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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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Besides committing to demolishing more than 10,000 blighted homes through 2013, the Detroit Works Project is tasked with prioritizing city services according to the population of the area, proposing new uses for dead zones, such as creating urban forests or farms, and completing a light rail project that will connect neighborhoods.

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The final plan is not expected until 2012, after being pushed back several times this year. And the delay in direction has allowed public misperception and suspicion to incubate.

Some longtime residents like Carl Allison, a former corporate fundraiser who now operates his own handcrafted candle company, are nervous about the possibility that residents may be pressured to relocate to shore up city resources. "To me, it almost seems like we're giving up. I would like to take creative minds and build the city back up rather than shrink it. It seems like it's the wrong message," Mr. Allison says.

Unions are especially upset, saying that the city should be seeking federal aid to invest in depressed areas of the city instead of encouraging a cutback in services, which would mean job and benefit losses.

Mr. Mulholland of AFSCME Local 207, which represents about 900 city workers in Detroit, calls the Detroit Works Project proposals "nonsensical" and "racist" because he says the majority of people who would be invited to move are black. "The problem is [the city doesn't] fear us anymore and they can do anything they want," he says.

Even with the backlash, starting the conversation on what to do with Detroit's landmass is worth the risk, says Paul Fontaine, an instructor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in nearby Ann Arbor. Because Detroit lost so many people during the past decade, it has no other choice but to experiment, he says: "I can't think of any city in North America that lost more than 200,000 people in one decade. I think that statistic alone places Detroit in its own category of challenges [and] makes the scope of the Detroit Works Project so large and so important because so many eyes are on it."


Detroit pride is palpable here and for good reason: Entrepreneurial innovation is Detroit's true legacy. From these streets came the workers who were the underpinnings of the US as an economic and military superpower – turning out not just automobiles but World War II bombers. And they also brought entirely new trends to world culture: Think Berry Gordy, who invented the massive studio sound of Motown right in his living room, and rapper Eminem and guitarist Jack White.

"You really have the freedom to do what you want here. If you want to change something about the city, you can," says Stephen Nawara, a musician and founder of Beehive Recording Co., an independent record label that specializes in developing local talent online.


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