Knowledge and the Power to Destroy: Surveying Blight in Detroit

Today Monica Davey writes in the NYT about the city of Detroit’s ambitious efforts to systematically identify and track abandonment and decay of its housing stock. There are some good reasons why the city feels compelled to do this, as its dire fiscal circumstances make it difficult to maintain basic infrastructure or provide emergency services to a vast and low-density city built around the automobile. But while Davey stresses the value of knowledge to Detroit’s officials for describing “blight” and predicting its spread, she does not touch on a more troubling aspect of the database of blight’s ultimate use: as triage for shrinking the city’s footprint. The database may ultimately help influence political decisions to allow certain sectors of the city to go fallow.

This political application of knowledge is hardly unprecedented. During the 1930s, Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Administration surveyors, along with other urban surveyors hired under the auspices of the WPA, conducted the surveys of urban property that ultimately influenced the distribution of mortgage capital and the geography of urban development in the United States. While this application of survey knowledge was in the service of directing growth rather than managing shrinkage, parallels abound. In both cases, surveys exhibit what James Scott calls “seeing like a state”–reducing the particularity of individual lots and communities to an abstract schema motivated by administrative concerns. [1]

This kind of reductionist thinking makes sense at the broad scale, but imagine if you were a resident of an area deemed “at risk” for blight. How would you feel about the city making decisions affecting your home and property on this basis?

There are undeniable complications, particularly since many of the $10-an-hour surveyors in the streets have never done this sort of work before. Some elements of the survey — which include rating a building’s structure as good, fair, poor or “suggest demolition” and determining from the outside whether a place is occupied — require at least a level of subjective judgment.

Still more troubling, the discourse of blight that underlies both the surveying imperative and the instrumental use of the survey data is prone to infection by other, unscientific, and often prejudicial, modes of thinking. As the architectural historian Dana Cuff writes about the real estate surveyor who guided the property appraisal process for HOLC in California,

The coincidence of ethnic prejudice and slum clearance was absolutely unified in the person of Charles Shattuck. Not only was he the appraiser for Aliso Village, President of the California Real Estate Association, and the president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, but he was also an official of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which redlined neighborhoods as bad investment risks if they had “the threat of infiltration of subversive races.” That could mean one black family.[2]

The situation in Detroit is somewhat different, as the dynamic of racial exclusion is rendered moot by white flight out of the city, but the survey methodology, literally characterized by drive-by-shootings of the exteriors of homes, harkens back to the survey methodologies used to define blight in Los Angeles’s working class ethnic Mexican east side. As residents grew suspicious and hostile (correctly surmising that the presence of strangers asking questions about rent, toilets, and hot water portended the destruction of the community),

some women defiantly refused to let the appraisers in. They had to imagine the insides, but these places seemed all pretty much the same to them. And they knew it would all be torn down anyway. This appraisal had followed many other surveys, and they all led to the same conclusion: slum clearance. Still, the residents couldn’t understand why. They kept up their yards, they went to work each day, their children went to the Utah Street School; what was so bad about that? [2]

It’s difficult to support an argument that the cash-strapped city of Detroit, which is currently under emergency management, can avoid a difficult and extensive program of clearing abandoned property. But the problem with the survey methodology Davey describes is that it presupposes clearance as its end result. This makes sense if one focuses on the clearly abandoned properties scattered throughout the city. But what about properties that aren’t abandoned? The project views them as simply pre-blighted:

Just two blocks away, most of the brick homes along Hazelridge are still occupied, the sidewalks shoveled, and cars line the driveways. The question that Mr. Baker and others here ask is, “How long before that block slips under, too?”

If the city creates a formula for establishing that single properties and neighborhoods are characterized by extreme blight or abandonment, and acts accordingly to clear them, it will inevitably take actions that affect occupied properties, making them valueless by association with the blight next door or across the street. This is the rationale that justified redlining communities with a single family of “subversive race,” and its revival in Detroit signals the grim reality that the State of Michigan, private lenders, and the economic interests that are now defining the city of Detroit’s economic agenda and the limits of its public policy would prefer to destroy large parts of Detroit in order to save some undetermined portion of the rest.


1. Scott, J. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998.

2. Cuff, D. The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism. Cambridge, Mass.: London: MIT Press, 2000, 141.