Tourists usually pick a place to visit that’s the best at something. New York and Chicago have their skyscrapers. Orlando has its amusement parks. Detroit has decay. My wife and I stayed there a few days last summer and, honestly it was just sad. Detroit was built for 2 million people but only 700,000 people live there now. It’s a city of 1.3 million missing people. Detroit has this endless supply of buildings–wonderful buildings–that nobody uses. That’s what really gets to me about this city. All the lost potential, wasted effort, abandoned beauty. The world’s biggest ghost town.
I just saw Detropia, a film that explains the problems of Detroit through a collage of lives, no narrator. It doesn’t get overly nostalgic and it’s not a movie of “ruin porn,” although you can’t tell Detroit’s story without ruins. Detroit’s strategy is to invest in its best places and try to build outward again. Some young people are moving downtown and that’s probably the best way for the city to start over. The problem is, the city can’t really afford to invest in itself anymore. It’s spread out over 140 square miles and it just can’t support its current population with this massive infrastructure footprint. When there’s block after block with one house where there used to be 20, how can you afford to maintain the streets, water and sewer lines, the police and fire departments, or even to plow the snow?
The thing that builds a city, millions of people making individual decisions, has been the undoing of Detroit. It’s become a repository for the state’s poor, and when they’re lucky enough to find more work, they leave. It’s a logical decision. The city is so far gone, so disappeared, that I’m afraid no matter how much the economy recovers, pretty soon it just won’t be a logical place for anyone to live.
Thanks for following me on twitter. I just clicke through to see how you write and spotted this post.
What do you think those in power should do?
I have a soft spot for Marohn’s strong towns. Have you read his mayor’s stump speech? Based on the photos you’ve chosen detroit’s streets seem far too wide.
From memory there have been big new car-oriented investments, like stadia and casinos. So the government is ok offering tax breaks to outside developers.
To my mind rekindling Detroit would mean starting with one intersection, incentivizing that as a business park, building a krier-corner-like narrowing, providing private policing if need be. Expand out from there.
Alternatively, build up the middle of streets: reduce six lanes of empty stroad to two, plus two sidewalks and a row of two-lane-wide 3-story live-works (or one long casino/bar).
There might be hydroponic farmers looking for cheap space an easy permitting. There might be iOS developers looking for a village in the city, with bars, offices and a place to live in a car-free human scale environment. Narrowing streets and offering land at intersections could provide that.
I think the people in power should rob a bank. I just read Mayor Bing’s speech, and he’s literally talking about strategies to keep the street lights on.
I think the solution lies in, like you say, targeted investments in certain areas of the city. But I don’t see how they have the money for it. When we were there last year, we went into the Greektown area for dinner. This area looks like it’s had a lot of investment and has a casino. The thing was, we were astounded by how many and how aggressive a group of homeless people was with the tourists — and there were no police anywhere. If this is your city’s big investment and you expect people to walk the streets with hundreds or thousands of dollars in their pockets on their way to the casino, you need to make them feel safe. After that, we started looking for cops and saw a total of two in three days — one that was getting takeout from a bbq joint, the other at the farmer’s market.
If the City can’t afford to invest in itself, who can? The State of Michigan is seeing some pretty grim times itself, and I doubt it would be politically viable to sink taxpayer money into many Detroit projects. Maybe the federal government? The Woodward Avenue light rail project has a lot of federal funds tied to it, but will it actually get built?
In North Carolina there are a number of old textile mills and mill towns that now get a special historic rehabilitation tax credit. The federal tax credit is 20%, but the State adds a further 40% for mill rehabs in certain counties. Maybe Michigan could do that for skyscrapers in certain zones in Detroit? It’s a good way to catalyze investment and bring both federal and state money into the city.
And, thanks for pointing me to Strong Towns.