Unreal Estate: An Introduction
unreal, adjective. 1. not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria; 2. being or seeming fanciful or imaginary; 3. lacking material form or substance; 4. contrived by art rather than nature; 5. Slang: so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.
Detroit: a city seemingly so deep in decline that, to some, it is scarcely recognizable as a city at all.
And so, to most observers, and more than a few residents, what’s there in Detroit is what’s no longer there. Theirs is a city characterized by loss: of population, property values, jobs, infrastructure, investment, security, urbanity itself. What results is vacancy, absence, emptiness, catastrophe and ruin. These are conditions of the “shrinking city,” a city that by now seems so apparent in Detroit as to prompt not verification but measurement, not questions but responses, not doubts but solutions. 1
Built into the framing of Detroit as a shrinking city, though, are a host of problematic assumptions about what a city is and should be. On the basis of these assumptions, change is understood as loss, difference is understood as decline, and the unprecedented is understood as the undesirable. These understandings presume the city as a site of development and progress, a site defined by the capitalist economy that drives and profits from urban growth. The contraction of such a site, therefore, provokes corrective urbanisms that are designed to fix, solve or improve a city in decline.
What corrective responses to shrinkage reciprocally preempt, however, are the possibilities and potentials that decline brings — the ways in which the shrinking city is also an incredible city, saturated with urban opportunities that are precluded or even unthinkable in cities that function according to plan. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires us to consider the shrinking city not so much as a problem to solve but rather as a prompt to new understandings of the city’s spatial and cultural possibilities.
Especially in the United States, architecture and urbanism almost always have learned their lessons from cities where the capitalist economy is flourishing, from interwar New York (Delirious New York), through postwar Las Vegas (Learning from Las Vegas), to late 20th-century Houston (After the City) and beyond. 2 Cities where the economy is faltering, by contrast, are places where architecture and urban planning deploy what they already have learned. These apparent opportunities for assistance and amelioration thereby provide architecture and planning with precious chances to prove themselves as in-the-know, both to themselves and to larger publics as well.
Relinquishing the desire to repair the shrinking city may thus present excruciating challenges to architecture and planning. It might compel the humbling realization that these disciplines might have more to learn from the shrinking city than the shrinking city has to learn from them. It might also compel the even more humbling realization that any specialized kind of knowledge production, whether disciplinary or interdisciplinary, is inadequate to grasp the contemporary city, and that this larger grasp would have to lead towards a new transdisciplinary knowledge production with a necessarily hybrid, experimental and indeterminate form. 3
But the shrinking city can teach not only professionals; it also can and does teach its own inhabitants — with “inhabitation” here posed as a political act rather than a geographical condition. 4 The shrinking city is neither empty nor populated only by the impoverished and disempowered; rather, the challenges of this city have inspired many of its inhabitants to re-think their relationship to the city and to each other. This re-thinking throws into question the urban ambitions and capacities that the “creative class” has been endowed with, if not arrogated to itself. 5 Most postulations of a “creative class” imagine that group as wholly different — by socio-economic level, by education, and by other parameters of entitlement — from the socioeconomically marginal communities that inhabit cities like Detroit. This imagination has allowed the creative class to regard itself as the heroic savior, engaged educator, or sympathetic interlocutor of what some have called the urban “underclass.” 6 It has also produced the race- and class-inflected portrayal of the creative class as the fundamental harbinger of change in Detroit, a portrayal that has played out in media exposure, access to grants, and a host of other forms as well.
Socioeconomic marginality, however, should be understood not as a call for creative others but as a condition of possibility for the emergence of creativity itself. In this sense, marginality allows for the formulation of new and innovative ways to imagine and inhabit the city. This is not to suggest that the mantle of heroism be transferred from a “creative class” to an “underclass”; rather, it is to recognize the unique capacity of Detroit’s inhabitants and communities to understand and transform their city. Indeed, for many in Detroit, the hope that the city’s problems will be solved by others has not been so much relinquished as ignored, for it is utterly contradictory to the city’s history and lived experience. Which is to say that in Detroit, urban crisis not only solicits skills of endurance, but also yields conditions favorable for invention and experiment — for the imagination of an urban realm that parallels the realm of concern to urban professionals and experts.
What if Detroit has lost population, jobs, infrastructure, investment, and all else that the conventional narratives point to — and yet, precisely as a result of those losses, has gained opportunities to understand and engage novel urban conditions? What if one sort of property value has decreased in Detroit — the exchange value brokered by the failing market economy — but other sorts of values have increased — use values that lack salience or even existence in that economy? What if Detroit has not only fallen apart, emptied out, disappeared and/or shrunk, but has also transformed, becoming a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted, voided or negated through the lenses of conventional architecture and urbanism? The Unreal Estate Agency — an open-access platform for research on urban crisis which I co-founded with colleagues in Michigan — is dedicated to exploring these and related propositions and, in so doing, the cultural, social and political possibilities that ensue from urban crisis.
Properties of Crisis
Our focus here is a property of crisis termed “unreal estate”: urban territory that has fallen out of the literal economy, the economy of the market, and thereby become available to different systems of value, whether cultural, social, political or otherwise. The values of unreal estate are unreal from the perspective of the market economy — they are liabilities, or unvalues that hinder circulation through that economy. But it is precisely as property is rendered valueless according to the dominant regime of value that it becomes available for other forms of thought, activity and occupation — in short, for other value systems.
Unreal estate emerges, then, when the exchange value of property falls to a point when that property can assume use values unrecognized by the market economy. The extraction of capital from Detroit has thus led not only to the massive devaluation of real estate that has been amply documented already but also, and concurrently, to an explosive production of unreal estate, of valueless, abandoned or vacant urban property serving, collectively, as both the setting and instrument for the imagination and practice of an informal and sometimes alternative urbanism.
Unreal estate is less a negation of real estate than a supplement to it, located both inside and outside of the political economy of real estate; and so unreal estate is neither merely nor altogether oppositional — it opens onto the imagination of positions beyond acceptance or rejection of the market economy. Unreal estate may thus be understood as a term that fits within what J. K. Gibson-Graham calls “a landscape of economic difference, populated by various capitalist and non-capitalist institutions and practices,” the latter not simply absences of the former but singularities with their own particular forms and possibilities. 7
“Private property has made us so stupid and narrow-minded that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists as capital for us, or when we can directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc.” 8 Karl Marx’s critical framing of real estate still points to the seeming unreality of property that is regarded as valueless or useless. The very notion of private property, that is, stupefies us to the counter-values of property devoid of exchange-value or conventional use-values.
And yet, the spatial residue of the withdrawal of capital — valueless property, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, unserviced neighborhoods — forms a system of disaggregated places that can be claimed by and for an informal urbanism that defies the enclosures of private property. The enclosure of commons was a key component of the development of capitalism, a means to incorporate collective open space into property regimes and profit-making processes. 9 In this regard unreal estate provides a lens through which to see how a decline in the exchange value of property can encourage the undoing of enclosures and the creation of possibilities for new sorts of commons — a commons neither designed nor intended, but rather a collateral result of the extraction of capital.
This proto-commons exist in spatial intervals, in the fissures and voids that open up between contracting spaces of investment and ownership. It also exists in a temporal interval, in a moment between the historical failure of modernist industrial production and the possible advent of postmodern urban gentrification. Situated in these spatial and temporal intervals, a commons-in-the-making is at once potential and precarious. It is constantly susceptible not only to further deterioration, but also to further “betterment” as defined by a value regime that equates improvement with profitability. As a result the unvalues of unreal estate are constantly at risk or even in the process of being recuperated as values — a recuperation that could become part of a process of gentrification, redevelopment or urban renewal.
The proto-commons of unreal estate is also constantly threatened by the least-developed form of capitalism: the primitive accumulation of dispossession, or what is usually identified and experienced as crime. Violence, both legal and extra-legal, thus shadows the city of unreal estate; this city accommodates not only an alternative urbanism, untethered to the imperative of capitalist accumulation, but also the anachronistic urbanism of accumulation by force — which in Detroit has been emphasized to the point of exaggeration.
Urban Informality: From Everyday Urbanism to Unreal Estate
Speculations on Detroit’s unreal estate have been authored not only by artists and architects but also by activists, anarchists, collectors, community associations, curators, explorers, gardeners, neighborhood groups, scavengers and many others — a heterogeneous array of individual and collective urban inhabitants. The political, social and cultural agencies of these inhabitants are diverse, but their skills, techniques and knowledge are specific, directed and often profound. A concern for unreal estate, then, involves a commitment to the informal production of urban space and culture by a wide and diverse range of the urban public. In urban studies, this commitment has been claimed by a discourse that revolves around “everyday urbanism.” 10 Translating the concerns of urban informality to the North American city, everyday urbanism has placed a salutary attention on the ways in which the public co-authors the city through its manifold uses of urban space. 11 Unreal estate encourages practices that overlap with those of everyday urbanism, but these practices invite a rather different framing.
The theorists of everyday urbanism have positioned it as an urbanism of the “mundane” and “generic” spaces that “ordinary” city dwellers produce in the course of their daily lives. These spaces “constitute an everyday reality of infinitely recurring commuting routes and trips to the supermarket, dry cleaner, or video store” — a de Certeau-style catalogue of “tactics” apprehended by the public. 12 At the same time, everyday urbanism is also supposed to be a bottom-up urbanism that “should inevitably lead to social change.” 13 But this layering of political agency onto the quotidian practices of everyday life produces tensions: everyday urbanism is posed as at once mundane and tendentious, at once descriptive and normative, at once inherent to a system and an alternative to a system. How does driving to the video store inevitably lead to social change? What sort of weakness and powerlessness mark those who rent videos? How do the tactics of the customer at the video store differ from those of the store’s employee? In some of its received versions, everyday urbanism might prompt such questions.
The fundamental forms of everyday urbanism are public responses to designed urban environments; everyday urbanism is thus an urbanism of reaction, whether conciliatory or contentious, to the professionalized urbanism that shapes urban space and life. As such, it does not sustain the progressive political project that some contributors to the discourse want to credit it with — a project that de Certeau was careful not to attribute to the everyday tactics he theorized. 14 Indeed, the insistent elision in everyday urbanist discourse between “everyday life,” on the one hand, and “experience,” on the other, points to the commitment not so much to alternatives to hegemonic modes of urbanism, but rather to the ways in which these modes are received by their audiences or users. Everyday urbanism certainly offers an alternative, but this alternative is not so much critical — a question of difference from a hegemonic political structure — but rather authorial — a question of difference from professional authorship.
Unreal estate is a waste product of capitalism — it is not mundane or generic so much as abject. The urbanism that unreal estate sponsors is less a tactic of consumption, like everyday urbanism, than an alternative form of production. This production can be insurgent, survivalist, ecstatic, escapist or parodic; it can also be recuperative, returning unreal estate to the real estate market. The urbanism of unreal estate, then, can exist in tension with both the professional urbanism of architects and planners and everyday responses to that urbanism.
In Detroit, the urbanism of unreal estate has yielded an array of practices, techniques, collectives and constructions. Sometimes — but not always — committed to the extraction of unvalues from the spatial waste of capitalism, this urbanism is also often defined by a variety of other common dimensions. It tends to be improvised, taking shape as unrehearsed and sometimes makeshift moves and actions, as opposed to being planned in advance as a means to a specified end. It tends to dissolve differences between work and play, as well as between art and other forms of cultural or symbolic production, from activism and political organization; to cooking, gardening, caretaking and teaching; to craftwork and social work. It tends to appropriate spaces that appear available to occupation or sub-occupation, or else to furtively occupy spaces that appear to be claimed or otherwise used. The products of this urbanism are often temporary or dispensable and its users and audiences are often limited to its authors or those in their company. And these authors tend to be self-organized, taking on responsibilities and functions typically assumed by institutions in functional cities.
The study of everyday and informal practices is often suffused with the desire to see these practices achieve resistant or critical force. The urbanism of unreal estate, however, does not mount a critique as much as it claims a right: the right not to be excluded from the city by an inequitable and unjust system of ownership and wealth distribution. 15 Claims to this right run the gamut from recuperative, through reformist, to radical, so that the politics of unreal estate are diverse. 16
The occupation of unreal estate can emerge from long-term community activism, short-term artistic interventionism and a whole range of in-between practices with various political, social and cultural stakes. Indeed, unreal estate development includes escapist fantasies as well as transformative actions; it includes creative survival as well as cultural critique; and it includes the ephemeral aesthetic servicing of those supposedly in need as well as material responses to objective needs through long-term self-organization.
One of the dangers in assembling this unruly set of examples is that it may smooth over the actual and important differences that distinguish one from another. Perhaps the most significant of these differences is that between unreal estate development undertaken by choice, by those with negotiable or flexible relationships to a place and a community, and unreal estate development undertaken by necessity, by those with non-negotiable or given relationships to where they live and who they live with. 17
While the urbanism of unreal estate takes place in dead zones for both free-market capitalism and formal politics, this is not to say that this urbanism is apolitical. Rather, it is to assert a distinction between governmental politics and non-governmental politics and to locate the potential politics of unreal estate in the latter — a politics devoid of aspirations to govern. 18 Just like exits or expulsions from the market economy, rejections of formal politics also comprise invitations: to neglect or parody rather than resist, to mimic rather than replace, to supplant rather than reverse. These are invitations to consider political change and political difference not even from the ground up, for “ground,” too, is the province of government, but on other grounds entirely, grounds “not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria,” grounds that can instructively go by the name of “unreal.”
Unreal Estate Development: Crisis as Opportunity
I do not document unreal estate in order to facilitate its growth, consolidation or protection. Instead, my aim is to investigate the forms and possibilities of self-organized urbanism in the context of the shrinking city. Indeed, if there is such a thing as “unreal estate development,” it would not be based on investments that pay off in a better world-to-come, whether within or beyond the market economy; it would rest, rather, on expenditures in the present moment, critically refusing to mortgage that moment for another, different future. If the development of unreal estate involves an exchange, then it is the exchange of a teleological system of progress, in which the present is, by definition, inferior, incomplete or inadequate, for an ongoing commitment to that present as a site of exploration and investigation. In the frame of unreal estate, therefore, Detroit is not a problem to solve by means of already understood metrics of evaluation, but a situation to come to terms with, in terms of both its challenges and possibilities. In this sense, my hope is to indicate ways in which the city is failing better — more equitably, justly and beautifully.
This is not a mere surrender to an environment suffused with social suffering, a bad present that calls out for improvement, whether that improvement be offered by the grassroots labor of artists and activists or by the top-down programs and policies of governments. On the contrary: it is the postulation of the present as a temporary phase within a moralized continuum of progress that allows that present to be tolerated and accepted. The conditions of this temporary present are redeemable “problems” and “failures,” subject to improvement in and by a future yet to come, rather than inexorable situations whose values and potentials must be analyzed rather than assumed.
To explore unreal estate, rather than undeveloped real estate, is to confront the complex (un)reality of property that has been extruded from the free-market economy. It is to see the margins of that economy as a site of invention and creativity as well as of suffering and oppression, a perspective that may very well be “so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.” The world of unreal estate thus offers a parallax position from which to assess value, an alternative to the single fixed vantage point established by the market economy. 19 In the world of unreal estate, precisely those urban features that are conventionally understood to diminish or eradicate value (inefficiency, inexplicability, waste, redundancy, uselessness, excess) are what create possibilities to construct new values. What usually appears to be the “ruin” of the city thus becomes projective or potential. Reciprocally, the processes that are conventionally understood to support the “renewal” of the city (investment, community-building, securitization, large-scale construction) become, by contrast, banal at best and destructive of unprecedented futures at worst.
Detroit is frequently framed as a city in need: of investment, infrastructural improvement, good governance and many other things. And yet, a city in need is also something else besides. Needs create spaces and opportunities for alternative means of achieving viable urban lives. Unreal estate is one heuristic for detecting and exploring these alternative means. Freed from the constraints of free market valuation and development, unreal estate is a site of manifold possibilities of alternative uses, actions and practices. Unreal estate thus opens onto other forms of urban life, culture, sociality and politics — sites at which the city is not only endured, survived or tolerated, but also re-imagined and re-configured.
Such perspectives on urban crisis have begun to emerge in contexts where the urban status quo has become unsustainable, labile or both. For example, AbdouMaliq Simone describes “the double-edged experience of emergency” in the African city — an experience of both crisis and openness, of both challenge and opportunity. With the disruptions of that emergency, Simone writes, simultaneously come possibilities for new ways of thinking, acting and being:
Emergency describes a process of things in the making, of the emergence of new thinking and practice still unstable, still tentative, in terms of the use [to] which such thinking and practice will be put … a present, then, able to seemingly absorb any innovation or experiment; a temporality characterized by a lack of gravity that would hold meanings to specific expressions and actions … This state of emergency enables, however fleetingly, a community to experience its life, its experiences and realities, in their own terms: this is our life, nothing more, nothing less. 20
Overwhelmingly interpreted as an urban failure, Detroit partakes of the possibilities brought about by emergency, and, as such, is one among a global ensemble of similar urban sites. In this context, the urbanism of unreal estate is more than just a compensation for “normal” urbanism and more than a response to the lack of formal urban planning. Rather, the self-organization and informality of unreal estate development open onto alternative ways of imagining, building and inhabiting the city. Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs has thus often remarked upon the city’s challenges as conditions of possibility for conceptualizing and producing new ways of living in the city: “the thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses not only provide the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living — ways that nurture our productive, cooperative and caring selves.” 21