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.”