Blight: “The unbearable municipal burden”

Next semester I’m teaching a class that traces the development of the concept of ‘ruin’ through time, connecting our current fascination and engagements with ruins–via phenomena like ‘ruin porn’ and urban exploration–to historical movements and ways of thinking about and interacting with the vacant/abandoned built environment (eg. psychogeography, flaneury, ruinenlust, Romantic-era representations of ruins, the concept of ‘ruin value,’ ideas about modernity).  The goal is to explore the historical and social roots of these phenomena and their various manifestations and use what we learn to challenge conventional ways of perceiving and engaging with (urban) space.

The promotional poster for the course just went out (hooray!) and I’m starting to create and refine my lesson plans and presentations. In the next few posts, I’ll be discussing some of the subjects we’ll cover, starting with the present-day focus on urban blight and the current interest in/study of modern ruins.

I started researching modern ruination in my first year of graduate school, when I was introduced to Tim Edensor’s book, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (2005),  in an industrial archaeology class. It became a potential dissertation topic about a year later, when I started thinking about how different communities in my home state of Michigan relate to the physical remnants of industry. Most recently–and in preparation for my dissertation research–I started tracing and documenting public discourse about Detroit’s ‘decline’ and ‘renewal.’ I noticed that when residents and politicians discuss the city’s thousands of vacant structures and property parcels, the word ‘ruins’ is very rarely used; ‘blight’ is used almost exclusively. But when outsiders (the media, non-residents, some scholars) discuss or represent Detroit, ‘ruins’ is often employed to describe abandonment and decay. I was curious about what it means to call something a ruin, and why this terminology matters.

‘Blight’ vs. ‘Ruins’

The choice to use either blight or ruins when describing abandonment in Detroit and other postindustrial cities has to do with how these concepts have developed and circulated over time, and with the cultural and political baggage each term has picked up along the way. Blight has historically referred to plant disease, something that sets in quickly and weakens or destroys an otherwise healthy organism (see the featured image of this post for an example), and this is probably still its most common usage. Sometimes it affects only part of the plant or a body part–for instance, you could have ‘blight in the eye’ or ‘blight of the skin.’ Blight is also used to describe anything that mars or damages hopes and prospects. The origins of the word are unknown, but according to the OED, it’s been in use since the 17th century. It was first used in print to describe urban areas in Lewis Mumford’s, Culture of Cities (1938)wherein he describes urban planning in the US and Europe from the Medieval period through the 1920s. If we’re applying the definition literally, the city itself would be the organism in this context, and blight would be the vacant properties or semi-degraded structures that are seen as ‘lesions’ on the landscape, on the physical body of the city; they spread like a disease and prevent the city from thriving. You’ll often see discussions of urban blight that refer to it as a ‘cancer,’ something that spreads quickly and without people really realizing that it’s happening.

There are currently many different local and state definitions of urban blight in circulation–there isn’t a standard federal definition in the US, or even really an articulated consensus about what it is. In a recent editorial piece in The Telegraph (Georgia), Emory University law professor and blight specialist Frank Alexander said he has found “78 different legal definitions of blight, and none of them ultimately made any sense.” The piece goes on to state that “the Georgia Department of Community Affairs said there is no state or federal definition for blight, but, ‘You know it when you see it'”:

“Since we all know blight when we see it, maybe we need to look at what blight is not. Where there are no boarded up homes, there is no blight. Unblighted neighborhoods don’t feature fallen in roofs, trash, empty liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia out in the open. It’s hard for blight to get a foothold where well-manicured lawns and landscaping are the unspoken rule of an area. Blight can’t exist in neighborhoods where tax delinquencies are uncommon and utilities rarely cut off. Blight has trouble where there are young two-parent families and where the population is growing. Blight has a tough time when there are good schools and services available to area residents…”

For an idea of how blight functions in present-day discourse about urban decline and renewal in Detroit, view the video (below) released by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, wherein blight is defined as: “abandoned buildings, remnants of buildings…any dumping on a site. Anything unsightly in a neighborhood can be constituted as blight–anything you wouldn’t want there.” It is presented as something temporary and manageable, as long as we have the data and information needed to address it and can “attack” it head-on (as discussed in the video). It can be mapped and quantified by residents themselves, through the process of ‘blexting,’ or texting information about and photos of blighted properties to the Motor City Mapping project, and information about it is stored in a publicly accessible database. We create master plans to contain and eradicate it and make way for new growth and recovery. As the video says, once the blight is removed, people “will see what Detroit is really made of.”

So ‘blight’ is an odd, interesting conflation of a natural process (plant disease) with a human-made disease (displacement as a result of various economic, social, and political processes). In its original usage, it references an agricultural, non-urban context, but when describing abandoned structures, it almost always refers to urban environments, despite the fact that ‘the city’ and ‘the countryside’ (and ‘nature’) are often presented as existing in opposition to one another in Western discourse.

In spite of the intense focus on containing and controlling blight, it’s a subjective concept with leaky edges–there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about what it is, but it’s something that we are supposed to recognize visually and instinctively when we come across it. It can be defined by absence (of value, resources, prosperity, structural integrity, cosmetic maintenance, safety) or by what it’s perceived to attract and the undesirable possibilities it represents (refuse, wasted space, lack of resources, governmental negligence, loss and grief, devaluation, illegal activities).

Via the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force Plan (2014) pg. 13

‘Ruin,’ on the other hand, has a longer, more developed, and more fraught history. Its root is Latin, from ruīna, describing a “headlong rush or fall,” and it worked its way into Middle English (acquiring various associations along the way), where it was first used to describe the collapse of buildings in the 13th century (OED). The term had more diverse meanings and was more widely used in the past than it is today. It implies total collapse and destruction, which can be physical, moral, and/or social in nature, and it is more permanent–not typically something a person or a structure can recover from. It’s also tied to Western ideas about time and aesthetics; the idea of a ‘modern ruin’ is paradoxical because we associate ruins with a long-ago past and with places that are not really actively decaying (with the attendant mold, debris, and rubble) and which have historical or heritage-based value. Modern ruins are often too young, unsightly, and painful to qualify as ‘heritage’ or ‘history’ (see Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2014).

Our ideas about ruin also include and draw on various associated tropes that have developed over time and which view ruin as a metaphors: “The imagery’s history is such that it can stand for any number of different and sometimes contradictory ideas: the triumph of nature, the transience of cultural achievement, the folly of human ambition, humankind’s self-destructive urges, the end of the world, new beginnings, fate, and future” (Shanks et al. 2004). Using blight instead of ruin conceptually separates today’s abandoned and decaying houses, businesses, and industrial structures from this long history of thought and representation, seemingly bypassing the possibility of ruination altogether (i.e. if we don’t acknowledge it as a ‘ruin’ and we tear it down quickly enough, then it can’t be a ruin).

Capitalist conceptualizations of blight see widespread abandonment and displacement as speed bumps or potholes on the ever-onward road of ‘progress’ and not as a recurring symptom or byproduct of it. Ruin is bigger and more unwieldy than that; it’s a tangled mess of natural and cultural transformations playing out simultaneously and unevenly across time and space. Try crafting a master plan to deal with the unruly and unpredictable processes of ruination–ruination defies our ‘master plans.’ If we were to make one, it would have to involve a re-examination and complete overhaul of some core societal beliefs and values. Bottom line: blight is (a type of) ruin–these are two different concepts used to describe and understand the same reality. 

Via News Biscuit. A parody and a good example of the kinds of things we do and don’t associate with blight

Research on Modern Ruins

The current boom in scholarly research on modern ruins coincides with and draws from the popular interest in modern ruination (including ruin photography and urban exploration). I often direct people who ask me what ‘ruin porn’ is and why we should care to this excellent post by Paul Mullins. Now I’ll also be able to point them towards the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology’s first issue, which features a discussion article by Þóra Pétursdóttir  and Bjørnar Olsen called, “Imaging Modern Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography,” with comments from Tim Edensor, Paul Mullins, Angela Piccini, Anca Pusca, Krysta Ryzewski, and Michael Shanks.

In addition to archaeologists, geographers (Tim Edensor, Caitlin DeSilvey, Bradley Garret), cultural anthropologists (Anne Stoler, Gastón Gordillo), and sociologists (Alice Mah, David Schalliol) have researched the ruins of modernity and imperialism from different vantage points. I’ve also come across three recent M.A. theses–by Emily Slager (geography), Katherine Nemeth (communication), and Emma Fraser (sociology)–all of which include discussion of the modern ruins of Detroit–plus a doctoral dissertation by Anthony Fassi (philosophy) on the subject of industrial ruination in the US, also with a section on Detroit.

So there is a lot of scholarly interest in this topic, coming from a diverse range of fields. It’s interesting to me that these researchers don’t use ‘blight’ to describe recent abandonment and decay–they all use ‘ruins’ (or ‘rubble,’ in Gordillo’s case). In addition to the differences I mentioned above about the choice to use one term over the other, ‘blight’ is not only a strictly urban phenomenon, but it seems to belong to the realm of what’s considered to be more applied research, like urban planning and engineering, whereas the ‘ruins of modernity’ belong to the more theoretically-oriented humanities and social sciences (maybe I’ll write more on this division in another post, because it’s more complicated than that…but in the meantime I recommend the work of urban planning and STS doctoral student Michael Koscielniak for a critical and informative look at blight and demolition practices in Detroit and the ethics of urban planning scholarship).

Most of the ruins research in the humanities and social sciences has focused on the analysis of the imagery, rhetoric, and tropes associated with modern ruins and their potential to reveal the destructive forces of capitalism and colonialism. Research on how people actually perceive and experience modern ruination, however, is limited (the work of Alice Mah and Gastón Gordillo being excellent exceptions).

My dissertation uses these broader, structural critiques focusing on modern ruins as a framework for understanding urban transformation as a ‘lived process’ (Mah 2012: 201). That is, I’m asking about, observing, and mapping how people and various organizations in Detroit perceive and interact with blight, and how the values they assign to it reflect and shape their understandings of the past, as well as the futures they imagine for themselves and their communities.

Focusing on Process

What’s missing from much of the political and media discussion about blight removal and demolition is the fact that blight is not a temporary phenomenon or a sudden ‘crisis’ (I highly recommend Kosielniak’s “Cool Summer Blight, or What it Takes to Talk About Practice” for real talk about how blight has been framed as an ’emergency’ requiring various governmental interventions and an immediate, ‘unified response’ from all residents). Presenting it as such often works to hide or de-emphasize its origins and downplay the various costs and consequences of demolition on a massive scale, as well as what will take blight’s place. Blight is part of long-term social and historical processes that stretch back to city’s founding and development. Detroit, like all cities, has been built and rebuilt multiple times, on different scales, creating different waves of displacement. The current focus on erasure and landscape clearance to the exclusion of all else–and the attempts to make Detroit into a blank canvas that invites private investment–obscures the complexity, and even the very existence, of those processes in favor of a more linear narrative about the city’s rise, ‘golden era,’ decline, and recovery. But what–or who–gets left out or pushed to the margins of this narrative, and at what cost? As this recent piece in the Guardian points out, the structural causes of blight and the groups most affected by it–lower-income and minority groups–are not included or discussed in the city’s current plan:

“…some of the plan’s critics argue that it tackles the effects of the city’s crisis with little attention paid to the structural causes and was designed by bureaucrats rather than residents. If consulted, would citizens have voted for $1bn towards building demolition ahead of the city’s other pressing priorities, like water service? […]

“‘Racism is what got us into this mess, yet there is nothing in this blight removal report that deals with issues of race, or segregation, or discrimination, or white flight, which is the absolute root cause of why we have the issues of abandoned buildings and blight in Detroit in the first place,’ says Hammer.”

And what happens when the blight is removed? Capitalist urban development practices employ ‘creative destruction,’ a process that uses adaptive reuse/demolition to create new developments, often displacing current residents in an attempt to draw in new (wealthier) ones (I recommend Herzfeld 2009 on the gentrification of Rome’s historic Monti district for an anthropological look at this process). This is already happening in Detroit, where remaining residents in some of the neighborhoods that have become centers of new development and ‘investment’ are being pushed out to make way for wealthier residents. For an example, check out the promo video below for “The Albert” development in Capitol Park, which converted the former Griswold Apartments, home to more than 100 low-income, mostly African American, senior citizens, into 127 market-rate apartments. When blight is removed, increasing property values and freeing up space for private development, will remaining residents benefit or even be able to stay?

The all-hands-on-deck ‘fight against blight’ indicates the pain and discomfort that the material remains of the recent past can cause when they conflict with both larger economical imperatives and local understandings of identity and recovery. Most people living in Detroit view some blight removal and redevelopment as positive and necessary for a variety of reasons, and when I argue that the public focus on and presentation of blight in the city is too narrowly focused, I’m in no way implying that blight is not a real problem for Detroit residents or that nothing needs to be done about it–just the opposite, in fact: I’m arguing that we need to understand how blight affects and is perceived by the people that live and interact with it in order to widen the scope of the discussion and deepen our understanding of it as part of a process and an entire constellation of issues, not just a monolithic obstacle-to-prosperity (for some).


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