- Vacancy: Introduction
Beat-up little seagullOn a marble stairTryin' to find the oceanLookin' everywhere…
…Get my sister SandyAnd my little brother RayBuy a big old wagonTo haul us all away–Randy Newman, "Baltimore" (1977)
Vacancy is one of the defining residues of deindustrialization, which produces vacant land, vacant homes, and even lives that seem evacuated of purpose.1 In "shrinking cities" like Cleveland and Detroit, which host entire neighborhoods of board-ups, the empty house is a sign with too many signifieds: it stands in for urban disinvestment, global economic shifts, white flight, civil unrest, and the grief that inheres in having too much space where no one seems to want it anymore. Vacancy registers a nagging loss. It materializes decline. But it also points toward futures that are yet to be determined. This collection begins from the observation that [End Page 241] vacancy abounds—as a problem in late industrial cities and increasingly as a keyword in ethnographies of urbanism. To the extent that anthropologists equate vacancy with emptiness, loss, and decline, though, we risk missing half of the story.
Take Baltimore, or at least the version of it cast by singer-songwriter Randy Newman (1977) in his desperate tune about this "hard town by the sea." "Drunks," "hookers," homelessness, and hopelessness fill his portrait of a "dying" place where symbols of the lively past, like marble stairs, lie stained. So, Newman gathers up his family and leaves. His "Baltimore" is an elegy about the emptying out of a "beat-up" town where escape seems to be the only future. In the 1970s, it struck a chord with many fans—though locals listened with hostility (Rizzo 2020:10). Perhaps, it was because Newman wrote the tune without ever having been to Baltimore (he read a story about it in National Geographic). Or perhaps they resented his erasure. Many Baltimoreans I know from my own work in the city worked hard to eke out futures then, on the cusp of industrial decline. Even today, nearly 50 years on, to call Baltimore "dead" would be a grave mischaracterization.
The same might be said of the city's 16,000 vacant homes.2 One could hardly call them hollow.3 They are variably "bad neighbors," dumping grounds, community gardens, opportunities to turn a dime, environmental hazards, and the fabric of a latent urban commons. They are also sites where housing markets fail to cohere on their own terms, given that Baltimore's vacant homes exceed the city's unhoused population. Vacants here are fulsome things, to borrow an image from Catherine Fennell (this issue; also see Dawdy 2010; Dudley, this issue; Hromadžić 2020; Kenner, Nobles, and Stalcup, this issue; Mathur 2020). Despite Newman's portrait of a city with no future, they are fertile ground for competing visions of what's next: manifested, on the one hand, in the growth of public debt instruments designed to render "blighted" space productive and, on the other, in experiments in land reclamation (Ahmann, this issue).
Curious, then, that we use "vacant" to denote something bursting with meaning. I'm reminded of Benjamin Whorf's (1939) description of how nonchalantly workers smoked around gasoline drums labeled "empty," though they were really teeming with explosive vapors.4 Whorf's lesson was that claims of emptiness encode whole value systems and have material effects. There's a caution here for anthropologists, who risk repeating [End Page 242] Newman's glum misrecognition. As the authors assembled in this special collection show, vacancy is no mere ending.
Vacancy is a future orientation.
To code a space as "vacant" is to call out a present absence, but it is also an injunction to pursue the opposite–to build up land, to sell a house, to rent a room. Put differently, the term names a gap in conceptual systems and enjoins listeners to remedy that gap. Remedy means to set right, snap back. Not every filling constitutes a remedy, nor every prospect a desired future. Vacancy is, therefore, best understood as a "portable analytic" (Dzenovska 2020:23, Howe and Boyer 2015) whose valences modulate with context. For now, consider the late liberal, late...