Mourning Detroit

by James & Miel on November 20, 2009 · 0 comments

A little while back I traveled to Michigan to visit a friend of mine who’s at the University of Michigan getting his PhD. Since we’re both hockey fans, we planned the trip for the weekend that the Washington Capitals were going to be in Detroit playing the Red Wings. We’ve all heard about the struggles that Detroit has been facing recently, and with the decline of the American automotive industry we’re basically seeing what happened to Flint, Michigan in 1980s all over again, just on a larger scale. Just look at some of the problems facing the city:

* The unemployment rate recently hit a record 28.9%. It’s unbelievable to think that a major American city has nearly 1/3 of its population unemployed.

* It’s estimated that nearly 1,000 people are leaving per month, reducing population levels to between 750,000 and 1 million residents. Detroit used to be the U.S.’s fourth largest city.

* A murder rate that was at 14% last year and was lauded as a good thing, prompting mayoral candidate Stanley Christmas to say: “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.” There are more people murdered in Detroit than in New York City, despite the fact that New York City has nearly 10 times the population.

* A public education system so broken that it has been put in a state of emergency and has been taken over the state government. A study conducted in 2008 by researchers from Michigan State found Detroit’s public High School graduation rate to be just under 32%.

* The median home price in Detroit in July was around $7,000. That’s about 4 months worth of rent at what I’m currently paying. I was so blown away by this I spent 15 minutes on Google, verifying and re-verifying that this was true.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Detroit has some serious systemic problems, and despite encouraging words from state and local politicians (what else are they going to say?) there doesn’t appear to be a way back. Like so much of Michigan, Detroit was built by the automotive industry, and its rise and falls has directly correlated with the rise and fall of the auto industry.

The thing that struck me the most about Detroit when I was there, traveling downtown to go to the rink, were the abandoned buildings. Abandoned industrial complexes aren’t something completely new to me; the south side of Indianapolis has its share of warehouses and manufacturing plants that were forced to close and exist without a tenant, and same can be said for other major U.S. cities. The Federal Hill neighborhood in Baltimore (and Baltimore in general I suppose) had many of the same problems until the last 10 years, when gentrification revitalized the neighborhood and surrounding areas. But the number of buildings in Detroit and their current state of disrepair right in the heart of the city was overwhelming. The buildings in Detroit had everything from broken windows and cracked facades grass and other plants overtaking their grounds. Whole buildings were burnt out, or even partially demolished.

Detroit is a sad case study in poor city management. Their entire economy relied on the automotive industry, and the general consensus was that it would never go away. When it did, Detroit had nothing – analogous to investing all of your money in one security. One political party more or less dominated local politics for 30 years, a stretch of time marked by ineffectiveness, wasteful spending and corruption – former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was recently released from prison after serving a four-month term after being convicted of obstruction of justice stemming from an extra-marital affair.

The road back to financial viability will be difficult for Detroit, especially considering the current state of the economy across the U.S. The weather in Michigan is brutal – discouraging many young people from moving there – and there hasn’t exactly been a massive influx of new businesses to Detroit. But its new mayor, Dave Bing, is an intelligent and hard working man. With time, they may have a chance, but it seems like it will be a tough road back. Which is very sad for what used to be one of America’s premier cities.

Michael

Exploring Detroit’s Beautiful Ruins

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