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The conversation: How to save Detroit


To photographer Jim Griffioen, news of Detroit's shrinking population -- from 1.8 million in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010 -- must not have come as a surprise. He's spent years documenting the city's decline in "The Disappearing City," taking a special interest in abandoned schools, lost neighborhoods and "scrappers." Pair Griffioen's visuals with the U.S. Census data and it's impossible to ignore the plight of Detroit. The issue now becomes how to handle the boom city that went bust.

Stop arguing about what happened and start focusing on what to do now

The important thing now is for everyone to accept that this is a fundamentally changed city, a hollowed-out version of the Detroit that boasted 1.8 million people in the mid-1950s. […]

Downtown and Midtown, which are attracting new workers and residents, have to be girded with services that will continue to attract and retain people. And services won't get better until they're not spread over such a large, depopulated area.

Programs such as Live Detroit, which will see the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health Systems give cash to employees who move to the city, are models that might have potential for moving residents around the city as well.

--Detroit Free Press editorial

It will take a nation to save a city

There are all sorts of implications here, both for Detroit and for the nation. The 2010 census counts for Detroit (and Chicago) were much lower than local officials, and earlier census estimates, had predicted. That raises the question of whether there were problems with the count last year or in 2000, setting false benchmarks. Detroit officials say they plan to challenge the numbers, and Mayor David Bing announced he wants to find 40,000 Detroiters who were missed to try to push the count above the 750,000 mark, a key threshold for formulas used in distributing federal urban aid.

But there are two larger issues that have broader national implications. The first is, when we look at Detroit, are we confronted with the remnants of the nation's industrial past or a harbinger of its urban future?

The second is, what are we going to do about it? And no, that's not Detroit's problem alone. If a similar collapse happened to San Francisco or San Diego or Denver or Dallas, there would be national cries for intervention. Detroit we treat like a crash on the freeway: something to gawk at, then forget while we blame auto executives — the driver — for their follies and ignore the injured passengers.

--Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

It's time to "unbuild and reinvent"

What we need is a new mindset. Physical growth has been a powerful American narrative, embodied in huge public expenditures from the Louisiana Purchase to the Interstate Highway System and the mortgage interest deduction. The nation now needs a parallel commitment to physical ungrowth. Ungrowth is not surrender but a phase of urban evolution.

Remaking a city is breathtakingly expensive, and the market won’t do it. Indeed, the lack of a robust land market is part of the problem in shrinking cities. It costs about $10,000 to demolish a single-family home in Detroit; about 12,000 vacant homes there need demolition. And clearing the land is just the beginning. Philanthropy has stepped up in Detroit and elsewhere, but the need exceeds most foundations’ resources. […]

Americans have been spending for growth for centuries. Our commitment to ungrowth, and new ideas about how cities change and what they look like, needs to be sustained for decades.

--Jennifer Bradley, New York Times’ Room for Debate

Move to Detroit… for the water

Whatever energy alternatives the vicissitudes of oil pricing and availability drive along the way, concerns with accessible power sources will pale alongside the specter of thirst and hunger arising from a shortage of the world's most basic source of survival, H2O. […]

At a time when public budgets and political will show no appetite for the kinds of massive (read: costly) governmental infrastructure needed to transfer water supplies to places where they don't exist, such localized, low-cost concentration offers even more evidence for the Motor City's eventual and promising rebirth.

--Paul Gunther, the Huffington Post

Don’t shrink Detroit, super-size it

Super-sizing Detroit isn't just about better numbers, its about better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar "Unigov" city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region's dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn't necessarily be reined in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city's, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That's a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

--Mark Binelli, the Atlantic


Why it's important to remember the Triangle fire

Protecting L.A.'s artistic identity

Critiquing Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya

Evaluating Gen. Petraeus' assessment of the war in Afghanistan

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Robinwood Street, off Woodward Avenue in Detroit, is now burned-out homes and a dumping ground for tires and hazardous materials. Credit: Max Ortiz / Detroit News


Comments () | Archives (12)

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Detroit is the capital of decades of control by unions and big government and endless entitlements. Look where it got them.


The House Republicans have shown us that the non-biodegradable Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils can be just tossed in the dumpster. The same reasoning applies to Cities. Just leave future archeologists the unimproved ruins of Detroit and move on. Future generations may appreciate us for leaving our present day shell middens intact for their future perusal.

c moon

When one goes west we are encountered with ghost towns where once the glory of bustling business from trading or mining stands to tell us the history of the rise and fall of civilization. If we go around the world we see so many of those empty cities once full of life empty. We cannot turn the tide just because we are living in the 21century. The states, cities, people the government, unions all had something to do with the demise of the city. It is a multi factor that caused this disaster and it took over 50years to reach where it is. There is no quick solution manipulated by politicians with subsidies etcs. There has to be sound basic need for jobs and willingness of the people to excel beyond the workers of other area to attract industry to come back to the area. With unions controlling the Michigan states no companies in their right mind will move back to Michigan so that they will go bankrupt eventually. The first thing that the Michigan needs to do is to make it a right to work state and get rid of union benefits and retirement of the public sectors so that the companies could become competitive once more. Otherwise as we pass by Detroit in next 10years, we will see nothing standing there anymore. If they are wise they will change if not they will disappear for nobody in the world is going to give them handouts anymore and it is up to the citizens of Detroit and Michigan to tighten their belt and start from the bottom. They criticizes nonunion workers compensation being low but these out dated, out of job union members do not even have a job any more which will pay them a single dollar. Rest of the world is passing them by while they are standing and waiting for the jobs that does not exist any more.


The unfortunate and most difficult question that needs to be answered first is why move to DETROIT? Then you can actually do planning.


"It costs about $10,000 to demolish a single-family home in Detroit; about 12,000 vacant homes there need demolition. And clearing the land is just the beginning." Plan by design. If a large area were demolished and organised it would bring the cost down. The area will always have political clout due to the outlying population. It won't be easy, I am in favor of farming and preserving the streams and rivers. Most cities were not designed with bio-diversity, they just grew and grew.


From time to time the topic of immigration comes in. This is great, but my experience is that people can come in and make repairs, but then they don't want to stay. So, what I see working is the historically preserved areas, that almost every city has, but the prices are too high for immagration and lower income. I have always wanted a five year housing inspection for all homes, but this is not favoured due to the government regulation aspect. It is sad, but some people must be told when to make housing repairs. My insurance company had to tell me to get a new roof, I had repaired the leaks myself, but their bi-annual exterior photograph showed that I needed a new roof. It's not just vacant housing, but the infrastructre of water, sewage, and city streets, not to mention electrical. I used to live in a 1910 one and one-half story home and I loved it, but the alley behind the house was never going to be paved by the city. It's not just the cost of paving, but it's the additional cost of storm drains. You really have to live in an older area to understand what the costs are. Alternatives are great, you can cobblestone an alley or have the alley deeded back to the home owners and eleminate the alley all together. The older homes were not designed for the automobile and many did not have driveways, they had coal-ways that were cement pads that the coal truck could ride on to deliver the coal to the basement.


Me again, with any repair the costs can become astronomical. I totally believe in home ownership and that buying these homes for $1, and then having a five year contract to bring the home up to code is a great bargain. The greater job or work is the community work of re-storing the sense of community and safety and the basics of water, sewage, electrical and streets. Many complain of the lack of food stores in Detroit and that can be accomplished through food co-ops that were prelivant in the 70's.


A large section of the blighted area could be imporoved through a phased approach. An individual is given one acre, if they demolish (and re-cycle the material) all homes on that acre except for one within a five-year time frame. So, the participant would receive one home and one acre for doing the demolition.


Another alternative, homestead large sections of the city, say five to forty acres at a time. Have these tracts re-zoned to agricultural. Those old housed are stong enough to serve as barns, just keep a roof on them.

Greg Maragos

If Detroit were a horse, we'd shoot it.

Lee E

Japan is facing the likely prospect of losing a large swath of their territory to nuclear contamination. All of these displaced persons would be much happier in a permanent home rather than living in a shelter. Why not offer what remains of Detroit to the Japanese. Just like free land was offered to anyone willing to move west during the 19th century we could make the same offer to the Japanese. They could bring their clever ideas, their fast trains, their law abiding ways, and be given the freedom to turn Detroit into New Tokyo.
I definitely think this could be a win-win for all concerned.

Steven Moshlak

What is needed is the ingenuity behind Henry Ford's River Rouge Plant, from years ago. Vertical integration of the product was a key factor of being located in Mchigan.

If Walter Ruether was alive today, he'd probably chastise the UAW leadership for killing the "Golden Goose." We live in a world economy and we need to compete, not only along the lines of price, but quality, as well.

I drove GM cars for nearly 15 years, before driving a Mustang and got hooked on Ford Motors, because he suspension in the GM vehicles become a POS after 5k miles and they used to leak oil and hydraulic fluid, after 12k miles.

I have gone from Ford to Mercury and just bought an MKZ. To say I am really happy with Ford Motor Company is an understatement.

But I digress. Until economics show that Detroit can be competitive, they are screwed. Maybe they can sell to the DoD, the derelict houses as targets for aircraft or someone can make a monster movie, in which the neighborhoods are destroyed?



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