Black and Blue Infrastructure: Tensions in Detroit's Hydrologic Redevelopment

Authors: Nadia Gaber*, UCSF
Topics: United States, Social Theory, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: infrastructure, water, mapping, gentrification, ethnography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Studio 7, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Portraits of ruin in the Rust Belt have become powerful archetypes directing “urban renewal” efforts (Appel 2016; Schilling and Logan 2008), as represented by the color-blocked schematics of documents like Detroit Future City. Its maps are marked by green and blue infrastructure zones meant to return “natural” water and forest topologies to the land – a response to the flooding caused when heavy rains overwhelm Detroit’s aging storm and wastewater infrastructure. These spatial redesign efforts encode an implicit racial reorganization of the majority-Black metropolis. The areas slated for water retention ponds, residents note, are the same ones facing foreclosure via water debt, meaning they will literally be displaced and replaced by water.

This paper explores the tension between Black-led struggles for water justice and planning imperatives for a blue-green future for the city. Anthropologists have explored tensions between racial and environmental justice efforts, particularly as the latter has become instrumentalized in development practices reshaping and often destabilizing cities (Dooling 2009; Safransky 2014). Detroiters have described these plans as “gentrification tantamount to genocide” (author’s fieldnotes, 2016), reading these future-oriented development imperatives through Detroit’s storied histories of redlining and white flight (Sugrue 1996). I argue that the blue future envisioned by Detroit’s development intelligentsia threatens the invisible architecture of Black sociality that has buoyed communities through decades of deindustrialization and neighborhood disinvestment. Drawing on the work of AbdouMaliq Simone, I attend ethnographically to Detroit's “people as infrastructure” (2004), scaffolding urban life amidst the disrepair of the built environment.

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