How to prevent an urban renaissance

Detroit was once one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Architecturally, much of that beauty still remains.

Here are a few pictures I took in Detroit last weekend of some beautiful boarded up buildings:




They're palaces, really. And like many a palace in history, they've fallen into serious decay.

For decades, there's been a lot of talk about a "Detroit Renaissance" of a sort similar to that which has gone on in other cities, but for a lot of reasons (including continued deterioration of the local economy aggravated by horrendous mismanagement) Detroit's Great Reawakening has just not happened. But at least the theoretical goal of a Detroit Renaissance was never abandoned.

Never, that is, until the recent appearance new movement which seems deliberately calculated to end all talk of urban renaissance -- in Detroit and in many other cities. I refer to the insidious (almost Ceausescuesque) proposals being seriously considered by the Obama adminstration -- to simply raze huge urban areas. Not preserve, not repair, not rebuild, but destroy. But instead of saying they're going to "destroy the city in order to save it," they're calling the idea a radical experiment:

The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint.

Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the "rust belt" of America's Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink - we're all shrinking - but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."

Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective programme at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was "both a cultural and political taboo" about admitting decline in America.

"Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They're at the point where it's better to start knocking a lot of buildings down," she said.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000.

As to the "cultural and political taboo about admitting decline in America," I don't think it's a taboo for these people at all. They don't merely admit decline; they wholeheartedly court and embrace decline. Making things fail has always been part and parcel of their program, and now what they want to do is up the ante by making recovery and success impossible. America in decline is now official policy. The vast wastelands which will be created will no doubt be zoned to remain that way.

The question of how to create an urban renaissance in places like Detroit has become how to prevent an urban renaissance.

Easy. Ceausescu led the way. Just tear down the past. That way, bourgeois sentimentality can never show its ugly head again.

Anyone remember the so-called "anti-sprawl" movement? In a wholesale reversal of that, the idea will now be to move people from the cities and further out into the suburbs:

The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee.
Right. And the people living in the "more affluent areas" won't be forced to move further out. But move they will. The old idea of encouraging people to move back into cities has fallen prey to the government wrecking ball.

But not to worry. They're calling it a back to nature movement:

"Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow," he said.
Forests and meadows? Or simply vast areas of trashed no-man's lands consisting of trash, junk, weeds and weed trees, surrounded by disconnected pockets of former cities?

The story about the new demolition campaign was linked by Ann Althouse, who as Glenn Reynolds observes, asks some tough questions:

You can't just return to nature by removing the streets and buildings. What will these non-urban buffer zones really look like? Even if it is something like a forest -- made of very fast-growing trees? -- or meadow, what sort what sorts of animals -- rodent and human -- will run wild there?
I don't know, but it's a lot harder to defend homes and business when the attackers can congregate and hide in places without roads or lighting, or police. (As it is, police in Detroit don't respond to calls -- something the deliberate creation of no-man's-lands would most likely institutionalize.)

Personally, I'm fascinated by ruins, and I am not alone. The classic ruins of Detroit ruins are becoming attractive destination spots, and they are attracting more and more tourists, as well as creative people with ideas.

Might certain government types find this offensive? I can't help but wonder whether part of the goal of the new anti-renaissance movement might be to prevent what's been happening in Detroit -- people like artists buying cheap houses, then moving in and fixing them up:

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn't the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city's voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Like them or not, existing buildings and even ruins have potential. I think there are people who would like to nip such private initiative in the bud, lest it lead to an urban renaissance.

Besides, how much in property taxes can the government get from people who paid $1900 for a house? The only kind of development government favors is the kind that generates money for the government, so from a revenue standpoint, independent ownership of inexpensive housing is a nightmare. Tearing down the neighborhoods and taking the land off the map relieves the government of having to provide city services on the one hand, while allowing the later possibility of government development schemes whenever they feel like it. (Another horror for which Kelo greased the skids....)

I better stop thinking about all the awful possibilities lest I give the radical experimenters more ideas...

posted by Eric on 06.14.09 at 12:16 PM


Reminds me of boarded-up mansions in Newark, NJ, on the Orange border. Abandoned mini-palaces amid 3rd world squalor.

dries   ·  June 14, 2009 7:56 PM

I live in an area of Indianapolis that is full of hundred year-old homes. This area and the ones nearby are ones that would have been demolished if not for the dedication and effort of a few early pioneers. If it had been torn down, it would have been filled with squatters and tent cities in months, if not weeks. Without any services, it would be indeed have returned to a state of nature - life within would be nasty, brutish and short.

the gripping hand   ·  June 14, 2009 9:01 PM

"how much in property taxes can the government get from people who paid $1900 for a house?"

They'll tax it at whatever value they decide it's worth, not what was paid for it. If they new caretakers can't pay the taxes, the city just takes it.

Notice I used the word "caretakers" on purpose. Nobody "owns" their house or property, they just maintain it for the government. Fail to keep up with your taxes and you'll soon find out who the real owners are.

Robert   ·  June 14, 2009 10:17 PM

I was in Detroit recently on business and the empty buildings were amazing. Though I had limited time, I spent a portion of it taking pictures I still have to upload.

This entire notion infuriates me. I keep yelling "You don't pull a country out of a recession by destroying value!" (And the kids say "we know, mom.")

The neighborhood in which we live -- upscale, urban and expensive -- was a disaster area in the seventies. Our house had withstood three waves of renovation and we just started the fourth, to finish correcting problems from when it was a flophouse. HOWEVER it's a lovely home and I love the area. If this program had existed in the late seventies early eighties, given how blighted this city was then, I GARANTEE the house and the neighborhood wouldn't exist.

THEY'RE IDIOTS. You don't create value by destroying things! Argh. Grrrr.

Portia   ·  June 14, 2009 11:08 PM

"They're trying to reinflate the bubble," and they've found a way to do it that's ants-under-a-magnifying-glass fun.

We're governed by savage children. But so is everybody. Who else would do it?

guy on internet   ·  June 15, 2009 9:41 AM

This isn't a new idea. It's an old "eco-friendly" one. It has to do with relocating everyone to an urban area, and letting "nature" take over where those silly humans used to choose to live.

MaryAnn   ·  June 15, 2009 10:25 AM

Just to play devil's advocate for a minute, I do see a place for selective demolition of old, run-down buildings that can't be easily repaired. Those houses you pictured are probably not candidates, but I have seen pictures of buildings in Detroit that were most likely unsalvagable and rather than leave them as eyesores and hazards, they should be destroyed. But unless a large area is full of really run-down buildings that are mostly unoccupited, destroying entire areas seems like overkill. But if there ARE neighborhoods or areas (commercial/industrial) that are essentially abandoned and the buildings are old and run-down, then I could see demolishing them and putting in a park (or school or library or all three).

Bolie Williams IV   ·  June 15, 2009 4:58 PM

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