Driving through Soulsville, a community in Memphis that lives up to its name, we pass by modest homes, long-vacant buildings (including the house where Aretha Franklin grew up), deteriorated roads and sidewalks, and overgrown and dumped-on lots that presumably were once home to families and businesses. Our group had just met at the Memphis Slim House, a vibrant and inspiring local community arts and education organization that had mustered the will and resources to help nourish their neighborhood’s soul–one mural, one bus stop, one gathering place, one creative outlet, and one soul at a time.
But still, as we continued to explore this part of the city, it was hard to ignore all of the . . . blight?
Then a brief but strange encounter with the police during our visit reaffirmed that this community’s problems were deep and that the tools being used to deal with these problems are blunt and imperfect. It was a very real reminder for me how systemic and intertwined the issues are that face neighborhoods like Soulsville and the north side of Indianapolis, where I grew up.
“Police power” in US law means more than just the role of law enforcement. Its legal definition is “the capacity of the states to regulate behavior and enforce order within their territory for the betterment of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of their inhabitants.” This regulation of behavior and enforcement of order is our urban spaces has long been the goal of urban planning. The tools of planning–slum clearance, urban renewal, rezoning, economic development and taxing plans, and even placemaking–have by now been well-enough studied and criticized that we know many of their intended or unintended ill effects on people, particularly the poor and minority groups. These versions of police power should receive the same attention that we see on the most visible face of police power, the police, as they can be just as fatal.
In the planning, policy and design worlds there have been many shifts and trends for how things can be done differently to achieve better and more sustainable outcomes for people in the transformation of a place from decline to renewal. The most impactful of these tools aren’t necessarily the innovative policies, plans and design strategies, or the bulldozers and man-hours, or even the millions or billions of dollars channeled to shaping urban places and futures. The most impactful tools are often words–the denotations and connotations and stories attached to the physical and social geographies of parts of the city: ghetto, slum, bad, black, blight.
These words become the lens through which people see a place, the stories they tell influence the way different people with different levels of power, and the people from within and outside of a community feel about a place and what they are willing to do, or not do, about it. These understandings and feelings inform stakeholder and public participation, planning and policies, the allocation of resources, time frames, etc. that affect communities immediately and for generations.
Why do I consider ‘blight’ a problematic word when it comes to describing our cities and communities? Blight is a borrowed term from plant pathology that refers to a number of diseases that cause damage and death. 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. Neighborhoods that have challenges and the people that live in them are very different from diseased crops. They are a direct result of a number of different and complex social, economic, and political actions that may have shaped the place and its people for generations. They are not easily diagnosed, and not easily erased.
Back to our drive through Soulsville, I was asked, “what word would you use instead of blight?” I responded that I didn’t know. And I still haven’t figured it out. But when I go to communities like these, including the one where I grew up, I know it is more important to see who and what is there that is viable, despite everything that has been done to it. I know that I won’t see ‘blight’ or use the term, because I know exactly what that thinking has done to communities like mine, and people like mine for several generations and it is nothing good.
Perhaps we need to make a new word. If “selfie” and “twerk” deserve new words, maybe this does, too. Maybe this new word can help us better articulate the challenges and promote the potential that our neighborhoods, our communities, and our people face–without associating them with an insurmountable disease that needs to be wiped out regardless of efficacy or cost. Then we can use it to convince people to use our collective and constitutional police power for good–to do something better for cities and the souls who inhabit them.
Justin Garrett Moore is a Senior Urban Designer at the NYC Department of City Planning, as well as the co-founder of Urban Patch, Adjunct Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and a member of ioby’s Board of Directors.