Thursday, December 11, 2008

Requiem for Detroit

abandoned detroit 1

The arcade of the abandoned Central Michigan Depot, with a view of the ticket counters in the background

I hate to continue on the sad notes today, but I had to discuss this article in Bloomberg News about the city of Detroit and its continuing decay. The city is back in the public eye with the auto industry bailout talks and it isn't a pretty sight. Jobs, people and hope are disappearing and it's having a staggering toll on the urban landscape there.

Of course, this isn't a new story, as Detroit has always been held up as the horror story for older American cities. Growing up in Philly, Detroit was the warning word that we were on our way into oblivion. However, the article makes me think that this period might be much worse that anything that came before. The auto industry may go bankrupt, the unemployment rate is at 10.1% already and rising, and the city leads the nation in foreclosure and poverty rates. There's already enough abandoned lots throughout the city to fill the city of San Francisco and the worst is yet to come. I mean, whoa. That's about as bad as it can get; the city's gonna become the ultimate urban nightmare scenario - shrinking, older, poorer, without enough tax receipts to provide the services for the population.

There's obviously a lot of implications for designers, as the city is going to need to be completely rethought and redesigned for the future. It's nice (and shocking) to hear people talking about making the city less-auto dependent. The urban farm idea also has potential, as both a means to beautify and provide food for local residents in the short term. Whenever things are this bad, there's an openness to experiment, which should allow for a greater emphasis on issues of affordability, different forms of transportation, more public space, more green space, etc. However, in Philly, there was a similar policy to acquire large parcels around the city to entice developers (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative). Most of the time developers had no interest in taking a gamble in these neighborhoods; when they did, they built hideous surburban-style developments (see the Westrum development on Girard Ave in Brewerytown) It's going to take a much more concerted effort by all of the local stakeholders to come together and map out a city-wide future.

I want to believe that it all comes down in the long run is people. How many are willing to stay and fight for the city they love? I imagine that if you went back in time and read the newspapers in NYC during the 70s or Philly during the 80s, there would have been a similar sense of doom. But, both of those cities survived because enough people came together and fought, forming neighborhood groups, homesteads, squats, whatever it took to stabilize their neighborhood.

But, I'm not sure that will be enough with the forces at work in this case, with the trouble of the auto industry, the national economy and the failure of corrupt local leadership. Detroit has been struggling before this and decades of down times are hard to overcome. And that's the only certainty in all of this; the plight of Detroit is a tragedy and a sad indictment of America's view of its cities. We are willing to watch a great ones struggle and fall to its knees, the city that gave us the automobile, Motown and Joe Louis. For that, we should be ashamed.

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