“it shall raze again from the ashes”

I thought my fellow Ghost Islanders might be interested in this article in the New York Times about proposals to raze some of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods in an effort to move towards a more viable urban structure than the one that currently exists.  I think that for someone who is unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with this debate in Detroit, the article does a good job at sketching out the various rifts and factions at play: urban planners, wary citizens, wary and angry younger activists, and of course a criminally corrupt (literally) political machine standing like a cement wall in between the way things are now and any actual progress.  I should note here that David Bing, Detroit’s current mayor, seems to have some distance from the real undercurrent of corruption that plagues the city council, aldermen, and various other appointed offices, and the NYTimes doesn’t really do him any favors by pointing out that he refused to comment on a incredibly complex and possibly damaging issue.

I have to say that the urban homesteading and return to wilderness approach sounds really tempting but it’s also really utopian and a little pie-eyed and would need some serious federal intervention to work properly.  Right now, anything that the city touches just hemorrhages money and gets so woefully mismanaged that it not only fails to solve the original problem but usually generates new problems as well.  This is less true now than it was in the 80s and 90s, when some truly forehead-slappingly bad ideas were implemented (see: the People Mover) but giving the city domain over any sort of project like the ones mentioned in the article is dangerous.  Also, the demolitions in general are pretty controversial because some really beautiful and historically important buildings are getting caught up in the wave and are getting torn down with little or no input from residents.

The idea of large-scale demolition underlines one of the biggest problems Detroit faces as it makes this bold next move, however (and it is preparing to make a move, for sure).  A lot of the buildings that people want to save have long ago become irrevocably damaged by water and mold and corrosion, and would survive only as facades if they were ever to be re-occupied at tremendous cost.  This idea that it is a giant expanse of buildings ready to be squatted in and commandeered is only partially true, and becomes more false each year that passes as more and more buildings fall into terminal neglect.  Many of the lots could very likely contain measurable levels of lead and heavy metals that would render yields from urban farms harmful (although this could be worked around).  There isn’t some sort of quick, amazing solution, and the idea of little burghs interconnected by greenways is much more likely to occur by passive forces than active ones.  And, obviously, the idea of razing neighborhoods and moving people to new areas is logistically problematic and doesn’t really have too good of a track record.

But, there is an element of it that is tantalizing, and on a good day Detroit has to be one of the most fascinating places in this country even now, before these grand plans begin.  I think that most likely things will proceed haphazardly and sort of meander their way along. The idea of riding a bike from a cluster of gothic skyscrapers through a pheasant-filled forest to an old late-Victorian neighborhood to catch a show or something is pretty amazing, but I think the reality is going to be a little less arcadian and a little more “Escape from LA”.  There is always the chance that the federal/philanthropic combo will come through with a major works project to get something like the ideas discussed in the article moving but that also seems unlikely, especially for the immediate future.


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June 2010
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