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The Meaning of Blight

A word that was originally about plant diseases became “infused with racial and ethnic prejudice” when it moved to the city.

Jim Wells/AP

This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.

There’s a difference in what President Donald Trump prescribes for restoring “the middle class” and fixing “the inner city.” Each of those demographics are, respectively, stand-in terms for the white small towns and suburbs that voted for him, and the black urban neighborhoods that didn’t. In both cases, he calls for bringing back jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, and increasing wages. But when addressing black communities—or “inner cities”—Trump talks about policing and blight.

Delivering his “New Deal for African Americans” at a black church congregation in Charlotte last year, Trump said:

I will … propose tax holidays for inner-city investment, and new tax incentives to get foreign companies to relocate in blighted American neighborhoods. I will further empower cities and states to seek a federal disaster designation for blighted communities in order to initiate the rebuilding of vital infrastructure, the demolition of abandoned properties, and the increased presence of law enforcement.

His repeated centering of “blight” is worth interrogating. For pretty much all of the 20th century, that word has been used in close association with cities, and usually as a pretext for some kind of drastic project that results in massive displacement. For example, it was a blight designation that led to the gutting of Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District in the 1950s that uprooted thousands of families. For cities, blight lands louder than a bomb.

Why the term is applied to urban spaces has a lot to do with who lives in these places and who doesn’t.

To explain why, it’s important to unpack what the word once meant. The etymology of blight dates to the late 1500s, when it was used primarily by farmers—“any baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, ”that suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants.” So how did a term with agrarian origins come to be synonymous with cities?

To find out, I contacted the lexicographer Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show “A Way with Words." In an email, he explained that the migration of “blight” from rural to urban settings was a case of transference—when a term’s meaning is modified, though still influenced by the original meaning. Here’s how Barrett diagrammed the transference path for “blight”:

[O]ne of a variety of overwhelming (visible) diseases of plants and nature, or the thing which causes such diseases > overwhelming problem, failure, or other negative condition (of a person, place, institution, etc.) > visible signs of decline of social systems, infrastructure, population, etc. of a place

The Vacant Properties Research Network, a project of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, released a literature review study on the “multiple meanings of blight” in 2015 that further explains how blight became an urban problem.

“There was no singular discovery of something called ‘blight’ in U.S. cities,” the report states. And there’s still no common understanding of the term across cities. Some jurisdictions might view graffiti as a sign of blight; another thinks that the term refers to a concentration of abandoned buildings. Reads the report:

Urban reformers in the first quarter of the 20th century started to use the language of blight as a metaphor in their descriptions of vast numbers of problems they noticed in cities. They borrowed the term from ecological studies of plant blight with the intent to make their studies of cities seem as rigorous as those of traditional sciences. The term stuck.

Writing on the “public menace of blight” for the Yale Law & Policy Review in 2003, University of Pennsylvania property law scholar Wendell E. Pritchett explains that the urbanized use of the word was pioneered by the Chicago school of sociology, where urban poverty was a focus area of research during the Progressive Era. The school compared cities to living organisms and argued that “urban change occurred in natural patterns.” However, urban reformers soon after morphed that meaning into one that would focus more on private interests. Writes Pritchett:

To secure political and judicial approval for their efforts, renewal advocates created a new language of urban decline: a discourse of blight. Blight, renewal proponents argued, was a disease that threatened to turn healthy areas into slums. A vague, amorphous term, blight was a rhetorical device that enabled renewal advocates to reorganize property ownership by declaring certain real estate dangerous to the future of the city. To make the case for renewal programs, advocates contrasted the existing, deteriorated state of urban areas with the modern, efficient city that would replace them. Urban revitalization required the condemnation of blighted properties and the transfer of this real estate to developers who would use it more productively.

Today, the term is closely associated with crime. The much-disputedbroken windows theory” descends directly from this strain of blight discourse. The idea of broken glass as a gateway drug to neighborhood chaos was the impetus for police departments to more aggressively stalk residents—African Americans disproportionately—to stop, question, and frisk them in the streets. Such tactics did not make crime go down, but they helped African-American incarceration rates go up.

The word “blight” might only be a more polite way to say “ghetto”—another word that no longer has one universal definition, but we all know what it is and who it is when we see it. Such terms have historically been applied mostly to spaces where white, Christian families don’t live. It was the forced crowding of Jews into certain city neighborhoods throughout Europe up to the 19th century; the similar clustering of Eastern European immigrants in certain sections of U.S. cities throughout the early 20th century; and the segregating and redlining of African Americans and Latinos into the worst city quarters ever since. All of these spaces have been spoken of, socially and politically, in pathogenic and metastatic terms.

And, it still is today—this is what Trump means when he says that crime and "infectious disease is pouring across the border." Such terminology also helps explain why the inner city—or what people like Trump think is the inner city— gets treated with disaster designations, demolition, and heavy-handed policing instead of promises to restore factory jobs. As Pritchett wrote in his “Public Menace of Blight,” paper:

Blight was a facially neutral term infused with racial and ethnic prejudice. While it purportedly assessed the state of urban infrastructure, blight was often used to describe the negative impact of certain residents on city neighborhoods. This “scientific” method of understanding urban decline was used to justify the removal of blacks and other minorities from certain parts of the city. By selecting racially changing neighborhoods as blighted areas and designating them for redevelopment, the urban renewal program enabled institutional and political elites to relocate minority populations and entrench racial segregation.

Which is why, as New York City urban planner Justin Garrett Moore stated in a 2015 essay, we now need a new word for blight. Wrote Moore:

Why do I consider ‘blight’ a problematic word when it comes to describing our cities and communities?... The violence of urban renewal (versions 1.0, 2.0 and now 3.0 beta) used this terminology of disease to describe a place and its people to justify the use of constitutional police power “the betterment of the health, safety, morals” to take property and wealth, remove people, and to literally destroy places.

Think about cities and communities where there is geographic decline and disinvestment. What exactly is the disease? Vacant Buildings? Untended naturalizing lots? Poor people? Brown people? How is the disease treated? Historically the response has been at various scales of action and impact to wipe it out and start again with something new.

A year and a half later, Moore says that he still hasn’t come to terms with what that new language should be—if for no other reason that the word now serves so many interests. But rarely does it serve the interests of people who aren’t white.

“I can get a grant or funding to do something if I use this word ‘blight’ to describe my community,” Moore tells me. “It becomes a very effective meme, of sorts, that takes on this very powerful presence without a lot of people questioning the intent and focus of the term and what it carries.”  

As the Vacant Properties Research Network wrote in its report:

“Blight” does not shed light, as it should, on the actions and processes that contribute to the blighting of particular places or the underlying socioeconomic drivers of conditions that cause or generate different types of blight. Governmental and nongovernmental (i.e., philanthropic) funders continue to direct resources to projects that target something called “blight” and all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted anti-blight legislation. What these groups are really talking about, however, is spatial change and how to manage it.

The VPRN report recommends that policymakers and developers refrain from using the word “blight” as a summary description of an entire space, especially where people are involved, and instead apply it only to specific things that show decay or abandon—a “blighted property” as opposed to “neighborhood blight” or a “blighted community,” as Trump said. It’s well documented what happens throughout history when people become affixed with negative labels.

“That same thinking and mindset is how slavery happened,” says Moore. “Someone said, ‘Among these human beings, these people are darker than the other, and there’s something bad about that.’ It creates a whole set of dynamics that are very powerful in determining outcomes, and how people think and relate. The naming of something is a part of the way power structures play out.”

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