Beyond the Blight: Detroit Ponders a Future for Its Abandoned Blocks

Tearing down vacant buildings may not be the only answer to the bankrupt city’s ills

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Just after Labor Day, bulldozers arrived on the near east side of Detroit to take down what remains of the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. They were a landmark of urban renewal, dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935, and home to Diana Ross and the Supremes. But the projects had been empty for years, serving as a ghostly reminder of how much the city has emptied out. Today, nearly 80,000 buildings sit vacant in virtually every corner of Detroit, which shrank from a city of some 2 million people in 1950 to a current population of fewer than 700,000.

Tearing down crumbling buildings and vacant lots — so numerous that Detroit is a destination for photographers documenting “ruin porn” — has long been seen here as a crucial first step in reviving a downtrodden city. “Blight is one of the city’s most pervasive and pressing problems,” Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr contended in his initial report last May. “It is both a public-safety and a public-health issue for the city.”

The reasons are clear. “Vacant buildings can become havens for trash, stray animals, squatters and criminals,” Tom Reischl, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan’s department of public health, told commissioners in Genesee County, which is home to Flint. “Vacant properties are also more likely to be vandalized or burned to the ground,” and thefts from empty buildings are less likely to be reported to police.

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And there’s now money to address to the problem. The Obama Administration announced Sep. 27 that it was allocating $100 million toward blight eradication and other redevelopment projects, part of a $300 million package of new and repurposed funds intended to help the bankrupt Motor City. The White House did not disclose how much of the money is new, so it is unclear if the total includes the $52 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds — originally intended to help ailing banks — the city was awarded in August to attack blight.

Roy Roberts, a former General Motors executive who served as emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, will become the city’s blight overseer, charged with reforming the way the city deals with vacant buildings. There will also be a blight task force made up of civic and corporate leaders, including billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has snapped up many downtown properties.

But as private groups compete with public agencies for a chunk of the cleanup money, some experts say that tearing down buildings alone is not the answer to a city’s ills. It’s only a prelude to the revitalization process.

Detroit is so vast — 139 sq. mi. — and the buildings so numerous that it would take 10 times the TARP money available to rip every vacant structure down. And even that would only begin a new conversation: what to do afterward.

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“I don’t think the blight-removal strategy goes on much beyond blight removal,” says John Gallagher, a Detroit Free Press reporter and author of the new book Revolution Detroit: Strategies for Urban Reinvention.

Instead, he and others say Detroit needs to think more carefully about what can still be reused, and what could replace the blight once it is gone. Many baseball fans are still steamed about the city’s decision to tear down historic Tiger Stadium, leaving an empty field where nothing has yet been constructed.

“Demolition is a type of investment. While it would be great to wave a magic wand and have it all come down at once, you have to focus on where it can have the greatest impact,” says Will Wittig, dean of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy.

The focus on blight overlooks the fact that much of the development that is reviving Detroit, in neighborhoods like Midtown, Corktown and downtown, has taken place by renovating existing structures, with a few new developments like a Whole Foods Market sprinkled in.

A few miles from downtown, Southwest Detroit, the city’s Latino corridor, has come back to life with almost no attention from big investors. Here, new residents, fledgling business owners and artists are transforming an area originally settled by Eastern Europeans.

Colin Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Iowa and an expert on urban development, points out that many developers choose locations based on factors other than a city’s appearance.

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“If Detroit was an attractive place for X Corporation to build a plant, they would do it, and a bunch of falling-down houses would not be an obstacle,” he says.

The city’s major problem is that vast numbers of empty buildings lie in Detroit’s outer neighborhoods. These were never intended to be major commercial centers, but areas filling local needs, and have not thrived for decades.

Some of these blocks are so sparsely populated that they could wind up with a single, occupied home. But that can be workable, says Wittig, if the city plans what goes around them, like urban farms or other features.

“Every neighborhood can survive, but what it looks like is very different. Some neighborhoods can be viable with one occupant per acre. Some need to be 10 occupants per acre,” he says.

But if there isn’t enough money for Detroit to tear down its empty homes and vacant buildings, what else could it do with them? An answer lies 155 miles to the southeast, in Youngstown, Ohio. Like Detroit, it is an industrial town that saw its factories and steel mills close, and residents move away.

Rather than focus on growth, however, local officials have set about making what is left livable for Youngstown’s 65,000 residents. One participant is the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, whose mission is to revitalize existing blocks, with help from their inhabitants.

Split rail fences, some built by neighbors, surround 250 vacant lots around town — a sign the property has been cleared and is ready for a new use, says Ian Beniston, the group’s deputy director.

Rather than let buildings crumble, the group has boarded up 75 empty homes with lumber painted to look like doors and windows. “That’s not just to save it from a kid falling through a door, but also securing it and preserving it,” Beniston says.

While the group has demolished 125 homes, it also has repaired 150 for their owners, and sold more than 20 others.

Beniston believes Detroit should consider following Youngstown’s lead. “The challenges can be overwhelming and the resources are limited, so if you don’t act strategically and approach it comprehensively, you won’t get anywhere,” Beniston says.

Industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Buffalo have had dual strategies of blight removal and neighborhood revitalization, recognizing that both have to take place at once.

Says Beniston: “You can be tearing down houses until there’s no city left to tear down.”

But Gallagher, at the Free Press, contends Detroit needs to get some of the cleanup done first. “Realistically, we’re not going to reuse most of those buildings,” he says. “So what are we going to do? You have to remove them to make way for the next phase.”

14 comments
gmblock
gmblock

Doesn't it seem odd that we are tearing down homes when we have veterans returning from combat who need housing?

Why not give the homes to the vets for free?  They will all have lifetime incomes from disability payments, funding for healthcare, etc.  Bring in great people, with incomes, who need the services Detroit has to offer.

We need to match our vacant homes with people who need housing.

mathari
mathari

Detroit is a perfect example of how lead poisoning finally broke a city's back. Many more cities, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, are similarly doomed.The houses in these cities either need to be ripped down or completely gutted, inside and out, and rebuilt. This needed to happen in the early 1990s, when Congress declared all of this in codified law (42 USC 4851) and it has dragged on for too long, finally breaking the back of detroit. Many of these houses have now turned into toxic superfund sites because of the amount of lead contaminating the immediate oral living space.

25% of our population now has a mental disorder because we used lead in gasoline between 1940 and 1975.  If we eliminated lead poisoning, among other things, we would statistically eliminate ADHD, low IQ, most of the DSM, crime, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, alzheimers, and put cities like detroit back on the path to prosperity.

franklin.k.clark
franklin.k.clark

The only way Detroit is going to survive, is if we consolidate everyone into one area, raze the rest of it, and start over. Then we can focus the city services (school, fire, police, emergency, water, sewage, electricity) onto one area and build outward. The quality of education will go up because there will be less schools, the students will not have to travel miles upon miles to reach them (like they do now, since schools keep closing). Retail would boom because the population would not be so spread out. Fire/Emergency/Police response would be quicker and more efficient. The positives go on and on. Go on, Time, do an article about this!

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

Detroit was given federal money to raze their abandoned buildings at least once before and most of it was given to their civic leaders instead. Why should everyone else in this country bail them out again?

Openminded1
Openminded1

Detroit the armpit of america, bull doze it to ruble, then set it on fire to kill the millions of rats that live there along with the roaches. start building the city from scratch and get rid of the black leadership that are just ruining the city even more, while lining there own pockets.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

RonErnst
RonErnst

@gmblock They have already been through one war, why would you send them to Detroit. They deserve better. Detroit is a disaster zone. 

JamesKlaver
JamesKlaver

@franklin.k.clark I have had this similar idea where the surrounding cities all absorb a part of the city that borders them. What is left will be a smaller more manageable city. 

nevermind1534
nevermind1534

@Fastgirl The money specifically meant for blight removal was actually mostly unused.  Much of it had to be returned to the federal government.

nevermind1534
nevermind1534

@Openminded1 Implying that "black leadership" is what's wrong with the city


There was also plenty of white leadership that was corrupt.  The city just had enough money that it didn't matter.  Also, look at the last mayoral primary; a white guy won it.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

@nevermind1534 @Fastgirl Actually it wasn't. Read Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff to findout how Detroit went from the richest city in America to the poorest. Detroit is now America’s capital for unemployment, illiteracy, dropouts, and foreclosures.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@nevermind1534 @Fastgirl I guess you do not read the racist in the white house gave them another one hundred million he found in the coffers, using his ex-powers to just hand it over. I wonder if he would have done that for a city like aspen, or beverly hills , or maybe an even bigger city like salt lake city, oh I forgot there are to many whites and very few black in those cities so that would not happen. 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@nevermind1534 @Openminded1 The mayor of Detroit is David Bing  a black man and yes the management of the city to include city leaders are some of the problem, it is the worst run big city in America. The city may have had white corrupt politics ,but they were not a bankrupt city then. Detroit was a great city once it is a shell of city that it it use to be. It is nothing more then a rat infested roach motel now. they need to bull doze it down and start fresh now that racist Obama handed over hundred million just because it is a black run city. The will screw that up too and someones pockets will get lined.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@nevermind1534 @Openminded1 You are not up to date dummy this is new money as of this past week, get with the times moron. Obama wanted the money sent to detroit before the pending shut down. And you are right Obama is a racist.

nevermind1534
nevermind1534

@Openminded1 @nevermind1534 


/racism

Most of the money had already been allocated to the city anyway.  Very little, if any of the money is new  Also, for research: Mike Duggan.  Since you're so knowledgeable, you should have heard of him.


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