How To Save Detroit?

I have a love/hate relationship with Detroit. I grew up 9 miles from the city, lived there (on Cass Avenue for those who know) for one year when I was 19, and went to Wayne State University near downtown Detroit for 4 years. I haven’t lived in Michigan for 9 years for a reason though.

Before we get to that, here are things I love about Detroit:

  • It’s scary, more so in the days I lived there and prior, and there’s always a sense of pride when somebody finds out where you’re from. “You lived in Detroit?! WTF” (Current statistic: The average Police response time in Detroit is 39.81 minutes. In other words, sorry, you’re dead.) But this a dumb reason. I hate Detroit for this more than I love it. It’s always listed as the #1 or #2 most dangerous city in the US. Know anybody who has been a victim of a criminal act in Detroit? I know a few. Everybody there does.
  • For a music fan it doesn’t get much better than Detroit. Besides the rich music history – Motown specifically – every band, large and small, tours Detroit. Often. I loved that in high school, and took it for granted if I’m being honest.

And some things other people love about Detroit:

  • For a sports fan (I am not) they have nice new stadiums for American football and baseball. And the hockey team is an institution. (NBA basketball is about 30 miles outside of the city.)
  • If you gamble there’s a few casinos that will gladly take your money.
  • There are a few places like Eastern Market and Slo’s BBQ that are popular with people from the suburbs to visit for a few hours on the weekend.

Detroit is the kind of city that a lot of people defend. A city that a lot of people take pride in. A city a lot of people think isn’t bad.

I know a lot of people like this. Not a single one of them lives within the city limits of Detroit. That will tell you everything.

People don’t want to live there because it’s not a good place to live.

  1. When I lived there I did my grocery shopping 15 miles away (outside of the city) because the grocery stores there were lacking or simply non-existent.
  2. Most neighborhoods don’t have well-maintained parks for children to play in.

Those two reasons are enough to drive nearly ONE MILLION people away in the past 60 years. Add in lack of good jobs in the city and there really isn’t much it has going for it. (And if you go work in city limits the extra income tax sure isn’t fun. I paid it for the year I lived/worked there.)

But enough with all of that!

Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing ($19 Billion in debt, oops) had me thinking, “What can be done now to turn Detroit around?

It’s not going to happen with the government so much as with the people. Of course, if the corruption in Detroit city government doesn’t end then there is no point and no hope. For the sake of this thought exercise, I’ll assume governmental issues are in the past.

So, the people. Specifically, entrepreneurs. It has been happening on a small level with former outsiders opening businesses in the Cork Town neighborhood. (There’s even a hostel!)

I think it needs to happen on a larger scale. I would like to say, “the city government needs to make it more accessible to entrepreneurs,” but that’s likely not happening any time soon.

So it got me thinking that it needs to happen on a large scale, one neighborhood at a time, via entrepreneurs who are already very wealthy. Housing is cheap in the city. Would it be possible to buy a city block and take the Kansas City model or something along those lines?

Or …

Buy city blocks and offer the homes for rent for nearly free (cost of property taxes?) if the new owners fix them up within X amount of time? Or maybe to qualify for one of these homes you have to help renovate a home first? Kind of a for-profit Habitat For Humanity. Then open a grocery store (with fresh fruits/veggies) for the new residents. And make the rent very little after X amount of time is up. $300/month?

I don’t know. I’m spewing thoughts.

I don’t have the answers. Just these ideas and a bunch more.

I’m not confident Detroit will ever turn around. But if it is to turn around it will be because of some long-term thinking entrepreneurs.

Somebody is going to make a few hundred million dollars in the next 10 years in Detroit or maybe the city will fall further into despair. From the outside looking in I hope it’s the former.

{ 9 comments… add yours }

Felix

Karol,
Here is an article on the decline of Detroit from a point of view existing outside the US media. I hope you find it interesting, I know I did.

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Karol

Oh goodness there isn’t much I like less than the delusion of conspiracy theories.

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Witold

The world is a fluid place. Sometimes there are structural changes in how people live (movement to and away from cities, suburbs, exurbs). Other times, it’s an economic shift. There are a thousand small Detroits in the Northeast that have been on a similar steady decline after mining, textile, and manufacturing stopped or moved abroad. Very few places have managed to reinvent themselves into something new and better.

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Karol

Good points. That said, I think Detroit is an important city, historically if nothing else. It’s worth trying to save it … until it’s not.

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Tom Boyden

Hey Karol,

Your site is quite cool, happened upon it from Niall Doherty’s.

I’m very optimistic about Detroit. The opportunities for young people in the arts, urban farming, and other start-up possibilities are seemingly endless.

Corporate influence could take over and turn Detroit into another “Majestic Motor City,” but I think the real driver should be the communities and people of Detroit.

Detroit could turn into the next garden city, maybe a blueprint for future green cities that have their infrastructure completely upended. We’ll see.

Take care,
Tom

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Karol

Opportunities everywhere are endless. But Detroit hasn’t been very receptive of ideas and opportunities. Would be great to see it turn around though.

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MIKE

Karol, have you read LeDuff’s Detroit book? Lots of stories about the things you’re talking about, some of them that sound too crazy to be true.

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Karol

No, haven’t read it yet.

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Neil

Karol, once again I would like to express appreciation for your site.

Tom, right there with you man. I just finished responding to http://karol.gajda.com/free-ideas/buildings/#comment-12658
and expressed similar ideas.

I only know of Detroit as a child 35 years ago, looking across the border. It was depressing and scary to be honest. I can’t imagine it has improved. I also understand that it is partially the result of an industry moving out of town, I’m guessing for cheaper labour. Communities need to end their dependence on organizations that have no interest in their well being. Small local industry and commercial operations that support and are supported by the community are what can pull Detroit out of it’s slump. Declaring bankruptcy was a logical choice (assuming there are not ramifications that I am not aware of). The government may have corruption (as all power leads to) but they are also in the position of not having a good tax base (ie. you can’t blood from a stone). The parks and infrastructure are government responsibilities and if average income grows and people vote for the right folks then these should be taken care of. What Detroit needs is an export. Music sounds like a good one, adversity seems to feed the artistic soul. An industry of digital recording studios exporting music to the world via the internet using pay per song models could possibly thrive. A labour pool is something that all economically depressed places also possess. Manufacturing or converting cars to electric or hybrids could be another addition to the economy, I’m guessing a used automotive manufacturing plant in Detroit is rather cheap to purchase.

One thing I have to respond to is this:
“via entrepreneurs who are already very wealthy”
- Only successful entrepreneurs are wealthy. A lot of them go into debt to start their business and then fail because they didn’t research the market enough, saw a bunch of money in their account and spent it hastily, or were squashed or eaten by a bigger fish. For this reason I believe that the next evolution of Detroit will need to be one focusing on efficiency, long-term thinking, holistic thinking, and a vested interest by participants (co-operative business models, I have worked for free before and would do it again if I believed the idea would pay off). Other cities around the world could benefit if their local governments promoted these ideas. I think “sustainable” should be the new buzz word. Growth is only good when you have somewhere to grow to and unfettered growth is inherently unsustainable.

With respect to the violence and crime: I present you with the reality that Detroit is a city of ‘have-nots’ in a country of ‘haves’. At the very least this is the reality that they see, In fact they are far from alone. There is real scientific evidence that inequity leads to violence. If you doubt me there is a really good monkey video on youtube and a statistical study that I learned about at 3:00 am on PBS (the only place you’d see this stuff other than the internet) that illustrate this point. With prosperity tempered with fairness the crime and the violence should decrease in Detroit all on it’s own.

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