Must Detroit Shrink to Survive?

August 16, 2016

When the city of Detroit emerged from the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy almost two years ago it was left with a razor-thin financial cushion.

Now Detroit’s downtown is booming with new investments.

But much of its outer-lying neighborhoods remain abandoned.

And Detroit officials are weighing precisely where to concentrate the city’s scant resources.

Detroit is huge – 139 square miles.

At its height in the 1950’s the Motor City had almost 2 million residents.

Now, after decades of lost manufacturing jobs and at times outright public corruption, Detroit has a population of less than 700,000.

Hope Amid Desolation

One of the most desolate, and dangerous, neighborhoods is called Brightmoor.

Yet on the front porch of a modest single family home Dawn Wilson-Clark sits in a pocket of hope, one of hundreds of homes built about a decade and a half ago to push back against the overwhelming blight.

And actually my ex-husband was not happy about this location,” Wilson-Clark said. “I told him don’t worry about it, they’re gonna tear that house down, they’re gonna tear these houses down, and in ten years the neighborhood is gonna be different and we’re gonna be a part of that. He didn’t agree. And I’m still here with a wonderful new husband, ha, who is helping me be a part of the change.”

Wilson-Clark says she has to drive her children miles away from Brightmoor so they can attend decent schools.

But she also says her kids have had positive entrepreneurial and artistic experiences in Brighmoor she doubts would happen anywhere else in the city.

She wonders if Detroit officials will consider that when they determine how much service to provide to the mostly-decayed area.

Wilson-Clark said, “I just hope residents are at the table when those decisions are being made. We have endured the blight, the turmoil, the gun shots, the crime. But we’ve stayed in our communities because we wanted to be there. We need to have a voice.”

Different Futures

City officials say that message has been received. Or so says Detroit’s chief city planner, Maurice Cox.

All these neighborhoods have a future. They don’t all have the same future,” Cox said.

He came to Detroit after helping guide the rebuilding of flood-ravaged New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

But Cox says in many ways the situation in Detroit is worse.

One of the challenges that Detroit has is because it’s so large, whenever you invest in the public realm you can barely see it because often it’s spread so thinly. And where investors see the public resources, they tend to gravitate,” Cox said.

Yet Cox says the mostly-vacant outskirts offer a unique opportunity.

We can go in and green 20 acres,” Cox said. “Like how many neighborhoods in America can you go in and do that? And then actually employ people from that neighborhood as a part of the green collar workforce. And then on the flip side we have probably the largest inventory of historic structures that are available for reuse in the country.”

Cox vows that Detroit will continue providing water, electricity and police protection to all neighborhoods, even those that are desolate.

But he predicts that will become increasingly unnecessary as rebuilding continues in Detroit communities that are beginning to thrive.

Cox said, “So if you have a chance to live in a neighborhood where you can walk within 20 minutes of your house to grocery, fresh produce, greenways, quality schools. Or you can live in an area where you don’t have many neighbors anymore, the services are inadequate. Where would people rather live?”

Weighing Options

It’s a question other groups are pondering as well.

At a kind of think-tank called Detroit Future City, Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster points to a map of projects she says are flourishing in impoverished neighborhoods that are proving unexpectedly resilient.

Must Detroit Shrink to Survive?
Quinn Klinefelter. August 15, 2016, WDET