Episode 158: How Notions of 'Blight' and 'Barrenness' Were Created to Erase Indigenous Peoples

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"It is safe to say that almost no city needs to tolerate slums," wrote New York City official Robert Moses in 1945. "Our ancestors came across the ocean in sailing ships you wouldn't go across a lake in. When they arrived, there was nothing here," Ross Perot proclaimed in 1996. "We proved we can create a budding garden out of obstinate ground," beamed Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2011. These quotes recurring themes within the lore of settler-colonial states: Before settlers arrived in the United States, Israel, and other colonized places throughout the world, the land was barren, wild, and blighted, the people backward, untameable, and violent; nothing of societal importance existed. It was only when the monied industrialists and developers moved in, introducing their capital and their vision, that civilization began. This, of course, is false. Indigenous people inhabited North America long before Europeans did. Poor, often Black and Latino, people populate many neighborhoods targeted for gentrification. So how do these people–inhabitants of coveted places who prove inconvenient to capital–become erased from collective memory? And what role do media like newspapers, brochures, travel dispatches, and adventure books play in their erasure? In a previous Citations Needed episode (Ep. 155: How the American Settler-Colonial Project Shaped Popular Notions of ‘Conservation’), we discussed the erasure of indigeneity, we explored the colonialist and racist foundations of conservationism in the US and elsewhere in the West. On this episode, follow-up to that episode, we explore how images and narratives of barrenness and blight are manufactured to justify the settler-colonial project, from 15th Century colonial subjects of Europe to urban neighborhoods of today. Our guest is scholar Stephanie Lumsden.

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