The building pictured below sat near Mack Avenue on Detroit’s far east side and, according to the municipal government, was an environmental hazard. Following years of complaints from area residents that the structure smelled of rotting garbage and attracted criminal activity, the building is slated for demolition. In mid-2017, a fifty-five-ton excavator piloted by a human operator knocked down the floors, walls, and other components before loading them into waste haulers bound for area landfills.

Building as environmental hazard. Source: Photo by Author.

By 2020, an estimated 40,000 buildings are scheduled for removal. Such structures are unevenly distributed across Detroit’s landscape, and are the material remainders of racially-motivated population movements in which white property owners and industrial employers have sought to insulate themselves from upwardly mobile people of color throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (For more, read: Bunge, 2011; Kinney, 2016; Sugrue, 2005; Thomas, 2013). Otherwise put, if Detroit’s vacant buildings are waste to be landfilled, they are the products of racialized systems of property ownership that allowed white families to cash in on moves to the suburbs, while people of color were left to cope with the deleterious effects of increasing vacancy and declining property values.

Demolition has been the standard response to dilapidated buildings in Detroit since at least the 1950s, but the pace of removals has accelerated since the mid-2010s, with more than 10,000 demolitions recorded between 2015 and 2016. Still, the process of bulldozing structures deemed environmental hazards has produced new anxieties, specifically the potential for collapsing buildings to release toxin-laced dust. What follows are moments in which dusty emissions of building removal become matters of concern. Accounts from Southeast Asia, North America, and elsewhere demonstrate how the shifting makeup of air – including scents, chemicals, colors, and other contents – give shape to collective lives (Choy and Zee, 2015; Murphy, 2008; Shapiro, 2015). In this vein, following attempts to control building removal emissions offers a brief glimpse at how racialized inequalities are recast through the organized ‘clean up’ of their material remains.

My first encounter with fears of demolition dust occurred on a hot July morning when Julian, a demolition laborer exclaimed, “We’ve got to find a hydrant around here that works, and soon.” On that morning, Julian was part of a team razing a burned out auto body shop on Detroit’s west side, and his responsibilities included drenching the building before it could be “knocked down and loaded out.” After our first two attempts to crank open corroded fire hydrants yielded only trickles of water, Julian muttered, “If we don’t get water, there’s going to be dust, and if there’s dust it’s my job.” Just days before, one of Julian’s fellow laborers was fired after he failed to locate a sufficient water source. To be sure, Julian’s difficulties locating a working hydrant are not isolated, and a recent audit found as many as half of Detroit’s fire hydrants are inoperable following decades of deferred maintenance. Luckily for Julian, on our third attempt, a hydrant released a torrent of water that traveled through three blocks of leaky fire hose and onto the walls of the auto garage.

Hydrants became a required part of demolition practice in 2014 when the Detroit Building Authority (DBA) took over management of the city government’s demolition fund in what municipal leaders and private-sector executives then described as “An ambitious plan to clean up the City of Detroit.” This announcement underscored how the DBA would set a “gold standard” for building removal using methods deemed to be “fiscally responsible and environmentally safe.” These methods were developed by a panel of demolition contractors, state administrators, and environmental health practitioners, who mandated a “wet-wet method” in which the contents of demolished buildings are soaked down both when they are being flattened by excavators and while they are being scooped into waste haulers. Doing so, according to the panel’s report, would control dust generated through highly mechanized demolition, preventing it from blowing onto adjacent properties.

Non-Functioning Fire Hydrant. Source: Photo by Author

“Dust,” as Melanie, a state economic development officer who advised the panel told me, “is the number one nuisance produced by demolition, and keeping things wet prevents that. We’re trying to clean up the city here, and we don’t want to leave things dirtier than we found them.” Pronouncements by DBA administrators, politicians, property developers, and others treat vacant buildings as waste to be expelled from the city limits. Doing so, they argue, will improve property values, promote public safety, and attract new residents. To use Melanie’s words, “We want to clear away the mess and encourage development.”

Nevertheless, dust kicked up in removing traces of Detroit’s past is more than an aesthetic inconvenience. According to an inspector from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MiOSHA), “This isn’t just dirt blowing around. We’re talking about buildings constructed before the 1970s, so they most likely contain asbestos, PCBs, lead, cadmium, and other contaminants. Those things are usually fine if you don’t touch ‘em, but when you’re demolishing them there is the potential they can become airborne and affect workers, next-door neighbors, and other people. Abatement may remove most of these toxins, but they almost always miss stuff hidden in walls, pipe chases, attics, and the like.” Asbestos siding, PCB insulators, and other materials were state-of-the-art technologies for middle-class homeowners as Detroit’s built environment was constructed over the course of the early twentieth-century. Decades later, materials that once made for safe, warm, and colorful lives are made environmental toxins when they are run through by fifty-five ton excavators.

Asbestos pipe insulation in building to be demolished. Source: Photo by Author

Aerosolized toxins have become a matter of public concern, and local environmental activists are vocal critics of the DBA’s demolition protocol, including “wet-wet” practices. Instead, environmental groups argue that salvageable buildings should be renovated and used to house low-income Detroiters, while necessary removals should proceed slowly and by hand, without the use of heavy machinery that has a propensity to kick-up dust. Such arguments have largely gone unheeded, perhaps in part because contact with chemicals like asbestos, lead, and PCBs is notoriously difficult to trace since these substances only produce deleterious effects years after contact with human tissue (Chen 2012; Murphy 2006; Markowitz and Rosner 2002; Walker 2011). Furthermore, even when there is proof of contact with an environmental toxin, it can be impossible to prove the source of the exposure, especially when that source is a dusty particulate that can be blown or washed away (Hecht 2012; Krupar 2013; Pulido 2000).

Dave, a DBA program officer, chafed at the accusations of environmental activists, telling me “We take the safety of workers and the public very seriously and would never do anything to harm them. Hazardous materials like asbestos are abated pre-knock down, and our wet-wet method is tested to prevent harmful emissions when they can’t be.” That said, dust is kicked up even when water protocols are strictly followed, including at the auto shop that Julian and his coworkers demolished. Despite a thorough soaking, the process produced clouds of dust that enveloped Julian and blew into surrounding yards. When I mentioned my observations of dusty worksites to Dave, he reframed his earlier statement, adding, “We can’t go tenting every house. We need to remove them, and taking them apart by hand takes a lot of time and money. That would be like $100,000 for a single-family [house] and right now our costs are at $15,000 per. The brass tacks financial reality of the situation is that we can’t afford the time and billions of dollars […] As it is, our timeline for cleaning this up is already slowing down […] Do you really want to slow down that progress because of a little dust?”

Marking Asbestos. Source: Photo by Author

In this instance, it is difficult to ignore arguments that ‘unintended consequences’ emerge with panoptic views for progress that obscure local particularities (e.g. Beamish 2002; Holston 1989; Scott 1999). Mono-cropping, highly Taylorized production, and modernist planning may work well in theory, but they come unhinged in practice. While this has been a productive scholarly framework, it is notable that Detroit’s demolition program has been made to fit local circumstances, including what Dave refers to as the “brass tacks financial reality of the situation” where limited funding streams shaped decisions to pursue a cheaper, speedier, and potentially draftier demolition protocol. Still, my intent is not to present an economically determined argument in which all processes are tethered to financial concerns; there are other particularities at work.

For instance, on the day when Julian’s colleague was fired for failing to find an adequate water source, he was working with a team of six people to demolish an entire block of houses in northeast Detroit. Unable to find an operable fire hydrant, the crew continued with a “dry” demolition until an occupational health inspector ordered work stopped at 11:00 am, with the provision that it could resume when a suitable water source was located. According to Julian, the contractor insisted that work resume after the inspector had left the site, even though no working fire hydrant could be located. A regulatory citation states that when the inspector returned forty-five minutes later, they found a large dust cloud with demolition ongoing and no water in use.

Following this citation, only Julian’s fellow laborer was fired, and neither the excavator operator nor the site supervisor received any form of discipline. When I asked Julian how this could have happened he shrugged, replying, “We’re expendable, don’t you see? We’re black and brown. We bust our asses every day, hauling materials, breathing in shit. They’re white and they sit in air conditioned cabs all day with air purifiers.” This statement exemplifies how hierarchies of demolition employment are both racialized and technologized. Contractors, excavator operators, supervisors, and regulators are always better paid, and almost exclusively white, whereas low-wage laborers like Julian are typically people of color. Furthermore, many laborers are migrant workers or part of prison-release programs that make their positions even more precarious.

Marta, whose yard was covered by fine brown dust from the demolished auto body shop extended the sentiment of expendability to the predominantly people of color who live near building demolition sites. In her words, “They don’t need to let us know that they might dump a load of dirt into our lungs or on our yards. They’ve been dumping stuff on us for centuries. [We’re] black, they’re white, and they can act like you don’t even have a right to exist. What’s more is that they’re not demolishing these buildings for us, they’re getting rid of them so that folks who look like you can come and kick us out.”

‘Wet-Wet’ demolition in progress. Source: Photo by Author

Scholars have argued that in instances where wastes and toxic substances exceed spatial and temporal containments they also undermine systems of racialized and classed privilege (Beck, 2006; Rathje and Murphy, 2001; cf. Stoler, 2010). Surplus waste and toxic burden, in this view, becomes a problem for abstract configurations of “the city,” “society,” and “humanity” writ large rather than one of specifically marginalized populations (Melosi, 1981; Rathje and Murphy, 2001; cf. Nixon, 2011). Detroit’s vacant buildings and their dusty emissions offer caution to these conclusions. Waste, including Detroit’s 80,000 vacant buildings and their potentially toxic dust, may appear as emergent phenomena; however, as this brief discussion of building removal has highlighted, waste and its excesses are always historically entailed. Indeed, interactions with wasted materials become valences of already racialized and classed bodies as they are organized through existing formations of residential segregation and precarious labor.

Such a finding is not limited to the caustic histories of racialized exclusion at work in Detroit, Michigan, or the United States. As Gabrielle Hecht argues in her brief from the uranium-laced piles of mining slag on the West Rand, disjunctive temporalities of gold, mercury, water, and human life collide, producing highly uneven anthropocenic realities. This collision generates radioactive water for some, but not nearly all, perpetuating what Hecht has elsewhere termed the slow violence of “molecular colonialism.” Placing Hecht’s terminology in conversation with Detroit suggests that present-day toxic emissions – be they potentially toxin-laden dust or acid mine drainage – both compound and redefine longstanding sociopolitical and economic hierarchies as they leave caustic traces in the bodies of those made to contend with them.

Still, authors in this collection find instances where toxic remains enable new, desirable lives. The smelly spoilage of Nile perch buffers against the growth of pathogens while producing uniquely sought after flavors.  Glimmers of revolutionary consciousness emerge in an industrial valley in Durban. And others still. Jennifer Wenzel calls us to follow waste and remains as sites of latent possibilities for constructing cleaner futures from our contaminated presents. Her hopeful arguments resonate with those of activists growing a prairie and playground from disused industrial land and abandoned tires in Ypsilanti; however, other wasted substances do not provide such eventualities. Asbestos fibers, for instance, cannot be rendered inert. When removed from places like Detroit’s vacant buildings they can only be reshuffled elsewhere, including into landfills and the aerial spaces surrounding demolition sites. Tracing dusty emissions in Detroit, thus, suggests that efforts to muddle through and imbue wasted things with new life must grapple with the possibility that such futures may not always be possible, let alone desirable for all concerned. Indeed, when Detroit’s marginalized places and the bodies of marginalized people who live and work in them become targets for clean up, they are also fashioned into the places where the toxic excesses of wasted built environments will settle as they are dredged up and redistributed by fifty-five ton excavators, fiscal governance, geographic proximity, and the prevailing breeze.


Nick Caverly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Michigan. Broadly, his research follows the production and maintenance of spatialized and embodied inequalities at the intersections of land, work, and the environment in the United States. He is currently exploring these themes through a dissertation examining large-scale building demolition projects in Detroit, Michigan as an optic for understanding how people — as neighbors, workers, regulators, and administrators — grapple with the material traces of longstanding racialized and classed inequalities. Within this project he traces how the elimination of vacant buildings produces new things, including emergent forms of techno-political classification, property ownership, precarious labor, and environmental hazard.


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