Plowing Under Detroit – It’s Official


There is a big story in today’s New York Times, Susan Saulny, June 21, 2010, at p. A16, with the catchy title Razing the City To Save the City, reporting the latest on the movement to bulldoze much of what is left of Detroit, relocate the displaced population to the denser parts of the city, and to put the vacant land to other uses. Kinda reminds us of the famous but false Vietnam-era line that “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” For the whole Times story go to

What has brought Detroit’s plight to the fore again is the realization that the about-to-be-published 2010 census data will indicate that Detroit’s population that stood at almost 2 million in 1950, and went down to 951,000 in 2000, has gone down again – this time to 790,000.

This bit of news is no surprise. Even disregarding our own blogs on this subject – such as and the requiem for Detroit was sounded loud and clear by TIME magazine last October, in a cover story entitled The Tragedy of Detroit: How a Great City fell—and How It Can Rise Again, Oct. 5, 2009, at p. 26. Of course, in listing the causes of this calamity it evidently did not occur to the TIME folks to consider urban redevelopment that devastated the city and displaced much of its population.

So the solutions – if that is what they are – that are now coming from all sorts of creative do-gooders, center on the idea that what’s left of the city be selectively bulldozed so as to displace and relocate the remaining, scattered population into the city’s more densely populated areas, and to use the vacant land for truck farming that would supply wholesome veggies to the city’s remaining inhabitants. Of course, so far, none of these proposals have come with a price tag, so in terms of their practicality, they may only be somebody’s pipe dreams. Also, no one seems to be confronting the problem of how to get the population living in the to-be-razed areas into the new densified neighborhoods. After all, this is America, and while these days the government can use the power of eminent domain to take anybody’s home for any purpose, the government can’t force anyone to move to a specific area. So chances are that if this proposal is implemented, many of the displaced city dwellers will take their just compensation and their Relocation Assistance Act benefits and head out, out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs that have been doing all right, or perhaps even altogether out of state which is having economic problems of its own.

What is significant to us is that Detroit pioneered the use of modern urban redevelopment that bulldozed lower priced housing, promising a better urban future, but has not delivered on that promise. Symbolically, General Motors that was the beneficiary of one of the most outrageous mass takings in American history – the Poletown case that uprooted an entire community to provide GM with a site for a new Cadillac plant — has gone bankrupt in spite of the city’s largesse.

So do you think that those who gave us this large-scale urban disaster will now fess up that they screwed up? Or at least that the urban redevelopment model with its mass eminent domain takings, followed by reconveyance of the taken land to favored redevelopers, has been a huge mistake? No? Join the club – neither do we.