Monday, February 11, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Detroit?

You may have caught Mark Binelli’s recent NY Times op/ed on the sad state the city of Detroit is in; if not, definitely check it out here. Binelli (who’s a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of a book on Detroit) notes that while the Big Three automakers are recovering nicely since the GM and Chrysler bailouts four years ago, that has absolutely not translated into recovery for the city itself.  In fact, the city may be mere days away from bankruptcy. 

According to the most recent US Census, the population of Detroit has shrunk by more than a quarter in the last ten years.  More than 237,000 people left Detroit in that time--far more than the 140,000 who left New Orleans. 

Coming from a car-obsessed, Tigers-loving family, many a family vacation has been spent in Detroit and its environs.  If you haven’t been there, all I can say is that all the things you’ve heard about it are true. There really are entire city blocks that are empty.  There really are plants growing on top of old houses and abandoned buildings.  Going to many parts of Detroit is like being in the midst of a post-apocalyptic film.  Even the parts of downtown that have signs of life feel like they’re stuck in a time warp.

And one of the saddest things about it is that there is still so much that remains of its successful past and of the potential the city still has.  Due to the dearth of recent investment in the city, there are many buildings whose original early 20th century architecture is still present.  And the Detroit Institute of Arts is among my favorite art museums in the country; its prestigious collection is clearly a remnant of a time in which the city had significant cash. (If you happen to be there, definitely check out the huge Diego Rivera mural, a tribute to American innovation. It’s really a sight to behold.)

So Binelli talks about three recent suggestions that have been made to bring Detroit out of its economic funk. Among them: Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to turn Belle Isle (a city park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario) into a state park.  However, after the Detroit city council postponed a vote on the proposal (as Binelli puts it, “under pressure from a vocal minority suspicious of ‘outsiders’ looting Detroit’s few remaining assets”), Snyder withdrew the proposal last summer.  Yes, the Detroit city council is so entrenched, so resistant to change, that the Michigan governor is viewed as an outsider…

Binelli really boils the problem down to its essence in this one sentence: “Detroiters who are worried about ceding local power to Michigan’s Republican governor shouldn’t forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal.”  How could the city perhaps most traditionally associated with American ingenuity have ended up in such an ossified position today? Binelli hits the nail on the head: Detroit’s leadership is an oligarchy whose inaction to save the city goes largely unquestioned by the ever-shrinking populace.  If the members of the city council really care about the city’s recovery, they have a hell of a way of showing it. They may verbalize support for Detroit, but when it comes to making life better for the people who live there and attracting new residents, their actions (or inactions) often say the opposite

And while I do think that their resistance to new ideas comes from a partisan place, I also believe that they’re ignoring some good ideas from the left side of the aisle. Urban farming is a great example of this—parts of Detroit are in such a sorry state that urban agriculture projects may be the best way to use land that is currently uninhabited.  Not only would such projects create jobs for many Detroiters, but they offer the prospect of profit for those who start such enterprises.  Good for the environment, good for residents, and good for investors? Can’t get much better than that.

Well, it’s not so clear-cut to the Detroit city council.  Back in December, they narrowly approved the sale of land for the Hantz Woodlands project in Hamtramck (a bit north of downtown), which promised to be the “world’s largest urban farm.” Though the sale was approved, it met with oodles of opposition (check out this article for the details)—mostly on the grounds that the city government made it nearly impossible for individuals interested in smaller-scale urban farming to purchase land.

OK, let’s get this straight: on the table is a proposal to potentially transform Detroit’s landscape, put people to work, and get on the road to recovery.  But since the CITY ITSELF makes it hard for everyone to do so, no one should get to do so? Great idea—let’s keep moving down the same road and see what that does for us.

Kudos to the five city council members (and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing) who support the Hantz proposal. But seriously, what are the four other members thinking? Your city’s survival could depend on this, and because you think of this as a “land grab” by a big company, you are willing to set aside practicality for some greater “principle.” I just don’t get it.

The city will have to take extreme measures if it hopes to recover.   Yup, Detroit will have to go back to its roots of innovation to save itself. And at this point, all ideas should be on the table.  As Binelli writes, the “tragicomic” nature of recent proposals underlines the fact that Detroit is in dire straits, and that big, perhaps radical changes are needed.  Unfortunately, I won’t be holding my breath on this one…

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