Vanguard Detroit

Recently demolished block on Detroit’s East Side.  Source: Detroit Free Press
The rubber is starting to meet the road in Detroit.  If the Motor City is going to follow through on the strategies that can ultimately turn it around, some recent activities suggest that now is that time.

The Herculean task of documenting all of Detroit’s vacant land and vacant buildings is nearly complete.  The Detroit News reported over the weekend that the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force has gathered data on about 270,000 of 380,000 parcels in the city, and expects to have data for the remaining parcels in February.  This will be the most comprehensive analysis of vacant buildings and vacant land undertaken in Detroit.  In 2009, nonprofit organization Data Driven Detroit perused city and county records and found about 33,500 vacant homes and 91,500 vacant lots, but that study did not include commercial buildings or multiunit structures.

Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is working on one strategy to catalyze growth in Detroit.  Last week he announced a plan to attract 50,000 immigrants to Detroit over the next five years.  After the announcementt Gov. Snyder flew to Washington to meet with federal immigration officials to talk about this strategy.

I’ve always said that out of the depths of its decay, Detroit will establish a national, maybe even global, template for shrinking city recovery and revitalization.  But Detroit cannot be afraid of what lies ahead.

An opinion article over the weekend showed some of that fear on display.  Detroit Free Press editorial columnist John Gallagher wrote about a recent conference on blight removal in Detroit:

At a recent conference on blight removal at Marygrove College, longtime Detroit activist Maggie DeSantis pressed businessman Dan Gilbert for the economic model that he and others assumed would fill up the city’s vacant land once the Gilbert-led blight removal effort has finished its work.

Gilbert told DeSantis and the other 100 or so people in attendance that removing eyesore buildings and trash would, by itself, create economic opportunities in Detroit’s empty spaces.
DeSantis asked, but how? As she told me later, “If knocking down blight and clearing property was really the answer, then you’d already be seeing it,” since the city has been razing derelict structures for years.

DeSantis is partly correct in saying that if that demolition were the solution we would see positive impacts already.  Indeed, the City of Detroit has demolished more than 10,000 structures over the last four years.  But that’s not enough, for a couple reasons.  First, Detroit is a city that is need of being remade in large parts, not just revitalized.  Significant clearance will happen at some locations that will make hundreds of acres of property available, and for the first time since Detroit’s initial growth there will be economies of scale at work in the city.  

Relatedly, as I’ve pointed out here and most recently here, a big part of Detroit’s problem is that its built environment is not always in line with contemporary standards and quality.  Detroit has a unique opportunity that other cities are unable to partake in — create a new development template for the next generation of American cities.

I also like the push to attract 50,000 immigrants to the city.  While Detroit has a relatively small Latino population and only recently become the target for Latino immigrants, Detroit does have a large and long-standing Arab and Muslim population that could spark immigration.  These groups, as well as others, could stimulate economic growth in the city.  At a minimum, immigration would re-introduce “churn” into a city that’s been lacking it for 60 years.

One thought on “Vanguard Detroit

  1. I've been a long time fan of your work Pete and I think this is the first time I'm commenting on your blog! Certainly construction, or should we both say retrofitting Detroit and a number of cities with housing stock and general infrastructure that is rapidly decaying and not as energy efficient as it should (and needs to) be can be a economic positive. That could mean powering the city and region with renewables, finding modern ways to deal with waste and pollution and so on. But as with the talk that many Rust Belt cities have around “attracting immigrants”, I start getting skeptical. I'm not saying these cities couldn't use the fresh blood, but usually it is also a quiet shrug to actually doing the work to develop long-time residents in these cities, which all too often means ignoring the despite cries of black citizens to City Hall for resources in their neighborhoods. At the end of the day, immigrants want many of the same things these regions have failed to deliver to black residents for generations now such as quality education, productive relations with law enforcement, economic empowerment, community engagement, etc.

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