What could make two old women think it was a good idea to stay on a barely populated block in a Detroit neighborhood? Evidently, a blot could.

As described in Improve Your Lot!, Interboro Partners’ essay in Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, “blotting” is the process whereby Detroit homeowners expand their yards by claiming adjacent abandoned lots – either through purchase or informal adoption.  Interboro Partners acknowledges that the results of these expansions are often unattractive; the sites are often acquired to park multiple cars.  Nevertheless, as pointed out in Thomas Sheffer’s previous post, they represent a valid, grass-roots response to Detroit’s vacancy issues.

In my opinion there are two key elements of the Interboro analysis meriting further exploration.  First, blots often coincide with multiple generations of a family staying in a neighborhood and living on a single or connected set of blots.  Second, the inference that Detroit residents would buy these lands if possible, thereby bringing the lots back onto the tax rolls; and that the biggest impediment to purchase is the poor record-keeping and convoluted approval process of city government.

Many efforts on the municipal, county and state level have been proposed to improve this process.  The simplest, proposed by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was to simply allow residents to buy any adjacent vacant lot for $200.  Interboro sees this proposal as “in the spirit of the sort of planning … that attempts to identify, document, and finally advocate for potentially progressive practices that … already exist, but are underappreciated and have little legitimacy.”  They see the professional in this case as a sort of “ghostwriter,” helping the citizen implement grassroots ideas in the best possible way. (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

The issue of lost tax revenue is by no means a small one.  At the time of Interboro’s research, estimates projected that Detroit lost $60 million in uncollected property taxes every year, with more than $1 billion lost in the past 20 years. Detroit only collects 87 percent of its property taxes every year, when most cities collect 98 percent.  Records showed 33 percent of all properties in the city are tax delinquent, and that more than $165 million is owed in back taxes.  Detroit employed a total of two tax collectors to deal with this backlog.  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)  Certainly making the purchase of additional lots would increase potential tax revenues, but would do little to increase Detroit’s effectiveness in actually collecting taxes.

By far the most interesting potential outcome of facilitating blots is the development of intergenerational families in communities.  Detroit’s lack of a tax base and poor collection would mean that many services for residents are either being eliminated, scaled back or taken up by the non-profit sector.  Social researchers often point to the disruption of kinship networks and familial bonds in distressed communities as creating the need for such services.  The lives that Americans lead today, regardless of class, are defined by high levels of mobility, disbursed families, and an increased need to purchase services that were provided by nuclear or extended families 50 years ago.  When discussing the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security System when the Baby Boom Generation retires, the question often asked is, “how are we going to pay for taking care of all these seniors as they age?”  It seems to me that the question should be, “Why are people not taking care of their parents, and how can we as a society facilitate kinship care?”

So let’s get back to those two old ladies in Detroit.  As described in Improve Your Lot!, the site developed as follows:

“Wanda Cowans and Helen McMurray are two sisters who created a shared blot.  The chronology of their blot formation is as follows: both sisters migrated from the South and upon arrival in Detroit were renters.  In the mid-1960s, Wanda lived in an apartment and Helen rented a house at 2005 Elmhurst Avenue (fig. 4).  Helen was in the process of saving money to buy a house, but at that time still couldn’t afford one.  In the aftermath of the 1967 riot, property values on Elmhurst Avenue plum­meted. In April 1969, Helen was finally able to buy a house at 1987 Elmhurst.  That summer, Wanda bought the house at 2005 Elmhurst that Helen had just vacated, which was just three lots away.  Like so many buildings on the block, the houses at 2001 and 1995 Elmhurst were abandoned and torn down.  The sisters acquired the vacant land from the city and created the large shared yard that now connects their two houses.”  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

So let’s spell this out – two sisters relocated to Detroit and worked steadily over a period of 40 years, during Detroit’s worst decline, to buy houses on the same block. When faced with the abandonment and demolition of two houses between them, did they move out of the neighborhood into senior housing, or reduce their expenditures by moving into a single house?  They bought more property to create a shared garden.  Seems like the kind of residents Detroit needs to keep by any means necessary.

The theme of extended family is a consistent one throughout the Interboro analysis.  The Garden Blot is a six-lot blot next to Jean Anderanin’s home.  Assembled over a number of years, the lots are adjacent to Jean’s house, but three of the lots are owned by her son Michael.  Why do we care?  Michael lives in a home across the street, with neighbors on either side.  His purchase of three vacant lots did nothing to directly impact the value of his property.  Victor Toral’s expanded yard, combining purchased and appropriated lots, has allowed him to expand his garage and add a bedroom.  It has also created an enclosed playground for his kids with a tree house and swing set.

Would Michael Anderanin have purchased three vacant lots adjacent to a stranger’s house?  Would two neighbors, no matter how friendly, buy the lots between their houses to create a jointly owned garden?  Would Victor Toral have purchased or appropriated as many lots without a desire to create a really cool, safe playground for his kids?  I propose that the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Because even in today’s America, family matters.  In places like Detroit, where there is the distinct possibility that you would have no neighbors at all, family might be the only people who will stick it out with you.

Kinship and land ownership have been intertwined in American history since the beginning, and even today, accumulating land is one of the surest ways for Americans to accumulate and invest wealth.  The unexplored potential of the Interboro analysis is that it may offer cities whose lands have little material value a chance to package lands to increase their subjective value.  Detroit still has many assets, including good universities and cultural institutions.  What if it also became the place that facilitates multiple generations of families living together in close proximity, and affordably creating large compounds that offer the sort of intergenerational interactions so many of us seem to miss?

Both Thomas Sheffer and the researchers at Interboro contend that blots may be “anti-urban” or lack aesthetic quality.  I believe that nothing is more anti-urban or ugly than a street full of abandoned homes.  Further, I would contend that any of the families in these case studies would say that their blots are beautiful, not for what they look like but for what they mean.  For Ms. Cowan and Ms. McMurray, their blot is the culmination of forty years of fortitude; Victor Toral’s blot is a place his kids can play safely and with plenty of room.  Michael and Jean Anderanin’s blot is both a beautiful garden and the concrete symbol of a son’s love for his mother.  The beauty of these properties comes not from the abstract formal values of outsiders, but from deeply personal and specific meanings created as part and parcel of assembling these properties.

There are many ways that the blot process could be specifically targeted to, and marketed to, extended families.  Doubtless no program of this type could solve all of Detroit’s vacant property issues.  When approaching the phenomenon of blots, professionals need to keep in mind that beauty flows from meaning, not vice versa.  If we concentrate our efforts on facilitating residents’ efforts at creating meaning from vacant land, beauty will take care of itself.

Bibliography:

Armborst, Tobias, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore. “Improve Your Lot!” Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, 2008: 45 – 64.  http://www.cudc.kent.edu/shrink/CGS/04_Interboro_scrn.pdf

The use of ‘blots’, or ‘side lot expansions’, is a technique that gives homeowners with vacant land adjacent to their home the opportunity to purchase that property as an expansion to their own for a nominal cost. Essentially, this concept is an incentive to de-densify neighborhoods. This immediately strikes me as contrary to many smart growth principals, notably that in reducing density it makes transit less feasible and reduces the community attributes of neighborhoods.

Blot in Detroit

Blot in Detroit

The article, “IMPROVE YOUR LOT!” from Cities Growing Smaller, analyzes the growing use of blots in Detroit and shows several photo examples of blots with high, unfriendly fences (like the example above). This privatization of urban space might be contrary to the community-oriented fundamentals of New Urbanism, but not to what they call “New Suburbanism” – a term for “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent land.” Their analysis points out the many suburban amenities these blots enable homeowners to develop, including: additions to their homes, garages, pools, playgrounds and gardens.

Diagram of various uses of blots

During a class visit to Cleveland in October, my thoughts on blots quickly began to evolve into something more positive. The density of many neighborhoods in the city, built for mid 20th century industrial workers, no longer suits the city’s needs or many citizens’ ideology.  Cleveland’s metropolitan population statistics tell the tale; the city is shrinking but the region is sprawling (see map below). There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the quest for more space and privacy…attributes that blots can help supply.

Cleveland Sprawl

Blots, or the New Suburbs, may not be part of smart growth, but they can serve as a valuable tool for “smart decline” as well as a way to combat urban sprawl. Setting aside certain neighborhoods with the best potential for successful density, mixed use and transit as “urban catchment hubs”, other areas can then be set aside for reducing density with the use of blots and other incentives, such as conservation easements, that set aside open space. Additionally, by attracting people seeking suburban values to stay in the city or move closer to urban hubs, this could also work to bring metropolitan growth back in to the city. This could be combined with many existing growth management tools that could be tweaked for shrinking cities, such as growth boundaries, impact fees and TDRs.

Creating a systematic way to use blots in this way is something that land trusts and land banks are already toying with, but perhaps government could take a stronger role. If nothing else, blots remove the burden of maintaining vacant lots and put that land back on the tax roll. Even modest shifts of population back towards the core would lead to many other positive outcomes that shrinking cities would definitely benefit from.