A Different Take on the Problem of “Blight”

The quest to do good things in the world is almost always a complicated process. Today I want to focus on one particular issue of language and power that keeps popping up in conversations of which I am a part — the deployment of the term “blight.”

These conversations in which I find myself are generally full of well-meaning people who care about their communities. I offer the following critique in hope of taking a potentially useful process – the quest to rid the city of abandoned and nuisance properties – and making it better. My explorations here are intended as a constructive set of musings from a fellow community-member.

Let me start out by conceding the following:

  • many cities (including my own) have a huge problem with abandoned and dilapidated buildings, both residential and commercial. Municipal regulations and policies often make it absurdly difficult to refurbish or demolish them.
  • non-profits, civic groups, and other associations may have as their primary focus finding ways to enable communities to deal with such properties.
  • there is much work to be done in this area and we need creative tools to do it.

Having established this, I want to talk about  two separate but related concerns that come into play with the concept of blight. For the first:  it’s one matter to cast that label (though the term is still loaded) on abandoned housing and commercial buildings. It is quite another matter altogether to label as “blight” what would be viewed by other people as “home.”

So even before we get to a much-needed discussion of systemic issues and substandard affordable housing, we have to ask what it means to label someone’s home “blight”.

Imagine you are living in the best rental house to which you have access. It may be in horrible condition, but for the moment it is your home. It is the container for your life – for your family and your clothes and your pictures and your pets. It’s where you eat breakfast in the morning and crawl under the covers at night. It’s where you gather with your friends or your grandchildren or your neighbors. It’s where you keep your collection of treasured ceramic figurines or your 3 cases of beer or every straight-A report card you made as a kid.

What does it mean for some other person to look at that structure and call it “blight”?

I am one child of God and you are another. And you look at my home and see “blight”. What does that do to me – and what does that do to you? How does that shape how you see the world?

It’s especially – but not only – problematic when that person is white and I am black. Or when that person has a college degree and I don’t. Or when that person is upper middle class and I am not. Regardless of the the power differentials, regardless of the good intentions of any of the people involved, in any given setting the overall framing of such situations are bound-up in historic deployments of power.

The second problematic element of “blight” is the larger issue in which the first problem is embedded. By way of explanation, let me turn first to a first hand example from a very different context:

When I was on a foreign study fellowship in India years ago, I met with varied individuals and groups involved in community organizing and grassroots development. In Mumbai (then Bombay), I ended up in a long conversation with a woman, whom I will call Daya. Daya dedicated much of her time to the beautification of the center city. Cool, I thought, maybe not a radical thing, but certainly related to basic quality of life issues for the urban populace. I eagerly accepted her invitation to accompany her on some of her activities one day.

As we sprinted through the morning in her Maruti car, I discovered that to Daya “beautification” of the city primarily meant chasing poor people off the sidewalks. These were individuals and families whose lives depended on the small square of concrete they could occupy to sleep, to eat, and to sell simple products. Often they had nowhere else to go.

I squelched my horror enough to hear Daya out. She was sincere in her conviction that her work was beneficial to the community as a whole. In her mind it was necessary and not at all unkind. That was all the justification she needed.

This is an extreme example, but it helps to spotlight how not all people share in what might appear to be a common civic interest. There are parallel potential risks anytime questions of urban (re)development and neighborhood renovation arise.

My concern then is about the potential for unintended consequences and the inadvertent play to old tropes that reinforce rather than interrupt systems of racism and classism.

The question is that of authority.

Who gets to define “blight”?

That’s a question that applies both to the big picture lens (“this is what blight looks like”) and to the specific structures that may be interpreted through that lens (“this building is an example of blight”).

By what right might you call my (white, middle-class) home blight? And by what right might you call the home of a low-income person of color blight?

The idea of “blight” – the word, yes, but also the broader concept that the word captures – has historically often been used against already marginalized communities.  The writer Rebecca Solnit offers an instructive tale in her book Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Solnit describes the dismantling of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore neighborhood:

“By 1947, however, plans were being laid to erase this neighborhood. The word used over and over until it became a mantra and a justification was ‘blight,’ a word that was supposed to describe the poor condition of the housing and its alleged infestation by vermin but was in fact a code word for the human inhabitants, just as ‘urban renewal’ was recognized as code for what was also caustically described as ‘negro removal.’ The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency declared, ‘San Francisco is now developing programs to correct blighted and congested conditions and to deal with an accumulation of housing that is continuously aging and deteriorating faster than it is being rehabilitated or replaced . . . More than 50 percent of the structures are past middle age with an estimated average age of sixty-seven years. It is this condition which results in neighborhood blight and calls for both major public improvement and private rehabilitation and reconstruction.’ . . . Into the 1960s, campaigns to devastate this neighborhood were carried out. The rhetoric of urban renewal was that bad housing would be replaced with good housing – and good was defined in those squeamish modernist terms as efficient, up-to-date, and orderly . . . The agenda all along had not been the creation of better housing for the inhabitants but their replacement by more affluent inhabitants and increased profits for developers and landowners.”

Writing of a more recent “war on blight” in Philadelphia, scholar Robert Fairbanks notes that “Discussions of urban blight in [the mayor of Philadelphia’s] political discourse are typically replete with references to the usual suspects: abandoned houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, abandoned cars, graffiti, dirt, crime, rats, tires, garbage, illegal dumping, and other general signs of urban decay . . . Undoubtedly the issue of urban blight weighs heavily upon the conscience of Philadelphia . . . [But] It is my contention that the conventional way in which ‘blight’ has been talked about – in the Philadelphia media and in the academic literature – is deeply problematic and in many cases densely ideological.”

Fairbanks’ point is crucial. The discourse around the concept of blight – and the actions that both emerge from and are embedded in that discourse – are inextricably intertwined with ideology. There’s no such thing as objectivity. There’s no such thing as an ahistorical blank slate. There’s no such thing as a process freed from the deep influences of the dominant culture. The language we use and the concepts we promote reflect the systems from which they emerge.

As a result, concern about and the effort to label “blight” can dovetail all too well with the most devastating aspects of gentrification. It can lead to the displacement of low income people, the erosion of cohesive neighborhoods (the exact opposite intent of many groups looking at this issue), and the elimination of already scarce affordable housing. Such outcomes are not inevitable, but blight concerns will be readily used that way by some people (often those with considerable power already) IF explicit care is not taken to prevent it.

It’s easy to say “but WAIT. WE don’t mean it that way.” The problem is that good intentions are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. That’s the complicated part of the game of language and power that permeates modern human existence. Just because we do not intend to reinforce oppressive structures and ideas does not mean that we avoid doing so.

Working for change requires a constant interrogation not only of motive but of implementation. The process is so complicated – because we are soaked our entire lives in inequitable discourse about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability status and so on – that it’s almost impossible to work through these issues alone. There are no constant or easy directions, no simple “this is always the right, clear-cut answer.” Continual examination and reexamination of both the process and the intended outcomes is essential. It may be exhausting, but it’s also necessary for the integrity of well-meaning groups that have the potential to have a useful impact in our city.

The best way forward is always fluid and, as noted above, almost always best determined in conversation with others who can help to identify the problematic areas that we ourselves miss. This piece is part of my contribution to that conversation. It is an effort to identify the problem, which then begs the question of possible solutions. I will never claim to be a definitive source of answers, but I can at least share some ideas. Since this post is getting quite long, I’ll talk about those ideas in my post later this week.

Sources cited:

Rebecca Solnit. Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. University of California Press, 2008.

Robert P. Fairbanks II. “Blighted Spaces and the Politics of Everyday Life” in Social Work and Society. Volume 1, Issue 1, 2003.