H/t reader M.G.:
“Another story from the UK Guardian….about Detroit. This is happening all over America while our corrupt leaders fiddle………”
– The death of a great American city: why does anyone still live in Detroit? (Guardian, April 3, 2014):
The city’s social contract was shredded long ago and everyone knows time is running out – but some Detroiters have hope
Khalil Ligon couldn’t tell if the robbers were in her house. She had just returned home to find her front window smashed and a brick lying among shattered glass on the floor. Ligon, an urban planner who lives alone on Detroit’s east side, stepped out and called the police.
It wasn’t the first time Ligon’s home had been broken into, she told me. And when Detroit police officers finally arrived the next day, surveying an area marred by abandoned structures and overgrown vegetation, they asked Ligon a question she often ponders herself: why is she still in Detroit?
Ligon understands the city’s root problems better than most. She was the project manager for the Lower Eastside Action Plan (Leap), an ambitious proposal to transform vacant land in some of the city’s most blighted areas. But like so many people in the sprawling metropolis, home to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, she too grapples with Detroiters’ greatest dilemma.
“Do I want to be a part of it, to grind it out and make Detroit liveable for the next generation? I know I probably won’t see it change,” Ligon said. “Or do I want to go to one of these places that is already there? I want to live somewhere it’s not so difficult to achieve simple things. Everything in Detroit seems so hard.”
Ligon has to drive her 12-year-old car wherever she goes, both for safety and due to Detroit’s lack of worthwhile public transit. Unkempt roads make matters even worse. After a water main break last month, nearby streets became too icy for driving, let alone walking. Like much of the city, her area has few grocery stores or restaurants, making food a question of logistics, not just health or taste. Retail options are few and far between: “I have to go outside of my neighbourhood for everything I need.”
Such are the daily quality-of-life struggles in neighbourhoods like Ravendale, the frontline in the battle for Detroit’s future. There is a new sense of urgency to stabilise these communities after decades of population decline, with planners and academics unveiling innovative proposals to combat blight and reimagine the urban landscape, and governments and outside donors pledging hundreds of millions to help. But everyone knows that time is running out. In January, the city’s newly elected mayor, Mike Duggan, pleaded with residents to hold on for six more months before moving elsewhere.
“They’re trying their damnedest to hold the line,” said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Centre for Community Progress who has studied Detroit extensively. “But the thing is, for the last 30 years or more, it has been sustained by the black middle class. Now, they’re getting out of there. They’re just leaving.”
The 36-year-old Ligon is exactly the type of resident Detroit is fighting – and struggling – to keep. Raised in the city, she holds a masters degree in urban planning from nearby Wayne State University. Along with spearheading Leap, Ligon speaks serviceable French and Mandarin and even garnered nearly 1,700 votes – roughly 16% of those cast – in last year’s Democratic primary election for her city council district. Now, she consults on green infrastructure development and holds fellowships focused on engaging Detroiters on climate change.
Ligon graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 1996, when Detroit’s population still hovered around 1 million residents. It was a normal place to live then, having established tenuous stability after the struggles of the 60s and 70s amid a strong Midwestern economy and the growing housing bubble. Indeed, between 1990 and 2000, the city’s median household income grew 17%, its black homeownership rate reached 53% and the rate of population decline slowed. But unknown to – or perhaps ignored by – many, Detroit’s foundations were still fragile. And when both the housing market and domestic manufacturing imploded in the 2000s, that fragility became all too apparent.
Ligon lives near the city’s underused public airport, not far from where she grew up. She moved to her house, a modest, white-panelled bungalow with a detached garage and small front yard, 11 years ago. Back then, she said, the homes on her street were all full. But her census tract lost nearly 48% of its population between 2000 and 2010. Of the eight residential lots on Ligon’s block today, two are empty fields and another three hold homes that are abandoned and left to rot. Though Ligon likes her remaining neighbours – she has two on her block – people here tend to rent their homes, and often stay for as short as a year at a time.
The change has been traumatic, Ligon told me. The roads don’t get snow-ploughed and the grass doesn’t get cut. Some of the vacant structures on her block are unsecured, and it’s hard to say when or if they will be demolished. Every time Ligon leaves her house, she’s wary of who could be inside them; vacant homes throughout the city have become havens for drug dealers and targets for arsonists.
Across Camden Street sits the hulking, two-storey carcass of Macomb Elementary School, closed since 2009 and unprotected from urban scavengers. The mesh portion of the property’s chain-link fence has been stolen, leaving lonely metal posts ringing the property. Portable classrooms outside have been tattooed with spray paint, and dozens of the building’s windows taken. In front of the school stands a tall sign whose bold letters read: “FOR LEASE”.
The city is composed almost uniformly of such inner-city suburbs, low-density developments stretching for miles. Given Detroit’s 60% decline in population since 1950 – including a higher proportion of married, middle-class and well-educated residents – such neighbourhoods are pockmarked by more vacant structures and empty land than a shrinking tax base can handle.
Detroit’s social contract was torn to shreds long ago. Residents receive paltry public services from the local government. And they return the favour. A Detroit News analysis last year found that nearly half of all property owners in the city don’t pay taxes. And herein lies the city’s greatest challenge. Without diminishing the greater downtown area’s modest revival of recent years, as Ligon says: “Until you get a handle on the neighbourhoods, it really doesn’t matter what happens downtown.”
Decision-makers have slowly begun acknowledging the plight of residential areas. Mayor Duggan campaigned on neighbourhoods and has pledged to expedite the demolition of as many as 80,000 abandoned homes. Detroit’s charter was amended to elect city council members from geographic districts rather than a citywide pool, a change that should make politicians more accountable to neighbourhoods. And the state-appointed emergency financial manager has made blight removal and service provision a priority.
Big ideas and heartfelt pledges, however, are worthless without cash to back them up. So private donors have stepped in to partly fill the financial void, funding planning projects and renewal efforts to help staunch the bleeding. Detroit Future City (DFC), a years-long effort engaging thousands of residents and funded by nonprofits, has become the de facto blueprint for shrinking the city and transforming the urban environment over the next 50 years. The Kresge Foundation alone promised $150m to help implement the framework.
Like Ligon’s Leap, which focused on a narrow swath of Detroit, DFC envisions a city with more green space and greater housing options. It assumes population will drop as low as 600,000 – less than one-third of its 1950 peak. The framework makes no attempt to return Detroit to its glory days.
Residential areas and commercial activity would be consolidated in densely populated nodes throughout the city – an effort to provide services more efficiently. The vacant lots left behind would be converted for green uses, including urban farms, woodlands or storm water retention ponds. With such sparsely populated tracts of land surrounding scattered residential centres, the future city’s 139 square miles might physically look more like a suburban county than a typical metropolis.
Planners and academics alike have generally lauded the plan, but it is, of course, predicated on a constant stream of development dollars, better city services – especially law enforcement – and improved public transportation. What’s more, Detroit has a long, racialised history of forced relocation, so convincing residents to move to more populated areas will be no small feat. Many in the city still hope for repopulation, meanwhile, however unlikely that is.
And then comes the logistical challenge. The myriad vacant houses, empty land and absentee property owners have created an unnavigable web of land titles, according to Brent Ryan, an associate professor of urban design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The city has taken some steps to address the problem, creating a centralised Department of Neighbourhoods and citywide land bank. But the existing situation effectively nixes large-scale projects before ground can be broken.
“The tremendous paradox of Detroit is, in a city with lots and lots of vacant land, there’s almost no land for redevelopment,” Ryan said.
The greatest problem with grandiose proposals, however, is that of the ticking clock. There’s almost universal acceptance that Detroit must change. But convincing residents that such change will benefit their lives – and do so today – is another issue entirely.
Quincy Jones, head of the Osborn Neighbourhood Alliance, is one of the skeptics. When I visited his office in January, he said plans such as DFC are overwhelmingly positive – but that the difficulty lies in balancing long-term, overarching visions with quality-of-life improvements here and now. “I like all the big books and big strategies. But if it’s not going to move anything, then what’s the purpose?”
Osborn is a neighbourhood of about 27,000 residents, but Jones’s group is starting small. Last year, it received a $50,000 grant to develop a three-block stretch into a “hub” of neighbourhood activity, he said. It lies in an area that lost about 40% of its residents between 2000 and 2010, according to a census analysis by Data Driven Detroit. The number of families and children in the area plummeted even faster. And today, nearly one in three homes are abandoned.
“Right now, we’re in action mode,” Jones said of his organisation. “Quit planning and get some action going, because folks are still leaving the neighbourhood. They’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The ‘Live in Osborn’ plan will attempt to use existing resources to funnel as much activity as possible into a small area. It revolves around a community centre that houses dozens of local service providers, including Jones’s. A public library branch and fuel station sit across the street; a vacant lot next door will be paved over for pop-up businesses and youth activities. Perhaps most importantly, the project calls for the demolition of the handful of abandoned homes and apartments that line the three-block corridor leading up to the proposed hub. Nearby residents, most of them living in two-storey brick houses, will help decide how the eventually empty land will be used, Jones said.
Community members have generally been supportive of the plan. They crave what Jones, who grew up nearby, describes as the “wow effect” – any sign of improvement, any reason to hold on just a little while longer. “At times, it just feels like we’re fighting this huge monster, and we don’t know how to chop off all its heads,” he said. “If we just take one part of it and attack it – and if that strategy works – we should keep using that strategy.”
Perhaps Detroit needs a hero to battle its hydra. Perhaps bulldozing tens of thousands of homes will only give way to more that will replace them. If history is any indication – the city has razed more than 200,000 housing units since 1960 – demolition is the easiest answer, though not necessarily the best.
For Ligon, such blight removal will only be as successful as what follows it. Despite building a life and career in Detroit, she admits having thought about moving to cities like Portland or Seattle, where she wouldn’t have to think twice about walking to Starbucks. Like so many other Motor City residents, however, Ligon is trying to hang on.
“I feel like I have something to do here,” she told me. “And I want to do it. The reason this place hasn’t gone entirely under water is that there are a whole lot of people doing whatever they can to save it.”
But Ligon also doesn’t want to be on guard every time her house creaks. She doesn’t want to worry about the empty home across the street whose door remains ajar. She doesn’t want to feel unsafe when she walks outside.
“I’m really getting tired of the landscape that I have to look at every day; of having to fight to make this world a better place for other people to live,” she said. “Who’s fighting for me?”