Dissembly: How Architecture Falls Apart under Abandonment
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Taken together, the three cities in our study--Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis--have somewhere around 100,000 vacant properties and 40,000 abandoned buildings. These vacancies concentrate overwhelmingly in Black communities. To be sure, we are interested in the aggregate effects of these gaptoothed landscapes. But we also need to understand the small stories. What happens to a building or a lot once it is untenanted? What are the processes of change that each parcel undergoes?
Homes in varied states of disrepair, St. Louis.
Abandonment takes many forms over time. As manufacturing operations relocate to suburban greenfield sites or to other regions of the U.S. and beyond, they leave behind the old brick buildings that once housed production, storage, and distribution. The flow of capital from inner core neighborhoods results in loss of employment, lower incomes, declining tax revenues, and diminished capacity of communities to maintain the built environment. Home owners pass away or relocate, leaving behind a house that few people want or will buy. In some cases, multiple property owners may purchase the property in order to squeeze additional rent with little to no investment. Many such landlords lack the funds or will to upkeep these properties, and eventually abandon them, writing them off as a loss. As neighborhoods grow poorer and depopulate, small businesses can no longer afford to operate, and many shut down. Commercial building owners realize that they cannot find tenants for these shops, so the buildings sit vacant, and many are eventually abandoned. Similarly, as people move out, older religious communities face difficulty maintaining their buildings amid dwindling congregations, and many become abandoned over time. As small business owners, congregations, and industrial operations depart, the old city that had been built to accommodate them expires in situ--carcasses of the industrial age.
Abandoned Catholic church (left) and corner commercial building (right), St. Louis.
Once abandoned, buildings and land gradually take on the woolly, haggard appearance familiar to many who live and work in inner city neighborhoods. The photographer Camilo José Vergara famously documented these processes, making repeated visits to abandoned buildings in numerous cities in order to track their transformation (Vergara 1995; Parak and Vergara 2016). As one can see in Vergara's work, buildings fall into varied states of disrepair, while yards become overgrown with varied species of tall grass and flowering perennials. In place of crabgrass and concrete, goldenrod and thistle take root. Fences collapse under the weight of milkweed and other climbing vines, while ruderal plant communities establish on the rooftops, building interiors, sidewalks, and alleys. This is not some mythic 'return to nature,' but rather a novel disturbance ecology formed through the entanglement of varied species native and transplanted that are most suited to occupy such niches (Gandy 2013; Anderson and Minor 2017; Riley et al. 2018).
All that remains of this house in St. Louis is the façade, around which a diverse plant community has established and spread.
As the land bristles with biotic growth, buildings further deteriorate from lack of maintenance. Roofs begin to lose shingles, exposing the wood substrate to water damage. Spreading ivy weakens mortar and delivers increased moisture to brickwork, causing it to loosen and deteriorate. Lichenous window frames split in the humid summers, while doors rust off their hinges and porches molder and sag. This slow process of deterioration is often punctuated by instant changes. Antique dealers and junk collectors move in to scavenge the interior, prying out crown molding, staircases, copper pipes, stained glass windows, old doorknobs, and bathroom fixtures. In St. Louis in 2011, for example, the Post-Dispatch reported that scavengers had stripped 44 vacant school buildings across the city, causing millions of dollars in damage (Mann 2011; Crouch 2011). More commonly, neighborhood kids break out windows with rocks and confiscate doors for play. Unprotected, the buildings soon become home to stray dogs, cats, pigeons, mice, and rats. City workers might even punch holes in the roof to accelerate the process of decay, making a building easier to tear down.
Rain, humidity, temperature fluctuations, mold, rot, and plant growth combine to weaken the structure of abandoned buildings.
Fire is a major hazard facing communities with large numbers of vacant properties (Dugan 2015; Taketa 2016). Sometimes the fires only scorch the exterior, but often they end up gutting or obliterating the building, which in turn leaves dangerous rubble piles and hidden basements. Many fires erupt without human intention, usually due to exposed wires, uncapped gas mains, or even lightning strikes. At the same time, it is often more expedient and profitable for property owners to burn down their buildings than to repair them or pay taxes on them; the Detroit fire department reported 3,839 suspicious fires in 2014 alone. Detroit's fire marshal created a minor sensation in 2012 when he suggested that fire fighters allow vacant buildings to burn rather than try to save them (Michigan Radio 2012; Kurth 2015).
Varied fates await abandoned properties. Most accrue back property taxes owed to the city over years or even decades, and they fall into arrears. Once in arrears, the land and buildings (if any remain) become part of a public portfolio, as with Detroit's Land Bank or St. Louis's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The LRA maintains a vast portfolio--about half of the total vacant properties--made legible on the landscape through the use of red plywood to board up windows and doors. Clearing title to such properties can take years, as multiple liens and questionable sales or transfers cloud the chains of ownership. The LRA manages to sell some of these properties: vacant lots go for around $1.50 per square foot, and "vacant vandalized buildings" for around $1000 per unit (Old North St. Louis Restoration Group n.d.). In other cases, the LRA simply tears down buildings, typically using federal Community Development Block Grant funds to clear the debris, re-grade the land, and maintain the property. Indeed, St. Louis planners tout land clearance as progress, arguing that demolition is cheaper than maintenance, and that only large contiguous parcels will attract new investment (O’Dea 2019).
While these processes are dissembling the architecture and clouding chains of ownership, they also affect the infrastructure. As pipes freeze and burst in the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast, the water and sewer systems fragment and fail. With a rapidly declining tax base, many cities do not have the funds to repair their water infrastructure, leading to frequent "boil alerts" and other disastrous outcomes in places like Flint. Detroit's Land Bank Authority even warns potential buyers that it cannot guarantee the existence or state of water service to any given property, and that costly investments might be required. Gas lines and other conduits corrode over time as well through lack of upkeep and exposure to the elements. Meanwhile, sidewalks heave and buckle, pushed up by street trees, and crumble from flooding and poor repairs. The street trees themselves frequently grow out of control, compromising overhead wires. And the streets themselves go unrepaired, leaving deep ruts and potholes, often exposing multiple layers even down to the original brick pavers, in the case of St. Louis.
Sidewalks, streets, and other infrastructure elements become compromised with lack of maintenance over time, as seen in the post-industrial landscape of St. Louis.
All of this results in what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin term the "unbundling" of infrastructure (Graham and Marvin 2001). This is more than a mere nuisance or cost factor. Such dissembly of networks and systems deprives residents of the means of social reproduction taken for granted in more well-off neighborhoods. It exerts a form of biopolitical sorting, where the uneven spatial distribution of water, food, reliable electric supply, internet connectivity, cooking fuel, and other crucial goods and services differentially shapes the life courses and outcomes of communities (Pulido 2017; Ranganathan 2016). Lacking sufficient public capital, or unwilling to invest it in poor neighborhoods, cities many cities turn to privatization, converting water and other means of life from a public good into pay-as-you-go commodity, subject to the willingness of private investors to invest in the maintenance of sunken capital assets such as pipes and sewers. Such dissembly of basic infrastructure exerts an overwhelmingly disproportionate affect on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities, meaning that racial capitalism is at the heart of the disposition of value in bodies, health, and life itself (Salamanca and Silver 2022). The water crisis in Flint, Michigan was merely the tip of the iceberg.
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Kurth, Joel. 2015. “Detroit Pays High Price for Arson Onslaught.” Detroit News, February 18, sec. Special Reports.
Mann, Jennifer. 2011. “Metal Thefts in St. Louis Area Bring Calls for Scrap Crackdown.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, sec. Metro.
Michigan Radio. 2012. “Detroit Fire Boss: Let Vacant Buildings Burn Down.” Detroit Stories.
O’Dea, Janelle. 2019. “‘Rebuilding a City’: Demolition Activity in St. Louis up One Year after Krewson Outlined Vacancy Plan.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 8.
Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. n.d. “Purchasing LRA Property in Old North St.” unpublished document.
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Taketa, Kristen. 2016. “Vacant Building Fires up Significantly in St. Louis This Year as Neighbors Worry for Their Safety.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 5, sec. Metro.
Vergara, Camilo Jose. 1995. The New American Ghetto. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.