Detroit: Garden City, U.S.A.?

Corner of Michigan and Griswold. Great deal of car traffic, large group of people boarding trolley car. Large commercial buildings in background. Traffic tower in middle of street, with person standing inside. Date 	  circa 1920 Source 	  Early Detroit Images from the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library Author 	  unknown

One of this week’s most interesting reads is by Associated Press writer David Runk, published in the Detroit News under the headline Detroit Wants to Save Itself by Shrinking.

The crux: Much of the city has become so bleak and uninhabitable that Mayor Dave Bing and other city leaders want to bulldoze huge sections and start over with something else. What that “something else” might be isn’t fully imagined, but a lot of people are saying: Farms. Gardens. Nature. Imagine: A city, having conquered the land, agreeing to a unilateral withdrawal in order to save itself.

What does this have to do with Portland and Oregon, which pride themselves on their planning and rural-to-urban connections, even if both have flashpoints of read-guard insurgency?

For one thing, looking at places like Detroit and the Bronx and declining Rust Belt cities is a healthy reminder of how comparatively easy Oregon has it in this area: We simply don’t have to contend with the issues of massive urban deterioration that plague other parts of the country. (Our own, much smaller, issue is the spread of large suburban nowheres without centers, with little to define them but car culture and small-scale speculation.) It’s easy to be smug about our “greenness.” How green would we be if we faced the problems that so many other places face?

Second, though: Can ideas pioneered here be adapted to the catastrophic conditions that Detroit and other cities face? Can an American urban-sprawl landscape be transformed into something like a 21st century medieval landscape, with tight urban gatherings fed (perhaps literally) by closely surrounding farm and rural areas? And can such projects be undertaken without the kind of massive governmental direction and support that is already under relentless attack nationally in the battles to reform health care and counter the effects of the Great Recession?

Hurt by white flight and the lingering effects of the 1967 Detroit riots, and hung out to dry by the near-collapse of the American automobile industry, Detroit has shrunk from a city of about 2 million in its heyday to one of a little more than 900,000 today, including the poorest of the poor. The six-county Detroit Metro area is closing in on 4.5 million people, but most of the wealth has fled to the outlying suburbs and cities, with a stubborn pocket of money and influence downtown.

Just one of the many tangles in the path of accomplishing anything is suggested in today’s Detroit News piece Detroit’s Desolate Middle Makes Downsizing Tough, by Christine MacDonald and Darren A. Nichols. Some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods are at its fringes, cut off from the city center by a broad swath of desolate zone. How can the parts of the city that work be connected?

The city’s challenges in its effort to reinvent itself are practical, philosophical and ethical. Who owns the land, how will the city pay for it, who will own it once it’s been cleared, and what control will the city have over what is done with it by its new owners? Is government the proper instigator of change, or should market forces determine the city’s future? (In Detroit, the answer might be that the marketplace is broken, and if the public in the form of its government doesn’t step in, the rot will simply continue to spread.) Should you tear down without a clear idea of what you’re going to replace with? For this to work, people will inevitably have to be moved, as they were in the massive and disruptive urban renewal projects of the 1960s. What are their rights, and how are their rights weighed in the balance of the public good? Can Detroit afford not to make radical decisions?

And what if this reinvention works? What if Detroit becomes the model for how America can reemerge from the global economic and environmental disruptions that may at last be shattering our illusion of eternal expansion? What if smaller really is better? What if one aspect of paying attention to infrastructure is simply removing part of it? Can a place be small and dynamic at the same time? If that’s not an Oregon question, I don’t know what is.

For perspective, a good place to start is Alex Altman’s report Detroit Tries to Get on a Road to Renewal, from the March 26, 2009 issue of Time:

Detroit has become an icon of the failed American city, but vast swaths of it don’t look like city at all. Turn your Chevy away from downtown and the postcard skyline gives way first to seedy dollar stores and then to desolation. The collapse of the Big Three automakers has accelerated Detroit’s decline, but residents have been steadily fleeing since the 1950s. In that time, the population has dwindled from about 2 million to less than half that. Bustling neighborhoods have vanished, leaving behind lonely houses with crumbling porches and jack-o’-lantern windows. On these sprawling urban prairies, feral dogs and pheasants stalk streets with debris strewn like driftwood: an empty mail crate, a discarded winter jacket, a bunny-eared TV in tall grass. Asked recently about a dip in the city’s murder rate, a mayoral candidate deadpanned, “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.”

Then, Altman looks at the hopes for something different:

What would a new Detroit look like? Many say it will have to be smaller, greener and denser. The city can start with the chunks of town that have withered into wasteland. The exodus from Detroit–triggered by suburbanization and the 1967 race riots–dovetailed with the national foreclosure crisis, which has battered few cities as badly as this one. According to a regional listings service, the median home-sale price has plunged to a paltry $5,737–yet tens of thousands of dwellings stand vacant. But the “long-term perspective,” says Heidi Mucherie, director of the organization leading the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign, “is that these are opportunities.” It’s the hopeful note sounded by Detroit’s optimists: The approximately one-third of the city lying empty or unused–an area about the size of San Francisco–is not just an emblem of its corrosion but also the blank slate on which to chart a path to renewal.

You can get a good look at what’s happened to this city from the Web site The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, maintained by artist and activist Lowell Boileau. And this page from Detroitblog reveals how the country has already begun to reclaim parts of the city. Meanwhile, here’s a link to The City Rises, a subsection of the “Fabulous Ruins” site that shows some of the rebirth that’s been going on amid the death throes. Things rise, things fall, always at the same time.


PHOTO: Once, Detroit was one of America’s most bustling cities. This 1920 photo shows the corner of Michigan and Griswold downtown. While the 21st century downtown has shown signs of revival, much of the city is an urban wreckage straight from the pages of dystopian futurist novels. Photographer unknown; Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library/Wikimedia Commons.