The city after property

Authors: Sara Safransky*, Vanderbilt University
Topics: Social Geography, Geographic Theory, Urban Geography
Keywords: property, land, race, reconciliation, futures, Detroit
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Washington 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the early 2010s, Detroit—long a symbol of urban blight and fraught racial and political dynamics—emerged as a laboratory for planning and enacting postindustrial futures. The city’s 100,000 parcels of “vacant” and “abandoned” land became sites for experimenting with proposals from green urbanism and fiscal austerity to racial healing projects. In 2011, a truth and reconciliation commission, modeled on the one in South Africa after apartheid, was established to investigate the historical roots of race-based opportunity inequities—specifically segregation and discrimination—in the Detroit metropolitan region. This paper uses the Detroit truth and reconciliation commission to consider fragile efforts to reconcile and redress racial regimes of ownership and raises questions about the reparative processes necessary to address the ongoing violence of colonial conquest and liberal property regimes and develop capacities to imagine the futures otherwise. I draw attention to the “black noise” (Best & Hartman 2005)—political aspirations that are illegible because they are so “wildly utopian and derelict to capitalism”—that haunts Detroit’s development landscape. The paper’s title, “the city after property,” emphasizes thinking with scholars, activists, and ordinary people who have challenged colonial dispossession and racial regimes of ownership and tried to imagine more humane and ethical futures via different ontologies of property relations. The paper reflects on the politics and ethics of a strategy of engagement that invites speculation about how past propositions could have led (and might still lead) to alternative urban futures at time of unprecedented ecological and economic precarity—when the need to imagine otherwise is great.

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