Winter Edition 2020
(Re)membering Home Demolition in Detroit as Dismemberment
By Erin Stanley
I learned that my place is alive despite the messaging that land is property, and the world is a machine,
Learned it was suffering before I knew the terms racism, segregation, and poverty,
Learned it had the power to shape a life, the willingness to teach, the call to nurture.
I saw my place get sick long before my parents found the yellow bag on our front door,
Saw houses that tell stories, create memories, and yearn for care described in the news as vacant, abandoned, blighted,
Saw symptoms of an epidemic, yet saw it misdiagnosed as our failure, our choice, our neglect.
I heard the bulldozer rip through my place long ago, one Christmas Eve, then again, and again, and again.
Heard walls that once held photographs and bricks that once offered security carelessly dismantled and thrown in a dumpster,
Heard the unmarked graves filled with soil; heard some people cheer and some mourn; heard the politicians take credit for this erasure.
We heal our place as we heal our wounds— our chronic aches from colonization and industrialization, our recurrent bleeding from white supremacy, capitalist extraction, and class warfare, and our acute pains of degradation, dispossession, disavowal.
Heal as witnesses, co-liberators, future-ancestors, and members of one another.
Heal through belonging in place— in its beauty, its brokenness, its promise.
Disease: Blight as a Symptom
I begin with this offering as both a recognition that “only poetry can address grief,” and, more importantly, to situate these experiences of life and loss within the larger goals of this essay, which are to highlight the interconnectedness and aliveness of our City and show how widespread demolitions threaten to dismember these critical connections (Starhawk, as cited in Boggs, 2011, p. 37). Detroit is the place of my life, but I live here as a guest, as a white person in Turtle Island’s Blackest city and on Anishinaabe, Potawatomi, and Miami land; I fled here under the seduction of placelessness and the mythology that “success” lies elsewhere; and I returned here with intention, humility, and an unbounded love.
This homecoming was simultaneously couched in a crisis of home (and dignity) takings, one that has so far ripped over 100,000 Detroit families (my own included) from their houses through the property tax foreclosure process, and with it, their sense of security, belonging, and intergenerational wealth. Thankfully, brave and thorough research has proven that not only was the property tax foreclosure crisis in Detroit unethical and unjust, it was unconstitutional, as Detroiters were illegally and systematically over-taxed. Between 2009-2016, the City of Detroit stole $600 million from its homeowners through assessing 55-85% of its properties in violation of the Michigan Constitution, which sets a mandate that properties cannot be assessed at more than 50% of their market value (MacDonald, 2020; Atuahene & Hodge, 2018). Moreover, these illegal over-assessments are a significant predictor of property tax foreclosure, have impacted low-income and Black homeowners disproportionately, and, importantly, are still happening despite a citywide re-appraisal in 2017 (Atuahene & Berry, 2019; Center for Municipal Finance, 2020).
While Detroit has struggled with blighted structures for decades, the current administration’s emphasis on blight removal cannot be separated from the public theft and structural violence wrapped up in a property tax foreclosure crisis unlike any the country has seen since the Great Depression (Atuahene & Hodge, 2018). The City’s chosen solution to this problem, widespread demolition, is harmful for several reasons. First, it furthers the cycle of violence and dispossession by clear-cutting blocks and neighborhoods, erasing histories, and gentrifying futures. Second, it fails to address the root causes of blight or recognize the need for compensation to the Detroiters who have been robbed of their wealth, homes, and dignity. Third, it adds to the trauma of displacement, as you contend not only with being torn from your home but with the reality that the walls that still echo with your stories and bore witness to your memories might soon be carted off to a landfill. Lastly, and what I will focus on from here, demolitions undermine the interconnected relationality, or membership, on which urban life depends.
Alive: The City as Membership
Who and what we constitute as worthy of our ethical consideration and responsibility matters greatly when it comes to the kinds of solutions we imagine and enact for the social and ecological crises we face. Unfortunately, our dominant culture in this country chooses death over life, profit over living beings, violence over love, and certain groups over others. The demolition agenda put forth by the Duggan administration and supported through the passing of Proposal N reflects these hierarchies of value. Yet, there has always been another way and there seems to be a growing movement to recognize and revitalize this. This way leads us to reconnect ourselves to each other and to the more than human world, to reclaim our positionality within a vast, and diverse membership of life. From this recognition of our interdependence, we might tend to our relationships with others with a sense of responsibility and care, while also seeking to live locally and focus our attention on what our places provide and need from us. In the novel, Hannah Coulter (2004), Wendell Berry’s character, Burley, provides a picture of this membership that we are all a part of:
Oh yes, brothers and sisters, we are members, one of another. The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who doesn’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work. (p. 97)
As Burley importantly notes, the question is not whether we are members of one another, but rather, to what extent we are aware of and acting out of concern for the membership of life to which we belong. The stakes are high concerning how we choose to answer this question, however, and imagining ourselves as outside of these generative relationships creates devastating consequences (Martusewicz et al., 2015, p. 97). Thus, I am curious as to how embracing and carefully tending to the interconnectedness of a place and its human and more-than-human members might help reframe the harm caused by and solutions to the blight crisis in Detroit.
Death: Demolitions as Dismemberment
It was only through realizing my membership within my interconnected human, more-than-human, and material neighbors in Detroit that demolitions revealed themselves to me not as a political solution to a social problem, but as deaths. I have observed a lot of demolitions in Detroit as a researcher, activist, and member, but can still remember the first time I bore witness to the process as a death. In this moment, I felt a sense of ripping so gut-wrenching and so hauntingly familiar that I had to pull my car over and sit with this house and our grief as it rapidly disappeared. As I imagined the people who once made a home there, I was reminded of my own experience of being forcefully torn from my roots, my history, my home. I was shocked by the paradox of how rapidly a house that likely took years of effort, creativity, and labor to build was disposed of. I grieved for the human displacement and dispossession that made this house sick, and I was angry that it could not be saved from this death. I considered the disruption this forceful process has on the soil, the trees, the vibrant ecosystems beneath and around the house. I thought of the memories and stories that still lived within these deteriorating walls, despite their designation as vacant, abandoned, or just a number on the demolition pipeline. I wondered where this energy and these vast connections would go as these walls got carted off to a landfill— a curiosity later satisfied by Sethe in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved (1987), who explains, “places, places are still there; if a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place— the picture of it— stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world” (p. 43). As I began to examine demolitions as deaths (on deaths, on deaths, on deaths), I longed more and more for a funeral, a recognition, a revitalization of the membership, not just the economy, of a neighborhood.
Widespread demolitions undermine the vital connections between the vast and diverse membership of Detroit as they disregard the social life and agency of the houses themselves, address these structures in isolation from the interdependent relationships that they are embedded within, and disregard the importance of grief and memory as part of tending to this generative relationality. Mayor Duggan’s approach to addressing blight erases histories, cultures, and diversity from the social, emotional, and physical landscapes of our City. As the streetscapes that simultaneously evoke a sense of comfort, sadness, curiosity, stability, and confusion get carted away to a landfill, gaping holes remain in both the land and the hearts of the people connected to them. Mindy Fullilove (2016) terms this unique sense of trauma as “rootshock,” and points out, “the obliteration of a neighborhood destroys the matrix that holds people together on particular paths and in specific relationships; absent that matrix, they cannot find each other in just that way, and in some cases, they cannot find each other at all” (p. 218). To counter this profound dismemberment that is only adding to the social and ecological violence Detroiters face, we need to de-prioritize demolition and reimagine solutions to blighted houses that awaken us to the interwovenness and aliveness of our world and City.
Recovery: Reflections on (Re)membering
We cannot heal alone, as we do not exist or come into being alone, so any path towards addressing the blight crisis in Detroit must reinvigorate our sense of belonging in place and repair our fractured relationships with one another and with the more-than-human world. Additionally, to solve blight, we must situate this problem within the interconnected mechanisms of racist, classist, and human supremacist violence that have deteriorated not only the physical structures in our City but also the capacity of its members to thrive. More than a bulldozer, we need ceremonies that honor what we have lost and allow space for healing our wounds and imagining our interwoven futures. The City needs to compensate the Detroiters they have stolen from and approach rebuilding and revitalization not as contractors, property owners, politicians, or entrepreneurs, but as members.
Now that the voters have approved Proposal N, the City plans to demolish 8,000 more homes and secure another 8,000 in hopes that they can be renovated and once again lived in. As Mayor Duggan’s demolition campaign has gained momentum and funding through this proposal, the time to envision and advocate for approaches to blight that do more than eradicate members and memory is urgent. Many residents, activists, and organizations across the City are already mobilized around advocacy for a more transparent and just government intervention in Detroit’s blight crisis. They have also engaged in grassroots efforts to teardown unsafe structures, renovate houses back into homes, and partner with the land in creative ways to benefit the community. Additionally, the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, of which I am a member, has been working in partnership with City Council President Pro-Tem, Mary Sheffield, to craft a local ordinance that would allow for Detroiters impacted by property tax abuses to receive compensation while also working on creating spaces for community healing and mourning.
The broader path towards holistically remedying the blight crisis in Detroit is one that prioritizes the dynamic living membership that binds us and requires our care and attention. (Re)membering is premised on the following: An awareness that humans are inseparable from one another and a part of a complex interconnected system of living beings; a recognition that a place, in relationship with all of its members, is a fundamental social unit essential to the revitalization and honoring of our individual and collective memories (Combs and Freedman, 2012). An example of an approach that would constitute (re)membering involves deconstruction rather than demolition, which would slow down the removal of blighted structures, create more space for community input or collective grieving, and allow for the salvage and reuse of parts of houses that otherwise would be disposed of. Through deconstruction, people who have called these now “blighted” structures home would have the opportunity to sustain their material relationship with their house by keeping and re-using components from it. Another potential option would be to create a practice of honoring and recognizing the legacy of the houses that cannot be saved. This could involve storytelling, constructing community archives, engaging in ceremonies that acknowledge the loss of the houses, and plaques or public art installations that commemorate the houses’ continual membership in place. (Re)membering would not require ignoring the very real threat that unsafe decrepit housing structures pose, but instead would provide a guiding framework for addressing this problem in ways that acknowledge what has been lost, allow for grief and healing, and create new spaces for us to be in right relation to our neighbors, places, and the greater membership of living things.
“Make Us Whole”
As it exists, the campaign to demolish thousands of residential structures throughout the City erases a neighborhood’s residents, memories, and interconnectedness through displacing people, by clear-cutting the material environment, along with the living memories and agency held within these structures, and, ultimately, through dismembering human and more-than-human members from their place. Demolitions as blight removal are just one example of the many ways in which Detroit has been dismembered through imperial, racist, classist, and neoliberal projects. But the convergence of the City’s past, present, and future that they represent provide a ripe opportunity for “creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old” (Boggs, 2012, p. 134). This new beginning is possible and could create actual strides in making the City and all its members whole again.
This would require a radical reimagining of the values and priorities that guide political decision making concerning complex social problems such as blight. The approach I suggest here is one that listens to the stories “ruined” houses and “vacant” land tell, rather than writing them off as mute spaces, one that honors the memories they hold as well as the people who carry them, and one that creates ways for Detroiters to heal the fractured membership with their place and with one another (Dawdy, 2010, p. 777). Thus, amidst the deep wounds of ourselves, our human, more-than-human, and material neighbors, we can begin healing as we (re)member with one another, as we “come awake to the embrace of the world’s living tapestry, and to the bonds of love necessary to cycles of life itself, and to imagine the possibilities that come alive in those bonds” (Martusewicz, 2019, p. 40).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect any official position of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice. For additional information or to get involved with the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, visit illegalforeclosures.org or follow @illegalforeclosure on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Erin Stanley (she/her) is a social worker, aspiring scholar/activist/writer, and proud Detroiter. She is currently a doctoral student in the transdisciplinary Social Work and Anthropology program at Wayne State University, studying place-based belonging and striving to be an “at home” anthropologist. Erin has been a member of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice since January 2018, and works on the Compensation task force and the Property Tax Appeals Project. Detroit has been her first and greatest teacher, but she would like to thank two of her most powerful human educators, Bernadette Atuahene and Rebecca Martusewicz, for their courage, love, and mentorship. Erin would also like to recognize Bethany Hedden, Yolanda Jackson, and Tommie Obioha as friends, leaders, and co-conspirators in the beloved work of healing and fighting for justice.
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