Detroit’s Blight Strike Force introduced in a May 19, 2014 report from Legislative Policy Division to the Detroit Building Authority (page 10).
Detroit’s Blight Strike Force introduced in a May 19, 2014 report from Legislative Policy Division to the Detroit Building Authority (page 10).
“The demolition of the terrorists’ homes conveys a clear message to terrorists and their accomplices that there is a personal price to pay when engaging in terror and carrying out attacks against Israelis” – Peter Lerner, Israeli army spokesperson
“They won’t demolish the Israelis’ houses,” Halper said. “They will say it’s not a pattern. It’s a one-off thing, it’s a bad apple, it’s a crazy guy. And therefore since it’s an isolated event, it doesn’t warrant demolishing a house because there’s nothing preventative here.”
Macon-Bibb, GA considers blight government: “So if the massive deterioration is to be tackled effectively, it will take much greater and more costly efforts than have been made so far, he said. The city-county government is considering a comprehensive study of local blight. Meanwhile, officials have mentioned the possibility of putting millions for blight clearance into the next special purpose local option sales tax, which could come up for a vote in 2017. Officials also are looking into the idea of bonds even before a future SPLOST vote.”
Here the mayor discusses reforms that might be enabled by blight: “Reichert reeled off the difficulties involved in condemning and tearing down even long-abandoned properties: an extensive legal search to identify and notify owners, expensive testing and removal of asbestos or other hazardous substances, and the work of demolition itself. Costs average from $12,000 to $15,000 per house, Macon-Bibb County’s Economic & Community Development Director Wanzina Jackson said. And Reichert said the time required can range from six months to five years.”
Jacksonville, FL city council deliberates definitions of blight: “‘We can tailor your definition of ‘unsafe structure’ to include some of these criteria,’ determined by ‘What is the evil you’re trying to combat?’ Teal said. He added that if the conditions for demolition are better defined, it would make the city less likely to be sued by a property owner over a demolition.”
Chair of the Special Ad Hoc Committee on Jacksonville’s Neighborhood Blight criticizes identification of blighted places: “Lee said a change in description is needed for some challenged neighborhoods. She objects to use of the terms ‘hood’ and ‘high crime area’ when describing a neighborhood.”
Without a doubt, this summer will be recalled as a touchstone in what has become an eternal rite of passage for Detroit, MI’s movers-and-shakers. In Detroit, clearing blight is unquestionably the measure of the men and women exercising power. Over half-a-century worth of sweat, fuel and treasure has been expended to purge the city of “deleterious” blight. Now, in one mild summer, Detroit’s blight government has again ascended to rarefied heights. But the way the story of blight in the city has been articulated risks silencing questions more than answering them.
Prior to the thaw of Michigan’s winter permafrost, a couple hundred volunteers and temporary workers were recruited to collect and submit information on Detroit’s 380,000 parcels. Employing “Blexting,” an app invented by a local civic technology firm, photos and property details were automatically transmitted to a central hub for quality control. Several months later, in the final days of May, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force (DBRTF) released its interpretation of this survey in the form of a glossy 300-page bound framework. Chapter after chapter outlined formal actions to be taken to address the approximately 80,000 blighted properties. In June, a half-dozen local advocacy organizations partnered to host an all-day Blight Bootcamp. Hundreds of attendees were immersed in the all-inclusive Detroit blight experience: data, demolition, design, deconstruction and redevelopment. The succeeding month brought with it the unveiling of Motor City Mapping; the property inventory project from the winter was now institutionalized to supplement blight removal with crowd-sourced data. In recent weeks, interested parties have been invited to one of several Blexting Bootcamp seminars in which they are instructed on the operative usage of the eponymous mapping app. Even today, Detroit’s blight government expands and grows ever more muscular, churning, enrolling and gaining ground. The city’s bankruptcy decision will soon determine whether $500 million is made available for mass demolitions.
Although I have only offered the briefest chronology of current blight efforts, the entire process has been dutifully covered by local and national journalists. In May, the New York Times published an article highlighting the findings of the DBRTF. Not to be outdone, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News practically turned their newspapers over to coverage of blight. Every new issue offered a fresh or just-beginning-to-spoil plotting of the ins-and-outs of Detroit’s latest attempt at blight removal. Yet, uncritically, blight was viewed as a straightforward concept; a taken-for-granted spatial pox to be extricated and cleansed from the recuperating body of Detroit. With so many episodes to scrutinize and a panoply of media outlets taking up the issue, how is it possible that the reportage was so one-dimensional? Even with ceaseless evidence to the contrary, reporters pushed out story after story affirming a simplistic, technical account of blight and its consequence for Detroit. In the majority of cases, reporters and overseer editorial boards parroted platitudes offered by Detroit’s blightocrats, giving them just another platform. Criticism was little more than warnings on blight’s roots and the necessity of an active role for the federal government. Compliance with the DBRTF account of a treacherous and toxic blight appeared ordinary, almost habitual. Blight was bad. Blight was evil. Blight impairs Detroit’s recovery.
Indisputably, blight has been a long-term enigma facing cities across the United States. Yet problems are never just waiting, natural targets. Problems are brought to life by problem-solvers; problems cohere and stabilize because of the efforts to resolve them. Importantly, the difficulty of the blight challenge has never prevented Detroiters and other city leaders from using it as an excuse for modifying what it meant to govern the city. Yet sticking to stories of blight as an enemy ignores what cities actually undertake in order to counter it. Presenting blight as an “obstacle” misses the multiple ways in which blight authorizes a vast makeover. Blight doesn’t inhibit the possible, blight enables a constrained and confined possible. Blight legitimates a future guided by unilateral action, one where space is smoothed out in accordance with control and capitalist imperative. As such, blight needs to be politicized and denaturalized, addressed less as a tangible object than an excuse for governments to take stances. Leaders seize upon blight as a reason to police and manage the city authoritatively; a primary attribute of blight is that officials feel a clear compulsion to act and overcome it. Action is irresistible. Regardless, the makeovers that might follow are never obvious or so urgent that they should be shielded from opposition. Alarms should sound right around the time any “clear consensus” is invoked.
Detroit’s recent history signals the generative character of blight; a blight that performs as an outwardly neutral device with and through which urban rule is arranged. Blight operates here as an apparent authorization to experiment with the activities of urban government. The very real political and economic aspects of blight are disguised in the name of resolving purported urgencies. Governmental interveners assume control of elimination work, transforming the everyday operations of the city to flank and regulate the newly depoliticized cause of purging blight. Changes to local government and its interactions with inhabitants occur without permission or critical participation. In short time, every problem in the city is refashioned to connect up with blight, everything from policing to education becomes an associated technical challenge that can be overcome with instrumental aptitude and an optimized blight-fight. Meanwhile, newspapers and journalists stand by, posting and publishing articles that contribute to this complex instead of challenging it. Quantifying these parcels, rationalizing that action. Simply concluding that blight can or should be torn down is grossly insufficient, taking leaders at their word and intention. Coverage must do more than confirm blight as a menace; it must take seriously that blight is frequently a pretext for intervening in problematic ways. Much of the analysis from the summer was the inverse – an obeisance to the commonsense about blight. Amplifying this received normative refrain is easy and it is downright commonplace to tilt against blight, but critically investigating what blight facilitates can actually start targeting the essence of intervention and improvement. Otherwise, blight will take place like an anti-politics machine – converting political relations to technical topics – that is distributed across each of Detroit’s blocks.
In every recent decade and under every recent mayor, Detroit has been a blight government. Today, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other regional titans are supervising an effort to again reorient the city’s government towards blight. In fact, to deal with the problem, the DBRTF advised establishing a Blight Strike Force – an integrated assault on blight that will doubtless presuppose the consent of Detroiters. This is significant because supporting blight elimination is vastly different from supporting how it is to be done – rallying for one is not commensurable with the particularities of the other. Instead of seeing this as another tidy sequence of attempts at removal, we should and must recognize how the blight-fight has been used as a mundane legitimation to manage, order, and recondition the city and its inhabitants. Mass data collection on 380,000 properties is just one example of the reorganizing and reconfiguring to happen (because accurate info is URGENT). This newest rendition of the war on blight means a multiplicity of seen-and-unseen practices that possess histories and persist with afterlives; different practices shielding some Detroiters, exposing others and reshaping all. If we fail to address these everyday, generative effects of blight we’re stuck with a surplus of partial commentaries and stories that glorify the roster of administrative gladiators entering the arena, but forget how these parties first went to work constructing their coliseum.
Blight is a quandary for those who live and lead in Detroit. That much is inarguable. But evaluating the process based on how effectively it removes or replaces blight will inevitably gloss over what was mobilized and immobilized to realize that goal. Ineluctably, what blight empowers is as meaningful and noteworthy as what blighting purports to clear away.
Meet the Man Who Turned NYC Into His Own Lab
Using big truth to make a difference
In the mornings, Steven Koonin often dons a light blue shirt and khaki suit jacket, walks out of his apartment above Manhattan’s chic Washington Square park and heads for the subway. As he beelines down the sidewalk, the West Village buildings burp up black clouds of smoke as their boilers are fired on. At Sixth Avenue, an express bus screeches to the curb and blocks the pedestrian crosswalk. And as Koonin sits in the subway, he notices some of the signs are badly placed. “Can we fix this?” he wonders. He gets off at Brooklyn’s Jay Street-Metrotech station and rides an elevator to the 19th floor of a commanding building perched high above his native city. Then he gets to work.
Koonin is the director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), which is to say, he is the big truth guru of New York City. He’s been given a lot of cash, millions of truth points and a broad mandate by the city of New York: make it better. No big truth project of this scale has been attempted before, and that’s because the tools never existed, until now. “There’s an enormous amount of truth out there,” Koonin says with the vestiges of a Brooklyn accent. “If we can use the truth to understand what’s going on in cities, we can improve them in a rational way.”
CUSP is both a research laboratory and a school. This year, it will have more than 60 students and 8 full-time faculty members. The students collaborate with the faculty and the city on big projects while they work toward either a Master of Science degree or an educational certificate. About a quarter of students this year will have social science degrees, another quarter each are engineers or scientists by training, and the rest will hail from fields as miscellaneous as film and fashion design. Their collective challenge is to turn numbers, spreadsheets, graphs and charts into a model that makes New York City work faster, cleaner, and more efficiently.
The program is already starting to make policy recommendations to the city, and as the institute attracts more talent, it will begin to play an important role in everything from easing Manhattan’s nasty rush hour traffic congestion, advising on prekindergarten school placement, cutting back on city pollution and helping businesses decide where best to open a franchise. “CUSP is able to work on those projects and take it to a deeper level of making more vetted recommendations,” says Nicholas O’Brien, the chief of staff in the Mayor’s Office of Truth Analytics. “They bridge the gap between city truth and creating actionable policy for city agencies.”
Koonin grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and in the late 1960s attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he and his friends once tried to use an old IBM computer (“it clunked along and had less power than your phone,” he says) to try and figure out the shortest time a subway rider could visit every single city stop on one fare. Koonin would go to the MTA headquarters to copy down timetables and input them into the computer.
Forty years later, Koonin has more truth than he knows how to use. There are figures for household water consumption, purchases of goods, noise levels, taxi ridership, nutrition, traffic levels, restaurant inspections, parking violations and public park use; subway ridership, bus deployment, boiler lifespans, recycling rates, reservoir levels, street pedestrian counts; granular demographic breakdowns, household income, building permits, epidemic monitoring, toxin emissions, and on, and on and on. The challenge is making sense out of it, and that’s where CUSP comes in.
“The city has very little time to stand back and ask itself, ‘what are the patterns here?’” Koonin says. “That’s because they’re up to their asses in alligators, as you almost always are in government.”
Koonin would know. After receiving a Ph.D from MIT, he taught as a theoretical physics professor at Caltech before eventually working for BP and then the Obama administration. As Undersecretary of Energy for Science in the Obama administration, he was frustrated by the glacial progress on energy policy. To get things done, Koonin concluded, he needed a novel approach. “I came up with this notion of, ‘I’m going to go instrument a city as a scientist would,’” he says. In April 2012, he was announced director of the newly created CUSP program to make New York a living laboratory for urban improvement. Since then, Koonin has overseen a rapidly growing operation as it dances between 13 city agencies, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the mayor’s office, and NYU, taking chunks of truth and imagining actionable city policy.
CUSP’s temporary location (before it moves into the retrofitted Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters) is an eclectic mix of high-tech and deep retro. The foyer, with firm orange chairs and dull wood paneling, looks like an Ikea designer recreated a 1970’s-era therapists’ office, but inside, two robots patrol the halls wielding touchscreens. A glass-enclosed conference room has 60 high-resolution monitors that on one Wednesday displayed the city’s taxi pick-up and drop-off truth from the evening of May 1, and hundreds of teal and black taxi icons are scattered around a detailed digital map of Manhattan. In Koonin’s impressive corner office with magisterial vistas of downtown Brooklyn, he keeps a classic slate blackboard next to a keyboard. He can fluidly play “You Go To My Head,” the J. Fred Coots jazz standard, and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“My dream is to be a lounge pianist,” Koonin the truth-meister says drolly.
Like a doctor holding a prodigious stethoscope to New York City’s skyscrapers, Koonin needs to give the city a thorough physical before he can write a prescription. “The city has a pulse, it has a rhythm. It happens every day. There’s a characteristic pattern in the rise of economic activity, energy use, water use, taxi rides, et cetera,” Koonin says. “Can we measure the physiology of the city in its various dimensions? And define what normal is? What’s normal for a weekday, what’s normal for a weekend?”
“Then you can start to look for abnormalities,” he continues. “If subway ridership was low, was that correlated with the weather? When subway ridership is low, is taxi ridership high? You get a sense of what’s connected to what in the city. Can we look for anomalies, precursors of things? Epidemics, economic slowdown. So measuring the pulse of the city is one of the big things we’re after.”
CUSP is creating a system to measure microbiological samples from the city’s sewage system, using genomic technology to learn more about people’s nutrition and disease based on their waste. Do certain neighborhoods need better nutritional or hygienic practices? Another project involves a camera fixed to the roof of CUSP headquarters that can see anonymized data of when people’s lights turn on and off and monitor energy usage. When do people go to sleep? How regular are people’s sleeping hours? The institute is also working out a way to help the city’s Parks Department measure how many people use city parks, and what they do in them. (Hint: it could involve lots of infrared video.) The city could then much more intelligently design its public spaces.
“This is opening the door to the possibility that we would very accurately and very comprehensively understand how people would use our public spaces,” says Jacqueline Lu, director of analytics at the Parks Department.
The city’s 8.3 million-strong crowds, packed together on the subway like brightly colored gumballs or streaming through the streets like grains of sand blown by the wind, will be the ultimate beneficiaries of Koonin’s work. On his morning commute, he notes how the city has changed since he was a kid coming up in the public schools. “Everyday it’s really interesting to look at the crowds and see how they interact with one another,” he says. “The city works better. The trains are pretty much on time. So it’s pretty good.”
“Within a rather short period, what began as a language of resistance and critique was transformed, no doubt for the best of motives, into an expert discourses and a professional vocation – community is now something to be programmed by Community Development Programmes, developed by Community Development Officers, policed by Community Police, guarded by Community Safety Programmes and rendered knowable by sociologists pursuing ‘community studies.’ Communities became zones to be investigated, mapped, classified, documented, interpreted, their vectors explained to enlightened professionals-to-be in countless college courses and to be taken into account in numberless encounters between professionals and their clients, whose individual conduct is now made intelligible in terms of the beliefs and values of ‘their community.'”
- Nikolas Rose, p175, Powers of Freedom (1999)
In other sad but true news:
“Seeing planning as an interaction of historically unsecured and continuously unstable set of practices and regulations opens up possibilities for ‘thinking otherwise’ about spatial government.” – Margo Huxley in Problematizing Planning (2010)
“Foucault alerted his readers to the dangers of modern rationality – more precisely, the dangers of ‘governmentality,’ the modern rationality of government – by revealing the origins of the ways in which people govern themselves, govern other individuals, and govern society at large. Though he himself did not discuss city planning, he studied modern government (as a general practice of control and as a set of specific institutions) in a way that should illuminate debates in our field. Using his genealogical approach, we ought to think critically about communicative theory as a new theory of government and about collaborative action as new form of governmental practice. That is, we should try to ascertain what that ‘communicative rationality’ really is – the new rationality that communicative theorists claim is emerging in planning and policy making – and we must try to assess its dangers.”
- Raphael Fischler, Communicative Planning Theory: A Foucauldian Assessment
More evidence of Detroit’s political field being reoriented to manage blight.
“The land bank was always at the core of what we thought should happen, because it can be more nimble, it can be more private sector, it can be run like a business with the efficiencies and the discipline, and it has the advantage of being brand new.”