Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Detroit: Not as “Abandoned” as it Seems

Written by Caitlin Endyke

There are two opposing narratives about the estimated 78,000 buildings that stand vacant and abandoned in Detroit.  On one hand, the “ruins” stand as captivating relics from a better time – inspiring “ruin porn” tourism and documentaries.  On another hand, the urban blight serves as a visual example of how far Detroit has declined since its heyday in the 1950s.  In both cases, the narratives miss the point that these “blighted” neighborhoods are still home to many Detroiters. The papers seem to fixate on the estimated 1 million people who have left Detroit since its population reached a high of 1.8 million in 1950, passing over the 700,000 who still live there (putting it ahead of Boston in terms of current population). 

This dichotomy was especially illustrated in this recent article from the New York Times, which describes a recent effort from a group of Detroit organizations to document and analyze all 380,217 parcels of land within city limits.  The purpose of the analysis seems to be to identify those lots that remain vacant and prepare them for demolition, with little regard to the extensive ownership histories of these lots, or the people whose homes surround them.  The project’s singular focus on the numbers, rather than the people who live in Detroit, eliminates any room for discussion of what impact these lots have on the lives of people who encounter them day-to-day.

Yet we know that Detroiters are fighting hard to maintain a collective voice in what happens to their city, despite numerous efforts from local and state government to curtail their democratic power.  While Data Driven Detroit computes its own maps of abandoned lots and blighted neighborhoods through this project, community groups in the city are organizing Detroit residents to create their own, alternative visualizations of the city they live in and love – maps that focus on the people who remain there, not the ones who have left.

Movement Building community involvement Detroit mapping