top of page

Weediness and Entanglement

Tyree Guyton, Heidelberg Project, 1988–ongoing. Detroit, 2012. Photo: David Yarnall, Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Conceptualizing our Three Cities Project within the context of Post-Industrial land use

In this project, we are looking at the specific geographies of capital flight in Philadelphia, Detroit, and St. Louis. We want to know about the impact of mortgage and insurance redlining on properties, the nature and extent of building abandonment and land vacancy, and the legacies of ground, air, and water pollution. But we do not want to understand these processes as an end in themselves, but as the context in which people mobilize their creative resources to enact spheres of care and repair, build a future, and claim a right to the city. In many ways, Tyree Gupton's superb Detroit-based installation Heidelberg Project reflects these entangled practices.

When residential buildings are abandoned and vacant properties are not maintained, a variety of changes take hold. In addition to gradual structural disintegration through the decay of materials, buildings are frequently stripped for their materials by salvagers, while empty lots accumulate debris from prevailing wind currents and illegal dumping. Such sites also provide substrate for the emergence of ruderal plant and animal communities, a disturbance ecology of life amid abandonment comprised of a mosaic of native and imported species (Anderson and Minor 2017; Gandy 2013; Newman et al. 2018; Riley et al. 2018).

Meanwhile, properties long associated with manufacturing, power generation, refining, fuel provision, and other industries are nearly always contaminated by toxic chemicals such as asbestos, dioxin, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls, which often seep into soil and groundwater or are dispersed through airborne particulates. Because many of the companies responsible for urban industrial pollution have long since declared bankruptcy or ceased to exist, abandoned factories and other facilities often persist in a liminal state--physically and economically obsolete, too costly to tear down, and too polluted to adapt and reuse. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made some headway cleaning up "brownfields" in the three cities, however most such abandoned sites await remediation.

While the pollution resulting from abandonment has broad regional impacts, it is most immediately dangerous to surrounding communities, which are disproportionately comprised of people of color (American Lung Association 2001; Banzhaf, Ma, and Timmins 2019; Mohai and Bryant 2019; Pinderhughes 1996). Residents are at greater risk for elevated asthma rates, cancer clusters, lead poisoning and other toxic effects. Moreover, the dissembling built environment itself is often a source of potential harm. As houses and factories decay in situ, they release asbestos, brick dust, and lead into the environment, and create collapse and fire hazards, especially for children playing around them.

The dissembling power of capital withdraw is evident in these townhouses on St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis.

Amid these spatial transformations, then, our main interest remains the experience of people who live there. We want to understand how residents perceive the built and natural landscapes that have emerged from large-scale disinvestment. People navigate between the material and symbolic world in order to construct explanatory frameworks to account for their conditions, circumstances, and sense of self (Berger and Luckmann 1967; Douglas 1970; Goffman 1974; Greider and Garkovich 1994; Prus 1995; Milligan 1998). With this in mind, how do people understand and explain race and racial discrimination, segregation, and differential opportunities in the three cities under consideration? Surrounded by abandoned buildings, how do they perceive and account for disinvestment in their communities? How do they relate to and think about vacant land, where entire blocks may have only a few houses remaining?

We expect that the levels of vacancy and abandonment take a toll on residents' emotional well-being, exerting a form of attritional, dispersed violence on communities (Attar, Guerra, and Tolan 1994; Hahn 2017; Hicken et al. 2021; Morsy and Rothstein 2019; Paul and Moser 2009; Stopford and Wilson 2020). At the same time, we also expect that residents experience and account for these conditions in a variety of ways. Women and children, for example, will have overlapping but divergent experiences from men in terms of feeling safe and secure on city streets. Police presence and the constant threat of surveillance, arrest, and incarceration surely affects how people relate to their surroundings. At the same time, people constantly and actively knit together social relationships through everyday practices, family networks, church and worship communities, civic groups and clubs, neighborhood associations.

Meanwhile, as vacant lots grow tall with plants and entire blocks are reclaimed by nature, often in the form of ruderal ecologies, residents draw on these networks to confront landscapes in profound transition into new ecological states. What are their varied relationships to this return of nature in their midst? For example, since many Black families in Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia migrated from the rural South in the twentieth century, some elders might recall an early life in the country, or visiting relatives there, whereas younger generations may not have such memories. How do residents navigate what anthropologist Anna Tsing (2011, 177–78) calls the "weediness" of their entanglements with post-industrial landscapes? Gupton's multi-media, site-specific and community based art practice is just one among many such navigations.

Works Cited

American Lung Association. 2001. “Urban Air Pollution and Health Inequities: A Workshop Report.” Environmental Health Perspectives 109 (suppl 3): 357–74.

Anderson, Elsa C., and Emily S. Minor. 2017. “Vacant Lots: An Underexplored Resource for Ecological and Social Benefits in Cities.” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 21 (January): 146–52.

Attar, Beth K., Nancy G. Guerra, and Patrick H. Tolan. 1994. “Neighborhood Disadvantage, Stressful Life Events and Adjustments in Urban Elementary-School Children.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 23 (4): 391–400.

Banzhaf, Spencer, Lala Ma, and Christopher Timmins. 2019. “Environmental Justice: The Economics of Race, Place, and Pollution.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33 (1): 185–208.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor.

Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gandy, Matthew. 2013. “Marginalia: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Urban Wastelands.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103 (6): 1301–16.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Greider, Thomas, and Lorraine Garkovich. 1994. “Landscapes: The Social Construction of Nature and the Environment.” Rural Sociology 59 (1): 1–24.

Hahn, Robert. 2017. “Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation as a Root Social Determinant of Public Health and Health Inequity: A Persistent Public Health Challenge in the United States.” Poverty and Race Research Action Council 26 (2).

Hicken, Margaret T., Lewis Miles, Solome Haile, and Michael Esposito. 2021. “Linking History to Contemporary State-Sanctioned Slow Violence through Cultural and Structural Racism.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 694 (1): 48–58.

Milligan, Melinda J. 1998. “Interactional Past and Potential: The Social Construction of Place Attachment.” Symbolic Interaction 21 (1): 1–33.

Mohai, Paul, and Bunyan Bryant. 2019. Environmental Racism: Reviewing the Evidence. New York: Routledge.

Morsy, Leila, and Richard Rothstein. 2019. “Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes: African American Children Growing up Poor Are at Greater Risk of Disrupted Physiological Functioning and Depressed Academic Achievement.” Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Newman, Galen, Yunmi Park, Ann Bowman, and Ryun Jung Lee. 2018. “Vacant Urban Areas: Causes and Interconnected Factors.” Cities 78 (February): 421–29.

Paul, Karsten I., and Klaus Moser. 2009. “Unemployment Impairs Mental Health: Meta-Analyses.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 74 (3): 264–82.

Pinderhughes, Raquel. 1996. “The Impact of Race on Environmental Quality: An Empirical and Theoretical Discussion.” Sociological Perspectives 39 (2): 231–48.

Prus, Robert. 1995. Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research: Intersubjectivity and the Study of Human Lived Experience. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Riley, Christopher, Kayla Perry, Kerry Ard, and Mary Gardiner. 2018. “Asset or Liability? Ecological and Sociological Tradeoffs of Urban Spontaneous Vegetation on Vacant Land in Shrinking Cities.” Sustainability 10 (June): 2139.

Stopford, Annie, and William Julius Wilson. 2020. Trauma and Repair: Confronting Segregation and Violence in America. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2011. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


bottom of page