Port Covington is a 260-acre development underway in South Baltimore City, featuring a multibillion-dollar campus for the popular sportswear brand Under Armour. It promises to transform a "vacant" and degraded former railyard into a "city within a city" and to catalyze Baltimore's comeback. It also promises to cost a lot. In 2016, after tense public debate, developers secured a $660 million tax increment financing (TIF) deal to begin work, committing taxpayers to decades of debt on the company's behalf. Eligibility for that deal hinged on making the site's industrial history visible as an obstacle to profit. The dominant spatial tropes that scholars use to understand dispossession make it hard to appreciate this instrumentalization of the past, as well as developers' savvy appeals to industrial nostalgia. In this article, I pay particular attention to the blind spots of the frontier concept. Arguments that foreground frontier motifs emphasize erasure as a primary technique of dispossession: by covering up past and present lifeways, "urban pioneers" legitimate land seizure as benign discovery. But in Port Covington's case, developers dramatized a history of municipal neglect. Far from concealed, this history became a key ingredient in developers' claims to the land and a mechanism structuring their access to financial options. In the process of exploring these dynamics, I query whether frontier concepts may reach the limits of their usefulness in the postindustrial city. Here, land's not-so-distant past provides both the template for development dreams and the justification for dispossession by private actors who (the story goes) are best equipped to manage reconstruction. Besides TIF, the range of development incentives available for improving "blighted" spaces—and activists' studied responses to those incentives—suggest that postindustrial futures are rarely conceived on a blank slate. Instead, historicity drives debates about who the city is for and what it can become.


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pp. 277-309
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