It would be funny if it weren’t the greatest urban tragedy to befall America. Detroit — the urban basket case of America — has begun a project modestly described by the New York Times as A Picture of Detroit Ruin, Street by Forlorn Street, Feb. 18, 2014, at p. A1, above the fold yet, which is prime journalistic real estate. Click on http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/us/detroit-tries-to-get-a-clear-picture-of-its-blight.html?hp&_r=0
What it is, is an effort by 75 three-person teams, cruising the city of Detroit to ascertain which homes are still occupied, and photograph them. Why? So the powers that be in city hall can decide the extent of the mess they have on their hands, and determine which ones should be demolished and which saved. Saved for what? The Times article doesn’t really explain, but you can get an idea of the task at hand when you reflect on the fact that Detroit is broke and formally in bankruptcy, and that this effort to survey the extent of municipal blight has already cost $1.5 million raised by private entities. Which barely rises to the level of peanuts because, “some officials” have predicted that demolishing the buildings that must go, could cost as much as $1 billion. Remember, this is an estimate; these folks don’t know yet how many buildings would have be placed on such a demolition list. Lord have mercy! And we assume that being interested in this topic — why else would you be reading this stuff? — you already know that government cost estimates of municipal projects aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.
If we sound contemptuous of this effort, we are. Being an old geezer, who has spent a half century laboring in the eminent domain vineyards, an effort that has included lots of redevelopment cases, we have seen much stuff like that come and go, with little or nothing to show for it, particularly in the case of Detroit. What these bozos seem unable to grasp is that a city is not a collection of buildings, occupied or not. A city — a viable city — consists of people, not bricks and mortar. Specifically, middle-class people who have a stake in keeping their city (their habitat to use a bit of newspeak) healthy both economically and socially, with at least decent schools, and not just a source of government gimmes to their increasingly unproductive population. And in the case of Detroit, the productive, middle-class people have left. In the apt words of a fellow quoted by the Times, who wound up as the onliest one left on his entire block: “Everyone went bye-bye.” Bye-bye, indeed. When it was a real city, Detroit had a population of some 1.8 million; now it’s more like 700,000, and most of those are the poor, the unemployed, and those dependent on the government. So who is going to seize the municipal helm, demolish or rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of largely unoccupied parcels, fill them with civically competent, tax-paying people, and restore the city to its former glory — if that is what it was; a point as to which there is some dispute?
Mind you, this is not the first time that Detroit has made brave noises like that. Urban redevelopment in Detroit, and massive abuses of that process, go back about a half-century, but all these folks have to show for it is blight on a mind-boggling scale, massive abuse of eminent domain that victimized and dispersed the people who should have been enticed to stay put, and a bunch of redevelopment projects that didn’t redevelop the city, and even in the case of narrowly focused projects that used eminent domain to help specifically the likes of General Motors and Chrysler, could not keep them from going bankrupt.
So keep an eye on this mess. Remember that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and something positive may yet come from it. But we aren’t holding our breath, and we suggest you don’t either. And if you think us wrong, let’s see you sell whatever place you live in out here, and move to Detroit where real estate is real cheap; you can make a small fortune selling your California digs and buying a grand family home in Detroit free and clear.
So is there anything positive about Detroit? Yeah. A colleague of ours who lives out there (in a prosperous Detroit suburb, of course) informs us that Kowalski’s sausage is still available. Now there is something good you can sink your teeth into, even if that venerable establishment has gone out of the retail business. http://www.freep.com/article/20121113/BUSINESS06/121113069/kowalski-delis-closing