8 December 2020

No Man’s Land

The architecture of abolition

Elleza Kelley

This text is part of “Imagination and the Carceral State,” a series of essays organized by Joshua Bennett for Cabinet’s Kiosk platform. For his introduction to the portfolio, see here. The other texts in the series include Bennett’s “Wherever We Are Gathered,” “Abolitionist Alternatives” by Che Gossett, and “Myth Lessons” by Matthew Spellberg.

Usually he left his boots in the shed and put his walking shoes on along with his day clothes in the corner before he went home. A route that took him smack dab through the middle of a cemetery as old as sky, rife with the agitation of dead Miami no longer content to rest in the mounds that covered them. Over their heads walked a strange people; through their earth pillows roads were cut; wells and houses nudged them out of eternal rest. Outraged more by their folly in believing land was holy than by the disturbances of their peace, they growled on the banks of Licking River, sighed in the trees on Catherine Street and rode the wind above the pig yards.
—Toni Morrison, Beloved

These days I get anxious in the cemetery when I see people having picnics and doing yoga, though I wonder if the dead don’t mind. I think maybe the dead are grateful for the children feeding ducks in the pond, climbing over their headstones, playing on the mausoleum benches without fear. Happy to be seen not as toxic or terrifying but as present, gentle, loved. I don’t know. The hikers, the photographers, the joggers—a special kind of whiteness has taken over and settled in the crevices. I read a tweet that said quarantine had turned the park into a nightclub, but it also seems to have turned the cemetery into a park. But before they became parks, cemeteries had always been nature reserves. Because they are enclosed, protected, tended regularly by groundskeepers and gardeners, children and the widowed, the left behind. Because when we were there we tried to be quiet and we tried not to walk too heavily or leave our trash behind. From time immemorial, we have shown our reverence for the dead by making space for them. That’s why at the cemetery you can see egrets, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, tiger swallowtail butterflies, every species of bird and plant.

In May of 2015, at the James Weldon Johnson Community Center in East Harlem, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan that proposed leasing to private developers the “underutilized land” of public housing developments: parks, gardens, basketball courts, parking lots, walkways, baseball fields, little green cuts of color where trees made oxygen. On this land—considered to be excess, wasteful, dead zones—developers would build profit-generating “mixed-income” housing.

(I can see these new buildings if I close my eyes—glass cladding over reinforced steel, windows that look out but not in, military-grade security infrastructure hidden by self-effacing modernist embellishment, facing the sun, backs to the projects.)

Mayor Bloomberg tried it first, several years earlier. Back then it went by a more explicit name: infill.

    infill. noun.
    1: material that fills in something (such as a hole or the spaces between a building’s structural members)
    2: new buildings constructed in the space available between existing structures[1]

That holes must be filled is some white man’s conceit. “Phrenology was a white way of knowing,” Nathaniel Mackey writes, “it valorized obtrusion, surface, apparency, warding off the obscurities and indeterminacies of recess, crevice, fold.”[2]

I can hear them now: What will we put in its place? Who will we call instead? Where will the criminals go?

A hole is not always a grave. In her poem “Coal,” Audre Lorde wrote, “There are many kinds of open.” An urban dead zone refers to space that is unrentable, unprofitable. Such areas are discursively produced as dangerous blind spots, places that evade the scopic gaze of the state. Alleyways, underpasses, airshafts, rooftops: places that on paper are uninhabitable but in practice are lived in and utilized, typically in clandestine, ephemeral, collective ways. They harbor life against and outside of the state. It is no wonder the state wants us to believe they’re “dead.”

De Blasio’s proposal targeted projects that were located in “high-value sites”: Chelsea, Williamsburg, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side, Boerum Hill.[3] Areas that had become gentrified, their property values skyrocketing while the projects themselves languished. As of today, the New York City Housing Authority faces a $40 billion backlog of necessary repairs and improvements.

Tenants continue to resist, refuse, and sue to stop these settlements, these occupations, these disavowals and dispossessions of spaces for living and playing. At many public housing developments, the plan was abandoned. Green archipelagoes, asphalt inlets, parking lots, and basketball courts, all left untouched.

• • •

If you needed to think of Cameron Rowland’s 2018 work Depreciation as an object, it could be:

1) seventeen pieces of paper—legal documents that record the purchase of a piece of land by a nonprofit called “8060 Maxie Road Inc.,” a subsequent restrictive covenant preventing “all development and use of the property by the owner,” and an appraisal report, indicating the market value of the land: $0.

Or perhaps:

2) a one-acre plot of land on Edisto Island, South Carolina, formerly belonging to the Maxcy Place plantation.

Or perhaps it is 3) something less tactile, something we cannot hold or behold. The work, maybe, exists in the act itself—the depreciation of the land’s market value to $0, to nothing. As such, it would be the description of a movement; a labor of disinvestment, of defunding, of abolition.

In the caption to Depreciation, Rowland cites Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, which stipulated that “the islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States. … Each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.”

Field Order 15 was “effectively rescinded” in 1866 by President Andrew Johnson, after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson ordered that these lands be returned to their previous Confederate owners. “Former slaves,” Rowland writes, “were given the option to work for their former masters as sharecroppers or be evicted. If evicted, former slaves could be arrested for homelessness under vagrancy clauses of the Black Codes. Those who refused to leave and refused to sign sharecrop contracts were threatened with arrest.”

By the 1870s, nearly all of the abandoned plantation land that had been settled by free black people in the months following Sherman’s order, including the site of the Maxcy Place plantation, was returned to their former owners. As Du Bois described it, in The Souls of Black Folk, “The eight hundred thousand acres of abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedman’s Bureau melted quickly away.”

“As reparation,” Rowland writes, “this covenant asks how land might exist outside of the legal-economic regime of property that was instituted by slavery and colonization. Rather than redistributing the property, the restriction imposed on 8060 Maxie Road’s status as valuable and transactable real estate asserts antagonism to the regime of property as a means of reparation.”

Edisto Island is part of the Sea Islands, which make up the eastern boundary of the Gullah Geechee Nation. Since Field Order 15, the Gullah Geechee, descendants of those enslaved on the Sea Islands, have managed to preserve ancestral traditions and keep out mainland culture, holding their land in common through a system of heirs’ property.[4] In recent years, developers have exploited loopholes in this system—places where the customary laws of the commons and the laws of enclosure rub up against each other and cause friction. The Gullah Geechee estimate that they have lost nearly 90 percent of their land through intensifying gentrification. Resorts, condos, and golf courses have been settled uneasily atop Gullah Geechee burial grounds, while the living community is fractured and displaced.

Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park, Brunswick, Georgia, 1981. Brunswick is a coastal town adjacent to the Sea Islands chain, which stretches from South Carolina to Florida; the Gullah Geechee Nation live on both the islands and the coastal plain. Marsh Ruins is made from concrete and tabby, a widely used building material in the South that incorporated oyster shells and was often utilized in the construction of plantation buildings such as slave quarters. Extremely labor-intensive to make, tabby was no longer produced on the same scale after Emancipation.

In July, several news outlets reported that a police squad formed by the Louisville Metro Police Department had “deliberately misled” narcotics detectives to target a home on Elliot Avenue in West Louisville, Kentucky, in order to accelerate a monumental gentrification effort, “the city's multimillion-dollar Vision Russell development plan.”[5] The squad, called Place-Based Investigations, had been created expressly to target Elliot Avenue and “focus on areas needing to be cleared for development projects to proceed.”[6] During the execution of this no-knock warrant, police officers murdered a young woman while she slept. Her name was Breonna Taylor.

The regime of property and the regime of carcerality that upholds it are a monument whose foundation is sunk deep in our soil. Rowland imagines reparation as excavation, as negation, as abolition. There are many kinds of open. What does refusal to reform, to rebuild, to restore allow us to imagine?

• • •

I always thought utopia meant heaven until I went to college and found out that its etymology is “no-place,” that the fantasy of utopia is not its perfection or beauty or ethics but the fact of its impossibility. That always seemed silly to me, that the world we most wanted had to be something that didn’t exist. But maybe instead it’s that the world we desire is the absence, the recess, the fold: the hole left behind by the prison that we refuse to fill. The space we insist must be sacred—not the building or its air rights, but the land beneath, what was there before settler colonial violence, before regimes of property, before enclosure, before a fortified building, a fort on the shore with a door through which no one returns. What if utopia is the place we arrive at when we get rid of place—its markers, its border walls, its statues, its flags, its forts, its pens?

In Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, an abandoned plantation is alive, its ghosts having become inseparable from the earth itself—entwined with grapevines, the wood of a cabin that moans. Julius, the archivist and groundskeeper, insists that the land should not be sold, that the cabin must not be touched. The form this haunting takes is negation, the refusal of development, of restoration, of renovation.

The people I come from were born in blank spots on the map, tended provision grounds on the road’s shoulder, turned stoops and rooftops into yards and gardens, got free in their grandmother’s garret, were raised in the razed-and-paved-over, raised on the grounds underneath the new condos, underneath Central Park. They know that unoccupied land is not uninhabited land, but land crowded with dead Miami, with our ancestors, with animal, plant, and mineral life whose invisible motion—sighing, breathing, shimmering—fills the air. They know that land belongs to no man.

(What if we didn’t build another monument in the place of the toppled one? What if we left the hole instead—a negative space, a gaping archive of the terror we planted.)

There are many kinds of open.

Imagining abolition as one form of reparation refuses the conflation between the unused and the useless, between habitation and settlement, between invisible and absent. It refuses the dead zone. It asks us to reimagine entirely another use for nothing, for nowhere, for no-place.

As reparation, the rendering of land as unusable is strategic, creative—the genius of our ancestors and folk heroes, Brer Rabbit or Jack. But it also necessarily evokes our burial grounds, our holy grounds, the places where we whisper and walk softly, where we lay offerings. It evokes the sacred emptying of the land that acknowledges and honors its absolute fullness; acknowledges and honors that we share it and hold it in common with others—with those who have passed through and those who are yet to come. And what is held in common slips away. What is held in common refuses the terms of ownership, it “constantly violates the boundaries of so-called home.”[7] What is held in common, what we hold with our dead, we hold with the life that crowds the air.

  1. Definition of “infill” from Merriam-Webster. Available at merriam-webster.com/dictionary/infill.
  2. Nathaniel Mackey, “Phrenological Whitman,” Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018).
  3. Final Report on “NextGeneration NYCHA,” May 2015. Available at www1.nyc.gov/assets/nycha/downloads/pdf/nextgen-nycha-web.pdf.
  4. For more on the Gullah Geechee, see gullahgeecheecorridor.org/thegullahgeechee.
  5. Phillip M. Bailey and Tessa Duvall, “Breonna Taylor Warrant Connected to Louisville Gentrification Plan, Lawyers Say,” Louisville Courier Journal, 5 July 2020. Available at courier-journal.com/story/news/crime/2020/07/05/lawyers-breonna-taylor-case-connected-gentrification-plan/5381352002.
  6. Madeline Holcombe and Alec Snyder, “Warrant in Fatal Encounter between Breonna Taylor and Police Was Linked to Gentrification Plan, Family’s Lawyers Claim,” CNN, 7 July 2020. Available at edition.cnn.com/2020/07/07/us/breonna-taylor-lawsuit-gentrification/index.html.
  7. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “Give Away Your Home, Constantly,” Millennials Are Killing Capitalism (podcast), 11 July 2020. Available at millennialsarekillingcapitalism.libsyn.com/give-away-your-home-constantly-fred-moten-and-stefano-harney.

Elleza Kelley is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. Her dissertation considers how art and literature document black spatial and geographic practice. Her work has appeared in The New Inquiry and Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography (forthcoming).

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