Land Battles in the Motor City: A Field Guide to Subverting Neoliberal Land Policy from Detroit

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 14:45
Location: Hörsaal 30 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Michael SABBAGH, Wayne State University, USA
The spectacular divestment and abandonment of Detroit has been well documented academically and in the media. Post-bankruptcy, Michigan’s largest and most populous city is back in the position of battling social issues that have plagued the region, like all former industrial cities, for generations. One of the most pressing issues is what to do with the near 40 square miles of vacant or unoccupied land, comprising roughly one-third of the city. Enter the newly formed Detroit Land Bank and Detroit Future City – “a highly detailed long term guide for decision–making by all of the stakeholders in the City.” DFC envisions transforming large swaths of the city into water catchment areas and “creative-development zones.” 

Combined with neighborhood re-branding efforts and massive public transfers into private hands, the future in “Detroit Future City” looks bleak. But residents’ resistance and refusal to relinquish the neighborhoods they call home has made those plans uncertain. This paper will look at the ways in which communities in Detroit have come together to slow down and disrupt “urban renewal,” and take back land in a city where vacancy and abandonment abounds, specifically in the downtown (“Illitch-ville”), southwest (“Springwells Village”) and east side (Hantz Farms) areas. These cases all involve private developers, wealthy local investors, massive land giveaways and a whole cadre of non-profits – which gives an illusion of community input. Perceptions frame the resistance: in Southwest, the rebranding has been called ‘neocolonial’; Downtown is viewed as a playground for the rich and many east side residents have turned vacant land into farms as a means to stave off land grabs and provide sustenance. These struggles put Detroit at the vanguard over “rights to the city” (Fainstien, 2010) and should serve as a clarion call to land-rights activists and academics in the neoliberal era.