Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011. Pp. 295. Photographs and maps[Record]

  • David Hood

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  • David Hood
    Dalhousie University

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. 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. 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.