Community Development Field

On Optimism and Space: The Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

Before 2016’s first presidential debate plunged into birtherism and beauty pageants and Donald Trump ran into a wall of his own making, the Republican nominee produced a few exclamatory lines […]

Before 2016’s first presidential debate plunged into birtherism and beauty pageants and Donald Trump ran into a wall of his own making, the Republican nominee produced a few exclamatory lines on our present dystopia. Of visiting Pennsylvania and Ohio: “You will see devastation!” Of American inner cities: “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell!” As usual, the rhetoric was a flame for his base, but its odor of cynicism was far more diffuse.

Two days later, the Center for Community Progress' 2016 Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference began in downtown Baltimore. The bulk of the 1,000-plus attendees came in from the inner cities and Rust Belt towns that Trump evoked, their work devoted to the challenges he distorted. The unifying concerns of blighted and abandoned land and property are the most visceral signposts of the devastation he depicted—they are what first cross the lens when photographers and filmmakers portray post-industrial decline.

Yet if the tenor of the conference could have been bottled and distributed, it would have made for a great antidote to Trumpism. Over the course of three days, panelists and attendees spoke of the abandonment covering distressed cities less as a sign of loss and devastation and more as a tried-and-true canvas for creating homes, making art, growing produce, starting businesses, preserving stories, uniting communities, and reimagining urban landscapes.

“If you think about distressed, underserved communities all across the country,” says Tamar Shapiro, CEO and president of the Center for Community Progress (CCP), “part of the challenge is that they don’t have many resources. And yet land, if used well, is a tremendous resource. This land is an opportunity.”

Growth vs. Quality

“Somewhere along the way,” Bill Maher said in his show’s closing monologue the Friday before the conference, “we bought into this insane idea that everything always has to get bigger.” His subject was the new iPhone7 and corporate America, but the same can be said for our cities and towns, especially ones for whom a conference on vacant properties might appeal to most. Congressman and former CCP Director Dan Kildee echoed this commentary during his keynote address at the conference. “We have a culture focused entirely on the [equivalence] of growth and quality,” he said.

A countermovement toward rightsizing has gained steam this century (Shelterforce explored it in depth a decade ago), and more and more municipalities seem to be embracing it not only as good local policy, but as a better and more honest way of building confidence among their populations.

One such place is Erie, Pennslyvania, a town with land to spare: In 2014, Erie’s population fell below 100,000 for the first time since 1920, almost 40,000 below its post-war-era peak, leaving thousands of vacant parcels behind. On a panel on soft-market cities, Erie County Planning Director Kathy Wyrosdick spoke of Erie’s latest comprehensive plan.

Planning for growth in a city facing decades of decline, said Wyrosdick, would ring hollow and guarantee failure. The city instead embraced rightsizing, which included concentrated investment in streetscapes and infrastructure in promising corridors, then strategic demolition, land banking, and development of park space in high-abandonment areas. It also required managing expectations of everyone involved.

The question to ask, she said, is, “How do you decline gracefully … and promote it, and say, ‘this is going to be great for our community. We’re going to be the best city of 100,000 that we can be.’”

On the same panel, Ken Larking discussed his work as the city manager of Danville, a shrinking town on Virginia’s southern border. Danville, he said, began with a plan for its dilapidated downtown, then expanded it to its neighborhoods, where there were over 2,000 vacant and blighted homes. Danville’s neighborhood plan includes the creation a new community development corporation and intensifying code enforcement, but began with the demolition of 400 structures. “We have a bunch of lawns to mow,” he said of the city. “I’ve been trying to convince them to grow corn.”

“I had the stages of grief written down here,” Larking said near his conclusion, and listed them off: denial, anger, depression. “At least in the last four of five years, there has been an acceptance.”

The Potential of Place

No one at a national gathering on vacant properties need be convinced of their importance in the health of their community, especially in places where economic decline is most pronounced. The pride and enthusiasm in the task is indeed driven in part by its firm place among God’s work.

But it is also driven by this sense of canvas. There is some purity in it—a retained experience of coming home from school and showing your parents what you made in art class, thawed in the grown-up world. And all the better if the canvas is not clean, but instead contains a palimpsest of history.

Take Brick + Beam Detroit. On a panel on assets-based approaches to vacant properties, co-founder Victoria Oliver explained how this “support group for budding rehabbers” has helped independent rebuilders of vacant properties not only plan their projects—from construction workshops to tougher topics like insurance and preventing demolition—but also to pat their own backs.

Through a page on Brick and Beam’s website called “Brag Your Rehab,” people can pin their property on an online map, describe its condition before they came to it, and showcase what they created from it and how long it took them to do so. For example, from a home in Detroit’s Indian Village neighborhood:

“I am doing a full historical renovation, bringing the house back to what it would have looked like in 1915, when it was built. As of now, the kitchen, one bathroom, and one bedroom are completed. This is ending up to be more work than I had anticipated, but I consider it to be one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life.”

Rehabbers should brag in a place like Detroit, or Erie, or Baltimore. Amid the contagious cynicism and drama-addiction bred by this year’s political cycle, there has been at least some new reflection of what got us here—how pessimism has fed demagoguery and depression in left-behind cities and towns, where jobs are only one of many departures.

Changing the disaffected through conviction seems as futile as ever—too much sociopolitical baggage and grey matter. Leaving the conference, I sensed there was more promise and pride in engaging more of them in reclaiming and replenishing their devastated spaces.

Photo: jinjian liang, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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