Event as process

Unreal Estate: An Introduction

Andrew Herscher

unreal (ŭn-rē’əl, -rēl’)


1.not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria;

2.being or seeming fanciful or imaginary;

3.lacking material form or substance;

4.contrived by art rather than nature;

5.Slang: so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.


Detroit: a city seemingly so deep in decline that, to some, it is scarcely recognizable as a city at all.

And so, to most observers, and more than a few residents, what’s there in Detroit is what’s no longer there. Theirs is a city characterized by loss: of population, property values, jobs, infrastructure, investment, security, urbanity itself. What results is vacancy, absence, emptiness, catastrophe and ruin. These are conditions of the “shrinking city,” a city that by now seem so apparent in Detroit as to prompt not verification but measurement, not questions but responses, not doubts but solutions.1

Built into the framing of Detroit as a shrinking city, though, are a host of problematic assumptions about what a city is and should be. On the basis of these assumptions, change is understood as loss, difference is understood as decline, and the unprecedented is understood as the undesirable. These understandings presume the city as a site of development and progress, a site defined by the capitalist economy that drives and profits from urban growth. The contraction of such a site, therefore, provokes corrective urbanisms that are designed to fix, solve or improve a city in decline.

What corrective responses to shrinkage reciprocally pre-empt, however, are the possibilities and potentials that decline brings—the ways in which the shrinking city is also an incredible city, saturated with urban opportunities that are precluded or even unthinkable in cities that function according to plan. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires an approach to the shrinking city not so much as a problem to solve than as a prompt to new understandings of the city’s spatial and cultural possibilities.

Especially in the United States, architecture and urbanism almost always have learned their lessons from cities where the capitalist economy is flourishing, from interwar New York (Delirious New York), through postwar Las Vegas (Learning from Las Vegas), to late 20th century Houston (After the City) and beyond.2 Cities where the economy is faltering, by contrast, are places where architecture and urban planning deploy what they already have learned. These apparent opportunities for assistance and amelioration thereby provide architecture and planning with precious chances to prove themselves as in-the-know, both to themselves and to larger publics, as well. Relinquishing the desire to repair the shrinking city may thus present excruciating challenges to architecture and planning. It might compel the humbling realization that these disciplines might have more to learn from the shrinking city than the shrinking city has to learn from them. It might also compel the even more humbling realization that any specialized kind of knowledge production, whether disciplinary or interdisciplinary, is inadequate to grasp the contemporary city, and that this grasp would have to lead towards a new transdisciplinary knowledge production with a necessarily hybrid, experimental and indeterminate form.3

But the shrinking city can teach not only professionals; it also can and does teach its own inhabitants—with “inhabitation” here posed as a political act rather than a geographically based condition.4 The shrinking city is neither empty nor populated only by the impoverished and disempowered; rather, the challenges of this city have inspired many of its inhabitants to re-think their relationship to the city and to each other. This re-thinking throws into question the urban ambitions and capacities that the “creative class” has been endowed with, if not arrogated to itself.5 Most postulations of a “creative class” imagine that group as wholly different—by socio-economic level, by education, and by other parameters of entitlement—from the socio-economically marginal communities that inhabit cities like Detroit. This imagination has allowed the “creative class” to pose itself as the heroic savior, engaged educator, or sympathetic interlocutor of what some have called the urban “underclass.”6 It has also yielded the race- and class-inflected portrayal of members of the “creative class” as the fundamental harbinger of change in Detroit, a portrayal that has played out in media exposure, access to grants, and a host of other forms, as well.

Socio-economic marginality, however, should be understood not as a call for creative others but as a condition of possibility for the emergence of creativity itself. In this sense, marginality allows for the formulation of new and innovative ways to imagine and inhabit the city. This is not to suggest that the mantle of heroism be transferred from a “creative class” to an “underclass”; it is, rather, to recognize the unique capacity of Detroit’s inhabitants and communities to understand and transform their city. Indeed, for many in Detroit, hope for the city’s problems to be solved by others has not been relinquished so much as ignored as in utter contradiction to the city as both history and lived experience. In Detroit, that is, urban crisis not only solicits skills of endurance, but also yields conditions favorable for invention and experiment—for the imagination of an urban realm that parallels the realm of concern to urban professionals and experts.

What if Detroit has lost population, jobs, infrastructure, investment, and all else that the conventional narratives point to—but, precisely as a result of those losses, has gained opportunities to understand and engage novel urban conditions? What if one sort of property value has decreased in Detroit—the exchange value brokered by the failing market economy—but other sorts of values have reciprocally increased, use values that lack salience or even existence in that economy? What if Detroit has not only fallen apart, emptied out, disappeared and/or shrunk, but has also transformed, becoming a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted, voided or abjected through the lenses of conventional architecture and urbanism? The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit is dedicated to exploring these and related propositions and, in so doing, the cultural, social and political possibilities that ensue from urban crisis.


Properties of Crisis
The guide’s focus is a property of crisis termed “unreal estate”: urban territory that has fallen out of the literal economy, the economy of the market, and thereby become available to different systems of value, whether cultural, social, political or otherwise. The values of unreal estate are unreal from the perspective of the market economy—they are liabilities, or unvalues that hinder property’s circulation through that market. But it is precisely as property is rendered valueless according to the dominant regime of value that it becomes available for other forms of thought, activity and occupation—in short, for other value systems.

Unreal estate emerges when the exchange value of property falls to a point when that property can assume use values unrecognized by the market economy. The extraction of capital from Detroit, then, has not only yielded the massive devaluation of real estate that has been amply documented but also, and concurrently, an explosive production of unreal estate, of valueless, abandoned or vacant urban property serving as site of and instrument for the imagination and practice of an informal and sometimes alternative urbanism.

Unreal estate is less a negation of real estate than a supplement of it, located both inside and outside of real estate’s political economy. Unreal estate, that is, is neither merely nor altogether oppositional—it opens onto the imagination of positions beyond acceptance or rejection of the market economy. Unreal estate may thus be understood as a term that fits within what J. K. Gibson-Graham calls “a landscape of economic difference, populated by various capitalist and non-capitalist institutions and practices,” the latter not simply absences of the former but singularities with their own particular forms and possibilities.7

“Private property has made us so stupid and narrow-minded that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists as capital for us, or when we can directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc.”8 Karl Marx’s critical framing of real estate still points to the seeming unreality of property regarded as valueless or useless. The notion of private property, that is, stupefies us to the counter-values of property devoid of exchange-value or conventional use-values. Devoid of these values, space usually passes out of our cognitive grasp and we become unable to posit a relationship to it.

And yet, the spatial residue of capital’s withdrawal—valueless property, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, unserviced neighborhoods—form a system of disaggregated places that can be claimed by and for an informal urbanism that defies the enclosures of private property. The enclosure of commons was a constituent component of the development of capitalism, a means to incorporate collective space into property regimes and profit-making processes.9 Unreal estate provides a lens through which to see how a decline in the exchange value of property can yield the undoing of enclosures and the creation of possibilities for new sorts of commons—a commons that is neither designed nor intended, but one that is a collateral result of the extraction of capital.

This proto-commons exist in spatial intervals, in the fissures and voids that open up between contracting spaces of investment and ownership. It also exists in a temporal interval, in a moment between the historical failure of modernist industrial production and the possible advent of postmodern urban gentrification. Situated in these spatial and temporal intervals, a commons-in-the-making is at once potential and precarious. It is constantly susceptible not only to further deterioration, but also to further “betterment” as defined by a value regime that equates improvement with profitability. The unvalues of unreal estate, that is, are constantly at risk or even in the process of being recuperated as values—a recuperation that could become part of a process of gentrification, redevelopment or urban renewal.

The proto-commons of unreal estate is also constantly threatened by the least-developed form of capitalism: the primitive accumulation of dispossession, or what is usually identified and experienced as crime. The breakdown of capitalism, that is, invites not only the production of new sorts of values but also the extraction of existent values by force. Violence, of both legal and extra-legal varieties, thus shadows the city of unreal estate; this city accommodates both an alternative urbanism, untethered to the imperative of capitalist accumulation, and the anachronistic urbanism of accumulation by force. In Detroit, this anachronistic urbanism has been emphasized to the point of exaggeration; this guide foregrounds an alternative urbanism in order to allow for more nuanced readings of the city.


Urban Informality: From Everyday Urbanism to Unreal Estate

Speculations on Detroit’s unreal estate have been authored not only by artists and architects but also by activists, anarchists, collectors, community associations, curators, explorers, gardeners, neighborhood groups, scavengers and many others—a heterogeneous array of individual and collective urban inhabitants. The political, social and cultural agencies of these inhabitants are diverse, but their skills, techniques and knowledge are specific, directed and often profound. A concern for unreal estate, then, involves a commitment to the informal production of urban space and urban culture by a wide and diverse range of the urban public. In urban studies, this commitment has been claimed by a discourse that revolves around “everyday urbanism.”10 Translating the concerns of urban informality to the North American city, everyday urbanism has placed a salutary attention on the way that the public co-authors the city through its manifold uses of urban space.11 Unreal estate situates practices that overlap with those categorized as “everyday urbanism,” but these practices invite a rather different framing.

The theorists of everyday urbanism have posed it as an urbanism of the “mundane” and “generic” spaces that “ordinary” city dwellers produce in the course of their daily lives. These spaces “constitute an everyday reality of infinitely recurring commuting routes and trips to the supermarket, dry cleaner, or video store”—a de Certeau-style catalogue of “tactics” apprehended by the public.12 At the same time, everyday urbanism is also supposed to be a bottom-up urbanism that “should inevitably lead to social change.”13 But this layering of political agency onto the quotidian practices of everyday life produces tensions: everyday urbanism is posed as at once mundane and tendentious, at once descriptive and normative, at once inherent to a system and an alternative to a system. How does driving to the video store inevitably lead to social change? What sort of weakness and powerlessness mark those who rent videos? How do the tactics of the customer at the video store differ from those of the store’s employee? In some of its received versions, everyday urbanism might prompt such questions.

The fundamental forms of everyday urbanism are public responses to professionally designed urban environments; everyday urbanism is thus an urbanism of reaction, whether conciliatory or contentious, to the professionalized urbanism that shapes urban space and life. As such, it does not sustain the progressive political project that some contributors to the discourse want to endow it with—a project that de Certeau was very careful not to attribute to the everyday tactics he theorized.14 Indeed, the insistent elision in everyday urbanist discourse between “everyday life,” on the one hand, and “experience,” on the other, points to the commitment of the discourse not so much to alternatives to hegemonic modes of urbanism, but rather to the ways in which these modes are received by their audiences or users. Everyday urbanism certainly offers an “alternative,” but this alternative is not so much critical, a question of difference from a hegemonic political structure, but rather authorial, a question of difference from professional authorship.

Unreal estate is a waste product of capitalism—it is not mundane or generic so much as abject. The urbanism that unreal estate sponsors is less a tactic of consumption, like everyday urbanism, than an alternative form of production. This production can be insurgent, survivalist, ecstatic, escapist or parodic; it can also be recuperative, returning unreal estate to the real estate market. The urbanism of unreal estate, then, can exist in tension with both the professional urbanism of architects and planners and everyday responses to that urbanism; it is its perceived character as subordinate, redundant or trivial that endows it with its particular differences.

In Detroit, the urbanism of unreal estate has yielded an array of practices, techniques, collectives and constructions. Sometimes—but not always—committed to the extraction of unvalues from capitalism’s spatial waste products, this urbanism is also often defined by a number of other common dimensions. This urbanism tends to be improvised, taking shape as unrehearsed and sometimes makeshift moves and actions, as opposed to being planned in advance as a means to a specified end. It tends to dissolve differences between work and play, as well as between art and other forms of cultural or symbolic production, from activism and political organization, through cooking, gardening, caretaking and teaching, to craftwork and social work. It tends to appropriate spaces that appear available to occupation or sub-occupation, or else to furtively occupy spaces that appear to be claimed or otherwise used. The products of this urbanism are often temporary or dispensable and its users and audiences are often limited to its authors or those in their direct company. And these authors tend to be self-organized, taking on responsibilities and functions typically displaced to institutions in functional cities.

The study of everyday and informal practices is often suffused with a desire to endow those practices with resistant or critical force. The urbanism of unreal estate, however, does not mount a critique as much as it claims a right: the right not to be excluded from the city by an inequitable and unjust system of ownership and wealth distribution.15 Claims to this right run the gamut from recuperative, through reformist, to radical, so that the politics of unreal estate are various.16 Occupations of unreal estate emerge from both long-term community activism, short-term artistic interventionism and a whole range of practices that are situated between the preceding in terms of their political, social and cultural stakes. Indeed, as this guide documents, unreal estate development includes escapist fantasies as well as transformative actions; it includes creative survival as well as cultural critique; and it includes the ephemeral aesthetic servicing of those supposedly in need as well as material responses to objective needs through long-term self-organization.

One of the dangers in assembling this unruly set of examples is that it may smooth over the actual and important differences that distinguish these examples from one another. Perhaps the most significant of these differences is that between unreal estate development undertaken by choice, by those with negotiable or flexible relationships to a place and a community, and unreal estate development undertaken by necessity, by those with non-negotiable or given relationships to where they live and who they live with.17 This guide does not intend to blur this or any other distinction between the projects it includes; rather, the guide seeks to suggest the manifold variety of forms of occupation that unreal estate can sustain by including projects that possess wholly different political, social and cultural valences.

While the urbanism of unreal estate takes place in dead zones for both free-market capitalism and formal politics, this is not to say that this urbanism is apolitical. Rather, it is to assert a distinction between governmental politics and non-governmental politics and to locate the potential politics of unreal estate in the latter—a politics devoid of aspirations to govern.18 Just like exits or expulsions from the market economy, rejections of formal politics also comprise invitations: to neglect or parody rather than resist, to mimic rather than replace, to supplant rather than reverse. These are invitations to consider political change and political difference not even from the ground up, for “ground,” too, is the province of government, but on other grounds entirely, grounds “not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria,” grounds that can instructively go by the name of “unreal.”


1. See Shrinking Cities: International Research, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005); Shrinking Cities: Interventions, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006); Atlas of Shrinking Cities, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006).
2. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Monacelli, 1997); Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott-Brown, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); Lars Lerup, After the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).
3. See, for example, Urban Asymmetries: Studies and Projects on Neoliberal Urbanization, ed. Tahl Kaminer and Miguel Robles-Duran (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011) and Transdisciplinary Knowledge Production in Architecture and Urbanism: Towards Hybrid Modes of Inquiry, ed. Isabelle Doucet and Nel Janssens (New York: Springer, 2011).
4. On the politics of community, see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
5. See, for example, Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
6. On the urban “underclass,” see, for example, William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). The concept of the “underclass” has been widely critiqued; see, for example, Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Malden: Polity Press, 2008).
7. J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 54.
8. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Selected Writings, ed. David McClellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 91.
9. See Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).
10. See Everyday Urbanism, ed. John Leighton Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008).
11. This translation also reflects the propensity in urban studies to produce theory in the Global North for the Global North, rather than to theorize the city in terms of global models. On this propensity, see Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (London: Routledge, 2006).
12. Margaret Crawford, “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life,” in Everyday Urbanism, 24.
13. Margaret Crawford, “Introduction,” in Everyday Urbanism, 11. On “tactics of consumption,” see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
14. “The actual order of things is precisely what ‘popular’ tactics turn to their own ends, without any illusion that (the order) will change any time soon”: see de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 26.
15. On urban informality and the right to the city, see Anaya Roy, “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association 71:2 (2005).
16. On the various formulations of the right to the city, see Peter Marcuse, “From Critical Urban Theory to the Right to the City,” City 13:2-3 (2009).
17. On this difference, see Martha Rosler, “Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism,” part 3, e-flux journal 25 (May 2011), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/231.
18. See Nongovernmental Politics, ed. Michel Fehrer (New York: Zone Books, 2008).


Originally published in The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012. pp. 6-13.

Andrew Herscher is Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, an open-access platform for research on urban crisis using Detroit as a focal point.  His books include Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo  Conflict  (Stanford University Press, 2010) and The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit(University of Michigan Press, 2012).

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