M. Dewar

Sometimes, it can be in a city's best interest to encourage the people who do it.

Since the 1960s, more than a third of the housing in the northwest Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor has disappeared. This doesn't mean simply that the homeowners moved on, or that the abandoned buildings they left behind now remain, decaying and empty. Literally, these structures no longer exist.

Many of them were originally built in the 1920s as wooden houses on wooden platforms, first constructed without heating or plumbing. They were meant for white would-be auto workers moving to Detroit from Appalachia. And the developer who built them, a man named B.E. Taylor, figured that what was good enough for these families living in the rural mountains was good enough for them on the edge of Detroit. Not surprisingly, these houses (or the expanded versions that built up around them) have deteriorated easily with time. Now some of these overgrown lots look as if they never had homes on them at all.

Eerily, you can see the disappearance of these buildings in the two maps below, from the University of Michigan researcher Margaret Dewar. Here, the outline of the neighborhood's street grid is visible as the white space between intact properties in the neighborhood in 1978 (the large white spaces are a park and highway):

And this is what that same black-and-white map looked like in 2009, without those properties that have given way to vacant lots:

Both images from Dewar & Linn, “Remaking Brightmoor,” in Thomas & Bekkering (eds.), Mapping Detroit (Detroit: WSU Press, forthcoming)

"It’s as if there’s been an eraser rubbing on it," Dewar says, running her finger over the two images.

Today, 40 percent of the lots in the neighborhood are vacant. And this reality – a common one in what Dewar and June Manning Thomas describe in their book The City After Abandonment – has given way to a curious trend: Remaining homeowners here are taking over this land.

Many of these lots have become side yards, gardens, fenced-in orchards. In another context, we might refer to the people claiming this land as squatters, and we'd call what they've created "informal" settlements outside of the law – "which you would not think would happen in a developed country, in the city that was the home of this industrial behemoth," Dewar says. " But when people take over property like this, essentially they’re squatting."

In this map, vacant lots are shown as gray parcels, and the red properties are those that have been claimed as adjacent side lots by other property owners:

In blue here, remaining residents have taken up multiple adjacent lots, sometimes as many as three or four:

Both images from Dewar & Linn, “Remaking Brightmoor,” in Thomas & Bekkering (eds.), Mapping Detroit (Detroit: WSU Press, forthcoming)

As for what this looks like on the ground, Dewar took this photo during her walks around the neighborhood:

"If you keep walking down the sidewalk, you’d see they have vineyard and berry patches and apple trees," she says. These people have paved a driveway and put up a fence. "And they only own about half of this property."

Clearly, this is not your typical picture of squatting, and it raises a complicated question: How should Detroit, and other shrinking cities like it, handle a technically illegal activity that's obviously improving the neighborhood?

"What’s going on in a place like that?" Dewar asks. In many of these cases, people have tried to legally acquire land adjacent to them. But the local government has little capacity to keep track of who owns what in neighborhoods like this. And these "squatters" aren't exactly trying to grab land that doesn't belong to them out of some opportunistic greed. Many of them are simply trying to control what happens around their homes.

Dewar has talked to some of these homeowners about why they do this. "And they say, 'Look across the street. There's a burned-out property. Down the street is a dumping ground. If we didn’t do that, that’s what would be next door."

These people are the remaining residents most heavily invested in the community. And so it makes little sense to treat them as scofflaws. They've invested in the land and poured concrete and planted vegetables. "That’s a remarkable investment to make in improving the city," Dewar says. That effort may change how we think of squatting in some contexts where the squatter is really a civic asset.

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