Plow Under Detroit? – Part Deux


         We are beginning to wonder if we may have been just a tad hasty when we made fun of the notion of abandoning Detroit and letting it revert to woods and meadows. See Plow Under Detroit? June 6, 2009. Go to

          Today’s Wall Street Journal  carries an article informing us that the businesses that had been hanging in there in Detroit are now heading out en masse leaving Detroit without significan retail stores sufficient to meet the needs of the remaining population. See  Andrew Grossman, Retailers Head for Exits in Detroit, Wall St. Jour., June 16, 2009, at p. A3. The people interviewed for this article tend to blame Detroit’s plight on the collapse of the car industry, but we don’t think that comes close to telling the whole story. The decline of Detroit got going in the 1960s (after the riots) when the car business was still riding high  and GM was the largest company in the world. It has been downhill from there all along.

         The decline of Detroit began and has always been stimulated by government policies that for all practical purposes bribed city dwellers with subsidies of all sorts to move out to the suburbs, where housing costs were lower and the quality of life generally higher, and where life was simply nicer (especially for kids) than in cities with their rising crime rates, declining law enforcement, traffic congestion, and their catastrophic decline in the quality and safety of urban schools. To say nothing of urban redevelopment that was destroying low and moderate cost city dwellings and displacing their erstwhile inhabitants in large numbers. Detroit wasn’t alone. The same thing was happening in many Eastern cities, notably Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, Bridgeport, Camden, Newark, etc., etc. Yet, none of these cities were relying on the car industry to sustain them.

         Since this blog is about eminent domain, we must note that symbolically,  Detroit was an early aggressive user of urban redevelopment that promised a revival of cities by taking “blighted” properties by eminent domain and turning them over to redevelopers who, it was said, would build new stuff and thereby revive the city. It didn’t happen. As we now know, it accomplished nothing of the sort. It only produced the notorious Cadillac plant in the Poletown case and a downtown cluster of high rise buildings occupied by day by commuting suburbanites who wouldn’t be caught dead living in the city, and  who at the end of the day go home to the suburbs where they live, shop and pay taxes.

          Detroit’s pursuit of redevelopment was abusive at times. See Foster v. City of Detroit, 254 F.Supp. 655 (E.D.Mich. 1966), affirmed, 405 F.2d 138 (6th Cir. 1968), but Detroit kept on trying, thus bringing to mind Einstein’s definition of insanity as a person’s repetition of the same act over and over again, expecting a different result each time. Thus, Detroit kept on trying to use mass condemnation and urban redevelopment in a forlorn effort to reverse the irreversible post-World War II mega-trends. It didn’t succeed because it couldn’t. Its effort was not unlike King Canute’s command to the tides to cease advancing on the beach.

        We doubt that all this talk about abandoning Detroit to its fate will go anywhere in the foreseeable future, at least not in our lifetime. But that it is being discussed seriously is a sad fact that puts into sharp focus the ineffectiveness of urban renewal as practiced in the United States for the past half century. Will it cause the powers that be to change their behavior? You tell us.

Update. As a follow-up to the above post, we recommend thay you read Gregory Rodriguez, Bulldozing Our Cities May Wreck Our Future, L.A. Times, June 22, 2009, at p. A19. Rodriguez argues that however appealing this back-to-nature movement may be, it has menacing long-term implications because studies indicate that it is the close proximity of large numbers of people (as in cities) that tends to foster human creativity. In other words, population density creates or at least promotes the flow of ideas that generate innovation and growth.

That sounds reasonable to us. You don’t see much creative progress in science and technology coming from bucolic areas, no matter how pretty they may be. It comes from cities.