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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Detroit retooled
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Much of the progress is homemade, by residents themselves who are actively taking part in improving their neighborhoods.
"You can see the chipping away at the negative mind-set that existed," says Geoff Gowman, who, as a Detroit native, has the long view of the city's trajectory. He has spent the past 30 years protecting – and renovating – a faded Art Deco movie theater as a focal point for his East Side neighborhood and credits the new mayor's "class and integrity" for creating "a whole different ballgame" in Detroit.
NEW VISION, OLD BATTLES
But the political cost of reimagining Detroit is significant, especially with the city already on the brink of bankruptcy and no clear solution agreed upon.
What to cut and for how much has Mr. Bing at odds with the city council as well as Detroit's entrenched labor unions – and there's no end to the finger-pointing about who's to blame for the city's financial turmoil and who bears the most responsibility for making things right.
Some see Detroit's failures as the nation's burden, considering how much the city's automotive past helped generate prosperity elsewhere. In April, City Councilwoman JoAnne Watson called for a $1 billion federal bailout, saying Detroit was "worth at least as much as General Motors or Chrysler or the Wall Street bankers."
Bing wants the city's 48 unions to concede to job and benefit cuts, threatening that if the city does not gain control of its finances it may lose the right to determine them. Michigan's governor has the power to dispatch an emergency financial manager who is enabled to hire and fire employees, void union contracts, and make changes without the approval of the mayor or city council. There are vivid precedents: former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) appointed a manager to take over the towns of Pontiac, Ecorse, and Benton Harbor. The current Republican governor, Rick Snyder, did the same for Detroit's public school system this year. [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected to credit Governor Granholm with the town manager appointments.]