn] By that time Bunge and Warren were already estranged and the “Institute” component being hosted at Michigan State University, where Warren was a student, was crumbling.[drfn]Cf. Ronald J. Horvath, “The ‘Detroit geographical expedition and institute’ experience.” Antipode 3, no. 1 (1971): 73-85.[/drfn]  Field Notes 4 was published in 1972 under the “Society for Human Exploration,” an organization that intended to grow the concept of human expeditions in other cities.

Immortalizing Myths: A prophet, not a community worker
In 2010, a popular blog reposted some of the maps made in Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution noting their impact and interest among geographers and socially-minded cartographers.[drfn]See Zachary Johnson, “Wild Bill Bunge,” indiemaps (2010). ttps://indiemaps.com/blog/2010/03/wild-bill-bunge/. Accessed, 03-08-22[/drfn] Fitzgerald, the book, was not reprinted until 2011. By then Warren had had a long career of public service in multiple governmental agencies and Bunge was rumored to have been driving a taxi in Quebec, Canada. Fitzgerald, the neighborhood, had become a fairly standard image of decline and disenfranchisement familiar across Detroit despite the nearby colleges and universities. The foundation funds and media interest of 2016 seems to have died out after multi-million-dollar revitalization efforts yielded minimal results and Marygrove College abruptly shut its doors in 2019 due to a precipitous decline in enrollment from 1800 students (at its height) to 400 (at the time of closure).

It’s not gonna work. The money and resources aren’t enough.
Change didn’t happen then, it won’t happen now.

Gwendolyn Warren[drfn]The author corresponded with Warren via phone and email in 2017 as she worked on her book chapter, in Spatial histories of radical geography, where she shared her past experiences in Fitzgerald and commented on the present day efforts to ”revitalize” the area. [/drfn] (2017)

Recent announcements of a $57 million renovation of the Marygrove campus funded by PNC Bank and Kresge Foundation made no mention of the Fitzgerald neighborhood. Today the Fitzgerald Community Council isn’t even listed as a “neighborhood association or block club” in Fitzgerald on the City of Detroit’s official “theneighborhoods.org” website. The council president was unreachable, but had given media interviews in 2018 noting she ran FCC because she was one of the few remaining residents in Fitzgerald.[drfn]Cf. Kresge Foundation, “PNC Bank and Kresge announce $57.3 million in financing to support Marygrove P-20 Project,” 2022. https://kresge.org/news-views/pnc-bank-and-kresge-announce-57-3-million-in-financing-to-support-marygrove-p-20-project/. Accessed, 03-08-22[/drfn]

Bunge was a household name among geographers as maps and a more generalized practice of mapping became the new currency of social science and popular media. Bunge was far from a household name in Detroit. It is difficult to pinpoint why Bunge’s name is little known in the city. The most obvious reasons are his being fired from Wayne State University and the Geography Department which closed its doors. His acceptance among the Fitzgerald community or among Detroit politicians was limited at best. He and Warren had work with then State Senator Coleman A. Young on their Field Notes II, but Bunge left before Young became the first Black Mayor of Detroit in 1974.


Bunge left Fitzgerald and Detroit seemingly out of concern of increased federal government surveillance. He was known as a radical after being named as such by the House Un-American Committee as part of a published list of radical speakers not allowed on college campuses. The radical nature of his work, bringing quantification to bear on key social issues of the time through maps, flipped geography on its head. Bunge was one of many individuals that pushed the field of geography in a new direction. Yet, that new direction had limited time to take hold before the onslaught of re-naming of neighborhoods, mergers, and closures of geography departments at colleges and universities across the country.

Bunge’s impact in Detroit was short lived and limited, but his maps and research continue to be critical reference points for a changing Detroit. Warren went on to get her Master’s degree from Michigan State University and recently co-authored an article on her work and experiences with Bunge and the DGEI.[drfn]Cf. Warren, Gwendolyn C., Cindi Katz, and Nik Heynen. “Myths, cults, memories, and revisions in radical geographic history: revisiting the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute.” Spatial histories of radical geography: North America and beyond (2019): 59-85.[/drfn] Warren worked in public service, specifically around housing, for many years with the bulk of her career in Florida. She recently moved back to Michigan to be closer to family. Needless to say, myths become better known with time and the difficulty of community work is laid bare in Warren’s accounts of the birth of radical geography in Detroit.