Retooling the Motor City: Can Detroit save itself?
A retooling plan for Detroit – involving controversial razing, shrinking, and repurposing – is under way as the Motor City tries to save itself.
Three years ago, the tow-truck driver purchased a vacant six-bedroom, 1928 mansion in the city's historical Boston-Edison neighborhood, where Henry Ford once lived. He bought it for less than $200,000, and for Mr. Hurling, life is good: Each of his six children has their own spacious bedroom, the grand staircase features custom-made woodwork illumined by a handcrafted chandelier, the third floor is an elaborate home theater, and the carriage house is now his immaculately detailed "man cave" that allows him to spend down time with his dog.
Raking leaves on his front lawn with his children, Hurling says his new neighborhood reminds him of the well-kept, close-knit Detroit neighborhood he grew up in, and which he says now has deteriorated so badly that "it looks like Beirut," pocked with empty lots and damaged by crime. Like-minded young parents who are rediscovering stately manors that need families to bring them back to life are slowly gentrifying his new neighborhood, where he feels he finally has a safe home for his children.
"I'll never move out of this city [because] there's still neighborhoods like this," he says.
To outsiders, Detroit remains the stereotype of urban America gone wrong. Over the past half century, an exodus of manufacturing jobs, racial unrest, institutionalized corruption, inadequate schools, and government teetering on bankruptcy have racked the city.
But today, the city is at a tipping point: The 2010 Census shows Detroit's population at 713,777, about a 25 percent drop over the past decade, and half what it was in the 1950s. The shrinking tax base looks ominous: A $200 million municipal budget deficit is projected to balloon to $1.2 billion by 2015 unless the city council agrees to deep job and service cuts.
"This is our moment," says Mayor Dave Bing, a onetime point guard for the Detroit Pistons who, before entering politics, built a successful steel company supplying the automotive industry. "We're not going to be at 2 million population again," he admits, noting that explosive growth in population is not so much his priority as is being "as good as what you can be with what you've got."
And what Detroit has, in spades, is land – and a vibrant core of residents, new as well as die-hards, who see opportunity in the ruins.
Large swaths of this city look like a ghost town. Blight, resulting from abandoned homes and shuttered factories, is everywhere. Dead zones detach rather than connect neighborhoods from each other, creating a patchwork that the city says makes it too expensive to service. So the mayor has an idea: Draw residents out of marginally populated areas through direct and indirect incentives into a close-knit population core. By razing and repurposing what is left behind, the city might reduce its geographic size and save money by not having to service such far-flung neighborhoods.
Such a grand scheme is controversial. But those looking on the bright side see possibilities. For starters, Detroit's population is not necessarily in a complete free fall. Downtown Detroit appears to be a growing magnet for the college-educated, under-35 set, which has grown noticeably in the past decade. And white flight seems to be on pause: While Detroit's white population dropped 44 percent overall in the past decade, according to the US Census Bureau, recent year-to-year population data show upticks. Detroit's white population increased 8 percent in 2008 and 13 percent in 2009, the first such increases in nearly six decades. And vibrant neighborhoods such as Hurling's are experiencing double-digit population growth.