I attended the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual meeting in Washington DC in January and presented in the excellent, day-long session, “Contemporary and Historical Archaeologies of the City,” chaired by Krysta Ryzewski and Laura McAtackney. Presentations in this session featured research from all over the globe, from a jazz club in Detroit to a company town in Kentucky to contested memorial landscapes in Belfast. This post is a version of my paper, “The Archaeology of Urban Blight,” which I edited after getting feedback on the project and completing a bit more research.

Introduction

This paper focuses on the reuse of materials from blighted properties in Detroit, Michigan, and (to a limited extent) Cleveland, Ohio, asking how the process of deconstructing and ‘reclaiming’ blighted properties can transform urban blight from something that’s considered threatening and negative into something positive that can be considered a form of tangible heritage. To learn more about the fragmentation and redistribution of Detroit’s built environment via the reclamation process, I completed a series of ethnographic interviews, conducted participant/observation at various local sites and workshops, and began an analysis of media coverage of reclamation in postindustrial cities in the US. After providing some background information about urban blight in Detroit, I’ll share the data I have collected so far and discuss deconstruction and reclamation as place-making activities that are directly tied to regional narratives about identity, place, and heritage.

Understanding Population and Blight in Detroit

First, some basic information about Detroit since 1950. The city’s population peaked in 1950 at nearly 2 million people, and the 2010 Census estimated the 2014 population to have been 680,250. This population loss, due to various complicated forces, such as racist housing policies that structured the city’s (over-)expansion and deindustrialization (with auto companies moving to the suburbs fairly early on), halved the population and created waves of displacement and pockets of vacancy throughout the city. According to the most recent US Census, 10.6% of Detroit’s population identifies as “white alone,” and 82.7% identifies as “Black or African American alone.” Approximately 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

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Definitions

The word ‘blight’ has a long and complex history and usage, and there are no comprehensive, official federal definitions of urban blight. Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force, a group of private, nonprofit, federal, and state partners that work together to map blight and make a plan for its removal or remediation, defines blight broadly as a ‘public nuisance’ in structural form (see infographic). The city has the ambitious goal of removing 84,641 blighted structures in the next five years. City residents and the Task Force mapped and created a centralized database for information about blight, and while the physical dimensions of blight have been carefully accounted for and measured, its social dimensions (i.e. the way that people living in the city understand and relate to it) are rarely considered in plans for its removal. City officials and local media often represent blight as simply ‘wasted’ space, and the mostly poor, mostly African American residents who live in heavily blighted neighborhoods are, to quote one community leader I interviewed in the neighborhood of Brightmoor, “considered to be trash.” Blight functions as both a physical and a social condition that can be applied to properties and neighborhoods and the people that live within them (Dawdy 2010).

The Task Force plan also includes a section on the “sense of urgency” that should motivate removal plans, describing blight as a “cancer” that if not treated aggressively and completely eradicated, will continue to consume the city. Blighted properties are seldom thought of as built or tangible heritage, and their removal is a common, unifying goal for Detroiters that transcends many political and social divisions in the city.

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Definitions of blight via the Blight Removal Task Force

In addition to the idea that blight is a force of nature rather than the direct, long-term result of certain policies and processes, deconstruction and reclamation have come up repeatedly in he course of my research as ideal ways to mitigate blight and not only remove it, but convert it into something safer and even desirable. I decided to investigate deconstruction in Detroit to learn more about how something that’s seen as threatening ‘waste’ and negative space can be preserved and transformed into tangible heritage that is tied to and represents Detroit’s complicated past, even if it’s in a minimized, cleaner, ‘safer’ way.

Deconstruction: Blight as Tangible Heritage

Deconstruction is one way to remediate urban blight, and is seen as a sustainable alternative to traditional demolition. In postindustrial communities, blight removal is the ultimate goal of both demolition and deconstruction, but the means of achieving that goal are different–deconstruction involves the careful dismantling of a structure to salvage as much material for recycling and reuse as possible. Materials saved include windows, doors, flooring, joists, masonry, light and plumbing fixtures, roofing, and historical or aesthetic features (woodwork, molding, or light fixtures, for instance). Deconstruction results in less material going to landfills, which is is important considering that building waste comprises 1/3 of the solid waste in the U.S. It also creates more employment opportunities in communities where this work is being done.

Critics of deconstruction often argue, though, that deconstruction takes more time and is more expensive than traditional demolition (it usually costs twice as much on average). They also argue that any employment opportunities created by deconstruction are only temporary. So while deconstruction can be a good, financially feasible option on an neighborhood or individual level, deconstruction on a large scale, like in the heavily blighted areas of postindustrial cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore, can be extremely expensive, and at a time when funding available for blight removal is usually only a fraction of what the cost would be for traditional demolition.

For now, then, deconstruction is taking place on a smaller scale. Projects, businesses, and organizations like Reclaim Detroit and A Piece of Cleveland work to salvage and reuse materials from blighted neighborhoods in these postindustrial cities, and the salvaged materials have market value on their own. A substantial part of these materials’ reuse value, however, comes from the specific places and memories that they are associated with.

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The Flower House, via http://www.theflower.house

There are several recent, well-publicized examples of deconstruction in the Rust Belt. For example, in Hamtramck (a city within the city of Detroit), the Flower House, an annual floral design installation in an abandoned home, drew thousands.  A former resident of the home toured it with the Detroit Free Press, and her stories and existing artifacts from the home were incorporated into the installations and into media coverage about the home. After the installation closed, the home was responsibly deconstructed and its materials will be repurposed. The deconstruction project Baltimore Brick by Brick incorporates residents’ stories and neighborhood history into the deconstruction process. Another project, Funeral for a Home in Philadelphia, also focuses on recognizing and memorializing the history of a blighted home and its life as part of a community that’s now gone.

A local resident holds a program and flower at "Funeral for a Home" in Mantua, Philadelphia
“Local resident Anita Whitley, 61, holds a program and flower at “Funeral for a Home,” in Mantua, Philadelphia May 31, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Makela”

These examples are somewhat unique in that these projects contextualize blight, recognizing that these decaying homes were once part of communities, and that the people and lives connected to these properties are important, as are the materials being salvaged. In other cases, though there’s little or no input from former or current residents, ideas about place and a neighborhood’s past are often directly (re)incorporated into the reused items themselves. For instance, Homes Eyewear in Detroit uses wood they purchase from Reclaim Detroit to make sunglasses frames that are stamped with the street name where the wood was reclaimed from (they cost $188). Similarly, Leadhead Glass uses glass and wood salvaged from Detroit homes to build “fine art terrariums” which range in price from $80-$230. Cass Community Social Services sells Detroit Treads ($25) sandals made from the rubber of illegally dumped tires in the municipality. A Piece of Cleveland also sells furniture made from salvaged materials, and they include information about the property of origin on their listing for the product (eg. the address it came from, whether it was private or commercial, the year the structure was built, and the year it was reclaimed or “reborn” in its current form). Blight and blighted neighborhoods have become, to some extent, a representation of local identity, and details about the life history of abandoned neighborhoods or properties are a key component of the creation and marketing of reclaimed items.

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My Leadhead Glass Terrarium

The documentation, salvage, and reuse of these materials keep them and the histories they represent in peoples’ lives and memories. However, it’s likely that many residents in these cities can’t afford these reclaimed items. For instance, in Detroit, where the per capita income is less than $15,000 a year (Census Bureau), spending $188 for a pair of sunglasses or $600 for a table made of reclaimed wood may not be an option for most residents. Also, the idea of wearing parts of your former neighbor’s or grandparents’ house as sunglasses may not appeal to most displaced residents. The target market for many reused and salvaged items seems to be upper middle-class residents and others who have connections to or an interest in the city. Local businesses also purchase and incorporate these pieces, as a 2011 Washington Post article about A Piece of Cleveland describes:

“Tonight, at a local jazz club, the saxophone’s notes will drift across wood tables that once made up the homes where Hungarian immigrants flocked a century ago. The welcome desk of a hospital off Euclid Avenue shines with refinished oak and maple from a former post office. The patrons inside the Capitol Theatre off W. 65th Street will lounge on pine benches that once housed an Italian family who held pasta dinners on their front porch on Sunday evenings. Diners inside the Fahrenheit restaurant will eat their black-truffle cheese pizza and maple-glazed sweet potatoes on tables fashioned from the remains of a 1927 home that stood west of downtown.”

What can this passage about reuse tell us about the people who lived in now-abandoned neighborhoods and the people who have access to reclaimed materials? Who is most likely to be enjoying the “black-truffle cheese pizza” on the table fashioned from the remains of a blighted property built in 1927? (Probably not the people still living on that block.) What happened to those Hungarian and Italian families, what happened to the post office and the neighborhoods where the materials for this furniture came from?

This passage illustrates some the narrative-building that goes into the deconstruction and reclamation process. Whether based on historical information or not, the appeal of reclaimed items is that they are part of a city’s past, but they also position the city firmly in the present. Imaginings of what blight represents (i.e. a more simplified version of local history and heritage, as outlined in the passage above) often elide the complicated present-day realities and politics of living in blighted neighborhoods.

(Some) Data on Reclamation

In order to better understand the process of reclamation and how it reflects and changes the way people perceive and interact with blight, I conducted participant/observation and completed 17 formal and informal interviews at Detroit’s Eastern Market and other local stores and markets (including bordering suburbs, Ferndale in particular), talking with both vendors and consumers, and specifically speaking with vendors selling items that use reclaimed wood from throughout the city (some focus exclusively on materials from specific neighborhoods, like Corktown). I included any data from any interviews that I had already completed that directly referenced deconstruction and reclamation (making for a total of 26 interviews). I also visited Detroit Architectural Salvage on a couple of different occasions to learn about what materials are available to consumers. Lastly, I completed an analysis of media coverage of reclamation in Detroit and Cleveland (the excerpt discussed above was part of this).

Analysis

So where do reclaimed items end up? Who buys them? And most importantly, how do people incorporate these objects into narratives about Detroit’s past and present? Reclaimed items are purchased by people who are from or have connections to the Detroit area, and less often by people visiting the city who have no prior connections.  Many buyers are currently living in the suburbs in southeastern Michigan (popular cities include Ferndale, Royal Oak) or have recently moved (or are planning to move) into growing neighborhoods like Corktown, Midtown, Downtown, and the city of Hamtramck (and this is not an exhaustive list). The majority of buyers and vendors identify as white and middle/upper middle class (though a significant portion of participants indicated that they considered themselves from both working and middle classes). The vendors I spoke with offered a general description of their clientele, identifying them as mostly people with connections to Detroit, including living in the metro area or having recently moved into the city from elsewhere.

Informal and formal interviews indicated that reclamation is purposefully associated with both a city’s past and future; both vendors and consumers see it as taking something that’s viewed as ‘wasted’ (both in terms of material and space) and making it into something that honors Detroit’s past while creating and making room (literally) for its future. It also ties specific individuals to Detroit and gives them a piece of its past…not just a material object, but a narrative about that object that consumers are a part of; it becomes a form of tangible heritage that references a (contested) collective history, but which can also be altered and owned by individuals and incorporated into their personal histories.

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A fence made out of salvaged doors on Detroit’s east side

Conclusions

It’s important to separate the many benefits of deconstruction as a sustainable practice from some of the not-so-clearly-beneficial examples of reuse that result from it. Part of reuse in the examples above focuses on saving and recycling materials that would’ve otherwise been discarded and creating new economic opportunities, and this is vital for struggling communities.  But another part of the salvage and reclamation process focuses on removing blight in its current form from the space it occupies and making into something “safe” and consumable. In this process, blight transforms from something threatening and pathologized–an aggressive “cancer” that will take over your entire city unless stopped– to something you can wear and incorporate (in a contained, cleaned-up, and polished way) into your own home and/or wardrobe. 

Reclamation and its products can create a safer, ‘neutral’ version of the city’s past and present and a means by which residents to come together in support of the city and its recovery. While it’s often presented as “the opposite of demolition,” the way reclamation is currently practiced in postindustrial communities reflects a commitment to the same goals and ideologies behind the drive and desire for widespread demolition (or removal, or “renewal”). It therefore has the potential to be part of the same processes of displacement that Detroit and other Rust Belt cities have undergone since the early 20th century. As we’ve seen in previous presentations today, for city officials and planners, creating a ‘new Detroit’ has often meant uprooting existing neighborhoods and communities and erasing the traces that they’ve left on the landscape (Ryzewski 2015). The neighborhoods most impacted by blight removal (including deconstruction) aren’t those that are slowly reviving, but those that are the ‘hardest hit,’ the city’s most impoverished and vulnerable communities. Noticeably absent from most reclamation practices, aside from the actual work of salvaging materials, are the black, impoverished and working class residents that still make up the majority of the city’s current population.

I want to emphasize that I don’t view reclamation or the purchase of reclaimed items as misguided or ‘wrong.’ I own items made from reclaimed materials (that’s a photo of my terrarium above) and I support local businesses and organizations that employ practices of deconstruction and reuse. What I’m arguing for is a social and historical contextualization of deconstruction practices and a more critical, conscious perspective on the motivations behind and the outcomes of reclamation. Why are certain neighborhoods chosen for large-scale blight removal in the first place, and where do salvaged materials end up? Who benefits (in the short-term and long-term) from deconstruction? How does the process of reclamation change the narratives that we’re telling about Detroit’s past, present, and future, and who/what is being erased from the landscape in the rush to eradicate blight? There is an established history of communities being eradicated by urban ‘renewal’ and ‘slum clearance’ in most large American cities, and even with its benefits, deconstruction is/has the potential to be a part of these cycles of displacement and marginalization.

 

Works Cited

Dawdy, Shannon. 2010. “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity.” Current Anthropology. 51:6.

 Ryzewski, Krysta. 2015. “No home for the ‘ordinary gamut’: A historical archaeology of community displacement and the creation of Detroit, City Beautiful.” Journal of Social Archaeology  15(3) 408–431.

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