Book: Cutting the Tall Grass

Sharon is writing the book: “Cutting the Tall Grass: Hardship and Privilege in a City after Depopulation,” under contract at the University of Chicago Press, in the Fieldwork Discovery and Encounters series.

Brightmoor was a poor, majority Black, depopulated neighborhood in Detroit’s outskirts. Wildflowers flourished here amidst hundreds of empty houses. Residents saw wild deer as often as they heard gunshots. And in 2006, a new phenomenon began: white middle-class newcomers started to move in and plant gardens and farms on vacant lots.

We often imagine urban life in dense, walkable neighborhoods – places with reliable public transportation, a variety of local stores, and a vibrant street life. However, from Detroit and Newark to Chicago and St. Louis, many urban neighborhoods have faced decades of depopulation, the results of years of deindustrialization, suburbanization, racial redlining, and public and private disinvestments. Here children walk by boarded-up houses on their routes to school, residents worry about more neighbors leaving, and investor “We Buy Homes” signs litter intersections.

What is it like to live in a poor, majority Black, and extremely depopulated neighborhood? And why would white middle-class newcomers move here? In the book Cutting the Tall Grass, I draw on three years of ethnographic fieldwork from July 2015 to August 2018 while I lived and became a homeowner in Brightmoor, to show how what I call legacies and traumas of decline shaped how longtimers and newcomers lived in one of America’s most disinvested urban neighborhoods.

I describe how Black and white longtimers coped with owning homes worth less than second-hand cars. Lacking access to credit, savings, and equity, many were forced to consider their houses disposable assets and lost them to tax foreclosure. By contrast, white newcomers mobilized their privileges to profit from Brightmoor’s distressed real estate market and imbued nearly-worthless homes with value. I also show how memories of historical violence, decline, and depopulation impacted how longtimers saw Brightmoor today, in what I call traumas of decline. For instance, longtimers continued to navigate street life vigilantly based on perceptions rooted in historical violence, despite recent crime declines. They also perceived vacant lots through the lens of historical trauma and tried to control anxieties of urban decline by vigorously mowing tall grass. By contrast, as white newcomers lacked this historical memory and could draw on distinct privileges, they perceived the fallouts of decades of devastation as ripe with opportunity. They navigated street life less vigilantly than longtimers did and even organized a Farmer’s Market next to an open-air drug market. These newcomers came to see Brightmoor’s “blight” as bucolic and saw rural growth where longtimers saw urban decline.

In Cutting the Tall Grass, I explain how and why decades of racialized disinvestments and neighborhood decline weighted on longtime residents, while white newcomers could turn distress into exclusive opportunities. Doing so, I show how the legacies and traumas of living through neighborhood decline add to the detrimental impacts of neighborhood disadvantage. I also help us better understand gentrification by looking at this unusual case.