Derelict Paradise is a somewhat facetious title. But the analysis behind it is thorough and the findings far from humorous. The principle research question asks who benefits from homelessness in Cleveland. Kerr answers by showing the city’s determination to attract business with cheap labour, a strategy that included the creation and maintenance of a pool of temporary workers. The city also wanted its downtown free of low end housing and its low income residents. It took more than a century, but the city got what it wanted. In the process, developers made millions. Industry and temporary employment agencies profited from a homeless population increasingly institutionalized though a cycle of shelters, starvation wages and prisons. And while the city was cleared of its ‘slums’ the middle class migrated to the suburbs, then returned once property values were restored. Contemporary Cleveland came about through a shell game of shifting neighbourhoods and hollow promises. When the contest was over, thousands were on the streets and a few shell men were rich. Kerr takes a cause and effect or exposé approach. His principle finding is indisputable. Whatever comes next regarding homelessness in Cleveland, the city created the problem.
In his introduction, Kerr discusses recent literature on homelessness and notes that “for the most part the literature pointed to the structural causes of homelessness—most importantly the lack of affordable housing.” (10) However, according to Kerr, this work was less successful “in fleshing out the social relations behind these structures… and betrayed a lack of understanding of the power relations behind homelessness. (10) This is somewhat unfair, particularly within the international literature. It would be equally unfair to suggest that because he does not expound on the matter, Kerr is blind to the fact that attitudes and polices at play in Cleveland are rooted four centuries and a continent away in the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Or that he is not firmly cognisant of America’s deeply entrenched racial history and the particular evolution of capitalism in the United States and that both forces envelop and help explain what happened in Cleveland. That said, events there are unique. Kerr’s examination of local actions is an endeavour to add more to the broader context than it draws from it, fair enough.
Derelict Paradise has great empathy for the homeless and an unapologetic polemical tone. Nevertheless, anyone interested in the social and political mechanics of city building can learn a great deal here. Anyone wanting to know more about the viability and sustainability of urban neighbourhoods will also want to read Kerr. Unfortunately for the city of Cleveland, the lessons here are mostly on what not to do.
Even as ‘blighted’ neighbourhoods are put to the torch to reduce the cost of demolition, Derelict Paradise treads lightly around concomitant emotions, definitions of home and the psychological trauma of being forced from homefulness to homelessness; an effort to spare the victims perhaps. Despite their complicity, the middle classes, particularly middle class landlords and social workers, are not harshly criticized. This may be an olive branch. For it seems that only an alliance between the homeless and a large segment of the voting, taxpaying, unionized, landholding majority can permanently absolve the individual and host the blame on the shoulders of the collective, upon the city as a whole.
Derelict Paradise reveals moments when the homeless of Cleveland have organized and effectively helped themselves—The Unemployed Council (36), Relief Riots (81), and Resistance from Below (238). Here we see the homeless as strong and capable, as they always have been, more like the majority than outside it. Then the study is drawn to a close with its hands in the air at the unlikelihood of administrative change, saying that “change for the better depends on organized resistance from below.” (250) As a way of informing and furthering that hope, the author might have spent less time with the causes and more time exploring and blueprinting successful resistance in Cleveland and elsewhere.
As are all treatments of this topic, Kerr’s work is open to the “yeah but” retort from the right. Despite the Great Depression and the downscaled but more acute version of contemporary homelessness, for the past 130 years the majority of Clevelanders have prospered to varying degrees as have the majority of Americans. The system holds, but only just, and perhaps for only so much longer. This seems a pyrrhic victory at best. Daniel R. Kerr is asking more than who benefits from homelessness. He is asking if the city can make us better than we are.