Promised Land: The Politics of Abandonment and the Struggle for a New Detroit Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Safransky, Sara
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography
  • This dissertation examines contemporary land-use and planning conflicts in Detroit where, in 2014, city officials classified 150,000 lots as "vacant" or "abandoned." Bringing urban geography into conversation with critical race studies and property theory, the dissertation illuminates how private property, personhood, and racial difference have shaped and been shaped by postindustrial urban crisis. Based on 17 months of engaged research conducted between 2010 and 2012, I examine how different visions for Detroit's future are enacted through black radical farming projects, a for-profit urban forestry venture, emergency management and bankruptcy, a tax foreclosure auction, and a citywide planning process aimed at repurposing Detroit's highest vacancy (or least populated) neighborhoods as urban wilderness while withdrawing infrastructure and public services. The dissertation shows that despite the widespread discourse of vacancy, the neighborhoods targeted for "greening" were not empty, but home to more than 100,000 people. This contradiction points to the inequities of an ascendant urban planning ethos that integrates rationalities of environmental sustainability and fiscal austerity while ignoring histories of racialized uneven development. Even as the controversial abandonment and greening of certain neighborhoods proceeded, social movements articulated the right to a different future city by mobilizing around the concepts of the commons and community self-determination. In addition to engaging with twenty-first century urban planning issues, the dissertation challenges historical narratives of the decline of Detroit and other postindustrial cities. Detroit's fall is typically narrated in relation to the global political economy of manufacturing, white flight, and capital flight. While these processes are important for understanding the spatial and economic predicaments Detroit faces, they are limited in two key ways. First, they cast urban abandonment as a past action, rather than an active process. Second, they elide community-based efforts to undo regimes of racial violence. I argue that the struggle for a new Detroit reveals the "settler colonial present" as a broader urban condition in the United States. The creation of more just and sustainable urban futures demands that we grapple with how the racialized history of property relations undergirds urban crisis and shapes the spatial imaginaries of those struggling for self-determination.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Reyes, Alvaro
  • Holland, Dorothy
  • Pickles, John
  • Wolford, Wendy
  • Grossberg, Lawrence
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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