Detroit’s Denouement?

By Christina Birchfield | 10/17/2013

For half a century Detroit has declined. Now bankrupt, is the city’s fate an end, an evolution, a new green locavore resurgence ?


Founded July 24, 1701, by the French, Detroit is large— 139 square miles—and the largest city in Michigan. However, there are 80,000 abandoned buildings, and the city has lost two-thirds of its population during the past 60 years.

The 60 Minutes feature, “Detroit on the Edge,” detailed much of the bad and a bit of good. Detroit native Dan Gilbert’s personal quest is to revitalize the city’s core. Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, has saved and revived buildings and is the city’s second largest private land and property owner. The largest public property owner is Detroit itself because so many homes have been foreclosed and abandoned. Ten thousand Quicken loan employees work in the city and have been encouraged to live there.

On the other end of the spectrum, private citizens, companies, and the city are tearing down abandoned buildings. The local urban farm movement is replacing blight with produce.

The feature segment raised as many questions as it answered. Can one man and his company really save a city? Is a tiny node of success in a sea of blight safe? What are the challenges of farming near an urban center (i.e., hidden infrastructure, such as gas and power lines, and contamination concerns)? Is construction debris being recycled or clogging landfills?

And it was hard to ignore the refrain, every young person learns in school. “… the greatest city, the greatest nation where the strong men listened and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.” Who can forget Robert Frost’s famous poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind with its enigmatic refrain? As Frost so well knew, it is hubris to think that what is always will be.

Even the venerable Pulte Homes, founded in Detroit, is moving its headquarters to Atlanta, though the move will not be complete until next year.

In 1950, when Bill Pulte founded his home building company, Detroit’s population was at its zenith of more than 1.8 million people. At the last Census, Detroit’s population was down to 713,777. Experts predict population decline until 2040.

Though Pulte company headquarters is moving, the October 28th issue of Forbes includes an article about how Pulte is also key among the groups demolishing blighted Detroit homes through a nonprofit called the Detroit Blight Authority. The blighted Brightmore neighborhood is disappearing thanks to Bill Pulte, grandson and namesake of the company founder. The Authority raised roughly $750,000 including $100,000 from the Pulte family.

In its first project, the Authority cleared 10 blocks in only 10 days for $200,000. Demolition includes not only tearing down buildings and hauling away debris but also clearing out brush and trash and regrading properties. Critics argue that if Detroit had less cumbersome and less costly demolition permitting processes that demolition would be cheaper and faster than Pulte’s current estimate of $5,000 per home. Pulte hopes that U.S. Treasury-approved TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds of $100 million for blight removal will continue the process at a faster pace.

Farms are replacing what had been neighborhoods, “Detroit has really become the center of the urban agriculture movement,” says Rebecca Salimen Witt, who runs the nonprofit Greening of Detroit. Featured on MSNBC, Witt says there are 1,500 to 2,000 agricultural facilities ranging from postage-stamp-sized gardens to full-scale-urban farms. There is even a company, Hantz Farms, planting harvestable urban forests.

Will these efforts create a different kind of green Detroit? The globe is rife with abandoned cities—some awaiting discovery hidden by the sands of time, others intensely studied by archaeologists and anthropologists. Mysterious is why and how cities disappear—a question asked, observed, explored but not necessarily answered by poets, authors and cinematographers. The half-century-long Detroit decline certainly provides hints.

One clear thing is that there is a patterned look to urbanization. According to a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archeology, the spatial division of cities into districts or neighborhoods is one of the few universals of urban life from the earliest cities to the present. Even the most ancient discovered residential ruins, such as Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan, show the classic grid patterns of urban planning. Mohenjo-daro dates to the 26th century BCE, making it nearly 5,000 years old, but a modern human transported back in time would recognize the homes, the streets, and the living patterns.

Despite Detroit’s bankruptcy, Gilbert’s efforts in Midtown Detroit are a success. Residential occupancy in his Detroit is 96 percent. Residents are young professionals, typically aged 25-34, 45 percent with bachelor’s degrees and 34 percent with master’s or professional degrees.

Gilbert, according to the Detroit Free Press, tweeted moments after the Detroit 60 Minutes segment aired,“Expected more of @60minutes. Is a ‘me too’ story of mostly ‘ruin porn’ news? A city’s soul that will not die was the story & they missed it.” Maybe so. Light rail, the M-1 Rail Line is in development. In June, Whole Foods Market opened its first Detroit store that in its first eight weeks of operation wildly exceeded expectations.

Check out this link to an Interactive Map showing Detroit and its demolition map.



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