Financial Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has declared another emergency in the City of Detroit. Blight. In a city with over 80,000 vacant and abandoned structures the significance of this decision can’t be overlooked. Announcing and breaking promises about demolition is a rite of passage for Detroit leadership. So, how is Orr making good this time around? Well, he’s expanding his emergency powers from bankruptcy to include blight. He’s citing a clause in a Michigan Emergency Management Act dating from the mid-70s that places blight alongside other (see conventional) catastrophes. In earnest, the state law – like others of its kind – was designed to streamline governance in the aftermath of major disasters, including terrorism and epidemic. We’re all familiar with states of emergency, floods and fires in the American West have recently grabbed headlines for prompting emergency responses. What’s the big deal if emergency happens all the time? Handling emergency is just a necessary part of government, right?
There are a few points to consider as Orr institutionalizes this new regime of destruction. Blight has been used in other cities to justify immediate intervention. We can point to a lot of cases in the American industrial Midwest of cities granting exceptional powers to developers to clear land of physical threats and dangers to public safety, morality (yeah) and welfare. For that reason many lower income areas have been targeted and obliterated over the years. Parts of St. Louis and Cleveland never recovered from the series of scorched-Earth urban renewal programs implemented to reboot ‘nuisance’ neighborhoods. Urban planning is still repenting for decades of displacement, dispossession and racism. Yet even as a key instrument of redevelopment blighting has rarely constituted a form of governing on its own. It’s a (sometimes) controversial activity governments just “do” in order to accelerate revitalization. Blighting itself is handled by a legislative body, yes, but it happens historically in accordance with a development corporation and a territorially specific plan. Buildings are demolished because they pose a danger to residents or because they’re inconsistent with a redevelopment offensive. I don’t agree with the practice but I understand how it’s supposed to work. Orr, on the other hand, may be the first to bundle these blight-declaring powers into a long-term administrative relationship with a city. The city is a blight and blight merits a suspension of the law. By declaring a blight emergency on par with flooding or plague Orr is able to create an assemblage of wreckers, officials and funds whose singular purpose is to handle large-scale demolition. We can’t forget that Orr and others have been smitten with Bill Pulte’s privately-owned Detroit Blight Authority.
For astute observers it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the so-called Financial Emergency has escaped its fiscal cage and is beginning to steamroll over the physical space of the city. Fiscal emergencies are always already social and political emergencies. In a globalized capitalist world cities are disciplined by free-market principles into using efficiency and growth as key indicators of success. The imperative to attract business neutralizes calls or claims for democracy or egalitarianism. Judging a city on its competitiveness and attractiveness means every transaction, public department and service obligation are viewed as threats or contributors to financial health. Deteriorating buildings in disinvested neighborhoods is one such threat. For Orr, a financial emergency really means a totalizing emergency that justifies unequivocal attention to every aspect of Detroit. Declaring an emergency allows authority to suspend norms of government in order to protect those same norms. The norms displaced in the case of a blight emergency seem to be restrictions and standards on demolition in the city.
I’m curious to see the next stage in Orr’s emergency authority. My guess is he’ll tackle crime, order and policing. I can only imagine Orr has his sights on a muscular “stop and frisk” policy that assembles local, state and national resources.
I’ve included quotes and links from two relevant documents. The first is a Detroit News opinion piece from 9/12 describing Orr’s self-appointed blight authority. The second is the state law resting at the base of Orr’s declaration.
“Orr’s team has been out to Brightmoor and seen how blight removal should be done. The declaration of a blight emergency should give him the muscle to make sure it gets done that way in the rest of Detroit.”
- Blight is an emergency in Detroit
“‘Disaster’ means an occurrence or threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from a natural or human-made cause, including, but not limited to, fire, flood, snowstorm, ice storm, tornado, windstorm, wave action, oil spill, water contamination, utility failure, hazardous peacetime radiological incident, major transportation accident, hazardous materials incident, epidemic, air contamination, blight, drought, infestation, explosion, or hostile military action or paramilitary action, or similar occurrences resulting from terrorist activities, riots, or civil disorders.”
- Section 30.402(e) of the Michigan Emergency Management Act of 1976