Requiem for Detroit

For us to repeat our earlier observations on Detroit would be like beating a very dead horse with a very long stick. Suffice it to recall that Detroit was one of the early practitioners of urban redevelopment, and not coincidentally a practitioner of its worst excesses (notably the Poletown and Vavro v. Detroit cases in which private property was taken by eminent domain for the benefit of General Motors and Chrysler respectively, both of which went bankrupt anyway, after consuming fortunes in public funds.) Detroit was also the site of some of the worst abuses of owners of land in the areas targeted for redevelopment — like the Foster case, to take an obvious example.

While all that went on, the city’s inhabitants were continuously leaving it, leaving behind vacant, uninhabited stretches of what was once one of the premier American industrial cities. Now, it’s an abandoned wasteland. The front page of today’s New York Times brings more bad news. See Katharine Q. Selye, Detroit Census Figures Confirm A Grim Desertion Like No Other, N.Y. Times, March 23, 2011, at p. A1. What it tells us is that during the past decade Detroit lost some 237,500 people, bringing its population down to 713,777. In the early 1950s it was two million.

 “[A] major factor has been the exodus of black residents to the suburbs, which followed the white flight that started in the 1960s. Detroit lost 185,393 black residents in the last decade.”

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“With more than 20 percent of the lots in the 136-square-mile city vacant, the mayor is in the midst of a program to demolish 10,000 empty residential buildings.”

For the whole Times story go to

It might be interesting to go back and check out the public pronouncements made after each Detroit redevelopment program was set into motion, and see the optimistic projections of a glorious future — which is par for the course when redevelopment is started. But is isn’t happening and we predict that it won’t happen. Nor, it seems a sure bet, will anyone stand up in public and admit: “We were wrong. Urban redevelopment doesn’t work; it does not revitalize cities even when it does succeed on a limited scale.”  But it sure does consume public funds that might have been better spent on other things. It might also be an interesting exercise to add up what was spent on Detroit redevelopment over the years. But don’t hold your breath waiting to see that done.

To invoke a trite oldie: will the last person leaving Detroit, please turn off the lights?


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