Resources on urban blight?
March 3, 2007 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find examples and causes of urban blight?

I'm looking for concrete examples of urban blight (more broad than this site), and concrete explanations of the process that leads to an area becoming blighted. (By concrete, I mean a step by step explanation of the process as opposed to theoretical models). Also, any nonfiction books about truly blighted neighborhoods or areas.

I'm interested in all aspects of blight -- the specific types of crimes that occur in blighted neighborhoods, squatters, feral animals, disease, damaged buildings, pollution -- anything that transforms an urban enviroment into a hell.

Examples of neighborhoods saved from blight, with specifics on how it was done, would also be appriciated. Thanks.
posted by Bookhouse to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia didn't have much on urban blight, but it linked to urban decay which looked like a good launching pad.

Check out the resources.
posted by jragon at 11:28 AM on March 3, 2007

A visit to Philadelphia is in order. Two neighborhoods that were essentially identical twenty years ago: Bridesburg and Kensington. They are both urban, working class places, replete with Philly rowhomes, and not far from each other. Today, the former looks pretty much the same, perhaps a bit worse for the wear, whilst the latter even the cops don't want to go into. It's a fucking disaster. Bridesburg is still working class - anchored by the Allied chemical plant - the other has lost its industrial base. I'm sure the explanation is more complicated than this, but the existence of union jobs and the lack of union jobs has probably had a first order effect.
posted by three blind mice at 11:39 AM on March 3, 2007

The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue is about Detroit, the poster-city for urban blight. Basically, he blames a combination of deindustrialization and racism, if I recall correctly.
posted by craichead at 11:51 AM on March 3, 2007

You can find examples of blight in any rust belt city.

Short answer (and I mean silly short - there are tomes written on this topic) for the how it happens is that jobs and people left the cities. When they did, there were more buildings than there were people to use and care for them. Also, as people leave, the demand for, and therefore, value of property falls. Repairing it is, then, a non-economic proposition. Buildings are abandoned, fall into disrepair, collapse or are demolished. Once the abandonment begins, its a positive feedback loop.

On the social side, nobody wants to buy a house on a block with an abandoned house. The folks already living on the block look for any chance to get away. So, vacancy breeds vacancy and blight breeds blight.

On the physical side, one vacant house can take down a whole block. For example, in Philadelphia, the rowhome (literally a row of homes all sharing common walls) is (or at least was) the most common residential structure. Most rowhomes have basements (this is important). When a rowhome is abandoned and collapses or is demolished, the basement gets filled with dirt and rubble. But, the basement walls aren't designed for that kind of load. So, the walls bulge into the adjacent houses and, eventually, take them down (unless outrageously expensive repairs are made).

I have left out huge (vast, enormous, galactic) swaths of causes here. Things like Eisenhower's interstate highway building program, urban renewal programs (popularly known as "negro removal" in the Urban Studies world), intentional and unintentional governmental neglect, the riots of the late 60s, the herion and crack cocaine epidemics, etc. etc. etc. because you said you wanted the "how". Having said that, the how is inextricably caught up with the "why".

First book I would recommend is "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs.

On the web, I would check the urban studies program site of any good university located near an urban center. I know Case Western has some good research on line as do Penn and Harvard. (sorry for the dearth of links, I am alternating between typing and hollering at the gaggle of seven-year olds down stairs).
posted by qldaddy at 12:30 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not a direct answer to your question, but you might be interested in reading Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great Americn Cities (library) if you haven't already.
posted by hattifattener at 12:33 PM on March 3, 2007

I think this is a special case and isn't exactly blight, but Vancouver, East Hastings area is the closest approximation of hell I have ever seen.
posted by dobie at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2007

See South Bronx and Robert Moses.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:59 PM on March 3, 2007

The classic description is probably the description of Manchester in Friedrich Engel's The Condition of the English Working Class. His descriptions of the physical environment people were living in, and the social processes that led to those conditions, remains a model of clarity. I haven't read it in a long time, though, so I'm not sure if he follows any one neighborhood over time, which is what it sounds like you are looking for.

There are a lot of semi-journalistic, semi-ethnographic books that have done that. Some of Jonathan Kozol's work comes close; Simon and Burns' The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood is pretty much exactly what you are looking for. There are a huge number of urban crime and deviance ethnographies, memoirs by police officers, and similar, all of which tend to revolve around urban decay.

For Californian and international cases (very different from the rustbelt cases that predominate in the literature), you should start with Mike Davis's books City of Slums and City of Quartz, and then read Paul Farmer's Pathologies of Power to see how structural inequalities create and perpetuate contemporary problems.

Other writers to look would include W. J. Wilson, L. Waquant, and W. Goldsmith. I'm not much taken with the work of Jane Jacobs, but she is an icon in the field, and has a lot of fans here.

There is a right-wing perspective on this stuff, too. I don't know that literature well, but I know it exists (the right's views are caricatured as being all about public choice, Willie Horton, and welfare queens, but I think there is a much more nuanced perspective there, with some really good writers, if you can find it).

A lot of the actual work in "blighted" neighborhoods is done by faith-based enterprises, and so you might be able to find some good narratives about that; Urrea's books on poverty in Tijuana would be a superb place to start.

The extreme dystopian view you seem to be looking for is mostly found in descriptions of poor communities in the developing world (the Davis and Urrea books I mentioned above; the film "City of God," etc), and less commonly in specific neighborhoods in the US, such as parts of the South Bronx or Detroit or the worst of the worst public housing projects. But a lot of that writing is hyperbolic, and it's worth maintaining some perspective while reading it. It is also worth being very aware of the language involved: urban blight and urban decay use metaphors from medicine, which implies that the solution is surgical, or maybe the patient has to die. The "urban" part also emphasizes the urban form over the social processes that underlay it, letting those responsible off the hook. Your profile says that you are a writer, so I hope that you extract the best of this genre, not the worst, as you work through it.
posted by Forktine at 1:00 PM on March 3, 2007

Vancouver's East Hastings/Downtown Eastside area is a good example. Up till the 60s or 70s, the area was home to casual labourers who worked in fishing and forestry. There were lots of flophouses, cheap hotels, cheap bars and the like. As the resource industries faded, long-term unemployment ensued and a lot of people sank into alcoholic oblivion. Over the next couple of decades, people started moving out of the nearby Chinatown, stores closed, a major department store left, and drug dealers moved in. Police did little to enforce open drug trading. Today, the area is crime ridden and has the highest rate of HIV infection in the "Western" world.
posted by acoutu at 1:19 PM on March 3, 2007

A "previously" -- my own -- has some books mentioned that might be of interest.

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor is a decent read on how hell starts. And, Random Family.

A report on squatting in the Netherlands.
posted by kmennie at 1:45 PM on March 3, 2007

A number of the Long Now seminars relate either directly or indirectly to the quality of urban life in the past, present and future.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:54 PM on March 3, 2007

I've always been amazed at the content of The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit web site:
posted by bottlebrushtree at 2:07 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sudhir Venkatesh does a good job of describing the particular type of "urban blight" associated with public housing in America, and some of the institutional factors involved.

His new book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, also interrogates what we actually mean by blight and examines the techniques for economic survival employed by people who live in these areas.

In Chicago, "blight" is increasingly becoming a descriptor of areas that aren't gentrifying fast enough, or in some cases, an excuse for invoking eminent domain.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2007

I want to add on to TheWhiteSkull's point, which is basically that it's a pretty sensitive historical topic and still raises tricky issues. In the US, a house can be condemned (taken using eminent domain) if it suffers from "blight." And so "blight" was the keyword used to tear down houses and move people out of neighborhoods during the urban renewal and highway building schemes of the 60s and 70s. When he was in his late 20's, one of my professors worked in a southern neighborhood racing to repair houses before the deadline to bulldoze them. Imagine a map of the neighborhood with notes like:
* 2361 Dwight St. -- needs new roof by 3/7
* 2379 Dwight St. -- repair front steps by 3/15

Anyway, even now, undoing "blight" brings up tricky questions. Who cares the neighborhood is "blighted" and why? Will unblighting a neighborhood just mean that rents skyrocket and everyone has to move? Do you want an area with mostly-vacant warehouses to become a neighborhood of upscale condos, even if the remaining industrial businesses leave and take well-paying industrial jobs with them?

For solutions, you might read up on "infill" and "downtown revitalization" (there are a few really good "how to" guides, so I won't go into it). The first step should be to work on homeownership programs and getting rental housing built that is guaranteed to stay affordable. That way the changes benefit the current residents, rather than meaning they have to move somewhere else bad. West Oakland, CA, is probably a good example. (I'm really sorry if I sound like I'm preaching, but I'm not coming from some holier-than-thou perspective -- I work in city planning and professional planners really do try to do it this way.)

For examples of blight, you might like reading Cities of Tomorrow. It discusses the tenement slums that existed in NY, London, etc, before modern sanitation. You might also try to get ahold of the short documentary Poletown Lives, about a "blighted" Detroit neighborhood where they moved everybody out to build a GM factory. I don't remember much, but there are lots of images of boarded-up houses.

For causes, besides everything else that has been said, look into brownfield laws. Since properties have to be cleaned before being sold, a lot of owners decided it was cheaper to just sit on their polluted properties rather than clean them up. (This is in the US I'm talking about.) In California, something new called the Polanco Act gives cities the option to clean up properties then bill the owners (under certain specific circumstances).
posted by salvia at 4:03 PM on March 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Thanks, everyone. I'm curious about finding more on the right-wing perspective that Forktine mentioned.

urban blight and urban decay use metaphors from medicine, which implies that the solution is surgical, or maybe the patient has to die. The "urban" part also emphasizes the urban form over the social processes that underlay it, letting those responsible off the hook.

That's really interesting -- is there alternate language?
posted by Bookhouse at 4:51 PM on March 3, 2007

posted by modavis at 11:06 PM on March 3, 2007

For the right wing, start with papers and studies from prominent (and prestigious) conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation. I think you'll find (as compared to the Mike Davis / Jonathan Kozol / Jane Jacobs books recommended above) much more emphasis on individual responsibility, suggestions for market-based solutions, and for public-private partnerships. But that is a guess on my part; a couple of hours of reading on your part will show you a lot more.

Language: The point here is that the language one uses to describe affects what kinds of solutions become possible or desirable. For one, "blight" and "decay" have the connotation that a neighborhood was once "healthy," before being infected with some sort of physical or social pathology. That is, the "normal" state of being is of prosperity, social calm, and so on, which is generally simply not true. (Most people in the world are, relatively, poor; conflict between poor people and the state goes back to the invention of the modern state (c.f. James Scott's Seeing Like a State and Weapons of the Weak for a more nuanced view of this process.)) Similarly, language that emphasizes individual responsibility (family breakdown, crime as a moral decision, or poor people forming an underclass) points towards individual solutions (parenting classes, halfway houses, and ethics classes in schools, say), rather than looking in some other direction, such as the structural violence described by Paul Farmer.

There is no neutral language to describe poor neighborhoods --- as salvia alludes, we come into this discussion with a legacy of heavy handed intervention in the lives and homes of the poor going back several hundred years. At various times, the sanitary metaphor, individual responsibility, and the idea of social pathologies have been used to leverage quite destructive changes in neighborhoods, generally without consulting the people involved. (A few examples might include Haussman's work in Paris, Robert Moses in New York, welfare reform in the 1990s, and contemporary land redevelopment in large cities in China.)

You've picked one of the biggest and most contentious issues in urban studies today. Why, when there is so much wealth in the world, are so many people so poor? Why are some neighborhoods, districts, and even entire regions afflicted with poor infrastructure, unresponsive and corrupt politicians, and counter-productive behaviors? Does the answer lie with the state, with civil society, or with families? Do extreme disparities of wealth and opportunity matter --- are they simply outcomes of different work ethics and luck, or are they morally or economically undesirable?
posted by Forktine at 2:59 AM on March 4, 2007

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