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Bridging the Detroit divide

How people feel about Detroit seems to depend largely on where they are standing. Or so says Jana Cephas, who lived in that city for 12 years before moving to Boston to pursue a PhD at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2007.

When Detroit comes up as a topic among designers, architects, planners and historians, Cephas says she hears a lot of talk “very focused on decline, decay and vacancy as Detroit’s ‘problem.’” However, according to Cephas, one of Detroit’s biggest challenges is not that it has vacancy but that experts do not see the latent potential in that vacancy.

“What is sustaining a lot of people in Detroit today is their ability to use vacancy as an advantage,” she says.

Concerned with the wide gap between residents’ and outsiders’ perceptions of vacancy in Detroit, Cephas has secured a $2,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant to investigate the issue further. By documenting how residents use vacancy for financial gain, she hopes to help designers better understand how to accommodate informal economies in their redevelopment plans.

Cephas certainly isn’t contesting that Detroit has fallen on hard times. The poorest city in the United States, Detroit suffers from a high unemployment rate, with 33 percent of its residents living in poverty. And although no official vacancy rate exists, Cephas estimates that it would be around 35 to 45 percent based on anecdotal evidence. “If you drive around the city, any given block will be almost half empty,” she says.

But what piques her curiosity is the many ways—often unsanctioned or illegal—in which Detroit residents have begun to use vacant space as income-generating infrastructure.

While city residents’ use of vacant lots for urban farming has garnered publicity nationwide, many other Detroit practices have evaded mainstream attention. These include squatting and building reclamation, architecturally inspired art auctions and events, intentional co-housing and cooperative communities, illicit utility restructuring, and more.

For example, both formal and informal building deconstruction crews working throughout Detroit have generated a significant amount of economic activity in recent years.

“It’s anti-architecture in a way,” explains Cephas. “Residents have found ways to recycle vacant buildings and to create mini-economies around that recycling. They literally deconstruct the buildings by hand—taking them apart, piece by piece—and sell the parts.”

According to Cephas, this has spawned numerous smaller recycling businesses that do everything from recycling copper pipes to breaking down wood shingles into wood pulp that’s turned into other products to cleaning 19th-century doorknobs and pulls for resale through antique shops. “The unbuilding process has become a re-economy in the city—but one that hasn’t been tracked so far,” she says.

To better understand this kind of renegade reuse, Cephas has found herself turning to research methodologies drawn from disciplines outside architecture, such as anthropology and sociology.

“Part of what makes researching this topic so very challenging is that these activities are difficult to quantify. The information does not live in an archive or database somewhere, and there’s no clear way to access it. In fact, it’s impossible to know what exactly is happening unless you are living in the city and see what’s going on,” explains Cephas. “So a lot of what I do involves walking around and talking to people.”

When she finishes her research project in December, Cephas hopes to publish a peer-reviewed paper exploring how informal economies can serve as a legitimate catalyst for sustainable community development.

“Hopefully, the paper will help other designers understand not just Detroit, but this condition of lower economic layers and levels in general,” says Cephas.


Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, Wired.com and the Boston Globe. Her website is genevieverajewski.com.

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