Olon Dotson

—With this posting we are pleased to publish a two-part investigation by African American architect Olon Dotson into the racialized nature of the cities of America’s decayed industrial heartland. We feel this is an important, generally overlooked research, and are very pleased to present it here for the first time in print.

Despite the fact that the United States describes itself as the most developed and industrialized nation in the world, many of its citizens reside in conditions comparable to what can be found in the most distressed areas of so-called “Third World” or “Developing” countries. I have chosen the term “Fourth World” to describe the phenomena of “Third World” conditions in a so-called “First World” environment. As with the Kerner Commission Report of 1968,1 and the Millennium Breach Report of 1998 (Roach), it remains imperative that these concerns be formally identified, researched, and addressed in order for the United States to avoid ultimate collapse as a direct result of its inability to confront the challenges associated with its institutional abandonment and denial of same. Sustainability is currently at the forefront of discussion as part of a larger global imperative; however, the value of ‘green’ is inconsequential when continued sprawling development practices are dictated by historic discrimination and segregation patterns and societal ills.

East St Louis, IL.

We have documented and reinforced evidence of the United States’ position as the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth, but have limited knowledge of the scale and magnitude of its poverty and degradation. The extent of the distress and abandonment commonly present in the cores of U.S. cities resulting from de-industrialization, historic segregation and discrimination patterns, suburban sprawl, erosion of a viable tax base, racism, inability to embrace the concept desegregation and civil rights legislation, fear, despair, crumbling infrastructure systems, disinvestment in urban school systems, and environmental justice issues, define the Fourth World circumstance within the U.S. The primary objectives of the establishment of the Fourth World position are to explore the institutional abandonment of inner cities throughout the U.S., investigate the causes which have led to the massive disinvestment, attempt to develop a sense of empathy for the citizens who choose or are forced to remain in these environments, and conduct inquiry which may better qualify interested parties to be engaged in improving the conditions of inner-cities and as to society as a whole. The principal goals of this introductory paper are to define the Fourth World term, discuss the historical evolution of the Fourth World, and describe the condition and current state of the Fourth World.


Upon presuming that I had coined the term, “Fourth World” to describe the conditions of the severe physical and social distress commonly found in cities throughout the United States, my research revealed that the term has been used by scholars, sociologists, and activists to describe the conditions of various nation-less states within larger nations, underdeveloped nations, and/or oppressed or underprivileged victims of a state. The late, Shuswap Chief George Manuel (1929 – 1989) (Hampton), is credited for introducing the term in his 1974 publication, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality.2 Prior to writing the book, Manuel developed the understanding that there is no place on earth that people can live without either asserting their own political independence against the European nations or attaching themselves to a European nation (or nation deriving its government from that tradition).3 He arrived at this understanding through activism, research, international travel, and communication with indigenous populations throughout the world. Upon recognizing the systemic political and socioeconomic disparities which exist among indigenous peoples, Manuel’s “Fourth World,” in essence, was a call to action, independence, and nationalism particularly for First Nations peoples of Canada in response to immeasurable injustices experienced through European expansionism, domination, colonialism, and imperialism.

The Fourth World is not, after all, a Final Solution. It is not even a destination. It is the right to travel freely, not only on our own road but in our own vehicles. Unilateral dependence can never be ended by a forced integration. Real integration can only be achieved through a voluntary partnership, and a partnership cannot be based on a tenant-landlord relationship (Manuel 217). The way to end the custodian-child relationship for Indian peoples is not to abolish our status as Indians, but to allow us to take our place at the table with all the rest of the adults. Indian status has too often been described as a special status by those who wanted to create an argument to get rid of it (219).

Over time, prejudices and misconceptions regarding the terms “aboriginal” and “indigenous” abound, including an exclusive association with Native Americans. In this manner, many indigenous nations in Europe, the nation states of the former Soviet Union, the Middle and Far East, Africa and Australia, “such as Wales, Catalonia, Brittany, Flanders, Bavaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Armenia, Georgia, Palestine, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Tibet, and hundreds more are forgotten or discarded” (Griggs). Thus, as exposure to the historic and ongoing struggles facing Native American peoples has benefitted by broadening the geopolitical discourse through organizations such as the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS) to encompass indigenous concerns throughout the world, the Fourth World definition has been expanded to be defined as “nations forcefully incorporated into states which maintain a distinct political culture but are not internationally recognized” (Griggs).

The CWIS is an independent, non-profit, research and education organization dedicated to wider understanding and appreciation of the ideas and knowledge of indigenous peoples and the socioeconomic and political realities of “Fourth World” nations. Within the CWIS dialogue, appears to be a resistance to further expansion of the Fourth World definition. A primary concern may be that encompassing the great challenges confronting ethnic, linguistic, gender, religious, cultural, environmental and economic matters may undermine its potency and focus, which was originally directed toward the historical expansion of states and the state-nation conflict generated from imperialist exploits. On the other hand, the term has been embraced to designate the poorest, and most underdeveloped states of the world, or to describe any oppressed or underprivileged victim of a state (Griggs).

Cairo, IL

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as ATD Fourth World have evolved from the expanded definition. ATD Fourth World, founded in France by the late Joseph Wresinski (1917-1988) was inspired by his experience as a child of chronic poverty and social exclusion (International Movement ATD Fourth World). This NGO, with no religious or political affiliation, focuses on supporting families and individuals through its grass roots presence and involvement in disadvantaged communities, in both urban and rural areas, creating public awareness of extreme poverty and influencing policies to address it (ATD Fourth World). Wresinski cited poverty as a human rights matter by declaring that, “Whenever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that those rights be respected is our solemn duty” (ATD Fourth World).

It is my intention to introduce the severe physical and socioeconomic distress and abandonment, which is uniquely prevalent in the cores of U.S. cities, to the Fourth World discourse. By acknowledging the prior existence and continued use of the term, the applicability of these urban conditions should be deemed congruent to the original premise established by George Manuel, the subsequent expansion of the socio-political discussion regarding disenfranchised states which maintain a distinct political culture, as well as the designation of the poorest, and most underdeveloped states of the world, and/or the description of any oppressed or underprivileged victim of a state. The degree of isolation of severely distressed communities within larger metropolitan statistical areas or entire Fourth World cities such as Gary, Indiana, Detroit and Flint Michigan, East St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey are consistent with the aforementioned nation state designation summarized herein.


The historical evolution of American society enhanced the development of the “Frontier Myth” aspect of the American Dream. Myth, in this context refers to the conception of America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.4 This posture has ultimately and consequently had a tangible impact on the systemic abandonment of the cores of many American cities for the demonization and virtual eradication of indigenous peoples, the justification and defense of slavery and the abolition of slavery, followed by the establishment of Jim Crow Laws and institutionalized segregation was contrary to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness doctrine professed by the United States Constitution. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the frontier myth remained as an essential component of the American social-political landscape and psyche. Rapid westward expansion, rationalized by the concept of manifest destiny, brought closure to the mystique of the frontier and the unknown. The continent had been explored, conquered, and exploited. All battles and wars, both domestically and internationally, had been won. The average nadir population for surviving indigenous peoples everywhere in the Americas was about 5 percent, meaning a reduction of 97 – 98 percent during the history of invasion, conquest, and colonization (Churchill 97). It was now time for American citizens, particularly those with unrestricted access to the full rights and privileges of citizenship, to reap the benefits of its exploits through a new paradigm of property ownership. The new frontier became the American suburb.

Within this new frontier, exclusionary practices and hypocrisy favored men over women and whites over people of color.5 “The ‘keyword’ property thus indexes a contradiction between the ostensibly universal endowment of the right to property for all U.S. citizens and the uneven actualization of that right through forms of racial and gender dispossession”6 (Burgett and Hendler 181). Historically, race shaped the meaning of the universal endowment by delimiting citizenship to European Americans. Thus, the absence of agency with respect to civil rights and property ownership combined with a legacy of racial oppression, provided a framework for the homogeneous nature of the massive expansion.

The post World War II redefinition of the frontier myth was in part, due to technological advances such as refrigeration and air conditioning. Federal housing programs, energy, automobile, perpetual growth lobbies, and ultimately, de-industrialization also fueled the redefinition. In 1956, after intense negotiations with the “Road Gang,’ more than two hundred lobbyists representing petroleum and trucking interests, highway engineers, construction, and real estate, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing a 42,500 mile “National System of Defense and Interstate Highways” to be funded through a gasoline tax and implemented by state highway departments7 (Hayden 52). Such decisions facilitated investment in green field development outside of the beltways and bypasses constructed through provisions contained within the legislation. Thus, disinvestment in the cores of American cities was inevitable. Such attitudes and policies played a critical role in the abandonment of American inner cities either directly, or by way of negative societal responses to their alleged positive contributions. The redefinition of the frontier myth is demonstrated through massive expansion and consumption of land, natural resources and fossil fuels near and around urban centers, and is commonly referred to as suburban sprawl. Dolores Hayden, in her book A Field Guide to Sprawl, defines sprawl as “unregulated growth expressed as careless new use of land and other resources as well as abandonment of older built areas.” Ultimately, white flight and subsequent black flight resulted from the redefinition of the myth. During the latter half of the twentieth century, urban decay, urban renewal, the increased prevalence of urban prairie, race and class-based displacement, and gentrification were consequential to the aforementioned forces on American society.

Flint, MI

As the suburb became the new frontier, the inner city became the new wilderness. Once a place of life, work, civic expression and pride, the inner city rapidly became a purgatory of fear and anxiety. The imagery of dark, shadowy streets lurking with wickedness, immoral, murderous, physically and sexually threatening beings replaced the harshness of the wilderness which had been formerly occupied by “savages” with demonic personification. As in its beginnings, American literature contributed to this fear though its imagery and portrayals. Mailer’s compelling “White Negro” writings had taken the pulse of 1950’s society and found that though outwardly it seemed reassuringly measured, wild irregularities were surfacing (Dearborn 130). Many of the notions contained in his novel, The American Dream if unmasked beneath his violent, sexual, sexist, drug-ridden, and surreal writings, were prophetic with respect to the future of social relations in the United States. Alternative culture was without question, heavily influenced by black culture.8 Mailer’s failure to recognize the overly romanticized aspect of this view and the pernicious effect of a belief in black supersexuality (131) only contributed to the fear and anxiety which undermined the favorableness of “the cool.” It also undermined the favorableness of residing in the city. Albeit perhaps unintentional, such literature contributed to a culture of white flight, and subsequent black flight, to the suburbs.

In spite of the Civil Rights Movement, ensuing anti-discrimination laws, and institutional desegregation (integration), the notion of meaningful racial cohabitation in America has been, for all practical purposes, unrealized. In many neighborhoods, an infusion of minorities prompted whites to leave and discouraged other whites from replacing them (Wilson and Taub 7). To a limited extent, anti-discrimination legislation afforded the opportunity for racial minorities, particularly African Americans with means, to also be enticed by the frontier myth. Thus, white flight was followed by black flight and the resultant abandonment of inner cities has created conditions of severe economic, physical and social distress particularly unique to urban centers in the United States. The arrival of minority groups in the new frontier created the demand for new frontiers with homogeneous growth patterns often placed in unincorporated areas. This further alienated the cores of American cities as the increased remoteness of the new frontier led to the establishment of edge cities.9

Braddock, PA

Considerable debate has been, and continues to be exchanged surrounding the term “underclass” as a condition that has prevalence in Fourth World environments. John Charles Boger cites “very poor disproportionately African American populations living in drug-plagued, inner-city areas bereft of adequate job opportunities and hampered by inadequate public services” (Boger 41) as a structural condition which continues to be commonplace in the Fourth World. He adds that the most striking facts about the poverty in U.S. inner cities is its intense concentration and overwhelmingly racial cast. The publication Race, Poverty, and American Cities, edited by Boger, which is a collection of essays which were written in part, as a reflection on the thirty-year anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report of 1968. In his essay entitled, Race and the American City: The Kerner Commission Report in Retrospect, he cites Douglas Massey and Mitchell Eggers for developing the term “hypersegregation” to underline the multidimensional urban trap of the Fourth World.

In a racially segregated city, any increase in black poverty is confined to a small number of black neighborhoods; and the greater the segregation, the smaller the number of neighborhoods absorbing the shock and the more severe the resulting concentration of poverty. If neighborhoods are also segregated by class, not only is the additional poverty restricted to black neighborhoods, it is confined primarily to poor black neighborhoods (Boger 42).

Michael Katz encouraged debate of the use of the term “underclass” as a metaphor of social transformation signifying complexity, danger, and urgency.10 The book, The Underclass Debate edited by Katz, which similarly is a collection of essays, discusses the underclass in the context of de-industrialization.

Certainly poverty pervaded American cities throughout their history, even in periods commonly remembered as prosperous; racism disfigured the lives of African Americans; even sympathetic observers reported high levels of out-of wedlock pregnancy and social disorganization within turn-of-the-century ghettos. But poverty, racism, and social disorganization are not fixed, objective categories. In part, they express relations between individuals, groups, institutions, and their settings. Always they have taken their shape and meaning from their context and in recent decades, that context has changed dramatically with the emergence of the post-industrial city. (Katz 443)


The irony of the American inner city as that the new wilderness can be observed from a multitude of perspectives. Most notably, the abandonment has eroded the typical inner city tax-base to a level which often prohibits the community from offering basic services to its remaining residents. This includes public service offerings for police and fire protection, infrastructure maintenance and improvement, and waste collection. The quality of primary and secondary education in most inner cities has been devastated by the impact of institutional abandonment. George Lipsitz references infant mortality statistics in poverty-stricken areas of Los Angles as “far worse than many ‘Third World’ countries” (Lipsitz 217). Many tax-base strapped distressed cities and towns have been forced to periodically disrupt basic services. With respect to wilderness, abandoned inner cities are inundated with vacant properties due to unpaid taxes or other forms of desertion. Often the distressed municipalities do not have the resources to maintain said properties or to demolish abandoned structures located on the premises. Wes Janz delineates his observations of Gary, Indiana as “Athens, or Pompeii, or Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, or Anasazi ruin sites in Chaco Canyon (see Diamonds Collapse), houses gone, abandoned houses standing, and falling, slowly, overgrowth everywhere – nature is winning, reeling in the buildings. Churches are abandoned, congregations gone; this is serious distress” (Janz). The term for the condition described herein is “Urban Prairie,” which is a common characteristic of Fourth World environments.

“Urban prairie” is a term coined to characterize large swaths of vacant city lots, typically covered with grass or untended weeds and litter. Urban prairie results from widespread building demolition, common in areas subject to extensive urban decay. These areas are not the same as a true, natural prairie.”11 Such areas may become nothing more than fields of overgrown vegetation, or abandoned buildings as nature reasserts itself. As in the wilderness, urban prairie provides habitat for wildlife. The original settlement and construction of American cities disrupted the recurring migration patterns of mammals and birds which practices had been in existence for thousands of years. In cities with extensive urban prairie, the migration patterns are beginning to reappear. Thus, bird watchers, ornithologists, ecologists, horticulturists, entomologists, and animal scientists, and other interested parties have developed a recent appetite for exploring urban prairie in abandoned American Cities.

Camden, NJ

“Early Sunday morning, my husband and I set out to once again see what breeding birds we could find by driving routes through Detroit’s withering east side. We were aiming, ultimately, for cemeteries, but it turns out that even old cemeteries, being well-groomed, had nothing on what is known in aging Rust Belt cities as the urban prairie. After cruising through Mt. Olivet Cemetery (where several years ago I discovered my great-grandparents, victims of the ~1920 smallpox outbreak, were buried in unmarked graves), we headed to nearby City Airport, hoping for Killdeer and perhaps grassland birds along the runways. We stumbled upon one of the largest areas of urban prairie in Detroit – many city blocks — only one or a few houses are still standing; probably half of those that still stand are abandoned. Some streets are blocked by piles of trash or tires, or burnt-out vehicles. In place of the trees and homes are vacant lots with 3-foot-tall grass and weeds, which does indeed resemble a prairie. We found Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds in these lots. This is an area known for its large population of Ring-necked Pheasants, which are common throughout vacant lots in the city — more common than they are even in the outlying suburban and agricultural areas (they are kept in check mostly by feral dogs).

Seeing destroyed neighborhoods like this one is sad and disturbing. White flight after the 1967 riots and the crack epidemic of the 1980s (which reportedly was the main cause of the depopulation of another Detroit neighborhood) ignited the abandonment, and crumbling city finances have perpetuated the decay. That birds and wildlife are using these areas is perhaps the only bright spot in this story. Detroit can be revitalized, but it will have to be done block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and first in line will be those areas that still have infrastructure and life. Nobody else is really willing to venture to these areas to do bird survey work, so we’ll be returning again this summer, and I’ll bring you more photos and stories of what we find in re-greening urban expanses.” (Nuthatch)

Olon Dotson on a Ball State “Midwest Distress” Tour

Those who venture to explore or dare to move to the wilderness of abandoned American inner cities are commonly viewed as “urban pioneers.” These brave souls risk their scalp and life to the power of the wilderness as they dwell among the uneducated, uncivilized savages who sleep in abandoned buildings during the day and roam the streets lurking for prey throughout the night. Just as their ancestors conquered the wilderness, urban pioneers approach the urban prairie not in terms of civilized conventions, but as an unknown reality to be plumbed by total self-immersion in direct, simple and unanticipated experience (Slotkin 521). As the pioneers clear the path for the settlers, the wilderness becomes tame for gentrification. The arrow has been replaced by assault weapons. War paint has been replaced by gang colors. The captivity narrative can now be observed on television through the inundation of local and cable news or in film. Pamphlets are now blogs on the world wide web with content contributing to the 21st century frontier myth in America:

One evening not long after we moved to Rogers Park, my husband and I met a group of black boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk across the street from our apartment building. The boys were weaving down the sidewalk, yelling for the sake of hearing their own voices, and drinking from forty-ounce bottles of beer. As we stepped off the sidewalk and began crossing the street toward our apartment, one boy yelled, “Don’t be afraid of us!” I looked back over my shoulder as I stepped into the street and the boy passed on his bike so that I saw him looking back at me also, and then he yelled again, directly at me, “Don’t be afraid of us!”
I wanted to yell back, “Don’t worry, we aren’t!” but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy’s eyes before I turned, disturbed, toward the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open (Thorngate).


1 The Kerner Report was released following an investigation by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission was chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., and was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate civil unrest and rioting in many inner-cities throughout the United States as well as factors contributing to the deteriorating racial climate of the 1960’s and to propose remedies to the problems.
2 The Center for World Indigenous Studies maintains an online library dedicated to the memory of Shuswap Chief George Manuel and to the nations of the Fourth World through its Fourth World Documentation Program (FWDP). The library’s archives currently maintain more than 100,000 documents, reports, and publications from American Indian nations and indigenous nations from around the world.
3 In the foreword to The Fourth World: An Indian Reality, Vine Deloria, Jr. describes the evolution of the Fourth World position as juxtaposed to Third World definitions. Deloria suggests that Manuel is calling upon the institutions of the world to re-examine their own origins, the beliefs which brought them into being and the basis for integrity that lies beneath their formal structure.
4 Richard Slotkin, in his publication “Regeneration Through Violence” devotes an entire chapter to Myth and Literature in a New World. The myth of the frontier and its consequence is the principle theme of the entire book.
5 Dolores Hayden was referring to specific mortgage insurance programs and their discriminatory practices, particularly between 1934 and the 1960’s. Nevertheless, such universal practices are applicable to all aspects of property acquisition in America.
6 Burgett and Hendler, editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies include the contribution of Grace Kyungwon Hong under the keyword heading “Property.” The contribution states that “Property is commonly discussed as a universal state of being, and the U.S. nation state is predicated on the notion that all citizens have equal rights to property” which is a predication subject to exceptions.
7 The designation ‘Road Gang’ refers to a World War II era D.C. lobby (also known as the Highwaymen) as referenced in the Dolores Hayden publication, A Field Guide To Sprawl.
8 Biographer Mary Dearborn in her work simply entitled Mailer discusses the hipster and its impact on what it meant to be ‘cool.’ She states that never before – even in the 1920’s, when the Harlem Renaissance was at its height – had the black man been a figure for white men to admire and emulate.
9 Journalist Joel Garreau coined the term edge city in 1991 to refer to a rapidly developing office and retail center with a minimum of 5,000,000 square feet of leasable office space, and 600,000 square feet of leasable retail space, a place with more jobs than bedrooms. Dolores Hayden in A Field Guide to Sprawl proposed the use of the term ‘edge nodes’ because the use of ‘city’ is misleading to describe growth nodes around a metropolitan region. These areas usually lack the public space, transit, pedestrian amenities, and overall density of a traditional downtown.
10 Boger quoted Katz in Race, Poverty, and American Cities on Page 42 by suggesting that the injury to these inner-city neighborhoods is not merely economic. “Many institutions have deserted inner cities, the ones that remain are failing; along with city government, their legitimacy has collapsed…. Institutional withdrawal and collapse not only rob inner cities of the services they need, they knock out the props that sustain a viable public life and the possibility of community. They destroy the basis of civil society.”
11 The term “Urban Prairie” is a relatively new definition of conditions which have developed in institutionally abandoned neighborhoods over the past several decades. Thus, publications which cite the coined term are limited at best. This term, which is in a perpetual state of redefinition, is found on the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia as revised in October 2009.

Olon F. Dotson serves as an Associate Professor at the Ball State University, College of Architecture and Planning. Formerly, he was Vice-President for the Indianapolis-based urban Design and Program Management firm ARMONICS, Inc., designing and guiding the implementation of inner-city revitalization efforts throughout the United States. In addition to teaching, Mr. Dotson is currently enrolled in the PhD Program in American Studies at Purdue University.

16 Responses to “Introduction to the Fourth World”

  1. Jack Leiter Says:

    Thanks for the interesting read, even though it did take quite a long time to read. (English is not my native language) May I ask where you get your information from? Thanks!

  2. Olon Dotson Says:

    In response to the question from Jack Leiter:

    The information contained in this article come from a multitude of sources, extensive research combined with life experiences, professional and academic work in severely distressed innercities throughout the United States. Many of the sources are cited in the endnotes of the article.

  3. Matt Davies Says:

    Very thorough and interesting article which I came across as I have a google alert for ATD Fourth World for whom I work. In fact Wresinski coined the phrase at the end of the 1960s (http://www.droits-fondamentaux.org/spip.php?article98). I’d be interested to know if you have been in contact with ATD Fourth World in the US or elsewhere?

  4. Olon Dotson Says:

    In response to the question from Matt Davies:

    I am familiar with ATD Fourth World as referenced within the article; however, I have not been in contact with the organization in the US or elsewhere. I would like to develop a relationship with ATD Fourth World and/or CWIS over time and hope that the premise of my positions are consistent with the mission(s) of Wresinski, George Manuel, or any scholars exploring such “issues.” Regardless, I am committed to acknowledging contributions to the concept in all of my writings. Thank you for your comment. My e-mail at Ball State University is odotson@bsu.edu.

  5. Wes Janz Says:


    Some thinking out loud … wondering if you’re developing a fourth world taxonomy?

    That is, as we’ve discussed, there are commonalities shared by Gary and Flint and Braddock and Cairo (Illinois) AND distinctions based on the local conditions, actors, organizations, whatevers that brought about the decline that we have visited and come to understand. Maybe this question represents my own limitations as one who describes and interprets, but has not yet been able to frame, or compare. (As we say, compared to what?) What might we look at, besides histories, dietary/caloric intakes, numbers of homicides, high school graduation rates, etc., etc.? Where should we focus our attention, if we should?

    Maybe this is to ask: what sort of qualitative “metrics” can we come up with that help us frame the similarities/differences together without resorting to the sorts of quantitative analyses so common, and so trusted, among academics?

    Just asking (from Montreal!),


  6. Wes Janz Says:


    Don’t know if you are aware of this attempt of mine (April 2009) — “Deer Blinds, a Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant, and the House Across the Street: Offering an Abandonment Taxonomy” @ http://onesmallproject.blogspot.com/2009/04/abandonment-fughetaboutit-taxonomy-part.html

    Let me know what you think.


  7. Olon Dotson Says:

    Thanks Wes:

    I believe that we should focus our attention (which can be both qualitative and quantitative) on the fact at a conceptual level, and from a physical and social perspective, it is irresponsible to engage in discourse about sustainability if we can not openly discuss matters of race, class, gender and equity –particularly in the United States. Thus, it is my hope that exploring the histories, stories, and critical geographics of such spaces may help to inform us of the true crises and at its core, our ever-expanding Fourth World.

  8. Josh Pabst Says:


    Good to see the project is still alive. When I wrote you several months ago to see where you were on this; I never heard back from you. I realized only after I read the most recent article that I was reading them out of order (in terms of publication date.) I just finished both the intro to ‘fourth world’ and the ‘gary, IN’ articles and they are fresh in my mind. I’m not sure if I’d be more introspective to write you now or let it all sink in.

    The one thing I kept waiting to read was your target. From the sounds of the article, maybe your aim is to simply identify and bring to light the injustice and continuing lack of constitutional rights to those ‘trapped’ in the all-but-abandoned inner cities. Indenitification is certainly important, but I also think people are aware of it, they just don’t want to acknowledge it. Anyone who’s driven through a ‘ghost town’ and seen store signs boarded up knows that there is something distinctly wrong with what they are seeing. That’s why we all get such a strange feeling when we see it–it’s eerie. For those of us in Chicago, we choose to hop in a cab after a night at the bars rather than walking through the urban-prairie at Division and Halsted. People recognize many of the things that are wrong; they just choose to ignore them and avoid them rather than confronting them. It’s easier. At times; safer. It’s the quote about the woman crossing the street when the boys ride their bikes past and tell her not to be, ‘afraid of [them.]” She doesn’t want to be. I would rather walk home from the bar. The truth is that these urban-prairies really are akin to jungles and we don’t all see through the eyes of children. We have fears, justified or not. We have life experience. Worse still, those fears are solidified by media or the film industry in the depiction of these housing projects or ‘hoods’.

    The point I’m trying to get to perhaps is that the thing I’ve admired most about you as a professional, a teacher, and a friend is that you don’t just stop once the problem is identified, you continue where others leave off. Your work has begun where others end. You practice rather than preach. Words will only go so far. You can find a hundred books about the problems, but apparently not one about the answers. Moreover, who’s reading them. Who’s quoting them. Other scholars making the same argument. So you have a bunch of incredibly intelligent people citing one another to make similar arguments. It’s like republicans citing the studies of republicans to strengthen their stance. Just a bunch of mental-masturbation.

    As I said above, it’s not terribly difficult to identify the problems, it’s coming up with sensible and achievable direction to reduce and even someday eradicate them that is harder. It’s more difficult still to act on that direction. I consider myself a Do-er. You were a do-er. I think that’s why I appreciated you so much in the world of academia. Most professors blow hot-air. Effortless. We can spew academic bull-shit with the best of them. Your work at Millennium Place, whether it someday fails or succeeds, doesn’t ultimately matter too much. Most people would not have trouble to identify a problem with the inner-city of Muncie (or just about anywhere for that matter). Not too hard to do. But you created a hypothesis and carried it out. That’s far beyond the distance that most people are willing to go.

    If we are addressing the fourth world: A picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures can say far more eloquently than you and I what is wrong. The only thing that I’m implying is that in order for words/a book to be valuable, it needs to do more than identify how much we have screwed up. We need to identify what the ‘undo’ button looks like. Moreover, it’s just a guess. No matter how man sources or how many places visited, it’ll always be just a guess until those words become actions. How does that happen?

    “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.”

  9. Josh Pabst Says:

    is there still a book? what’s the aim…
    the article is a great start, it certainly generates interest and
    sets minds thinking. I’d like to hear more. Fourth world, the term
    itself is immediately fascinating. The general public doesn’t know
    how bad third world is. How bad is 4th? is it worse because it’s here?
    or is it really worse than 3rd world? is it getting better? where has it been avoided?

  10. Wil Says:

    I first want to personally thank you for continuing to remind us about these now pieces to our terrain. I will begin my statement by saying that we’ve all come to know “4th worlds” and maybe “5th worlds. I often wonder about their role in our society as tools for learning and receiving instruction. Receiving instruction about the why’s and who was responsible.

    Besides their fascinating ability to photograph and wax nostalgic as to how their dimension came to be, I wonder about their return to nature. Perhaps they have a life that we don’t fully understand yet and these spaces are simply in transition. A molting effect where the skins are abandoned and to be occupied and used another time, by a different host.

    Nothing dies maybe…just transforms. In this case. Slowly.

  11. MV Says:

    Your post arrived the same day the NY times published _”Was Today’s Poverty Determined in 1000 B.C.?” By CATHERINE RAMPELL.
    Rampell’s writing and graph are not simply in opposition to your research but also about the distribution of wealth in the world. This intellectual dichotomy about capita and tools ought to entice some curious thoughts about the conquered and the conquerer, particularly when one views it from first world countries that generate fourth world conditions despite the tools and technologies of our times.

  12. Marwa El-Ashmouni Says:

    Dear Prof.Olon,

    I am so impressed with the rich article as well as with the term Fourth World. This world from my experience in our memorable Midwess Distress tour is much worse than the Third World, where I am from. However, there is a huge part in the third world ought to be termed as the Fifth World, if we want to put them in order, it is the slums of the third world!! If it is not the Tenth World-:)
    These terms are definitely subject to what Dr. Wes intriguingly states the “qualitative metrics” that may help frame the similarities/differences.

    Absolutly, “compared to what?”

    All the best,

  13. Olon Dotson Says:

    I believe that upon the European access to Chinese gunpowder around 1260-1300 AD has more to do with the distribution of wealth in the world than any single factor in the history of human existence on this planet.

  14. Paul Puzzello Says:

    Olon – Nice to see the writing version of what I saw/heard in your presentation last spring in the intro class. Agree with Josh P in terms of target to the question of the Fourth World. Not sure where the study wants to land just yet; here I was left hanging a bit. I was trying to understand Josh’s position in terms of looking for the “proposition” here, which is not the intention of your research, right? As Wes talks about smallness and makes examples of grass roots beginnings so could these stories and insight be present in every urban condition you talk about. The “doughnut” cities you cite are fascinating references and I really love the way you present them as individual narratives made very clear in your writing about Gary. Its interesting to read Wil’s commentary about gradual change, transition, molting. There is no big answer to the problem no “undo button” as has been suggested. A good piece of writing can for me be incredibly insightful to the obvious because as you have said, we are forgetting what is right in front of our eyes; we need it formatted to understand it. To use the s-word, I believe social sustainability begets “green” sustainability and many times are not mutually exclusive when we talk about re-use of older building fabric, density, diversity. That’s another branch to this work.

  15. Olon Dotson Says:

    Thank you Wes, Wil, Marwa, Josh and Paul. Your comments, questions, and thoughts are all helpful as I continue this exploration. Marwa, it is wonderful to hear from you again. You are responsible for my formulation of the term, “Fourth World” as a result of your observations during our “Midwess Distress Tour.”

    Thank you all!!!

  16. Marwa El-Ashmouni Says:

    Ohhhh so this was me! I’ve just remebered this conservation now when we were in St. Louis. Wow!! That was great time for all of us to see the world with differnt eyes!!
    Thanks to you for developing such great article and of course to our hero Dr. Wes whose academic and humane personality are the most wonderful thing that could happen to a student in his whole life.
    Best regards,