Are Urban Explorers Heritage Activists?: The ‘Eternal Drabness’ of DeHoCo

“[Urban exploration] is a community of people who by their inherent nature break rules and expectations. Expecting them to then follow the rules of a community is patently absurd” (Garret 2013: 33).

Pablo Arboleda,  a Ph.D. student at Bauhaus-University Weimar, recently published an interesting article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies that argues for urban exploration as a type of bottom-up heritage activism.

In this post, I’ll discuss Arboleda’s argument and apply it to my own varied experiences as an urban explorer, anthropologist/archaeologist, and instructor of college courses about the politics of exploring and representing neglected spaces. I’ll also discuss recent visits I’ve made to the abandoned Detroit House of Correction (DeHoCo) and the role that urban exploration plays (or has the potential to play) in memorializing this soon-to-be-demolished site.

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Archaeologies of Displacement and Urban Renewal in Detroit

Last week I attended the “Archaeology and Revitalization in Detroit” sessions at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network‘s annual meeting in Detroit, on the campus of Wayne State University. The session, which was split into two parts, featured the research of several Wayne State faculty members and graduate students and Robert Chidester from the Mannik & Smith Group in Maumee, Ohio. In this post, I’ll be discussing some of the main themes of the session, focusing on the cycles of displacement and ‘renewal’ that structure the city’s history (and future).

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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.

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