Article: Detroit Looks Toward a Massive, Unconstitutional Blight Condemnation: The Optics of Eminent Domain in Motor City

Article: Yxta Maya Murray, Detroit Looks Toward a Massive, Unconstitutional Blight Condemnation: The Optics of Eminent Domain in Motor City, 23 Georgetown J. Poverty Law & Pol’y 396 (2016).

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force prepares the city to engage in an unconstitutional and unjust taking of up to 72 thousand structures in the city, but its members pretend otherwise. Task Force Chairs do not recommend that these seizures take place under the powers of eminent domain, since the Michigan Constitution erects profound barriers to blight takings. Instead, they urge that this clearance operate under an enhanced version of Michigan’s Nuisance Abatement Program, which now is used to seize approximately fifty properties a week. The Task Force, however, does not recognize that this Program has long been taking properties in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Additionally, blight condemnations historically exploit low-income communities and people of color, but these same officials also pretend that this danger does not exist when it comes to Motor City.

The reasons for this indirection prove exigent: Detroit is the most dilapidated city in the nation, and desperately needs to repair or remove its unsound housing. Constitutional dramas and troublesome objections about the city’s very poor would only protract this process if not vanquish it altogether. Yet the Task Force performs a great feat in obscuring these problems. How does it do it?

The Task Force succeeds by luring the public’s focus – specifically, its gaze – away from the Constitution and the problem of poverty toward mesmerizing scenes that speak to Detroiters’ greatest fears and desires. That is, officials use optics to persuade politicians, judges, and the citizenry that they can confiscate thousands of properties without compensation. In previous work, I have named these optics a specious brand of official and judicial gazing practice: I call it “peering.”

In this paper, I study how optics now work in Detroit to occlude the legal and social problems that lurk in the Task Force’s recommendations. I then offer a different public purpose under which eminent domain exercises could progress unhampered by the Constitutional barriers facing Michigan blight condemnations: The alleviation of poverty. In my development of an anti-poverty agenda that would support Detroit blight clearance, I advance an optical practice that would deflect many of the hazards of peering: I call it “seeing.”

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