Why I Want to See Detroit Turn Itself Around

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Even though I have been hanging out in Hampton Roads Virginia for the last 6 years I would like to see Detroit make a turnaround.  But no one seems to have any love for Detroit anymore.  It’s like “Detroit, why, who cares about Detroit”.  Most are indifferent to the fate of Detroit.  But I’m from the Midwest, and I always like to see the cities there do well.  Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Dayton, Youngstown, Flint, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Canton, Toledo, Madison, Milwaukee.  There are also those fringe areas like Oklahoma City and Kansas City that may or may not be part of the Midwest, depending on who you ask.  I am sure that I have missed more than a few.  We have a lot of cities in the Midwest, a lot.  

There are a lot of cities with more than 100,000.  In some cases, there are suburbs of cities with more than 100,000.  But this is a tough area to live in.  It isn’t that the Midwest is an old area of the country; most of the cities there are newer and younger than their counterparts on the East coast.  It isn’t the the Midwest is rural; the cities are just as dense and urban as what you will find anywhere else, enough for most people, we have nothing on New Jersey and New York, but it is good enough.  It isn’t even that the Midwest is monolithic and racially segregated; other minority groups have moved to the Midwest since I’ve left.  You will find large ethnic neighborhoods in a lot of cities.

The problem with the Midwest has always been the energy, or lack of it.  Just not like what you will find on the East Coast or the West Coast.  A different vibe, and one that is difficult to understand unless you grew up here.  Not as laid back, but not as frenzied or frantic either.  None of that seemed to matter when we had jobs.  Where do people live now?  Where are people moving to, if they don’t move from here?  State capitals, Chicago, okay but those cities have always had a lot of people.  Suburbia perhaps, well okay but what is really going on.  

You hear about the South, first Atlanta then Miami then Charlotte.  You hear about the East Coast, New York, then Boston or perhaps Washington DC (which is or is not Mid-Atlantic, which is or is not East Coast, depending on who you ask).  You even hear about Pittsburgh, which may or may not be part of the Midwest.  So we hear about these places, and we hear good news.  Then when people talk about the Midwest there is never any good news.  People are indifferent about Chicago; people still live there, but there is plenty of bad news.

So what do you think about when the Midwest comes to mind?  Failing school systems, bankruptcy (or close to bankruptcy), intervention by the State.  Violence, urban decay, poverty.  Empty factories, deteriorating infrastructure, in the case of Detroit, urban farming perhaps?  Detroit was once the second largest city in the Midwest, and the Midwest used to have the second largest city in the country.  Now Detroit has fallen behind Columbus and Indianapolis.  It is the fourth largest city in the Midwest now.  On top of that it does not have the options that the other three cities do; yes Chicago is still landlocked, but they are still building vertically there.  Now you can argue that Detroit has larger metropolitan areas than those cities, whatever; the exodus to suburbia has never been a good thing for any city, ever, in the history of this country.  Detroit’s issues are to the inner core of that city; I never understood the consolation to be found in having a large suburban population to prevent you from focusing on the issues that your city has. Every city in the Midwest has a large, and growing, metropolitan area, but then again so do cities all across America.  Suburbs are just a nice way to benefit from the city without absorbing all of the problems of that city.  

Detroit was always a large city.  At 143 square miles it is a huge place.  Unlike cities like Indianapolis and Columbus, that is not through annexation, but the sheer size of the city.  Those cities also have a large land mass as well.  For many years though the only city in the Midwest that was larger, in population or in land mass, was Chicago.  That was the only thing Detroit had to concern itself with, the only regional competition that existed.  Until 1970, Detroit did not have a lot of competition in general, as it was the 5th largest city in America.  

So what could happen to Detroit?  Clearly the city is in a place where people may no longer take it seriously.  Around here the size of a city is everything.  It isn’t the East Coast or the West Coast where it is just enough to live in an enormous metropolitan area, and it doesn’t really matter where you live.  Our metropolitan areas do not touch each other, our cities have not grown into each other and each city and its metropolitan area can be an entirely different place from the other.  There is that pride of “this is my city, and this is how many people live here”, bragging rights.  Yet Detroit continues to fall.  The good news is that there is a long fall from number 4 to number 5, Milwaukee has fewer than 600,000 at 594,833.  But if history is any indication Detroit will make that fall and at this rate, 500,000 might be a blessing in disguise by the next census.  

Detroit would still be considered a large city at that point.  The irony of this is that it is not as though Detroit is sitting around and waiting until the last minute to try to affect change; no one would ever accuse people of waking up once the population was down to 300,000.  At the same time, it would appear as though too little is being done too late.  They are already talking about closing down the People Mover; a light rail which existed since the late eighties that never truly took off as it should.  Detroit needs viable options, and people should be able to get around that city without an automobile, but with a lot of people gone, who can really afford light rail?  In any event the closure of the people mover will definitely be seen as yet another failure of the city.

An article in the July 2011 issue of Ebony magazine shows a hopeful Mayor Dave Bing.  He states that the city has more theater seats than any other city outside of New York and that Detroit has three major casinos and every major sport.  Yes we know, Detroit has a lot of teams, they have the theater and they have major casinos, perhaps more than any other city in the Midwest.  Any self-respecting Midwesterner would know these things.  There are a lot of great things about Detroit that would surprise someone who is not from the Midwest, but then you also state that the city is productively using 50% of the city.  That doesn’t sound very good at all, 50%?  Only half of this city is worth talking about?

If there is even a city close to reaching those levels on the East Coast it is probably Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Those cities give the perception that only half of the place is worth taking into consideration.  The reality may be that things are not actually as bad in either city; people may at least give it the benefit of the doubt that they are ignorant and are simply listening to what someone else heard.  The problem with Detroit is that it is isolated.  Chicago is not Washington DC, it is an hour away.  Columbus is not Philadelphia.  The only city even remotely close to Detroit worth mention is Toledo, and that place isn’t much to write home to your Mother about either.  What saddens me about the Midwest, is that the cities that are doing well are too isolated from their neighbors for the effects of what little good is going on to even affect what happens in those other towns.  Everyone is an hour away from someone else, in some cases two hours away.  

At the end of the day one has to ask themselves if Detroit could ever afford to utilize that other half?  What plans does the Mayor have for that other half outside of Downtown, that half that is not glamorous, where you would be lucky to find a streetlight on or a traffic signal working, or a sidewalk paved or the grass cut?  That half that is pulling down the city financially and making the entire town look bad.  There is one thing that the Mayor is right about; that is that you have to spend time in Detroit to understand Detroit.  That is typically the case with much of the Midwest but no where is that more true than it is in Detroit.  There are a lot of good things going on, a flourishing visual arts scene, as opposed to music scene the city has been known, urban farming, which could reduce transportation costs and make the city interesting because of lower costs over time, Downtown itself, which is nothing like it was in the eighties and nineties.

Prices are a lot, lot, lot cheaper in Detroit.  You can get a house for like $5,000, which is hard to believe until you check the real estate listings for yourself.  This makes it an easier place to live than either coast; you don’t have to live in a drug infested neighborhood and dodge bullets or face opposition because you are seen as someone who is about gentrification and moving people out.  In many instances people have already moved out of the neighborhood and your biggest issue might be squatters next door.  The city still has a lot of museums and has not given up on culture, which seems to be one thing Detroit will never give up on.  There is a lot to consider; Detroit isn’t for everybody, but it seems as though most that have moved on were looking for jobs elsewhere or abandoned the city because of the crime that plagued it for many years.  Detroit used to be the worst city in the country, hands down.  These days you cannot even find it among the 25 worst cities in the country.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t neighborhoods to avoid or activities that you might think twice about doing at a certain time of day.  That also doesn’t mean that the crime is non-existent, it could be that Detroit is not reporting crime as it once did.  But it is a glimmer of hope.  In the past Detroit was a city that everyone ran to looking for jobs. In the future only certain people will even consider living in Detroit, and although that is not the message the city is trying to send out or one it would ever fully embrace, that could be the best possible thing to ever happen to the city of Detroit …


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