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This text is by Steve Panton in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Just Landed?

Steve Panton

In the winter of 2009/2010 the arts/technology initiative Loveland Technologies launched a project to sell 10,000 one inch square parcels of land on Detroit's east side at $1 each1. The land existed both physically, as part of a vacant lot at 8887 East Vernor, and as an online virtual environment. Purchasers, and they were surprisingly numerous, could buy as much or as little land as they wanted.

By focusing on the process for sale and ownership of land Loveland distinguished themselves from many other arts projects in the city that were primarily interested in the opportunities for large-scale projects that access to cheap property provided. In this article I want to explore that distinction with specific reference to the current discourse of development in Detroit.

The idea that land is a commodity which can be individually owned and traded is recent, originating in 16th Century Britain and crossing the Atlantic to explode on an unprecedented scale in the newly created United States after the war of independence2. At that time, selling newly acquired frontier land was both an economic necessity, to meet the immediate need of paying off war loans, and an ideological device, championed by figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who saw it as the path to the broad-based land owning democracy they envisioned for the country. Whatever the motivation, the results were staggering, from the late 18th century onwards 1.8 billion acres were converted into federal land of which 1 billion acres would be sold as private property. It has been described as the biggest ever transfer of public (or arguably Native American) resources into private ownership.

Central to the project was the meridional (or Jeffersonian) grid that surveyed the country into six mile square townships comprising thirty six individual square mile units. By creating a grid of equal sized squares, rather than dividing land in the traditional way relative to natural features such as ridges and streams, the path to land purchase was made as simple and extensible as possible. Other than the fact that Loveland located their land office on the internet, Jefferson, a product of the enlightenment, would have no problem recognizing the methodical way in which they went about parceling and selling land.

Simplifying the process of buying and selling property, though, is not the same as making it free of social and economic bias. For example, the land surveyed under the Jeffersonian grid was initially sold in minimum sections of 640 acres at a price of $2 per acre, restricting potential buyers to the most wealthy3. Or consider that until the late 1940's it was still legal to restrict property sales in the United States by race4. Or that in the early 1980's 1500 homes in Detroit were compulsorily purchased under Michigan's “quick take” eminent domain laws to accommodate General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck plant5. Or that Hantz farms managed to purchase 1500 parcels of land from the city6 in a shorter time period than a local community garden's ongoing effort to purchase one lot.

In a later project, started around 2011, Loveland created a remarkable common access website for property ownership in the city7. The stated objective is to “provide property information in a clean and interactive way that is intuitive to use while increasing the sense of ownership and power a citizen has in their city.” Fundamentally this takes the viewpoint that consolidating and re-presenting otherwise difficult to locate information in an on-line community environment can alleviate some of the social and economic bias inherent in the traditional process of land ownership.  In its  belief in the power of technology to create an empowered citizenry, it sounds remarkably like the vision that the Jeffersonian land grid would create a republic of empowered citizen farmers.

One weakness though, as Jefferson also found, to designing a system that makes property easier to buy, is that it can also become an ideal system for speculation. The one time that I seriously used the Loveland website was to find the owner of a squatted property across the street and it turned out to be one of 235 properties bought in the 2013 auction by Udi Perez,  a California poker player8. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have this information, it made me far more personally conscious of the scale of the speculation problem in the city.

Recently Detroit has been surveyed again, but this time it's not to divide the land in terms of area but in terms of blight. Still, the end objective is really the same, to prepare it for sale. Loveland's involvement has included the creation of an app that sends blight information in from the streets and into a back-end system for storing and manipulating the data. Using this technology, a team of 150 surveyors have reportedly assessed every one of Detroit's 380,000 land parcels and declared that there are over 84,000 blighted properties and vacant lots in the city.  The Detroit Blight Task Force9 (a public-private partnership initially established to provide a strategy to spend a $300 million federal grant) has proposed a plan to remove all blight over five years. The estimated cost for removing “neighborhood blight”, comprising residential and light industrial properties, is $850 million of which they report $456 million has already committed. At this rate it might actually happen.

One of the central themes in Andro Linklater's panoramic history of land ownership “Owning the Earth”10 is that prevailing systems of land ownership effect consciousness and by extension help mold the shape of society. For example, what was the effect on consciousness of the arrival of Detroit's first land office in 1804 and the subsequent surveying and auctioning of the common land11? Or what will be the societal impact of giving away 39 parcels of city owned vacant land in the downtown area for $1 to create a center for spectacular consumption12? Clearly, even if only a fraction of the Detroit Blight Task Force's plan is implemented the overall impact of transferring ownership of the newly created vacant land will be both immense and long-lasting.

Detroit is possibly the only place in the world where the terms “coming back” and “moving forward” are used interchangeably.  It's part of a remarkably unexamined discourse of development in the city that is presented as being inclusive and bottom-up but obscures a reality that is oligarchic and exclusionary. The availability of cheap property in the city has allowed remarkable large scale art projects which have often also had significant community involvement and neighborhood benefit; viewed individually these projects are substantial contributions to the potential vision of what Detroit could be, but viewed collectively they tend to obscure the real sources of power. By focusing on the mechanics of land ownership Loveland's projects have got far closer to the dynamics of power and change but their entrepreneurial basis and belief in the capacity of digital technology to result in democratic land ownership allows them to comfortably co-exist with it. Now if there were projects that could combine Loveland's acuity with a more critical approach, that might create some seriously interesting work.

1 A good introduction to the project is provided in this entertaining interview on WDET from Feb 13 2010, http://vimeo.com/9429450.

2 For background on the early evolution of land ownership in America see Andro Linklater's “Measuring America : How the United States was shaped by the greatest land sale in history”, Plume Books, 2003

3 Later the minimum section would be reduced to 40 acres, the minimum area that was thought necessary to support an average family; see “Measuring America” p 164-166

4 The dynamics of race and property ownership in Detroit are described in detail in Thomas Sugrue's “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”, Princeton University Press, 1996

5 http://www.upa.pdx.edu/IMS/

6 http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/

7 http://whydontweownthis.com

8 http://whydontweownthis.com/2013/winner/5212

9 http://www.timetoendblight.com/

10 Andro Linklater, “Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership”, Bloomsbury, 2013

11 For a fascinating history of the transition from the era of ribbon farms and common land in Detroit, to the era of private ownership see Chapters 4-8 of Silas Farmer's “The History of Detroit and Michigan: Or, the Metropolis Illustrated ; a Chronological Cyclopaedia of the Past and Present, Including a Full Record of Territorial Days in Michigan, and the Annals of Wayne County”, (1884).

12 http://books.google.com/books/about/

13 http://www.freep.com/

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link - issue 07: June 2014