Problems in Detroit include “dysfunctional American sociology” and lack of regional governance

One commentator focuses on the lack of metropolitan governance in Detroit and also mentions “dysfunctional American sociology.” Here is the bit on sociology:

And without widespread racism, there would have been fewer ghettoized African-Americans.

Hard to ignore this. See the work of scholar Thomas Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

Here is more of the argument for regional governance:

In a European-style metro Detroit, unified regional planning would favor reconstruction of the old city centre over new buildings and new highways in ever more distant locations. Some of the tax revenue raised in what are today separate affluent suburban jurisdictions would be spent in the centre of the city. With better roads, schools, police and services, Detroit’s slums would be less slummy and the culture of crime and despair would probably be less entrenched.

There’s actually no need to go to Europe to find better ways to arrange urban jurisdictions. As David Rusk points out in his book “Cities without Suburbs”, the American cities that have expanded their city limits along with their populations generally have stronger economies, less racial segregation and more equal income distribution than the mostly older cities with rigid borders.

The ethical issue can be reduced to an old question: who is my neighbor? Everyone, even economists who believe people should be selfish, recognizes that it is helpful to work together as a community. Almost everyone, perhaps excluding a few cold-hearted economists, would agree that the strong in a community have some obligation to help the weak. But how large is the relevant community?…

David Rusk, Myron Orfield, and others have made the argument for regional governance for decades but it has had difficult gaining traction, particularly in wealthier suburbs that do not see this as such a clear-cut ethical issue. Opposition to regional governance is rooted in longer issues between cities and less urban areas where cities are viewed as bad places full of crime, race, immigrants, densities that are too high, uncleanliness, and other “urban problems.” Why should people who made the choice to move to suburbs be held responsible for the problems of people in other communities? Ultimately, perhaps this is rooted in American individualism which views all moves to the suburbs as the result of individual merit and also tends to lead to an interest in government or control that is as local as possible.

The value of using maps to see the rise and fall of Detroit

Here is a series of maps that show both the growth and decline of Detroit over its history. When looking at these maps, I’m reminded that it is quite difficult to talk about either the rise or decline of a major city just by discussing raw numbers, such as population increases or losses or economic figures, or photographs. For example, we could talk about the rise of Houston in recent decades and contrast this to the sharp population decrease in Detroit. Moving past statistics, we could include photographs of a city. Detroit has been photographed many times in recent years with often bleak scenes illustrating economic and social decline.

In some middle ground between numbers and photos and in-depth analysis (of which there does not seem to be much about Detroit recently – the mainstream media has primarily focused on short snippets of information) are maps. A good map has sufficient information to provide a top-down approach to the city and give some indication of the city’s infrastructure. Additionally, it is much easier today to provide multiple layers of mapped information based on Census data and other sources. Growth is relatively easy to see as new streets and points of interest starting showing up. On the other hand, decline might be harder to show as the streets may be empty and the points of interest might be decaying. Still, a current map shows the scope of the problem facing Detroit: it is population and economic decline plus a large chunk of land and structures that is difficult to maintain.

All together, I’m advocating for more widespread use of maps in reporting on and discussions about cities, whether they are struggling or thriving. Maps can help us move beyond seeing vacant houses or economic developments and take in the big picture all at once.

Three possible reasons why the harsh national spotlight is on Chicago

Whet Moser proposes three reasons Chicago has received negative attention recently from the national media:

It’s a big, easy target. Chicago’s “Big Shoulders” image—it was the city that “built the American dream,” to use the historian Thomas Dyja’s words—makes any fall from that perch seem that much more momentous. “We were the future,” says the Northwestern professor Bill Savage.

The Obama factor. Chicago’s problems never used to be much of a national story (unless a governor got indicted). But after a skinny Chicagoan became president—a man whose team has included a Daley, our current mayor, and one of the country’s most powerful political advisers—the light of press attention shone more brightly. “When you look at what’s wrong [with the country],” says Savage, “you look at Chicago.”

It’s our turn. In the 1970s, New York City “was collapsing,” the Reader media critic Michael Miner points out. “The Summer of Sam, ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead.’?” When Los Angeles hit hard times in the early 1990s, it “was just as much of a [media] whipping boy,” says Savage. Chicago is a logical third. It will be somebody else’s turn soon enough. Prepare yourself, Houston (which is projected to surpass Chicago in population by 2030): You may be next.

Some thoughts about each of these proposed reasons:

#1: Out of the three reasons listed above, I find this one the least plausible. Yes, Chicago was once the new American city (see the late 1800s) but it has been eclipsed by Los Angeles (perhaps Hollywood and the generally glitter of the city limits negative attention?) and Chicago has been suffering from the same kinds of problems as today (loss of manufacturing jobs, poverty, crime, inequality) since at least the 1970s if not all the way back in the early 1900s with the Black Belt and immigrant experience. Chicago may have once been the future (also see the 1893 Columbian Exposition) but that future disappeared a long time ago (and perhaps Chicagoans hold on to that 1893 fair a little too closely as well). This might be a longer story about Chicago representing the problems of the Rust Belt – a cycle of loss, rebirth (1990-2006 or so in Chicago), then problems again – than about the loss of a future.

#2: Chicago has never had a president so linked to the city. And, while Obama spent much of his adult life in Chicago, he isn’t originally from the city. While the Daleys are well known, their rule was much more provincial.

#3: This suggests that such negative attention is cyclical, either because different cities experience trouble at different times or there is a sort of revolving set of cities that receive attention. Houston might be next if people first learn about its growth and changes.

Plus, has Chicago received more negative attention recently than Detroit?

Michigan to appoint emergency manager for Detroit

The city of Detroit will soon lose self-governance as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says an emergency manager will take control:

“I believe it’s important to declare the city of Detroit in financial emergency,” Snyder announced at a midday press conference on Friday, in front of the banner, “Detroit Can’t Wait.” The EM will assume the suspended powers of the mayor and city council, and will take unilateral control of municipal finances, union contracts, pension systems, and more.

The consolidation of power will likely lead to cuts and asset sales that the mayor and city council had sought to avoid, which could include the privatization of most of the city’s water supply or the sale of Belle Isle Park. The EM also has the power to declare the city bankrupt, though that option seems unlikely.

The process has racial and political overtones. Detroit is over 80 percent black and its city government is controlled by Democrats; the Michigan statehouse is largely white and firmly in Republican control. If an EM is appointed in nearby Inkster (pop. 25,000, currently under a “consent agreement” with the state), as Chris Savage has pointed out, more than half of Michigan’s 1.4 million African Americans will be governed by unelected officials.

Snyder’s decision follows last week’s devastating report from a state review team that Detroit is unable to address its long-term financial problems. The Motor City, the investigation found, has $14.9 billion in long-term debt and pension obligations, and its general fund has not shown a surplus since 2004. The review team unanimously recommended state intervention…

Five other cities in Michigan are also under state control. Detroit will be the largest city in the country to lose the ability to govern itself.

It will be interesting to see what goals the emergency manager has. To fix the budget and turn a surplus? To contract the city to a viable size? To try to attract growth? To stem the population loss? To privatize unprofitable utilities? Related to the goals, I’m also curious to know how the state will determine whether the emergency manager is “successful.” What happens if the emergency manager doesn’t work out?

In the long run, the ability to self-govern seems to be a bedrock principle in American life. I wonder how much Governor Snyder really wants to do this versus feeling like it has to be done to turn Detroit around. The political fall-out from such a move may not be pretty and states don’t want to be in long-term positions like these.

Should Detroit focus on growth at all?

A recent overview of Detroit’s status raises an interesting question: should Detroit hope for any growth at all? Here is part of the story:

“What everyone wants is new neighbors,” said Khalil Ligon, project manager for the Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP), a nonprofit focused on some 15 square miles of the city where 55,000 people live. “But where are you going to get them?”

The falling population is one of Detroit’s biggest problems. Detroit Future City, a planning blueprint, assumes just 600,000 residents. Launched by Mayor Dave Bing, the plan aims to revamp the economy and use empty space. The Kresge Foundation, started by the Detroit family behind retail giant Kmart, has promised $150 million toward the project.

“It’s certainly the most realistic plan the city has ever had,” said Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan planning professor in Ann Arbor…

“We cannot cut our way of this situation,” Bing told Reuters. “We’ve got to talk about growth.”…

Bing’s revival plan will end up in the hands of the emergency manager, should one be appointed. “If the emergency manager buys into the long-term vision of the plan, it has a chance. But if their brief is just to cut costs and services, it doesn’t have a chance,” said Dewar, the University of Michigan professor.

Realistically, it is hard to imagine a major reversal in Detroit’s fortunes soon. The immediate question is whether the city can halt the population loss. However, the idea of growth is an interesting one as we think more broadly about American cities. We have a narrative that says successful cities grow. Cities that lose population, even ones that are not even close to Detroit’s population loss, are in trouble. Perhaps we can’t even have a realistic conversation about Detroit until the population plateaus…though this may not be for a while.

Contingency plans being developed for the bankruptcy of Detroit

A number of municipalities have experienced fiscal troubles in recent years but the issues in Detroit may be pushing it to bankruptcy:

The working concept, still evolving, assumes that the state’s financial review would find severe financial distress in Detroit, that Mayor Dave Bing and City Council would be unable to push through overdue restructuring, and that the process would culminate in appointment of an emergency financial manager under Public Act 72.

The case would be filed under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code, according to two ranking sources familiar with the situation, following efforts to reach prenegotiated settlements with as many key creditors — unions, vendors and pension funds among them — as possible before any filing…

The evolving bankruptcy scenario is a clear signal that Gov. Rick Snyder and Treasurer Andy Dillon have lost confidence in the ability of the mayor, his management team and council to honor their commitments under the eight-month-old consent agreement with the state, or to make any meaningful progress on restructuring.

Over recent years, a number of suggestions have been thrown out regarding Detroit including the city should be contracted and it is an ideal site for urban farming and reclaiming the land from unused and/or vacant buildings.

I wish the article spent more time discussing what would then happen to Detroit moving forward. How will this affect city services and residents? After a managed bankruptcy, where does this leave the city? Realistically, what plans could be pursued that would put Detroit on a better financial footing and with some hope for the future?

Would you rather have $10 land in rural Canada or houses for under $100 in Detroit?

I saw a story about a small rural town in Canada trying to lure in new residents by offering land for $10:

In an effort to jump on the oil boom in that part of the country, officials are once again selling undeveloped land for a mere $10, an initiative they first started in 2010. Back then they had 14 lots for sale, 11 of which have houses built on them today, economic development officer Tanis Chalmers told ABC News .

That plan was so successful that in September the Rural Municipality of Pipestone, of which Reston is the biggest town (population: 550), decided to put up an additional 10 lots for sale, along with the three left from 2010. Nine remain, “But I’ve had offers on them already from both Canada and the U.S,” said Chalmers, adding that the initiative has been so effective that the local school finally “has a standalone kindergarten class.”…

The plan is pretty straightforward: To purchase a property, wannabe homeowners have to sign an agreement and put down a $1,000 deposit. Once a lot is purchased, owners have 90 days to begin construction, and 12 months to complete it. As soon as the town receives your occupancy permit, they will refund $990 of the original down payment…

As further incentive, the town is offering a $6,000 grant to people who’ve built a new house or purchased an existing home in the rural municipality. The grant, mind you, can be used for anything from home upgrades to a new car. Chalmers says taxes hover around $1,500 to $2,500 per year.

This reminded me of stories in recent years about cheap houses in Detroit. Here is one example:

“I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500,” said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. “I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that’s just crazy. Why not? It’s a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we’re not working to pay the rent.”…A third of the population are unemployed. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in large parts of Detroit over the last three years. The average price of a home sold in the city last year has been put at $7,500 (£4,900)…

Banks are selling off properties in the worst neighbourhoods, which are usually surrounded by empty and wrecked housing, for a few dollars each. But even better houses can be had at a fraction of their former value.

Technically, Brumit paid $95 for the land and $5 for the house on Lawley Street – which fitted what estate agents euphemistically call an opportunity.

I suspect more people would jump at the rural opportunity. While there might be more amenities nearby in Detroit (you mean those winning Tigers can’t boost home prices like winning NFLteams  supposedly can?), the idea of living in Detroit itself would scare a lot of people. What might happen in the neighborhood? Can the city provide basic services? On the other hand, the rural property might be a long way from anything worthwhile but it could offer some access to nature, there probably aren’t as many worries about neighbors, and there is some appeal to starting from scratch. If we wanted to stretch this explanation out even further, this could be a sign of the urban/rural divide in the United States; economically similar opportunities in the big city and the country don’t attract the same level of cultural and residential interest.

Seeing pictures of a declining Detroit as part of the common story of social change

While this collection of photos may qualify as “ruin porn,” a new exhibition put together a sociologist and photographer highlights the changes experienced in the city of Detroit:

Detroit was once the symbol of prosperity and economic development, but with the decline of the American auto industry, the Motor City has fallen into a great state of dilapidation.

The city has lost about a million of its residents (60% of its population) since the 1950s, and numerous factories, businesses and service buildings have been abandoned.

Two photography exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. this fall explore the residential, commercial and industrial ruin of Detroit, Michigan.

Both “Detroit Is No Dry Bones” by sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara, who has been documenting the precipitous decline of Detroit for 25 years, and “Detroit Disassembled” by Andrew Moore, who is renowed fro his large-format photography, will be on display through February 18, 2013.

Why is the new TV show Revolution shooting fake scenes of Chicago having fallen into disrepair when it could be shooting in certain locations in Detroit?

Even though we have seen plenty of photos like this before, it sounds like the exhibition has a hopeful goal:

Of his work, Vergara states “My belief is that by creating a photographic record of Detroit, as it is taken over by nature and pulled down by gravity, people will come to appreciate how the city continues to survive and to give answers to those who come to observe it…The empty land, the art projects, the graffiti commentaries, and the ruins of the city’s industrial past make Motown an unforgettable city of the imagination and could provide the basis for a new Detroit.”

One way to get past the ruin part of the story would be to couch these photos of Detroit as part of the larger issue of social change. Cities can and do change quite drastically and photographs help us to record these changes. I think the reason Detroit gets a lot of attention because the decline narrative is not a common one in the United States. We tend to think of our cities and communities and growing places that continue to move forward. We like progress. There are also cities and places going the other direction, such as the documented changes in recent decades in the Sunbelt. Or the burgeoning cities of China and other developing countries. Overall, we could think about how people, leaders, and organizations react and respond to change which is often not easy whether it is cast in positive or negative terms.

Photographing Detroit for something more than “ruin porn”

Pete Brook over at Wired profiles Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart, two photographers whose project “Can’t Forget the Motor City” argues that “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn“:

As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much “ruin porn” – photography that fetishizes urban decay.

“The portrayal Detroiters are used to seeing – crumbling buildings with no people to be seen – is frustrating because they know their city is more than that,” says Detroit photographer Brian Widdis. “Nobody here denies that those things are real, but seeing the city portrayed one-dimensionally – time and again – it’s like hearing the same awful song being played over and over on the radio. Detroiters want to hear a different song once in a while.”…

Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit and overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city.

“I still do not understand her. The complexity of Detroit makes many give up, move out or move on, if they can. But for others, we want to further that relationship with her,” says [Romain] Blanquart….“Detroit is not a tragedy. We attempt to show its humanity[.]”

Widdis and Blanquart’s photographs are indeed beautiful and, generally, full of people.  While I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently “pornographic” about photographing urban ruins (and underscoring the now-absent humanity those ruins imply), I agree that there is something wrong with hitting this same point to the exclusion everything else, especially insofar as this singled focus implies that there is nothing else to show or say.  However small Detroit’s population may be compared to its heydays, the city is still home to hundreds of thousands of people whose lives–and stories–are still ongoing.  I applaud these photographers’ efforts to document Detroit’s continuing stories through their artistry and not simply focusing on architectural echoes from the past.

Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit

The fate of Detroit has been in the news in recent years and here is another symbol of the city’s troubles: it is considering taking out a number of its streetlights.

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners…

Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in urban law and policy. He said the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development.

This sounds similar to the story from late last year where Detroit suburb Highland Park also decided to reduce its number of streetlights to save money.

Here is my question: does the story stop with streetlights or is the turning off of streetlights just the first step in much bigger efforts to contract Detroit? If you were a politician, perhaps dealing first with streetlights eases people into larger steps of consolidating and/or reducing services. Turning off streetlights is not a small thing; people tend to equate them with safety. Once streetlights are reduced, what comes next?

This story reminds me of an argument in Barrington Hills in late 2010 about reducing the number of lights to preserve the community’s rural, wealthy character. So wealthier, higher-class areas want fewer lights while cities and denser areas see street lights as a basic building block of city services?