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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Detroit: Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier

NB: This post is intended to be provocative.

The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.

But as with Youngstown, one thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region's but the world's attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit.

Let's refresh with this image showing the scale of the challenge in the city of Detroit proper:

There are zillions of pictures to illustrate the vast emptiness in Detroit. Kaid Benfield at NRDC posted this one:

This phenomenon is prompted someone to coin the term "urban prairie" to capture the idea of vast tracts of formerly urbanized land returning to nature. The folks at Detroit's best discussion site, DetroitYES, posted this before and after of the St. Cyril neighborhood. Before:


A site named "Sweet Juniper" recently had a fantastic photo of the spontaneous creation of "desire line" paths across all this vacant land. You should click to enlarge this photo.

One natural response is the "shrinking cities" movement. While this has gotten traction in Youngstown and Flint, as well as in places like Germany, it is Detroit that provides the most large scale canvas on which to see this play out, as well as the place where some of the most comprehensive and radical thinking is taking place. For example, the American Institute of Architects produced a study that called for Detroit to shrink back to its urban core and a selection of urban villages, surrounded by greenbelts and banked land. Here's a picture of their concept:

It seems likely that this will get some form of traction from officialdom, as this article suggests, though implementation is likely to be difficult.

Detroit is also attracting dreams of large scale renewal through agriculture, as Mark Dowie writes in Guernica (hat tip @archizoo).

Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
This isn't just a crazy idea from some guy who lives in California. He documents several examples of people right now, today growing food in Detroit. It wouldn't surprise me, frankly, if Detroit produces more food inside its borders today than any other traditional American city.
About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.
The fact that Urban Farming moved to Detroit is exactly the effect I'm talking about. To anyone with aspirations in this area, it is Detroit that offers the greatest opportunity to make your mark. It is the ultimate blank canvas. For urban agriculture and many other alternative urban dreams, it is Detroit, not New York City that is the ultimate arena in which to prove yourself.

It's not just farmers, intellectuals and artists of various types are drawn to Detroit, both to study it and pursue ideas about the remaking of the city:
Detroit has achieved something unique. It has become the test case for all sorts of theories on urban decay and all sorts of promising ideas about reviving shrinking cities.

"It's unbelievable," said Sue Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association, who has been interviewed recently by two separate PBS crews and an Austrian journalist writing about Detroit.

"All of us have been inundated with all of these people who somehow think that because we're so bottomed out and so weak-market, that this is this incredible opportunity," Mosey said.

Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who has been interviewed by numerous visitors, echoed that sentiment.

"They realize that there is an interesting story to tell, that has real characters, but even more, they discover a place that is simply not like everywhere else," he said.

Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times about out of towners buying up $100 houses, moving to Detroit, and doing all sorts of interesting things with them:
Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town...Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.
A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

It's what Jim Russell likes to call "Rust Belt chic", and Detroit has it in spades.

This piece also highlights one the absolutely crucial advantage of Detroit. It's possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There's not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

Can you imagine a two-story beehive in Chicago? In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won't work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a "bring your own chair" sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can't do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can't fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused, ensuring that anyone who ever wants to do anything will be forced to run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc. Only the most determined are willing to put up with that.

In most cities, municipal government can't stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It's a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can't do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because of the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What's more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they've found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges the result. Consider this from the Dowie piece:
About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.
This might sound awful, and indeed it is. But it is also an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit and defiant self-reliance of the American people. I grew up in a poor rural area where, while hunting is primarily recreational, there are still many people supplementing their family diet with wild game. Many a freezer is full of deer meat, for example. And of course, rural residents have long gardened, freezing and canning the results to help get them through the winter. So this doesn't sound quite so strange to me as it might to you. The fate of the urban poor and the rural poor are more similar than is often credited. And contrary to stereotypes the urban poor often display amazing grit and ingenuity, and perform amazing feats to sustain themselves, their families and communities.

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to "Go West, young man." We've come full circle.

More Detroit

Detroit: Do the Collapse
Detroit: Not the Future of the American City
For talent - good jobs, cools places, new narrative (Crain's Detroit Business - featuring Yours Truly)


pete from baltimore said...

I am tired and getting ready to go to bed so i can only make a short comment.You make many great points in this article.

This may sound strange but it reminds me of a book i read about Chernobyl.After humans left the area the area was infested by rodents who feasted on the unharvested grain.When the Russian government was about to go in and kill the rodents the scientists said "don't bother". Sure enough the sky was soon full of hawks who brought the rodent population down.

I am not trying to compare the people of Detroit to rodents.I am simply saying that just as nature abhores a vacum so does economics.

If a city becomes cheap enough and regulations can relax a lttle[ not to the point of anarchy of course ] a city will start to rebound.

I agree with you that many urban dwellers are very resourceful and can accomplish a lot if given the chance.

I think that Detroit might very well shrink in overall size but that it will not die completly.

Anectdotly , i would add that on my recent trip to Madison Wisconsin i met a young man at the hostel where i was staying.He was going to live in Detroit with a bunch of artist friends.

At first i thought he was crazy.But after listening to him talk about how great it was to be there at the beginning of a city being rebuilt . I ended up being slightly jealous for being to old to go on the adventure that he was embarking on.

Maybe he will get bored and leave.Who knows.But i admire his optimism.Maybe there is something to the belief that Americans are affected by their pioneer heritage.

thundermutt said...

Aaron, you do realize that this reads a bit like a Richard Florida case study, right? "First the Bohemians." :)

Now that the leading edge of the Millenial generation (1982-2000) is coming of age, will they be like the Baby Boomers who took advantage of opportunity and resettled other cities' cores 30-40 years ago: Artists, craftsmen, home-renovators, urban pioneers, bringers of non-profits. Will they soon begin to petition the government for protection of their investment from late-comers?

Though the forms and technologies are different today, the story's an old one.

Leah said...

Fascinating post. I don't even have anything to add, I am just sitting here with my mind boggled. So I figured I'd let you know I loved it.

The Urbanophile said...

Leah, thanks so much!

pete, great anecdote, thanks for sharing.

thunder, I think you're right. More smart, motivated, creative people is generally better than less. I don't think that's misguided. Of course, Detroit attracted these without much of any real civic effort, so perhaps the prescription for attraction isn't what it is cracked up to be.

The Urbanophile said...

It didn't have anything to do with me, but that ice cream stand dispute got written up in the Tribune! I can't resist sharing it here:

Ice Cream Shop Gets Licked

This is a tale of frozen custard and the City of Chicago Municipal Code 10-28-805.

The two have collided at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Paulina Street, where for the last six years Dennis and Mardi Johnson Moore have operated Scooter's Frozen Custard.

It is a neighborhood institution, beloved by parents, dog owners and locals for its custard -- and also for its chairs.

Until recently, the Moores have put out a few resin chairs so people could sit while eating their custard. The little sitting area became a meeting spot.
But as Scooter's grew more popular and the sidewalk more crowded, not everyone loved the idea.

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection received a complaint that people were blocking the sidewalk. On June 30, an inspector issued an order to remove the six chairs on the sidewalk.

Chairs are permitted for businesses with a permit to operate a sidewalk cafe, governed by the above municipal code. The Moores had intended to apply for one when they opened Scooter's; they still have the application they filled out.

But the previous 32nd Ward alderman had advised them to forgo the cafe permit and simply put out a few chairs, they say.
"In my perfect world," he said, "I would be glad to pay whatever the fees are for an outdoor cafe if I could just keep my chairs and not build an outdoor cafe."

This is not Dennis Moore's perfect world.
The Moores removed the chairs, and Scooter's defenders rose up.

A customer created a "Save the Chairs at Scooter's Frozen Custard" group on Facebook. Another gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition. After the Moores posted "BYOC" signs, a couple of regulars brought their own chairs. Someone proposed a community "Sit-Out."

But the alderman's office urged Dennis Moore to discourage civil disobedience. Even chairs brought by neighbors would violate the outdoor cafe ordinance, warned Elizabeth Gomez, the alderman's director of business and community outreach, reporting on her conversations with the business affairs department. Scooter's could be hit with a cease-and-desist order and closed down for several days, she told him.

The Scooter's fans canceled the Sit-Out and removed the chairs.

Efrat Stein, spokeswoman for the business affairs department, said her agency received four complaints.

"This is really a safety issue," she said. "People need to use the sidewalk -- people in wheelchairs, people in strollers. Businesses cannot block the sidewalks."

On Tuesday morning, the Moores, the city department and the alderman's office will meet in a frozen custard summit to try for a compromise. Dennis Moore has begun filling out the sidewalk cafe application, and plans to propose a design using landscaping ledges that would serve both as informal seating and a barrier.

"We are going to try to work with them and try to get them compliant so they can continue to keep operating this summer," Stein said.

Scooter's fans are hopeful, if exasperated.

"It's just ridiculous," Reznicek said. "There are so many things going on in the world, and we have to be worried that, 'Oh, there's a chair there?' "

John said...

Wow. Fun post. I have a few disconnected thoughts.

1. You hear so much about Detroit, and you know it's bad, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Looking at the aerial in Google maps, I found the stark line between Detroit and Grosse Pointe interesting. I'm fascinated by the effect an arbitrary line that divides municipal government can have on a place. Maybe Detroit should just sell a few blocks to more competent adjacent governments?

2. It's odd to think about the world as being severely over-crowded, (see video) with a lack of arable land and fresh water, but nevertheless there are cities in the middle of one the most water-rich and agriculturally fertile regions of the world unable to attract population. It is hard for me to imagine places like Detroit and Cleveland staying de-populated for good.

3. As urban agriculture gains ground on reclaimed land, I've wondered about how fertile or contaminated the soil really is. Is anyone testing to make sure that there isn't excessive lead or mercury in the soil? Is it safe to eat the food? It seems like they [urban farmers] rely a lot on raised beds with lots of compost, so I'm hoping it's fine. I suppose it's not any worse than roadkill racoon if that's the alternative.

Francis Morrone said...

This is just an outstanding post. You meant it to be provocative, and it has provided infinite food for thought. That's why I read your blog. Thanks.

Alon Levy said...

This post reminds me of Glaeser's article about the economic dynamism of Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai (some would say the world). Severe deprivation always has its stories of individual initiative and courage, and leads to a lot of romanticism on the outside and in the future. In Sardinia the local delicacy is cheese with live maggots in it, and in Detroit I expect raccoon meat to become a delicacy in a few decades, once the food desert conditions that made people eat it are forgotten.

AmericanDirt said...

Great observations, and it's interesting that you should reference the polarization and city-suburb divide. It does seem profound. For a city as far decayed as Detroit, it has remarkably few poor inner ring suburbs. Compare this to Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, or even New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, and the isolation of poverty within Detroit's city limits is remarkable. The only truly inner-ring suburb I have been able to spot is Inkster. Perhaps Pontiac shares some of these troubles, but it is much larger and more diversified. If any Detroiters can correct me, by all means do so, but it seems the city has effectively staved off the migration of inner city poor to the adjacent working class suburbs (perhaps by ignoble means). Whether this will continue as the metro area depopulates--much of it now forcing middle class folks out of the region--could make the futures of Dearborn, Livonia, Royal Oak, and other older communities seem shaky.

Furthermore, your aerials remind me more than a bit of the appearance of huge stretches of New Orleans after Katrina-induced demolition. The city of New Orleans (only slightly less corrupt than Detroit) proposed an "urban village and green space" redevelopment of the city using floodplains as the principal delineation. The study, released six months after the storm by the Urban Land Institute, was instantly so unpopular for turning neighborhoods into "green dots" that Mayor Nagin immediately dismantled the commission that funded it. Now the city's approach to redevelopment of the hardest hit neighborhoods is primarily laissez faire, and some urban agriculture pioneers are experimenting with the fallow land. But homes and land prices are nowhere as cheap as Detroit and the New Orleans still has a regulatory veneer that obviates much of what could take place in the Motor City. Revisiting the aerials of these two cities in ten years could yield a great analysis.

Anonymous said...

Detroit today sounds like Chicago after the Great Fire. Blank canvas. Go paint on it. They won't invent the skyscraper there, but maybe they can come up with a new urban form that is Greener and smarter.

Alon Levy said...

Bill, Chicago was struck by natural disaster; Detroit succumbed to economic collapse. These are separate problems, and the mechanisms that help deal with one are completely ineffective with the other.

Anonymous said...

"The only truly inner-ring suburb I have been able to spot is Inkster. Perhaps Pontiac shares some of these troubles, but it is much larger and more diversified."

Pontiac is under a financial manager so in that regard, it's in worse shape than Detroit. Inskter is rough and several of the smaller inner-ring cities are in fiscally bad shape. Much of the migration of Detroit's black residents who can afford to leave has been to cities like Southfield where you're seeing a transition to a majority black population.,_Michigan#Demographics

With SE Michigan's history of racial turmoil, places like Southfield will be the place to watch to see if there's an exodus of white residents in response to the black migration out of Detroit.

Unknown said...

Wow very good piece and highly inspiring. I've always had the same feelings about the city of Detroit, but I never could put them into words.

Anonymous said...

In Chicago, the unofficial response to concentrated poverty for the past two decades has been to demolish public housing and replace only a fraction of the low-income units.

The result has been an unofficial, and largely ignored by remaining mass media, a diaspora to south Cook County suburbs such as Harvey, Ford Heights, Chicago Heights and Robbins, among others.

South Chicago's most influential politicians such as Jesse Jackson, Junior, have been unable to stem the flow and secure more equitable solutions.

Meanwhile, the market focuses on more attractive investment opportunities, and the great legacy of African Americans' contributions to American culture are only monetized when translated into products the broader culture deems "safe."

The African American community has a marketing problem. There are probably boatloads of Dutch tourists who would love to meet and experience black American culture on the street, where they live. They know the impact of Black culture on world culture has been indirect, filtered through mass culture media executives (white and black) to be made palatable for sales to the masses.

Several years ago, the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Garfield Park Conservatory generated unprecedented attendance. But, the surrounding community did not benefit from the huge number of visitors who ventured to Garfield Park in the heart of Chicago's West Side.

I can only conclude that the problem was the lack of secondary destinations that could benefit from the exhibit and the fear that exhibit goers had of venturing out into the surrounding neighborhoods. So, they got into their cars and the CTA and left without experiencing anything more than the exhibit.

What does this mean for African American communities? I'm not sure. I'm just a white guy trying to make sense of it all.

It seems to me the opportunity is there if issues can be addressed through the dynamics of the marketplace. Which doesn't give a rat's behind about personal opinions, white, black, hispanic, asian, or any other culture. It wants what it wants. The market wants places that are secure in baseline needs


If these are lacking, then investors will gravitate to more "favored quarters."

Community and neighborhood residents alone cannot make themselves more marketable and attractive to investors. They need the support of uncorrupted public officials.

Unfortunately, many failing communities are populated by those without options and public officials who like it that way.

Just my two cents. Go Detroit!


MR Renn
You make a good point about the ice cream stand. They are doing the same thing in Baltimore. Following regulations just for the sake of following regulations.

Of course there are some regulations that we DO all want.No one wants to get rid of health inspectors obviously .

The question is how do we go about getting rid of the stupid rules that impede small businesses without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Sometimes it seems like we are stuck with liberals who want everything regulated and conservatives who only seem to cut back regulations on big [and well connected] businesses.

It would be great if you could do a whole post on this issue one day.

We all grumble and treat the regulations like a minor inconvenience. But i do think that they are a major reason that many of our urban areas do not thrive like they should.

As you said in your article. The hidden potential laying in cities like Detroit is enormous.

pete from baltimore said...

MR Renn
For what it's worth i might point out that while Detroit is much worse off than most cities ,it is not alone in having raveged neighborhoods.

One would think that the city governments would realise that they don't have much to lose by turning vacant lots and buildings over to people that can use them such as small businesses or artisans ect.

Generally they like to hold out so they can one day give the land to bribe giving developers.

I am not anti capitalist.Nor an anti big business liberal.

But i do believe that Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he wanted us to be a country of "yeomen ".

Yes , it is no longer practicle for everyone to live on a farm. But maybe we can have a new type of " yeoman" [ or yeowoman] or as you say a new kind of "pioneer".

I think that small business owners are healthy for our democracy.In too many of our urban areas people feel no connection to the rest of society.

When was the last time you saw a small business owner riot.Or commit a violent crime.They almost always clean up around their property.They have pride in thier community and have a stake in society.

Thank you again MR Renn for talking about these issues.Too many blogs nowdays ignore issues like these and just engage in political insults.

Anonymous said...

@ Alon

I wasn't comparing natural to economic disaster: it's about the results. A blank slate, an empty urban landscape (ie, there are streets and other infrastructure standing, but buildings/people are gone) in which innovation can take place. In Chicago in the 1870s/'80s, it was about new construction methods. Perhaps in Detroit in the 2000s/'10s it will be urban agriculture.

And if you think about it, Detroit has basically rusted away. Oxidation. Fire or rust, same thing, just different speeds.

cjfjapan said...

Another interesting article. I live about an hour south of Detroit now, and am fascinated with the city and region. Two questions:

1. For the last century (at least), Detroit has had one of the highest concentrations of heavy manufacturing in the world. Have you seen any discussion about the potential health effects of the residual pollution on urban agriculture in Detroit? More to the point, is anyone testing the soil?

2. It is a peculiarly American obsession to talk about frontiers and pioneers. The first map you posted showing Boston, SF and Manhattan within the City of Detroit's boundaries suggests that the city is comparatively empty and ready for a new template. This ignores the fact that there are around 900,000 people living in the city already, most of them African American. Is this just another example of "Negro Removal"? By extension, how do African-Americans play in this imagined rebirth of Detroit? How can we rectify the talk of "frontiers" and "pioneers" with a respect for what and who is already there?

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:44

The name Bronzeville itself is marketing. The people who have been trying to reinvigorate the area purposefully haven't called it "Black Metropolis" or the "Black Belt" though in the areas heyday that's what it was called.

Alon Levy said...

Anon at 10:19: some areas become solidly middle class after blacks move in, for example DeKalb County, Georgia, and Prince George's County, Maryland. Those black middle class areas are typically poorer than white middle class suburbs, but they still have low poverty and are nothing like inner cities.

Bill: fire and rust are not the same thing, at all. Fire destroys infrastructure, but it doesn't destroy social networks or expertise; rust does, by making people leave and leave. Even war doesn't disrupt those forms of human capital so much, which is why the Marshall Plan succeeded far more than comparable aid programs to poor countries, or why reconstruction of San Francisco after the earthquake succeeded far more than the TVA.

Alon Levy said...

Aaron, I've just had a thought about this - to gauge the opportunities Detroit has, we should compare it to other areas that have undergone similar decline. One good set of examples is various cities in Northern England, which was the first region in the world to deindustrialize. While Birmingham and Manchester are both doing okay, worse-hit cities, such as Sheffield, remain dirt poor.

Or, on a longer scale, consider Naples, whose economy collapsed in the 1860s, and which is still the poorest city in the EU-15. You could even compare Naples to Detroit in the ineffectiveness of law and government.

Donna Sink said...

"They won't invent the skyscraper there, but maybe they can come up with a new urban form that is Greener and smarter.'

I liked Bill's comment so much I wanted to repeat it.

I went to grad school in Detroit, and I'm a regular Sweet Juniper reader. From the stories on that blog, other places, and my own experience, I'm hearing that Detroit is turning into a collection of villages. A network of small villages is exactly what that planning diagram shows. Sounds good.

Anonymous said...

The decline of Detroit is about race, it is not about de-industrialization or the auto industry. Poverty among whites in the Detroit suburbs is modestly above the national average. Whites squeezed out of a shrinking auto industry find something else to do.

In 1950, 1.5M white people lived in Detroit proper. Today? 100K, maybe.

If you consider that most of the significant buildings, infrastructure and housing stock were built before 1950, the 1.5M whites essentially handed over a city worth billions of dollars to an African American population, and left.

This pattern is repeated to varying degrees in every major city in the Midwest. In some areas the process continues to this day.

If we can't figure out how to employ the millions of low skilled African Americans who live in central cities (and thereby make it possible to live with them as neighbors), then we need to enact policies for a "demographic inversion." Trade several soul-less suburbs for our irreplaceable urban neighborhoods (as Chicago is). If we can't make one of these two things happen, young educated people will continue to move away.

Anonymous said...


The link gets cut.

The Urbanophile said...

Alon, that would be a great project to take on.

A lot of the things I throw out in the blog are very testable, but I don't have the time or resources to really do the research it would take. That's unfortunate since it would be both fun and illuminating I think.

pete from baltimore said...

FOR MR Alon Levy
MR Levy i defintly would agree with you that it would be interesting to compare some American cities to European ones.And how they deal with their respective problems.

Too often many people [particually on the political left] idolise Europe and pretend that they have no problems.

And too many on the political right
have a bizzar kneejerk hatred of Europe that i find very strange.

I consider myself an Europhile.Not because i idolise Europe and the Europeans or an idealised version of them.But because i like them faults and all.

Instead of pretending that they live in utopia [as the political left does] .Or instead of pretending that they live in a socialist Hell [as the political right does] we should watch and see how they deal with some of their urban problems.

We can learn from their sucsesses and from their mistakes as well.

I agree with you MR Levy that Manchester and Sheffield would be somewhat easy to compare to some of our "rustbelt" cities including my own city of Baltimore.

MR Renn seems reluctant to do the comparisons.I understand his reasons.But it is a shame because i think he could defintly do the job well.

Most of this blog seems fairly non partisan.And it tends to avoid the silly over simplifications of the left and the right[ Europe is hell, no it's utopia ect,ect,ect].

This would make it the perfect place to compare cities in an honest way.

But of course i do respect MR Renn's decision not to do so.Hopefully he might change his mind in the future.

Best regards to MR LEVY and MR Renn.

johntyler said...

I realize this is not any better than a comparison between Detroit and post-great fire Chicago, but its too bad there isn't a major university or some other image strengthening institution that can keep Detroit afloat. After Boeing took a lot of jobs out of Seattle, many credit the University of Washington for spearheading the the city's economic and cultural revival. Even now there are pushes in other former industrial towns to do the same...Buffalo New York for example.

Alon Levy said...

Pete, Aaron I wouldn't know how to do that comparison in any detail. I can tell you a few anecdotes from my parents about their experiences in Campania. The problem is that Campania is a lot poorer than Michigan, which has entrenched poverty in Detroit but is otherwise about as rich as the rest of the country. So Yorkshire might be a better comparison in that sense - I'm not sure.

Robert Munson said...

I apologize for entering this discussion so late. But do so now for three reasons.

First, it is a very interesting post and the many thoughtful Comments reflect that you are on to some solutions worth trying.

Second, Detroit's collapse is an extreme example of urban America's decline that we can all learn from.

Third, I returned from Detroit less than ten days ago. This was my first visit and am chagrined that the horror stories I heard are true.
And writing about Detroit is a necessary therapy to restore faith in the power of urban life.

I briefly make two comments.

First, The Urbanophile's advocacy of an entrepreneurial zeal, I think, is probably the most likely strategy to rebuild Detroit's neighborhoods.

After all, immigrant entrepreneurs recently are given much of the credit for having revitalized many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens and other cities.

So the question is: how can this micro-entrepreneurship be fostered in public policy?

And The Urbanophile's answer seems to be to have less over-regulation. Your post and Comments and lots of history indicate the many upsides to this entrepreneurial strategy and few downsides.

The failed federal Enterprise Zones from the 1990s indicate that government policy can do little to foster entrepreneurship and that solutions may need to be spontaneous, very grassroots.

But will municipal bureaucrats get out of the way of the solution ... or at least turn the other way ?

My second comment is one made by at least one of your other postings and a few Comments: that the central issue in Detroit is that it suffers under terrible race relations in which both sides have done wrong.

Detroit needs a Campaign of Race Reconciliation before good government and capital are restored to the City.

Detroit probably will reelect Dave Bing as Mayor and he may be the man to lead this Campaign.

And Citizens may pass the Amendment on the ballot to have district elections that, hopefully, undermines the autocracy whose rule for three decades has run Detroit into the ground.

And downtown Detroit's office hulks may be continue to be renovated as apartments for young couples and empty-nesters... and develop a downtown life like other rust-belt cities such as Chicago.

But, will all this miraculously revitalize Detroit's neighborhoods?

No.... this is not enough to rebuild a city.

For vital neighborhoods, the yuppie and immigrant entrepreneurial strategies also will be needed.

Detroit's race relations are extreme. But it has other lessons for other midwest city dwellers. Unless we deal more openly with race, the recovery of cities will never be complete.

Anonymous said...

I think it is disgusting that you are celebrating the fact that the city of Detroit is so demoralized and unable to provide even basic services. Selling raccoon carcasses to provide protein to a needy population? This is an absolute tragedy and not a cause to wax nostalgic about the good ole days. The breakdown of civil society is not a positive occurence.

Try living in Detroit before you hype the positive attributes of living in chaos.

Anonymous said...

This is a tragedy and a freak show.

Anonymous said...

I want to apologize for taking so long to respond to your blog. It's things like this that make want to [continue to] reside in the City of
Detroit. This city has such a rich history and great potential. And with corrupt people in office just keeps holding up the progress that Detroit could've made at least 20 years ago. But that is neither here no there at this point.

I also wanna express that I had no idea exactly how huge this city is. When you fit the cities of San Franciso, Boston, and Manhattan altogether, that actually threw me off! Now there's one thing I've noticed these past five or so years. A lot of us have been using the vacant lots for gardening, and distributing it to the community. And in this economy, we need every break that we can get.

And with out-of-towners buying homes for cheap and renovating them despite the dilapidated condition that the homes were in, these people thought outside the box and used alternative energy to substitute the original energy sources. Nice way to help bring in a economy as well as industry into Detroit. Like I said, there's a lot of potential here in the 313.

Now where I stay at (according to your diagram), I'm on the upper east side of Manhattan (lower east side of Detroit). And there are some areas being rebuilt while others still remain in bad shape while other parts are still maintaining their current stature in the community.

Detroit appears to be coming back after decades of corruption, neglect, and greed. Let's just hope that continue on that track again, and this time, stay on!