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Motown Revival?

STALLED Car Wash Café, East Jefferson Avenue, Detroit
     
Detroit faces up to a smaller future

In the late-afternoon sunshine on Lakewood Street on Detroit’s East Side, Chuck Brooks is working on his castle. A stocky, bearded African American in a baseball cap and work clothes, Brooks runs a small construction company out of his house, and he and a crew are doing some renovations. He is also a preacher, attested to by the Bible verses he’s etched into the limestone and the Michigan plates on his white Cadillac parked at the curb: UPRAY4IT. Tucked into his belt are a measuring tape and a semiautomatic handgun.

Brooks keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth as he talks in sonorous cadences. "I was born and raised here, I’ve been a victim of crime here, and I’ve continued to stay here," he says. Brooks has been stabbed twice and shot twice, carjacked and nearly killed in front of his three children. And still he refuses to leave Detroit, a city that has long been a symbol of urban failure and decay, emptied of both population and hope. Why does Brooks stay? He gestures to the other tidy houses on his block. His presence, as he sees it, moves his neighbors to believe in this city, especially in its time of need. "It motivates people," he says. "It motivates the lady next door to cut her grass, it motivates the mailman to deliver the mail." Brooks is a man of faith, and faith for him begins at home. He paraphrases a verse from 2 Chronicles: "I’ll hear from heaven, I’ll forgive their sins and heal their land. Well, He’s talking about Detroit."

A few blocks away, on Waveney Avenue, the idea of answered prayers or healed land seems like a cruel jest. The concrete squares of a sidewalk have been pulverized by frost and swallowed by encroaching weeds. In a desiccated field of milkweed and aster a house has been reduced to a heap of charred lumber and shattered glass. Another is flame-gutted, its vinyl siding melted beneath a blackened window. All that remains of a long row of neighboring homes are evenly spaced middens of rubble, overgrown by thickets of buckthorn and mulberry. The only sign of recent human endeavor is the road itself, the fresh blacktop laid down by some municipal entity with the Sisyphean task of maintaining a street grid that has long outlasted its utility. The only person visible is a man struggling with a shopping cart weighed down by a fire hydrant. Even among Detroit’s ruins there is some spirit of resourcefulness: organized gangs of such "scrappers" mine buildings for anything of value, from copper pipes and wiring to the brass fittings on hydrants, dismantling the city from within, piece by piece.

This block -- and thousands like it -- are evolving into what has been called urban prairie, the human landscape dissolving back into nature. Pheasant, fox, and raccoon populations have surged to fill an ecological niche abandoned by people. For the first time in nearly a century, and with much fanfare in the media, beavers have returned to build their lodges in the Detroit River, an ironic nod to nature’s industriousness in an area abandoned by industry. No corner of the city has been spared, and tens of thousands of structures stand in ruin, from the simple wooden bungalows of early autoworkers to the darkened neo-Renaissance skyscrapers of downtown Detroit. The vast Packard auto plant, derelict for more than 50 years, has a floor area the size of 60 football fields. So much structural steel has been cut from it by scrappers that the fire department no longer fights blazes there, fearing collapse. Illegal dumping is epidemic, with 300 sanitation employees patrolling 1,800 miles of streets.

For the people who have remained in the city, the statistics are no less grim. Detroit is America’s poorest large city, with a third of its citizens living in poverty. The violent-crime rate is the country’s second highest. Infant mortality is more than twice the national average. More than a third of students drop out of high school. The official unemployment rate is 30 percent, but if one counts those no longer looking for work, the figure approaches 50 percent. In the Motor City, almost one-third of the population has no access to a private vehicle.

It has not always been thus: growing exponentially with the auto industry’s rise, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city by 1950, reaching a postwar peak of 1.85 million. It has since suffered an inexorable exodus, losing 60 percent of its population, the first American city to rise above and fall below a million people. Oakland County, the overwhelmingly white suburb immediately north of Detroit’s 8 Mile Road, is among the wealthiest of its size in the country and has tripled in population since 1950. The region’s urban core has been utterly hollowed out.

NRDC: New Industries For Old

Henry HendersonHenry Henderson

Q&A with Henry Henderson, director of NRDC’s Midwest program, based in Chicago, and the city’s first commissioner of the environment.

Is Detroit alone in suffering these seismic economic changes?

No, the same problems pop up throughout the industrial heartland, in cities like Gary, Indiana, and Youngstown, Ohio, and Chicago. These cities were the center of our manufacturing might for much of the twentieth century, and the Midwest is still the most energy-intensive part of the U.S. economy. Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan together constitute the fourth-biggest source of carbon emissions on the planet. But there are incredible synergies here between the battle to stave off the looming threat of climate change and the fight to fix our economy. Manufacturing the clean technologies that will offset our dirtiest energy sources can be a sort of "economic WD-40" to get the rust belt moving again.

Read the rest here.

That hollowing out has been imprinted on the cityscape, but for the people of Detroit, the release of the 2010 U.S. Census figures in March was an event anticipated with deep anxiety, exacerbated by rampant speculation in the news media. Given the state of the economy, particularly the collapse of the American automotive industry, few expected good news about the city’s fortunes, but the official numbers were starker than even the most dismal prognosticators had imagined: just 713,000 people lived within the city limits. Only Katrina-wrecked New Orleans had seen such a sharp decline. Detroit’s population has fallen to a level not seen since 1910, four years before Henry Ford drew an army of workers to his Model T assembly line with the promise of five dollars for a day’s labor. With Detroit’s economy now in shambles, nobody seriously believes that those people will return, and at the current rate of exodus the population will fall an additional 40 percent by 2030.

The reasons for Detroit’s decline are complex and manifold, including the exporting of American manufacturing jobs and a long history of poisonous race relations that led to "white flight" to the suburbs. Perhaps Detroit’s collapse was built into its very DNA: the city that more than any other embraced the singular potential of the automobile, undone by its own creation. Massive freeway projects, undertaken in the name of urban renewal, were bulldozed through the heart of African American neighborhoods like Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Tensions boiled over with race riots in 1943 and 1967. Blue-collar whites with secure union jobs could afford to unload their homes in the city at a loss, a process encouraged by a real estate industry that played up racial fears. Detroit emptied straight down its new freeways, and since 1950 it has undergone a complete demographic turnover, from 80 percent white to 80 percent black, losing a million inhabitants in the process.

The effect on the city’s physical landscape has been profound. Detroit occupies 139 square miles, and its infrastructure was built for a population, and a tax base, more than double its current size. All told, almost 20 square miles of Detroit’s land area -- nearly the size of the entire city of San Francisco -- has been abandoned, leaving a vast patchwork of blight spread across the cityscape. It is difficult to provide even basic services like police, fire, water, and sanitation to a population spread so thin.

"Detroit, I think, will come back," Chuck Brooks says. How that will be done, given the physical facts of Detroit’s current situation, is the central existential question facing its citizens. The urban theory mantra of the twenty-first century is "density is destiny." Cities are phenomenal economizers of scale, with far lower per-capita environmental impact than sprawling suburbs. The growing consensus of many community organizers, city officials, and urban planners is that to survive, Detroit must embrace its new scale and become a leaner, more efficient city. That means adopting a policy of smart growth, with dense, pedestrian-centered pockets concentrated around transit hubs and the city center. The term often used by urban planners for bringing a city down to a more manageable scale is "rightsizing," a word -- not unlike "downsizing" -- that comes heavily freighted.

"I’m not a euphemistic guy -- the city is shrinking," says Jeff DeBruyn, a 40-year-old community organizer who works in the Corktown neighborhood. "Detroit is going through a huge transition. It might be politically incorrect to say 'shrink,' but it must."

How Detroit will shrink and what sort of city it will become is a key policy challenge for Mayor Dave Bing, the former NBA All-Star and business executive elected in 2009 on a promise to help the city reinvent itself. He has faced a colossal task, inheriting a city with a $320 million budget deficit. Dithering was not an option.

"If we don’t do it, this whole city is going to go down," Bing told a local radio host when he was elected. "There is just too much land and too many expenses for us to continue to manage the city as we have in the past. There are tough decisions to be made. There will be winners and losers, but in the end we’ve got to do what’s right for the city’s future." The question of how those winners and losers would be selected stirred a deep mistrust in a city that still recalled the countless betrayals of urban renewal. For those determined to stay, it was hard not to wonder what their city would become and what role they would play in it.

In February 2010, a coalition of dozens of advocacy groups, community organizations, and government entities assembled by the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) issued a detailed strategic framework for revitalizing the city’s neighborhoods. The plan envisions a cityscape classified according to 10 use categories, from "industry zones" and "urban homestead sectors" to "green venture zones" and "naturescapes." The goal is a balance between economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental integrity.

image of Matthew Power
Matthew is a contributing editor at Harper’s and writes frequently on environmental and social justice issues. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Slate.com, and Wired. He was a 2010–2011 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the Univ... READ MORE >
Great article, Matt. Is the city still looking for design submissions on the 200-acre parcel? With a good plan, Detroit could easily be 5 million population by 2050. Thanks, Greg