Volume 95,#2

Spring 2022


Introduced by Chloe Ahmann



phone: 202-994-3215  e-mail: ifer@gwu.edu


Volume 95, #2 • Spring 2022




Postindustrial Futures and the Edge of the Frontier

Chloe Ahmann, Cornell University

ABSTRACT—Port Covington is a 260-acre development underway in South Baltimore City, featuring a multibillion-dollar campus for the popular sportswear brand Under Armour. It promises to transform a “vacant” and degraded former railyard into a “city within a city” and to catalyze Baltimore’s comeback. It also promises to cost a lot. In 2016, after tense public debate, developers secured a $660 million tax increment financing (TIF) deal to begin work, committing taxpayers to decades of debt on the company’s behalf. Eligibility for that deal hinged on making the site’s industrial history visible as an obstacle to profit. The dominant spatial tropes that scholars use to understand dispossession make it hard to appreciate this instrumentalization of the past, as well as developers’ savvy appeals to industrial nostalgia. In this article, I pay particular attention to the blind spots of the frontier concept. Arguments that foreground frontier motifs emphasize erasure as a primary technique of dispossession: by covering up past and present lifeways, “urban pioneers” legitimate land seizure as benign discovery. But in Port Covington’s case, developers dramatized a history of municipal neglect. Far from concealed, this history became a key ingredient in developers’ claims to the land and a mechanism structuring their access to financial options. In the process of exploring these dynamics, I query whether frontier concepts may reach the limits of their usefulness in the postindustrial city. Here, land’s not-so-distant past provides both the template for development dreams and the justification for dispossession by private actors who (the story goes) are best equipped to manage reconstruction. Besides TIF, the range of development incentives available for improving “blighted” spaces—and activists’ studied responses to those incentives—suggest that postindustrial futures are rarely conceived on a blank slate. Instead, historicity drives debates about who the city is for and what it can become. [Keywords: Vacancy, frontier, postindustrial, futures, urban renewal, speculative finance, historicity, United States]


SOCIAL THOUGHT & COMMENTARY: What Else Is There? Vacancy as Development Problem and Solution

Elizabeth Youngling, American Academy of Arts & Sciences

ABSTRACT—Urban vacant land is often framed as a consequence of political and economic problems that negatively affect land values, tax bases, public safety, and community flourishing. At the same time, vacancy presents governments—and private developers—with opportunities for transformation. This commentary examines a development plan that makes use of vacancy in Chicago, Illinois to shed light on the ways in which vacancy can become a project in itself rather than a side effect of growth, decay, and change. I argue that through processes of erasure, re-inscription, and assemblage, vacancy projects enable redevelopment in ways that further politicians’ and developers’ agendas for post-industrial urban economic growth. In Chicago, vacant industrial land, such as the former Clybourn Corridor Planned Manufacturing District, is simultaneously positioned as an insurmountable problem and an exceptional development opportunity. I use the Clybourn Corridor case to illuminate the social, political, and economic processes through which vacancy is made productive in urban contexts. The relative opacity of such processes has profound implications for urban futures, shaping who makes plans for and benefits from the transformation of urban space. By delving into a vacancy project ethnographically in Chicago, a city struggling, like many, to define a post-industrial future, this commentary contributes to our understandings of vacancy as a tool to draw resources in and make development happen. It demonstrates the political, economic, and social processes through which urban land is defined and reconfigured as a site for public and private intervention as well as opportunity in the contemporary moment. [Keywords: Vacancy, urban development, land, value, economy, post-industrial, United States]


Carceral Structures: Financialized Displacement and Captivity in Detroit

Nicholas L. Caverly, University of Massachusetts Amherst

ABSTRACT—This article develops an analytic of carceral structures that bridge processes of racist inclusion and exclusion. It does so by examining the relocation of a county jail from Detroit’s central business district into a hazardous waste corridor. In recent years, county administrators have funded jail expansions using revenues from tax foreclosure surpluses produced by evicting majority-Black Detroit residents. Buildings that disappear Black people within the strictures of mass incarceration are financed by the mass displacement of Black people from their homes. Jails have been central features of Detroit’s downtown neighborhood since the 19th century. Surrounding property owners celebrated their late 20th century expansions as a means of supporting districts experiencing the economic fallout of racist population loss. However, when county administrators ran out of funds to complete a jail expansion, developers successfully lobbied to transform the jail site into a campus of a majority-white university. Their plan included rehousing incarcerated people in new jails constructed on the site of unused warehouses adjacent to an incinerator. By attending to Black Detroiters as they navigate dislocations that make incarceration financially possible, this article argues that uneven development is funded by the articulation of racist displacement with racist captivity. In so doing, it offers a model for identifying the expansive structures of carceral institutions as they organize the production of space in the context of racial capitalism. [Keywords: Vacancy, incarceration, racial capitalism, urban space, North America]


SOCIAL THOUGHT & COMMENTARY: Hostility as Technique: Making White Space in a Black City (Observing a City Over Time through Collective Filmmaking and Collaborative Research)

Damani James Partridge, University of Michigan

ABSTRACT—This commentary examines how White space gets produced in a Black city, highlighting the affective dimensions of this production. In addition to showing how hostility works to produce White space, it establishes a link between this contemporary production and the repetition of the original colonizing project. Finally, this commentary thinks through the ways in which collective filmmaking by long-term residents of the city—in this case, Detroit—offers important alternative affective ways for thinking about and valuing the present and future of the city. In this way, the Black city emerges as a site of possibility, countering persistent images of abandonment and dereliction. [Keywords: Detroit, post-Fordism, Black cities, affect theory, White spaces]



PHOTO ESSAY: Cultivating a Politics of Sight for Vacant Land Use in Cities in China

Ali Kenner, Drexel University

Eliza Nobles, University of Pennsylvania

Sarah Stalcup, James Madison University

ABSTRACT—Perceptions of vacant urban land and resulting policies are based in nature/culture dualisms that condemn abandoned properties as wasteful at best and at worst outright dangerous for communities. Decades of research on urban vacancy reinforce these perceptions, with findings showing higher crime rates, lower property values, and poorer mental health in communities with high rates of vacancy. These established paradigms for thinking about vacant land obscure any benefits that such spaces have while also justifying gentrification. In this essay, we suggest there is more than meets the eye in common assessments of vacant lots. Biodiversity, ecosystem services, and informal community land use are all routinely overlooked in municipal decision-making processes. Using photographs from a pilot field study on ecological health in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we advance a politics of sight that reframes overlooked features of abandoned properties. Rather than approaching urban vacancy as a problem to be addressed through development, we argue that vacant land is a problem-space with potential for transformation already contained within it. [Keywords: Care, vacant land, cities, gentrification, greening, photography]