The Dirt on Demolishing Detroit: Backfilling, Value-Grabbing, and the Production of Urban Decline

Authors: Michael Koscielniak*, Eastern Michigan University
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning, Land Use
Keywords: Decline, Detroit, Demolition, Value, Racial Capitalism
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 21
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2014, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force (DBRTF) concluded Detroit must demolish 50,000 residential structures to stabilize the private property market. DBRTF, comprising corporate, government, and philanthropic leaders, proposed a $1 billion program to reset the built environment. Mayor Mike Duggan committed to ridding the city of blight. By 2020, Duggan and the Detroit Demolition Program (DDP) authorized 21,000 demolitions and exhausted $250 million in federal funds.

Money, however, was just one essential resource. In four years, DDP sourced and distributed over six-million cubic yards of backfill material to grade holes created by basement excavation. Policymakers and DDP officials deputized contractors to identify material and consultants to regulate. The production of demolition arranged assets, properties, and policies to prioritize value-grabbing. Contractors drew upon 444 unique backfill sources from across the region. DDP sourced most backfill from speculative developments in the white suburbs.

In this paper, I argue the logistical geography of demolishing Detroit illuminates real estate practices and forms of value that produce urban decline. Previous research has simplified publicly-funded demolition as a discrete intervention in service of private development, while analysis of urban decline relies on a binary of global change and local reaction. The DDP was neither an interruption in ongoing processes of ruin nor a signal of future gentrification. As part of the production of urban decline, it represents shifts in capitalist urbanization and strategies to plunder cities. Demolishing Detroit enacted a regional system of extraction that mobilized environments and supply chains to reproduce anti-Black geographies.

Abstract Information

This abstract is already part of a session. View the session here.

To access contact information login