Backfill to the City Movement: Dirt, Demolition, and Accumulation-by-Destruction in Detroit, MI

Authors: Michael Koscielniak*, University of Michigan, Michael Borsellino, University of Michigan
Topics: Urban Geography, Economic Geography, United States
Keywords: demolition, decline, detroit, urbanization, blight, gentrification
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: Washington 5, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2014, Detroit institutions and development interests released the findings from a study of parcel conditions in the city. It concluded Detroit faced 80,000 residential properties in some stage of deterioration. For city leaders, the scale of housing abandonment thwarted the city’s future developability. An action plan predicted the city and its partners needed $1 billion to fund residential demolition. By the end of 2014, Mayor Mike Duggan’s office teamed with the Detroit Building Authority (DBA) and the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) to establish the Detroit Demolition Program (DDP). Four years later, the DDP has allocated over $170 million to contractors to remove 15,000 houses.

Critical scholars approach demolition as a form of creative destruction erasing fixed assets to establish terrain for new rounds of accumulation. Demolition serves as a vital constituent of gentrification because it tilts the seesaw of capital towards inexpensive cities with high achievable incomes. Our research suggests this depiction is insufficient for understanding capital’s contradictions in declining cities. Drawing from analysis of property records, backfill transactions, and demolition data, we suggest Detroit’s decline may not be reducible to creative destruction or gentrification. The DDP’s efforts to finance millions of cubic yards of demolition backfill to fill excavated basements illustrates differing accumulation strategies. The backfill program encompasses property arrangements that trouble categories employed to comprehend urban decline. The geographies and geomorphologies of this material introduce markets and structures in which dirt becomes money in disguise. Moreover, these relations unsettle gentrification’s explanatory power for understanding accumulation.

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